Wayne Clarkson: A Reel Canadian

41 mins read

CANADIAN CINEMA WOULD BE VASTLY DIFFERENT IF IT WASN’T FOR THE PRESENCE OF WAYNE CLARKSON. The new Executive Director of Telefilm Canada (TFC), Clarkson comes with an extensive resume that bears retelling. Wayne Clarkson emerged from the hothouse federalist Liberal environment of Ottawa in the 1970s, when the Trudeau era had propelled the notion of Canadian identity to the forefront of political debate. During that time, Clarkson worked at the Canadian Film Institute with such figures as Peter Morris, Peter Harcourt, Piers Handling, Geoff Pevere and Michelle Maheux, all of whom continue to make signal contributions to Canadian film.

Clarkson then headed to Toronto to become the Director of the Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival). He thoroughly professionalized the Festival, setting it on the path towards its present status as one of the premier cultural events in this country. In 1984, Clarkson took a risky stance by promoting Canadian film as the leading event at that year’s Festival. Over 100 films were screened, old and new, and Perspective Canada, which proved to be a significant forum for this country’s nascent feature cinema industry, was launched to great success.

Clarkson left the Festival for new challenges and was quickly appointed the first head of the Ontario Film Development Corporation (OFDC) in 1985. The mandate for the OFDC included revitalizing the province’s film industry and Clarkson was given the financing capability to help fund feature film. Along with Telefilm Canada, Ontario suddenly could help finance a new group of films and filmmakers. In the late 80s, the Toronto New Wave of directors—Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Peter Mettler, Bruce McDonald—emerged, thanks to Clarkson and his colleagues at the OFDC. Documentary filmmakers like Kevin McMahon, Ron Mann, Katherine Gilday, Maya Gallus, Janis Lundman and Adrienne Mitchell found their films, many of them features, also funded by the OFDC.

Clarkson moved on to head the Canadian Film Centre (CFC), where the process of mentoring another generation of filmmakers began. Clement Virgo, John Greyson, Holly Dale, Don McKellar, Peter Raymont and Vincenzo Natali are among the many directors who either worked or studied at the CFC and have gone on to successful careers in Canadian film and TV. Now, Clarkson has taken on a new challenge. As the Executive Director of Telefilm Canada (TFC), he is involved in all aspects of Canadian film and TV from mentoring to production. And his handling of the pilot Canadian theatrical documentary fund is of particular relevance to POV readers. Marc Glassman, POV’s editor, spoke to Wayne Clarkson earlier this summer.

The Biggest Challenge

MARC GLASSMANPOV: Wayne, what is your biggest challenge now at Telefilm?

WAYNE CLARKSONTFC: I’ve been here for a little over five months, so I’m still on a learning curve. I gave myself six months to learn as much as I can about the institution, and about the industry from the perspective of this institution. It was 15 years ago when I was at the Ontario Film Development Corporation, and some years before that when I was at the Toronto Film Festival. I’ve had a rather idyllic perspective as head of the Canadian Film Centre observing the industry. Trust me, it’s a completely different landscape from the perspective of the Executive Director of Telefilm Canada.

The other thing is, you can’t overestimate the responsibilities of television. It is a massive machine. In the mature industry of film, television and new media, television is the most evolved, the most mature. Therefore it has the greatest impact. So coming to terms with that fact, I’ve probably spent more time dealing with the issues of television, particularly the CTF (Canadian Television Fund) [and] Telefilm Canada relationship than anything else.

POV: Can you talk about the changes in the Telefilm-CTF relationship?
CLARKSON: The CTF, until recently, had a board of directors and an administration. And parallel to that was Telefilm’s board of directors and Telefilm’s administration; we administered the equity (invested in programming) on their behalf, because we have money in the pot, roughly $45 million. Whenever there were policy issues, they had to go to the separate boards.

