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Netflix Is Just Part One Of Melanie Joly's Vision For Canadian Content

Notwithstanding the mechanisms (taxes) that she's ruled out, there's a clear path to making our cultural industries whole.

10/20/2017 16:49 EDT | Updated 10/20/2017 17:20 EDT
Karl Jessy Photographs

Two weeks ago, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly unveiled her vision for cultural policy in the internet age.

The digital ink is still spilling.

Hundreds of column inches have been filled in both official languages. The questions raised are as profound as they are numerous: The fate of film, television, music and journalism. Protecting French-language production. Declining revenues for some. Exploding innovation and record profits for others. Creators caught between telecoms, broadcasters and government.

Our instincts in the internet age tell us we cannot retreat from this global playing field. Canada can and must engage with star players on the international stage. We believe Minister Joly's long-term strategy will see Canada seize this massive opportunity while keeping Canadian creators at the table.

The noise aside, it's that tension at the heart of this dilemma: In a world where our daily lives are soaked in a sea of global media, can Canada set its own course? In this age of connectivity, can we still shape our own identity?

You'll have to forgive Canadian filmmakers for feeling like we've seen this movie before — it ended forty years ago with the creation of Canadian content regulations and the CRTC.

The minister's vision wisely focuses on content, without being mesmerized by the pipeline that delivers it.

In the middle of the last century, the government of Louis St. Laurent found itself grappling with another disruptive new technology and rising calls for a tax on foreign content. The technology was called "television" and the content was American studio movies. The bargain struck then carried echoes of Melanie Joly's $500-million Netflix deal today — a voluntary agreement promising economic benefit, but without clear rules.

American studios thrived, not only growing rich, but seizing the burgeoning broadcast market as well, owning both the silver screen and the first golden age of television. Canadians, in exchange, got Mounties, or maybe a few flannel-clad lumberjacks, dropped into American films. The pact did not end well. But signs suggest the tale could play out differently this time.

Today, as we debate digital disruption and the rise of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, our stage is better set. Thanks to Canadian content rules, our industry is far from fledgling. Canadian production is now an $8.5-billion business. And unlike the conglomerates of old, innovative internet-based broadcasters represent not only the risk but also the opportunity of a new golden age.

Netflix has given Canadian creators unprecedented access to global markets and helped prove, with shows like Alias Grace, that Canadian stories can compete when given competitive budgets. Hit series like Cardinal, Schitt's Creek and Orphan Black now travel the world. Our filmmakers travel the world, too, competing for every international prize on offer.

Brian de Rivera Simon/Getty Images
Writer Sarah Polley, actress Rebecca Liddiard, writer Margaret Atwood, actor Edward Holcroft, Sarah Gadon and Kerr Logan attend the 'Alias Grace' premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival at Winter Garden Theatre on Sept. 14, 2017 in Toronto.

And there's another difference: Today, we have a heritage minister who gets it. For two years, Melanie Joly has studied the digital shift, developing a keen understanding of creative industries and forging a creator-centric approach.

In August, Joly won industry applause, sending back to the CRTC a series of rulings shuttering the beloved grant funds MuchFACT and Bravo!FACT and stripping nearly a billion dollars from Canadian production over five years.

The minister has pledged to stabilize the Canada Media Fund (CMF) after years of declining revenues from cable services. Last week in Quebec, Minister Joly committed, for the first time, that all players in the Canadian industry must be required to produce Canadian content.

It's true, the minister has not yet solved every riddle. The cultural community, including in Quebec, has decried unequal tax treatment for foreign services (domestic streamers collect GST, foreign players don't), not to mention the lack of any guarantee content will be produced in both official languages. The government has likewise ruled out a tax on internet service providers. The collapse of local news revenue — siphoned off by Facebook and Google — looms over journalism. Left unresolved, that alone poses a threat to our democracy.

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Yet, all this said, the minister's vision wisely focuses on content, without being mesmerized by the pipeline that delivers it. She's made clear her deal with Netflix is a "transitional phase," a first step towards a new policy. Between the commitments Minister Joly has made, and notwithstanding the mechanisms (taxes) that she's ruled out, there's a clear path to making our cultural industries whole.

The minister and the CRTC can require Canadian telecommunications giants to continue making stable contributions to the CMF. Their obligations should be tied to revenues across platforms, even as cable customers cut the cord and money shifts from one service to another. Internet-based broadcasters should be required to spend a portion of Canadian revenues producing Canadian programming, just as traditional broadcasters long have.

Solutions exist. The next stage in this process will matter most — when government unpacks and rebuilds our telecom, broadcasting and copyright acts. We must modernize to meet the challenges of a new era. The minister has assured us she'll continue her creator-centric approach.

We believe her. Minister Joly has our support as we rise to this new challenge, together.

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