Docs and the new dawning of the policy age

11 mins read

For those who have never seen the Banff Springs Hotel in person, let your imagination go: think of a building with the proportions of a castle, built as if it were a mountain itself, out of shale and granite.

The weight of the experience of being at the hotel came to me as I was sitting in the Angus Room, waiting with a whole roster of documentary-oriented groups (L’Observatoire, Association des producteurs de films et de télévision du Québec, Canadian Film and Television Production Association Doc Committee) for an “information-sharing session” to get started with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) execs Mark Starowicz and Jerry McIntosh.

Dan Cross, then a DOC National Board member, looked at the chandelier hanging down over our handcrafted mahogany table. “You can just imagine the meetings that have happened in this room already,” he said, “Like, I know, let’s build a railroad!” This sense of a connectedness to pivotal moments in Canadian history somehow underscores the whole experience of participating in the Banff World Television Festival.

This year’s fest was a policy hot spot and appropriately, many turning points in the Canadian television industry shook out—including rumours of the merger-madness that is rapidly affecting the media community. There’s no doubt that much was going on at the Festival.

Charles Dalfen, Commissioner of the The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC ), may have set the tone of change when he announced that it would review its controversial 1999 Television Policy. Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda addressed the crowd to say that the CBC is getting a review of its technology and looking at multi-platform issues. (The rumour mill at Banff was sure that the CBC was going to get a full-scale review.) By contrast, National Film Board (NFB) Commissioner Jacques Bensimon, was upbeat as he addressed a crowd to discuss some of the recent productions at the NFB with all the filmmakers present. Valerie Creighton, President, and Doug Barret, Chair of the Board of the Canadian Television Fund spoke about their efforts to reach out in more concrete ways to their stakeholder groups. You get the picture: the roster of industry heavy-hitters was complete and many frank discussions ensued.

The entire week was a blur of meetings, cocktails, free buffet dinners and late-night beers at the St James Pub (where business continues to happen
after midnight), but I did manage to have an epiphany. That was when I met with Elizabeth Friesen, the Chief Operating Officer of Telefilm Canada. My objective was to casually discuss the situation of documentary at Telefilm, present and future. I quickly developed a sinking feeling when I realized that this could be a very short conversation.

Some background: Telefilm’s Pilot Documentary Feature Film Project is underway this fiscal year, with the second English language film just announced, for an annual total of two. The timing was bitter-sweet. Telefilm’s Executive Director Wayne Clarkson already announced at Prime Time last February, when the program was only half way through, that it would not be renewed. You might assume from the pilot’s quick termination that the program was an abysmal failure. Such is not the case.

Ms. Friesen and I discussed the abrupt cancellation of the program and another important issue, The Corporation’s performance envelope. As many Canadians and most POV readers know, this feature doc was hugely successful. Not everyone may be aware that Telefilm provided The Corporation’s production team with marketing funds, allowing them to make a 35 mm print, enabling the film to become a North American box office hit. Telefilm awards the makers of hit Canadian films, which they financed, a performance envelope of funds to be used for future productions. Naturally, The Corporation earned a big one.

Being a documentary, though, put the fate of The Corporation’s envelope up in the air for a while. Performance envelopes are connected to the Canadian Feature Film Fund (CFFF) and documentaries were not officially part of the fund at that time. This meant that until Telefilm issued their new guidelines for the CFFF which officially included documentaries in the marketing financing component, that the revenues would go back into their general coffers. No other feature documentary has ever been financed through Telefilm making this a one for one score for docs.

As I explained to Friesen, these substantial revenues should have been made available to The Corporation’s creative team immediately; they deserved it. As loyal members of the doc community, the team is intent on committing funds for other docs, not their own personal projects. (NB: recipients of performance envelopes have to put the money into the financial structure of other films before the end of the fiscal year, usually a very tight deadline).

However, it appeared throughout the course of our meeting that this fact wasn’t as self-evident as it may seem. From where Friesen sat, her shoulders framed by mountains on all sides, her sunglasses showing a perfect mountainous reflection, it’s Telefilm that is in a difficult situation. She told me that while on the surface it may seem that the people at Telefilm have it easy, they get bullied around by the feature film industry which has tough unions and large guilds who fight hard to get what they want. I suggested that it wasn’t Telefilm’s job to fight, but rather to preserve Canadian cultural content. The documentary industry has many passionate people connected to it, but the clout of unions is on another scale altogether.

Here is where the line in the sand lies. Telefilm feels like they are sticking their neck out for documentaries, but from where I sit, it feels temporary and counter-intuitive to what the box office itself reports. Friesen is not wrong in saying that Telefilm “found” the funds to release the pilot project. It’s also true that they did include The Corporation in the performance envelope system, despite some heavy backlash from the industry. And they are now showing signs of openness to enshrining feature docs in future performance envelopes. This is a fine start and Ms. Friesen and Mr. Clarkson deserve recognition for making these efforts.

But after the pilot program finishes this year, it will likely take another year before those feature docs hit the screen. Then, and only then, audience measurement tools will be put to the test to see how many people want to go to the silver screen to see docs. In the meantime, no other documentary films will be given production funding, so even if the two “pilot” docs get great results, there will be a big time lag before the program can be assessed for the future. And aside from this initiative, the documentary gets scant mention around Telefilm.

All this is happening while the public appetite for documentaries continues to rise. This year’s Hot Docs saw an increase of 25 per cent at the box office and, of the films in the festival, more than one quarter were by first-time filmmakers. Between 1995 and 2005, the percentage of documentaries that made it to theatres rose from 8 to 18% in Canada. The two English-Canadian box-office successes of the last two years, Water and The Corporation, had comparable box-office scores, but the budget of the Achbar/Bakan/Simpson hard-hitting documentary was far smaller than that of Deepa Mehta’s terrific feature fiction film, Water. Lesson learned: docs are more than pulling their own weight.

This argument paid off with the Ontario Media Development Corporation this year when they came to DOC to discuss the idea of changing the guidelines of their new Feature Film Fund. DOC spoke about the importance of the feature industry to documentaries and they listened, adjusting their guidelines to offer a teenie-weenie portion of their budget for docs. They were very receptive to our conversation and the changes implemented in the 2006/07 guidelines are a start.

Talking to people at Banff, it’s apparent that there is a disconnect between the public’s growing taste for feature documentaries and the difficulty that filmmakers face in trying to finance them. We’re not trying to steal money from the drama world. That would be foolish, and besides, independent film is a tough row to hoe no matter how dramatic it is. But it is time that we got our fair share. And it’s time that the Federal funding bodies attending Banff and other festivals recognize documentaries as original, creative, engaging Canadian content that can reach a broad audience.

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