Sometimes the board of directors of the CTF recommended one thing and Telefilm’s board, which also has a role to play in public policy, didn’t go in exactly the same direction, it took a slightly different position. So that’s difficult for the producers, the filmmakers, where you’ve got the right and the left hand not always working in sync.

According to the Lincoln Report [The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage’s Report on Broadcasting, 2004], discussions of this nature had been going on for years. The report said ‘this has to be fixed, and it’s got to be simplified and clarified.’ The Heritage Minister made it clear this was a major priority for her. There were numerous discussions and finally the Minister announced at Banff there would be one board and one administration. The Board of Directors of the CTF will be responsible for all of television. The administration will be the responsibility of Telefilm Canada with its offices coast to coast. Policy will be set by the Minister and her department, obviously through consultation with the industry. It’s got simplicity, a certain harmony and it’s cost effective. We’re estimating we can save $3 million to $5 million and obviously provide a service through our offices in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.

POV: With more power there’s more responsibility. And more work.
CLARKSON: Yes. We will provide this administrative service through our contractual agreement with the CTF corporation; we’ll be assimilating more of their staff. That means growth within the Toronto office and the Montreal office, and probably Vancouver and Halifax.

POV: How will this affect policy regarding TV, documentary series and drama?
CLARKSON: It will simplify it so there will not be two boards of directors, there will be one. I’m very respectful of the fact that in the two or three board meetings I’ve attended at the CTF, the debates are good ones and the people around that table are knowledgeable, informed, committed, and, yes, many of them are motivated by self interest. Having worked on four boards, I’m accustomed to those kind of interests around the table. But there’s a counterpoint around that table and believe me, these are people with ideas and opinions.

The Clarkson message for the medium that is TV

POV: How does television need to change in the next five years?
CLARKSON: I think what was motivating everyone was and is the decline in drama, Canadian English drama—series, and miniseries, etc. That has been a concern for a number of years. What’s been interesting in the latest rounds of commitments by Telefilm and the CTF is the increase in dramatic series that came in for evaluation and that have received financing. So one can say we have seen a significant, dramatic increase in the number of English-language dramatic series. So that’s encouraging. Let’s see if that is a result of policy changes, priorities, CRTC directions. Is that the product of the declining interest in reality shows? Drama is still the leading audience winner for broadcasters, as evidenced by things like Corner Gas, and we’re beginning to see significant change. Now is that going to be sustained? That’s something we’re going to monitor.

POV: You’ve undoubtedly heard many independent producers say they’re under-funded, forced to create, for example, documentary series with very low production values. Very few people are being employed. Will this environment improve?
CLARKSON: At Banff, the minister announced the renewal of CTF’s funding for next fiscal which would take us through to March 2007. There’s some stability now, unless there’s a dramatic change in the political scene. Having said that, the demand on the film and television side for the dollars has increased significantly.

When you look at Quebec, it’s even more significant because that industry is working very well. They have their own issues, they want to increase international sales and they’ve got to make the effort to do that, it’s much more difficult. But domestically they’ve got a well-oiled machine.

In English Canada, you can get 50 submissions of which there are 15 really strong projects. If they’re asking an average of $2.5 million, there’s about $40 million in asks; you’ve got $12 million to spend approximately, so you’ve got enough to do five or six of 15 films, and that is not going to change in the near future. It was five years ago that the feature film fund was created with an additional $100 million. We’ve got to finish that five-year period and measure its success and its performance and evaluate, other than more new money, what’s working what’s not.

I’ve learned over the years certainly at the CFC, where I spent a great deal of my time on money, raising it and the like, that money is never the solution. If you have all the money in the world, if you haven’t got any talent, you haven’t any ideas, what are you accomplishing? Zero. So it really is a balancing act between responsible, smart decision-making, balanced by dollars.

