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Nick Stahl, as the character Dodge, in Twist.
Cultivating audiences, one city at a time
By Jessica Wong, CBC News Online | February 27, 2004

Ask an average person to name three hit Canadian feature films from 2003 — excluding those by Quebecois filmmakers — and you're likely to get a blank stare. While Canadians celebrate the international acclaim for French language features Les invasions barbares and La grande s�duction, as well as the documentary The Corporation, English features just aren't on our radar.

Generally, the Canadian English language film is in a bind, often left looking like an awkward teenager compared to its overexposed and deep-pocketed neighbour to the south or its quirky but popular French-speaking cousin. As the industry tries to make a bigger dent in the domestic box office, one group is successfully helping it through its growing pains by increasing audiences one community at a time.

In the early 1990s, as the director of the Sudbury Film Festival, Cam Haynes was amazed that although Canadian films were doing great at festivals, they would seldom open to wide theatrical release. His idea: bring Canadian films and filmmakers, mixed in with quality international movies, directly to his local audience.

Film Circuit's strategy is to get "bums in seats" watching Canadian films, says program director Cam Haynes.
"People like Atom Egoyan and Bruce McDonald and Patricia Rozema, pretty well all of our great filmmakers would come out every year and be overwhelmed by an audience — in Sudbury — for Canadian film," Haynes said. The prevailing thought was that if a film didn't work in a major centre like Toronto, how could it work in smaller communities?

"It was easier to do it in Sudbury because it's so expensive to market in Toronto," he said. "At the end of the day, I started looking at this idea of event-driven, one-night, condensed audiences. Creating opportunities, access. All those words came together into something that began to make sense."

In 1992, that something coalesced into what is now the Toronto International Film Festival Group's Film Circuit program, of which Haynes is director. In 10 years, Film Circuit grew to encompass screenings in 140 cities across the country. Last year, an estimated 400,000 people saw films "on the Circuit."

Film Circuit has access to Canadian filmmakers, producers, distributors and exhibitors to procure film prints and screen them. The program, however, has also developed relationships with cultural partners across the country — museums, galleries and arts councils — that "sell" the films and generally whip community audiences into a frenzy about seeing the latest Canadian flicks.

As one alternative, or an adjunct, to the Hollywood monster machine, it appears that the program's slow-but-steady pace is getting results.

"This project has doubled in size every two years: in attendance, in [number of participating] theatres, in just about every number at which you can point," Haynes said. "Obviously there's a need, there's an audience, there's this thing that's working."

"We can't compete with American infrastructure and American marketing," Haynes added. "How do you take a small Canadian film, put it into the same system that Lord of the Rings goes into and expect that without having the marketing money behind it that it's going to be successful?"

English language features endure a seemingly insurmountable range of problems: a market oversaturated with Hollywood fare, distribution issues and a negative preconceived idea of what is a Canadian film.

Producer Trish Dolman shooting the EPK (electronic press kit) for Flower & Garnet (Photo: Bob Akester).
Competition with the colossus to the south is but one of the barriers facing filmmakers. It's hard for Canadians to stand out in the U.S.-dominated industry, which spends millions of dollars on marketing and advertising alone, said Trish Dolman, president of Vancouver-based Siren Screen pictures and producer of the film Flower & Garnet.

"Someone's going to be on the cover of Vanity Fair promoting their film," she said. "There's such huge crossover. We don't even have the money to go into billboards."

With our radically smaller budgets, and lack of a "marketing machine," even the best Canadian films usually can't play on the same field as U.S. blockbusters. On a plane one time, Dolman had to explain to fellow Canadian passengers the film choice, the Maritimes-made Rare Birds.

"People don't ask 'What's Pirates of the Caribbean?'" Dolman said. "It's a total lack of awareness [of Canadian films]. It's never hitting a saturation of public knowledge."

Even if filmmakers can get their films onto the audience radar, budget constraints can lead to another problem.

"Even if we can get your film into a hundred theatres, can you afford the prints for those hundred theatres?" asks Simone Urdl, co-founder of The Film Farm and producer of Luck.

Small budgets aside, there's also the issue that viewers also hold negative perceptions of English Canadian films. The handful of talented filmmakers who have become internationally synonymous with English Canadian cinema have largely been more independent-minded and of the "auteur" school of moviemaking, leading many Canadians to believe homegrown flicks must be heavy, intellectual and generally inaccessible.

Jacob Tierney on the set of his directorial debut Twist, a modern adaptation of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist.
We can be really hard on our own filmmakers, said Twist director Jacob Tierney, but he also points the finger back out at the audience.

"I'd love to see how many people who wrote in to say Canadian films aren't up to task and went to see Cheaper by the Dozen," Tierney said. "It's unwatchable! I love Steve Martin and I love Bonnie Hunt but I certainly think we've made at least 15 movies in this country that are better than that."

Tierney looks to Quebec's success at attracting audiences to its full range of films. The French language market is so strong, he said, that even the "third sequel to some terrible movie" is a box office draw. "Why shouldn't they go see that, instead of going to see Matrix Revolutions?"

This year Quebec movies are the success stories in Canadian film. Although the distinct culture and different language are frequently touted as the main reasons for domestic box office success in la belle province, one can't discount the specificity of their films and the amazing co-operation among the industry's key players.

"I want big films, big success," says Telefilm Canada executive director Richard Stursberg.
"When you're making films for a marketplace, you're well advised to make films for that marketplace," said Richard Stursberg, executive director for Telefilm Canada. "That seems kind of obvious but we don't seem to see it that clearly in English."

