Policy Matters: Features Not Ready for Prime Time

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In 1997, the UK public television channel, Channel 4, was beatified at the Banff International Television Festival for its extraordinary programming vision and success. Based on a brilliant stroke of policy and a commitment to doing things that the other UK networks were not Channel 4 was created in 1982 and, through its Film4 productions division, was tasked with supporting some of the most groundbreaking cinema to emerge in the English speaking world. Room with a View, My Beautiful Laundrette, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Crying Game, Trainspotting, Naked, and the more recent Borat were all produced or co-produced with Channel 4.

At the Festival, CTV and CBC execs were perplexed by Channel 4’s methodology of supporting productions destined first for cinema theatres, before broadcast. I’ll never forget the headshakes and stammers, “but that would rob you of your TV audience! Why would you allow that?” Channel 4’s answer? “A good theatrical run is market- ing for a great TV launch, why would you deny that?”

But what can you expect from the CBC, which has never produced on their own dime or aired in prime time for free— trailers for Canadian feature films? if Heritage Canada had any foresight it would have made it a requirement of CBC’s license long ago, as some folks, like Banff’s own past president and CEO, W. Paterson Ferns, has long suggested.

Flash forward almost 13 years and finally CBC and Telefilm have begun to formalize a way to produce feature films together, capitalizing on what Channel 4 knew decades ago: that there’s a need to enhance cross-promotion opportunities between theatrical release and TV broadcast for national productions. CBC and Telefilm may be self-congratulatory about it being an ‘innovative’ partnership, but as Playback’s Denis Seguin asked in the Dec 14th issue, “what took you so long?”

In typical Canadian no-balls-to-it fashion, the November 2009 presser merely states that they’ve devised “an approach” to the commissioning, marketing and distribution of Canadian English-language feature films. (I suspect feature docs abso- lutely need not apply.)

Before you start mailing off your scripts, let’s unpack the announcement.

First, there’s no set start date. Second, it’s not even a rigorous policy, but an ‘approach’ that will “focus on developing and financing films that would have an initial theatrical release followed shortly thereafter by broadcast on CBC Television and distribution via other platforms.” And there’s a big scary catch that will put a fat stopper on any fantasy of having a mature, TV-supported cinema: CBC is committed to developing and producing up to four projects per year suited both for commercial theatres and CBC’s sunday evening primetime slot.

Talk about chalk and cheese. Have you seen their Sunday night primetime slot? Projects will be selected by CBC wonks charged with divining whether the putative film will appeal to the one million Canadians watching Heartland in the 7–8 slot, which sits just prior to the proposed feature spot. So unless the film scripts have a Heartland -ish feel to them, forget it. Future Crying Games or Trainspottings need not apply. But I suspect the ever-elusive Canadian version of Four Weddings will remain the long cherished Holy Grail.

The budgets are tepid too, but our public resources are limited here (thanks Harper). Telefilm will contribute up to $3.5 million in equity, while the CBC will come in for between $1 – 1.5 million on a license fee. it’s not clear what their equity stake would be.

It’s also not clear who at the CBC has the credibility to be working with independent producers and filmmakers. Since CBC hasn’t been great at nurturing such relationships in cinema (heck, they haven’t even developed a decent relationship with the NFB), you’d think their announcement of an ‘approach’ would have included some statement about how the creative process might work.

But as an ‘approach’ or policy, it’s wrong-headed out of the gate. If our agencies really want to be innovative, they’ll stop using the idea of a time slot to drive the vision, and therefore the genre of the film they’re seeking. Instead, they’ll start thinking about the buzz that can truly come from a festival launch, a theatrical release and—at last!!— trailers for Canadian cinema on CBC. Now that I’d like to see in prime time.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning producer, writer, and director. She co-produced Phyllis Ellis’ Toxic Beauty (2019) and is currently completing a feature documentary for the Documentary Channel.

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