We spoke to the standing committee on Canadian Heritage on a couple of occasions and in the last one we said, ‘What we think is needed is additional production dollars for Quebec and additional marketing dollars for English Canada because it’s a very cluttered marketplace. I’m not just referring to American movies; the choice for the entertainment dollar is unbelievable. It’s getting expensive to go to the movies. But maybe Ellis Jacobs can change that! [Editor’s Note: Jacobs is CEO of Cineplex Galaxy theatres, which bought the Canadian operations of Famous Players, on June 13, and was then required by the Competition Bureau to divest itself of 35 of its multiplexes.]

Theatre ownership, when concentration could be a bad thing

POV: What happens now that the merged company, according to news reports, will control 63% of theatres across Canada? That’s a near-monopoly.
CLARKSON: I would use that term cautiously and I say that because in Eastern Canada, Empire Theatres has the vast majority. In Quebec, Famous Players, Cineplex combined is not the dominant force but certainly it is in Ontario. Then out West, it’s not as dominant as here in Ontario.

POV: But can Jacobs be persuaded to present some Canadian films?
CLARKSON: A couple of things: one, they may be a dominant force in the theatres but as evidenced by the summer releases now, I would say the real competition is DVDs, not Famous Players Cineplex. The market now is so fragmented, what monopoly do they have?

POV: But a DVD will not sell or rent until people know what the DVD is.
CLARKSON: Yes, and there are a couple of things here that can be done. I understand loss leaders, but as the history of English Canadian releases shows us, for whatever reason, they have a difficult time staying on the screens for long. So if we maximized the promotional dollars, that could change matters. My attitude is, I want more Canadians seeing more Canadian programming, more Canadian films. Period. Full stop. How they choose to do that—whether that’s in their local cinema or in the comfort of their own home, I’m not going to judge that.

I took a little look at Men With Brooms because it’s been around long enough to have rolled out in its orderly window. And it did well theatrically for an English film: it did $4 million or $5 million. Not bad. And then it went on TMN (The Movie Network) and they haven’t yet got the ability to count with any sufficient accuracy, but it did pretty well. Huge hit on DVD. And then it had its premiere on conventional television on CBC and it did 1.3 – 1.6 million. At some point it’s going to end up being played on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) and so on, and that’s a lot of Canadians seeing this wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable, Canadian film. So, I’m not going to sit here and burst into tears because they didn’t all go and see it at the theatre.

On the evolution of the pilot project for theatrical documentaries

CLARKSON: In the case of the documentary program we’ve announced, we’re changing the orderly window. It’s a good idea, and it was Richard Stursberg’s [ his predecessor at Telefilm and now VP at the CBC ], to give him credit. It’ll have a theatrical release and then it will go to the CBC for a premiere kind of platform presentation, and then it’ll go to DVD. And what I think is wonderful about that is, yes, it’s theatrical but it’s in the CBC’s interest to promote that theatrical release because it’s going to go on the CBC. Then after it has its platform, it goes to DVD and that should only enhance the DVD sales.

In terms of how the pilot project evolved I know the NFB, Jacques Bensimon and Richard Stursberg when he was at Telefilm Canada, and the documentary production community had been working together through the Doc Summits and the plan was to establish a theatrical long form documentary film fund. What everybody was trying to protect was the Canadian feature film fund, which was way over-subscribed. I came in and met with representatives of the documentary community. This is a country with a rich, rich tradition in documentaries. Here is a film genre which, in the last five or six years, has exploded theatrically in terms of its interest.

POV: We have The Corporation…
CLARKSON: It was not that long forms couldn’t be made, they were principally financed by television—in the case of The Corporation that was not very much—but the CTF couldn’t invest in them. Richard Stursberg and I had a good conversation and I asked him bluntly, ‘Why has nothing been done in theatrical features?’ He gave me a brief history lesson on it but he said, ‘You know if you can find the money, we’d be glad to play a part. And we could match some of your dollars, promotional dollars plus production dollars. We get the premiere launch after theatrical,’ as I just discussed. So I said, ‘great, find a dollar, match a dollar.’ Then it just went from there.