"If you watch a French film, you know where you are: you are right here in Quebec. You can watch La grande s�duction or Les invasions barbares or Gaz bar blues and you know exactly where you are," Stursberg said. "The film is addressed directly to the audience that it is made for: it is addressed to the French-speaking Canadian audience. A lot of the films that we've seen in English Canada in the past have not squarely addressed English Canadians."

The producers of these films also go to extraordinary lengths to cast as wide a net as possible for their films and hit the ground running by beginning an original, ingenious promotion campaign as soon as a movie's funding is secure. Quebec filmmakers keep the other industry players — distributors, exhibitors, funding bodies, even broadcasters — informed about every major step of their projects.

It's a long process that requires synergy from everyone, said Galafilm's Francine Allaire, producer of The Blue Butterfly.

Entomologist Alan Osborne (William Hurt) and the terminally ill Pete (Marc Donato) search for the elusive Blue Morpho in L�a Pool's The Blue Butterfly, produced by Francine Allaire.
"As soon as you know you're financed, you start talking about it," she said. "As soon as you attach your key cast, you talk about it. When you're director is confirmed — because here directors are known, they're household names, when you say Denys Arcand, when you say L�a Pool, everyone knows them — you talk about it. On-set, journalists come."

Trailers begin playing in theatres before the final edit of the film is completed. Producers prepare educational plans for teachers and invite media behind-the-scenes. Then there's the ubiquitous Quebec tour, where central figures of a film — including actors, director and producers — bus to Montreal, Quebec City, Chicoutimi, Trois Rivi�res, Sherbrook and Gatineau conducting a province-wide press junket and advance screenings; all to help the film resonate with the audience in each community.

After the premieres, there are also town halls organized to hash out issues in the film (regional access to doctors for La grande s�duction, euthanasia and drug abuse for Les invasions barbares, for instance) or charity fundraiser screenings (as in the case of The Blue Butterfly, which recently raised funds for the Children's Wish Foundation, the charity in the based-on-a-true-story film).

"I want my films to have another life after," Allaire explained. "You don't work this hard in order to have [your film] two weeks in the theatre. You try to go to the limits of everything you do."

While Film Circuit only tackles one portion of the ultra-successful, highly integrated French Canadian industry model — namely the development of community audiences through industry partnerships — it is nonetheless a key part, Allaire said.

"Films need to breathe and to live, rooted in the reality of people," she said. "It's taxpayers' money that goes into the films so it has to go back to the public. They have to have a chance to see it."

Film Circuit's success lies in working closely with three partners: the community, the exhibitor and the distributor, said program director Haynes. "You can't take any one of those out because it wouldn't work."

Ed (Callum Keith Rennie, left) with his son Garnet (Colin Roberts) in Flower & Garnet.
The program works on a different infrastructure than the traditional blockbuster model, and has generated interest from film bodies in other countries. It allows participating films "to go wider, get more opportunities, and have a chance to get on screens and make some money in some cities that they wouldn't normally," Haynes said, including in about 20 other countries worldwide that have developed a touring relationship with Film Circuit.

While supportive of the program, Telefilm's executive director said he's too impatient to wait out the slow-and-steady, community-by-community method.

"We can't build a popular cinema just out of small towns," Stursberg said. "If you're going to have a successful popular cinema, it's going to have to play well in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, too."

Telefilm's much maligned audience-building approach, introduced last year, was to change the financing guidelines for English language films in favour of a broader range of - and more commercially successful - movies including comedies, children's movies, romantic comedies and horror flicks. Also, applicants are now required to have a wide distribution deal and an adequate promotional budget pre-established.

"I completely reject the notion that a popular film is a bad film and an obscure film is a good film," Stursberg said. "Let's get on with it. I want big films, big successes that everyone's going to like."

Film Circuit's Haynes believes that Canadian audiences — in all parts of the country — already like homegrown films and his goal is to simply give these works a home.

Margaret (Sarah Polley) and Shane Bradley (Luke Kirby) in Peter Wellington's Luck, an Odeon Films Inc. release, produced by Simone Urdl.
"At the end of the day, what we're hoping is that Canadian films will extend their lives throughout Canada and the world and that it will become something where there will be an infrastructure, a place for them to go," he said. "So if you're not an Atom Egoyan or a David Cronenberg, you still have an opportunity for those films to get seen throughout the world."

Luck producer Urdl agrees that every bit of contact with new audiences helps. "It's a bit like a puzzle: the more pieces that you have, the bigger the exposure," she said. "[Cam and his team] have made work what other people can't seem to make work at all. So whatever they're doing, they're doing something right."

In 2002, Film Circuit started branching out internationally, now sharing Canadian movies with about 20 countries including the U.S., Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Ireland and the U.K. Films like Flower & Garnet, Luck and Twist are currently screening in Ireland and the U.K. as part of the program.

  • The federal government spends approximately $100 million on the Canadian film industry each year, with roughly a third of the money earmarked for French language productions and the rest to English language productions.

  • In 2001, the Department of Canadian Heritage gave Telefilm Canada additional funds in order to develop the Canadian film industry. The goal was for Canadian features to garner 5% of the domestic box office by 2005.

  • Telefilm broke this down into two objectives: English films should take 4% of the market by 2005 and French films 12%.

  • At the end of 2003, English films represented approximately 1% of the domestic box office, while French films made up 20%.

  • According to Telefilm executive director Richard Stursberg, the English language market is seven times the size of the French language market.

  • To be considered a hit, and to access a special "performance envelope" of funding, an English-Canadian film must make a minimum of $1 million at the domestic box office.

    Telefilm responds to Quebec filmmaker critics (Feb. 2, 2004)

    Canadian films tour the U.K. and Ireland (Jan. 30, 2004)

    Canadian heist movie lands in theatres (Oct. 2, 2003)

    Canada finally starting to produce funny movies (Sept. 9, 2003)

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    Telefilm Canada

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