Ontario Creates Releases Report on the State of Feature Filmmaking

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins in Maudie, one of three Ontario feature films included in a report by Ontario Creates
Photo by Duncan Deyoung

By Pat Mullen

Are feature films still relevant? A major study on the state of feature filmmaking in Canada suggests they are, but that change is needed on all fronts to give them the vitality they need. Thanks to a study released today by Ontario Creates, formerly known as the Ontario Media Development Corporation, filmmakers and decision makers can take stock of the state of feature film production, distribution, and consumption in the province.

In this context, the report uses the term “feature film” as synonymous with “feature dramatic film.” (Which is consistent with much industry lingo.) While the word “documentary” appears only in reference to the archival preservation efforts of Library and Archives Canada, or within citations to research by the Documentary Organization of Canada, the results are worth noting with hopes they may be relevant to Canada’s documentary community. There are complementary conclusions that doc makers can use while pitching stories and planning release strategies.

The study, titled “Focus on Features: The Future of Filmmaking in Ontario” draws upon interviews conducted with key parties through all levels of the film community in the province. Voices are represented in the form of filmmakers such as Andrew Cividino (Sleeping Giant) and Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), producers including Alison Black (Giant Little Ones) and Michael Dobbin (Quiet Revolution Pictures), programmers such as Cameron Bailey (Toronto International Film Festival), industry leaders like Tim Southam (Directors Guild of Canada), and critics including Kate Taylor (The Globe and Mail), among many other voices.

The interviews note a range of assessments on the state of film in Ontario from fatalistic to pragmatic to optimistic when it comes to all elements of filmmaking from pre-production to release. The report also covers elements such as cultural diversity, gender parity, sustainability, artistic merit, and how much the perceived Canadian identity of a feature film and affect its success. “As much as I try to be optimistic, I’m also a realist and I recognize that most Canadian viewers, moviegoers don’t really care that much where a movie comes from,” notes Bailey in the report. “They just want to be entertained by it, they want to be engaged by it, if it happens to be Canadian, great.”

Jean of the Joneses

When it comes to hot-button topics like gender parity and representation, the results advocate for stronger and clearer efforts towards change. Jane Tattersall, Senior Vice President of Post for SIM (formerly Tattersall Sound), offers an example of a colleague who worked on a television series and saw the few job offers to women directors made only to top Hollywood talent. “While they’re willing to hire a woman director,” says Tattersall, “they want them to be extremely experienced, whereas they give opportunities to two young male directors who have no experience directing television…So it’s almost like the standards [and] expectations for women are higher.”

The report also tackles the boon of foreign production in Ontario, which has offered locations and services for some of the most acclaimed films of recent years including the 2015 and 2017 Oscar winners for Best Picture, Spotlight and The Shape of Water. The findings note that the rise in foreign services can make it challenging for Ontario productions to compete with Hollywood or American independent feature films, while creating the perception that the province is more of an “industry” than a hub for “art.”

For example, Sturla Gunnarson, director of Sharkwater Extinction and past president of the Directors Guild of Canada, puts it: “The down side of [foreign service production] is that it creates a mentality, an industrial mentality that does not encourage the independent voice. If you look at the films that come out of Quebec, those are authored films and if you look at the films that come out of the other sort of regions of Canada…there’s a tendency for the work that comes out of the so-called regions to have a stronger voice and I think the reason for that is this sort of doubled edged sword that we have in Ontario, which is that we are the industrial engine.”

Mean Dreams director Nathan Morlando on location
Elevation Pictures

The report offers three case studies of recent Ontario films: Jean of the Joneses, directed by Stella Meghie; Maudie, directed by Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh; and Mean Dreams, directed by Nathan Morlando. The three films vary in their content, production, promotion, and distribution strategies. In short, the films differ in that Jean of the Jonses is set in Brooklyn but shot mostly in Toronto and features primarily unknown actors with The View’s Sherri Shepherd in a key supporting role. (She earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination for her performance.) Maudie, which swept this year’s Canadian Screen Awards winning honours including Best Motion Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, features British actress Sally Hawkins and Hollywood star Ethan Hawke in a Canadian-Irish co-production shot in Newfoundland about Nova Scotia painted Maud Lewis. Mean Dreams, finally, is a romantic thriller that uses Northern Ontario as a stand-in for a generic, non-descript town in the USA and features Monsieur Lazhar’s Sophie Nélisse and Twister’s Bill Paxton in one of his final performances. All three films premiered at major festivals, received mostly positive reviews (although the report’s findings on Mean Dreams are somewhat generous), and performed relatively well at the box office for Canadian films.

The report concludes, “No distinction was made about how these filmmakers might bring a specific viewpoint or vision to their filmmaking based on their residency.” In short, the case studies echo Bailey’s sentiment that moviegoers care more about a film’s quality than its place of origin. The report further adds, “What remains unknown is to what extent audience response could have been increased with a more direct promotion of the films under an Ontario brand.”

The consensus of the report is that Ontario makes good movies, but audiences might simply be unaware that they’re watching Ontario productions. Recommendations and conclusions include developing mentorship programs for emerging and mid-career filmmakers, especially those in the key creative roles of director, screenwriter, or producer; encouraging a greater range of cultural diversity and exploring implementation methods comparable to those used for gender parity and Indigenous representation; providing training and guidance on distribution and self-distribution; and fostering ongoing conversations between key creatives to anticipate changes and react to them accordingly. As the Ontario film community considers implementing these recommendations, perhaps future productions will be both commercially and artistically successful and recognizable as Ontario productions.

Read more on the report here.