POV: Do you know how many films it might support?
CLARKSON: No, we’re putting up $1.5 million, $500,000 for Quebec and $1 million for English Canada. CBC’s matching half of that $1 million, so there’s $1.5 million in Canada for production and some development. If you go $200,000 that’s maybe 10 projects; maybe go $250,000, so that’s eight, so that’s enough there.

Documentaries cost significantly less than fiction, but often they have a higher risk up front because filmmakers have to go out and shoot something now because it’s happening now, and they can’t plan and develop it and get ready and then attack it.

It poses its own challenges in terms of a financial structure. So how much, when, how’s it going to be triggered, what do we mean by theatrical, when is the distributor required to come in? So do we require them to come in at the very beginning as we do with dramatic features? Maybe, or what we say is, ‘Start making your film, we’re in, we’re going to come back at the end of the next month, show us what you’ve got, we’ll commit further, and then when you’ve got sufficient material together, you’re comfortable going to a theatrical distributor, and saying, “Here’s my documentary on globalization and the G8.”’ And then the theatrical distributor comes in.
[Editor’s Note: Telefilm has indicated guidelines for the new theatrical pilot project will be available in September and the application deadline is Nov. 1. Please check their website for more information.]

Is it just fiction – or is it true – auteurs are back?

POV: Your recent funding announcements for feature dramas embrace auteur cinema—filmmakers like Bruce Sweeney, from B.C. and Catherine Martin, a francophone. You’ve been an advocate of auteur cinema. Are you pleased with these choices?
CLARKSON: I’m very pleased with the recent choices. I’m not pleased by the very good films that had to be turned down. There were 15 films that deserved funding; we could fund half. I think you also have to weigh the fact that, for example, Trailer Park Boys was also financed. We financed a film back in January called Good Cop, Bad Cop which is a broad comedy. So the terminology I’ve learnt in Telefilm, which is good, is a portfolio. And in that portfolio, there must always be a place for the Catherine Martins. What I want to do is find a place for the Sarah Polleys and for me that is the particular challenge I will take on. That’s not to conclude anything about auteur cinema. I go back to this notion of portfolio. Doing Trailer Park Boys has made me so happy. I watch the show and it’s such a smart project. If you’re going to build a star system as in Quebec, a lot of it emerged out of television; can the same thing happen in English Canada? Emerging talent is a priority for me.

POV: Fair enough. But it seems the previous portfolio didn’t include as many auteurs.
CLARKSON: Five or six years ago, I was a party to the advisory group that went across the country and deliberated on what to do with feature films, and we convinced then-minister Sheila Copps to put an extra $100 million in. The government’s point was, ‘OK we’re going to put $100 million in but not just to keep the status quo, which is not working. It’s broken; what are you going to do to fix it?’ The group response was, ‘We’ve got to be more commercial in our strategy.’ In other words, attracting people to the cinema, whether it was through improved marketing or a change in projects. It couldn’t be, ‘Gee, we just spent $6 million and it did a buck fifty at the theatres, but you know it got invited to the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, and it got a really good review, and you know, right on!’

That argument could no longer hold. There were other policy changes, such as the financial subsidy to the distributors for their minimum guarantees. To give Richard Stursberg credit, he made those painful revisions to the policy and the programs and the culture. I think the communication broke down at a certain point because as soon as you start asking for 5 percent (that Canadian film represent at least 5% of the market) at any price, you’re going to shake up some people; perhaps some members of the industry misunderstood that approach. Do I believe in the 5 percent? Absolutely, and why 5 percent, why not 10 percent? So let’s say we hit 5 percent. What do we do? Stop? No. OK, so pick another figure. Seven? Eight? Nine? I believe you have to set goals, they motivate and they give guidance. But, it’s not 10 percent at any price, it’s not 10 percent, but you can’t do Fugitive Pieces with Jeremy Podeswa, you can’t do Catherine Martin’s film. No, that’s not right. Do you do Trailer Park Boys? You bet. Do you do Silk with Francois Girard? You bet. But you make sure you do those other films, too.

