When Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly delivered her Creative Canada vision statement last Thursday in Ottawa, I was extremely pleased on behalf of Canadian screenwriters — at last, a vision for Canada that puts creators at the centre. And while "creator" can mean many things, when it comes to screen-based entertainment, it means the showrunners and screenwriters that the Writers Guild of Canada represents.
But I wasn't only pleased for WGC members. I also felt genuine hope — for the first time in a long time (remember the long, Canadian-arts-and-culture-dry years of the Harper government?) — for Canada. The direction of Creative Canada clearly is designed to give Canadian audio-visual entertainment (a form of entertainment that's arguably the most popular cultural force of our day) a far better chance of being seen around the world than it has had in a very long time.
Of course, the news that Netflix is putting in $500 million over five years into Canadian programming and opening a Canadian production office has been the focus of most of the media coverage and of the attention of industry colleagues. There's more to the announcement than that, but let's start with a closer look at that $500 million. That's $100 million a year. That's roughly the average spending by each of Bell Media and Corus Entertainment, respectively, on programmes of national interest (PNI) — things like drama, comedy, documentary and some children's programming, per year, over the past few years.
That's right: Netflix is kicking in as much money per year as each of these two Canadian broadcasters who have benefited from corporate protections and received subsidies, and yet failed to produce a significant volume of original Canadian programming.
When is the last time you heard news like that in the Canadian screen-based industry?
Despite this, the response to the Netflix news has led to a sense that Netflix might be pulling a fast one on Canada. What many in the industry want, including the WGC, is, among other things, the application of smart regulation to Netflix and other OTTs, and that we did not get. But given that the tax France recently imposed on Netflix of two per cent would represent, some estimates suggest that the $12-15.6 million in Canada (based on subscription revenue) versus the $100 million a year that is now promised doesn't look so bad.
Also, in the days since the initial announcement, Heritage has clarified two key things: One, Minister Joly assured CTV news over the weekend that the Netflix money is not supporting service production (American productions shot in Canada); it is new money for Canadian productions and co-productions. And two, that Netflix's Canadian production house will be paying corporate Canadian taxes in Canada.
Obviously, there are more details to come. We all want to know exactly how Netflix's spending on Canadian shows will be determined. Nonetheless, the focus right now should be this: the Netflix deal is significant new money for original Canadian production. When is the last time you heard news like that in the Canadian screen-based industry?
But the Creative Canada vision isn't just about Netflix. It's also about the government topping up the Canada Media Fund to make up for monies lost from diminishing contributions from cable and satellite companies, to help take us through the transition. It's also about a new focus on early stage pitch and script development being partially funded by the CMF. This is no small thing. More time in development allows screenwriters to create the best possible script. Anyone who works in this industry or enjoys top-notch productions knows a huge part of it is about great writing. And we all know, or should know, that great writing has a far better chance of resulting in a great production than writing that is rushed.
The Creative Canada announcement is a first step, not the only step.
Also, getting lost is the fact that the Creative Canada announcement is a first step, not the only step. It is a vision, not a policy statement, and was never presented as anything else. Just as Minister Joly has been clear that there would be no ISP levy or OTT regulation, we also did not expect Creative Canada would include a detailed breakdown of the execution of each aspect of the vision. Sure, the WGC would like to see that, as would every other player in the industry. But what the minister's speech and the Creative Canada framework indicate is a very good beginning, with a direction that is focused on the creation of Canadian productions. It's also worth noting that not long ago the heritage minister took the practically unprecedented path of sending back May's flawed CRTC decision (re: severe cuts to private broadcaster spending on Canadian shows) to the Commission, an indication of support for Canadian content productions.
Minister Joly has reached an agreement with arguably the biggest most successful content producer/distributor in the world: Netflix. And she's done this in under two years of being in government. Let's stop "piling on" and start working with Minister Joly to maximize the positive elements of the Creative Canada vision.
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