Why Aren’t We Watching Canadian Films?

Canada has one of the best film festivals in the world, and yet Canadian films still can’t catch a break.
By  · Published on September 18th, 2017
Canada has one of the best film festivals in the world, and yet Canadian films still can’t catch a break.

For many filmmakers whether established or up-and-coming, getting your film into a festival like TIFF is a career high. Not only does it provide you with a stamp of approval that can distinguish you from all the other filmmakers, but it also provides you with the chance to get distribution for your film. But with a giant fest like TIFF, getting your film accepted is probably easier than getting it noticed. In fact, 340 films are being shown at this year’s festival. And that’s after they announced that they were going to cut its slate by 20 percent, by canceling two of its 16 curated programs. So yes, it’s a big fest. But if you’re a film that doesn’t have a big star or director attached and you’re searching for great distribution, then getting into the festival might be the end of your luck.

That’s the situation that a lot of Canadian films are in. TIFF is proud of its home country and categories specifically for Canadian features and shorts. This makes it a lot easier for Canadian filmmakers to get into the festival and get their shot at building a career. But with so many films to be seen, a lot of distributors don’t get around to seeing Canadian films. Actually, it’s not even distributors that aren’t seeing the films. It’s Canadians too. In 2015, “The Globe and Mail”, a Canadian newspaper, published an extensive article entitled “What if Wrong with the Canadian Film Industry?” According to this article, a hell of a lot. The article uses a Canadian feature called Wet Bum as a case study for how most acclaimed Canadian films end up. The film premiered at TIFF in 2014 to two sold-out screenings. But when it opened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox its total revenue opening weekend was an astonishingly low $3,301. This might seem like an exception, but unfortunately, this is the fate of many Canadian films. They get into a major festival or get good reviews from critics, but have such a small marketing budget that target audiences don’t even know that the film is out.

Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley on set of her documentary “Stories We Tell”

Young Canadian filmmakers have become all too aware of the possibility that they might only make 1 film. With this threat looming,  they tend to make a very personal film, a film they have been waiting to tell for a very long time; hoping that it won’t be their last, but preparing for it nonetheless. Thus, Canadian cinema has come to be a personal cinema. A cinema of defined by its ‘failure to launch’.

This trend led Cameron Bailey, the artistic director at TIFF, to make the following statement in an op-ed piece in The Globe and Mail: 

“[…] Could it be that our cinema’s personal fictions, with their private hurts and secret pleasures, shut out too much of the world? Could the impulse to cocoon inside one’s own story be the same centripetal force pulling us away from the necessary chaos of other people?
So, what if we doubled down on truth? What if our filmmakers, along with our film schools, funders, distributors, festivals, and critics, turned to face the roiling reality that defines Canada today? What if we stopped pretending that Canada is safe, nice and boring enough to leave off the big screen, while we focus on personal fictions? Instead, we could rip the lid off and reveal very Canadian acts of deceit, murder, betrayal, and corruption that happen every day across this great country.”

So what do we make of the Canadian filmmakers that do succeed? Well, the most well-known Canadian auteur is David Cronenberg. I know you might be thinking of James Cameron, but Cronenberg consistently shoots in his hometown of Toronto and casts Canadian actors. Cameron does neither. So, David Cronenberg’s breakup feature was Rabid in 1977. One of the main reasons it got international distribution is because of who they cast as the lead: Marilyn Chambers, a famous porn actress. This success led to more funding to make films and more distribution deals. And that key ingredient is what a lot of independent Canadian films are missing: famous actors. Because when the average Canadian film-goer has to pick between buying a ticket to see Wonder Woman or the Canadian film The Space Between, they’ll probably spend their money on the former. And that’s the problem. There is no incentive for Canadians to watch Canadian films, especially if a lot of them are personal tales of annihilation and not reflections of Canadian culture.

Now that brings me to the Quebec directors who have carved major places for themselves inside and outside of Canadian cinema. Dennis Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallée and Xavier Dolan are three filmmakers have crossed the border. All three of them gained attention in Canada by making films that Quebecors wanted to see. Because Québec has its own culture that is very separate from the rest of Canada, Quebecors are much more invested in supporting Quebec culture. They will seek out Québec films, and because of that demand those films do well at the box office and have decently sized promotional budgets. For instance, before Balde Runner 2049Dennis Villeneuve made a film about a real-life school shooting called Polytechnique. Because it was based on true events, the film gained more buzz and interest in Québec. He then went on to make Incendies, an adaptation of a play which is largely set in the Middle East, and not Québec, although it does star some well-known Québec actors. Villeneuve cracked the formula: cast well-known actors, adapt a known source material and/or tell a global story. In this case, he ticked all the boxes.

Whilst as some independent American or European filmmakers might have the luxury to make a personal drama with nobodies and expect that they’ll get distribution. There is a market, albeit a small one, for small and intimate independent features. In Canada? Not so much. So, maybe festivals need to do more. Maybe celebrating a film by screening it doesn’t do enough to support it. Especially when it’s being shown alongside hundreds of other films. Maybe TIFF needs to take a leaf out of the Sundance Institute’s book and explore distribution. Getting into a big festival just isn’t enough.

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