An original, like Don Owen

POV: There’s always been a through line in your work, about Canada and Canadian films, going back to the Canadian Film Institute (CFI). Was it interest in Canadian film that drew you to the CFI or did the interest follow the Institute?
CLARKSON: It’s a good question. I’ve made a number of speeches and I always reference first seeing Nobody Wave Goodbye. I remember the film vividly. The only films I’d seen prior to that were American. I was a teenager and it was about teenagers. They were screwed up and I’m sure I felt screwed up. So it resonated. Did that trigger some kind of commitment to Canadian cinema? It certainly had to play a part. I also think the National Film Board is really a part of our subconscious. There’s no question that from the CFI, very much through the Toronto Film Festival, and obviously, working with Piers (Handling), I had no end of debates and conversations. One of my proudest moments and I think Piers’ as well, was in 1984 when we did the largest retrospective of Canadian cinema done anytime, anywhere, anyplace and it was not easy to convince people that it was the right thing to do.

POV: I remember this. I thought it was very gutsy. But then, until you went to the OFDC, you’d been programming, which is reactive, critical. There you became an administrator/ producer hybrid. You helped create the Toronto new wave. This was a real shift in what you were doing.
CLARKSON: Yes it was a significant shift. My job at the Toronto Film Festival over eight years evolved as the Festival evolved. It’s simultaneous; it takes leadership so I’m not saying I just rode the wave. As the festival grew, my responsibilities became more corporate and that was happening (increasingly) each year. One of the reasons I left was quite genuinely I had nothing more to give. I’d run out of ideas, other than ‘OK let’s get bigger.’

From the festival to the park, Queen’s Park

CLARKSON: There had been, for a couple of years, papers and studies done suggesting this province needs a film corporation. Quebec had theirs, I think Alberta had already created theirs, and what was Ontario going to do? I’d read some of those papers, and participated in some of the studies. Then Premier David Peterson and the new Liberal government came in and he had a particular interest in this, not surprisingly, because his wife was an actress. He saw the kind of industrial changes the cities were going through and that the cultural industries were going to be dynamic employers.
He said to me, ‘Why don’t you come and run it?’ I look back and I think, ‘How did I have the guts to do that? I didn’t know what equity was! I had a mortgage on the house, but I didn’t know I had equity in the house. I think I knew how to find private money because I had a responsibility and I had a passion for cinema and Canadian film, and the opportunity to build something.

At the OFDC we took over from the film commission what was the Location Promotion Services. They were very upset, and I knew that we were going to be taking inordinate risks on the Canadian production side. But with Location Promotion, we were going to be churning out employment statistics and every politician was going to go, ‘Right on, OFDC.’

‘By the way, (I could have said), we’re losing millions over here and the investments may not always pan out, but we’re not measuring it by profit and loss; that’s why this is a public agency, not a private venture capital fund.’ So I had no problem with it, and that was smart, that set the priorities.

POV: Was there a sense that if Egoyan and Bruce McDonald and Peter Mettler and Patricia Rozema were financed and nurtured, they’d burst forth with interesting feature films?
CLARKSON: Atom was obviously percolating. I think of documentary filmmakers, too— Twist, Ron Mann, whose work I’d always liked; Poetry in Motion was great, wonderful. Wonderful filmmaker.

I think the entire budget of the Ontario Film Development Corporation, in year one, was about $5 million. Pretty good then, but the maximum we were prepared to spend was $500,000 on a feature film. It was that spark, but again, it’s never money, and it’s always money.

I think Atom’s first three films cost less than a million dollars each. Well if you’re getting most of it between two agencies (OFDC and Telefilm), a little bit from the distributors and a couple of deferrals, he’s making movies. And so were the seeds already planted, was there sprouting of wonderful talent? Yes. The OFDC then fertilized and put the dollars in and spread the water around and if it hadn’t, would all of those wonderful talents emerge? Maybe not.

