The Vancouver International Film Festival Trade Forum (VIFFTF) finished on Saturday with a day of packed seminars and a party for new filmmakers. The four-day Forum was a rare opportunity to hear the likes of Nurse Betty writer John C. Richards, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind cinematographer Ellen Curas, and the writer-director of recent low-budget success Open Water, Chris Kentis.
In an industry that often seems abstract or opaque, it is always helpful, and often inspiring, to hear from movers and shakers about trends, or solutions to creative or financial problems. Although there were constant reminders of how tough the industry can be (nothing new there, I suppose), most filmmakers I talked to said they benefited from meeting panellists in this postive, educational atmosphere.
Topics ranged widely, from script development to selling your film, but there were a number of issues that panellists kept on returning to: the implications of growth in DVD sales and rentals, the High Definition versus 35mm debate, and how to balance cultural and commercial priorities.
The latter debate is a long-running one in Canada, not just in the television and film industry, but in every cultural sphere.
Canada's location, next door to the most lucrative market in the world, leaves it torn between wanting to reap the financial rewards of rampant US commercialism and nurturing its more fragile, home-grown cinema in a protective environment.
Telefilm Canada, the government agency whose financial support has made the production of many Canadian films possible, has tried to find the middle ground with a plan, introduced in 2000, to grow "Canadian" feature film from around 1% in 2000 to 5% by the end of 2005 of the domestic box office gross takings.
The 5% Solution
Although what has become dubbed "the 5% Solution" has an attractive symmetry - Canadian taxpayers judging Canadian films in which they have indirectly invested in, by the medium of the box office - it has come in for widespread criticism for being overly ambitious, for being too market-driven, or for not being market-driven enough. Since 2000, fewer projects have fulfilled Telefilm's tough new performance standards.
Not surprisingly, considering the implications for filmmakers in Canada, the opening seminar at the forum, which took stock of the country's industry, was one of the best attended.
John Dippong, director of the Feature Film Unit at Telefilm Canada, argued that you can already see the beneficial effect of the Telefilm initiatives. "In 1999, there was a perception that there was a Telefilm film - a low-budget, dysfunctional family drama... but now we're seeing a broader pool of films."
Dippong said that Canadian films have been trending up in terms of box office takings from C$650million (Â£283million) in 2000 to C$900million (Â£391million) two weeks ago. "It's a 4% share of a larger pie," said Dippong, "It's pretty good growth."
Dippong added that Quebec "has grown disproportionately" to anglophone Canada taking around 20% of the provincial box office pie. As well as the fact that audiences in la belle province are drawn to local stars and films in their own language and dialect, Dippong said that Quebec's producers are finding new ways of reaching their audiences.
John Bain, Lions Gate Films VP of theatrical distribution, said box office is not really a measure of a film's success. Box office receipts ignore the publicity and advertising budgets and although most theatrical releases actually lose money at the box office they are by no means a commercial failure. Most Canadian films are low-budget (C$100,000 to C$1.5million) and with minimal promotion, are rarely in cinemas for more than three weeks. The theatrical release, pointed out Bain, is foremost a marketing tool for foreign and ancilliary sales, in particular DVDs, which is where many films may eventually generate a profit.
Bain also said that exhibitors, i.e. cinema owners, are more likely to book a film that appeals to a young male audience that will spend lots of money at the popcorn and concession stands, rather than a small Canadian art film audience. Exhibitors have a much more attractive mark-up on popcorn and sugary treats than cinema tickets.
Telefilm's emphasis in recent years on marketing, when judging projects that they fund, led to the predictable question of why Canada can't follow the Hollywood cast system where each project comes attached with a big name.
Many Canadian independent filmmakers have risen to the challenge of marketing at a grass-roots level (two recent local successes are The Corporation and The Delicate Art of Parking), but it's difficult to compete with a Hollywood marketing blitzkrieg that takes out cinema and television screens, and full page ads in national newspapers.
Mary Anne Waterhouse, producer on Desolation Sound, pointed out that for a bigger slice of the box office pie Canadians need to be making films with bigger budgets and that means A-list stars. She said more "flexibility" was needed in defining what is a Canadian film to accommodate the A-list. It's a lot easier to market a famous actor.
The reasons why foreign A-list actors are blocked is less to do with Telefilm's definition of what is a "Canadian" film, and apparently more to do with the unions, co-production partners and equity agreements.
Dippong pointed out that where there are co-productions with other countries - Britain is a major co-producer with Canada for film and television, for example - there's often a struggle over the film's leads. "Talent in front of the camera - that is the commodity," said discussion moderator and founder of New City Pictures, Coleen Nystedt.
Liz Jarvis, producer of Seven Times Lucky, suggested that the downturn in the economy "means everybody is taking fewer risks" with feature filmmaking environment becoming much more cast-driven.
However, there is no golden formula. Commercial success is not assured by simply attaching an A-list star. Shawn Williamson, producer of Brightlight Pictures, pointed out that for genre film House of the Dead, there were "no stars" and "a dreadful script," but it made money because it was an adaptation of a video game and had a following. He also admits that they had to "buy the box office out of it."
John Dippong, asked by an audience-member how Canada might develop its own star system, offered one small practical step that individual filmmakers can take, that was reiterated in a later seminar with U.S. acquisition executives from Fox Searchlight and Miramax: even if your budget is small, leave some scope in your budget to take your main actors to film festivals, one and half years down the line. It will increase your chances of getting good word-of-mouth, press coverage and might even help get a distributor interested in the film.
As with any discussion about marrying cultural and commercial values in a political policy, consensus was sorely lacking. Even if the 5% Solution hits its target next year, as Dippong suggests it might, the debate about how Canada measures the success of its filmmakers and develops its industry will likely just get louder.