The OFDC can’t take the credit because without us, would Atom be a filmmaker today? Yes. Would he be making films here? I don’t know. He might have had to go elsewhere. I think what has changed in the last 15-20 years is that an earlier generation had to leave, but that’s not the case now.

POV: When you were at the OFDC, and hopefully this will continue at Telefilm, you put lots of money into documentaries. You weren’t distinguishing between documentary and fiction, and that was deliberate.
CLARKSON: It was deliberate. The other thing we did that was deliberate was that because Telefilm was up the street with their new Broadcast Fund, we said ‘let’s not play a big part of the TV business, we haven’t got the money. It’s such an overwhelming machine that our $5 million could be spent in a day and a half, in television.’

p=. *The Jewisons are coming, the Jewisons are coming*

POV: When did the perception change that well-reviewed films with a strong festival showing and international play— when was that standard of performance no longer enough?
CLARKSON: I think that shift happened when the Feature Film Fund was created. And interestingly that shift happened very evidently in Quebec. You’ll often see the statistic being quoted that in 10 years, Quebec was getting 7% of their marketplace and today they’re getting somewhere around 20%. How did they do that? I think like most things, it’s one step at a time.

I’ve never met a filmmaker who didn’t want to attract an audience. At no point did we not care about the audience, but there was a certain acceptance of the process. Talent came in, we gave them the money; if they got invited to Cannes, or Berlin and got reviews, that was good. Still, films opened and closed in Canada in a couple of weeks and now we have to be in a way more competitive.

Future Tense

POV: What can be done to make marketing work better? Many really good films do open and close quickly and filmmakers wonder if distributors are trying their best.
CLARKSON: Television has to be used more. The vast majority of American promotional dollars are spent in promotion through television. The other thing is the notion of digital cinemas; I met Daniel Langlois who runs Ex-Centris (in Montreal) and he’s doing it. So he wants Telefilm to get involved, which I’m keen to do. And he said, ‘We have the technology, we can cost effectively put it in theatres.’ He’s going into it for commercial (and) cultural reasons.

With digital cinemas in Ontario, for instance, you could say ‘Oh look, Fugitive Pieces is doing very well in Chatham, and they want to keep it there, and it’s not doing very well somewhere else, so let’s move it over to another place.

POV: You can do it from your keyboard.
CLARKSON: Right. So let’s spend the money on promoting the features because we don’t have to stripe prints, we don’t have to ship them around, they don’t have to get scratched. And to go back to our conversation about Cineplex and Famous Players… they’re market driven and it’s not cost effective for them to go into smaller towns. Digital cinema makes that kind of film circuit cost effective.

POV: The NFB’s also supporting digital cinema. What is the relationship between Telefilm and the NFB?
CLARKSON: Structurally, the Film Commissioner Jacques Bensimon sits on Telefilm’s board and I sit on the NFB’s board. Jacques and I have talked about digital cinema. I think both of us want more communication, and that’s about it. There was the issue around Telefilm’s partnership with CBC in theatrical documentaries. For me the strain there is, and I’ve said this to Jacques, that Telefilm’s responsibility is for the independent producer, not to people making NFB documentaries. Finding a way to partner with the Film Board in this instance was difficult.

POV: Could all three of you form a partnership on anything, in future?
CLARKSON: Generally speaking, we intersect in a bunch of areas. You look at new media, you look at digital cinema, you look at documentaries, you look at emerging talent, you look at low-budget filmmaking, you put all that together, and you see Telefilm, CBCNFB, absolutely.

POV: Do you think the theatrical pilot project will extend past one year?
CLARKSON: I will work as vigorously as I can for that money. I think there’s a desire on the part of the minister, on the part of the department. I think the standing committee on culture heard the argument, they’ve certainly asked us questions about it; I don’t think significant dollars are needed. Along as the political landscape holds for a while, I’m very optimistic about it.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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