Marketing Canadian Cinema: the Tough Sell

Mike Robichaux

This year’s iteration of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) boasted a whole lot of Canadian content. The bill of featured directors on the TIFF 2015 website, in fact, read a bit like an exhaustive list of every Canadian who has ever made or attempted to make a movie this century. You had your Atom Egoyan, your Guy Maddin, your Bruce Macdonald. There was even a special free screening of a near lost b-grade oddity from the last century: 1961’s The Mask (or, the Eyes of Hell).

Advertised as “the first feature length Canadian horror movie and the first feature length 3D film made in Canada,” the Mask was an early example of Canadians making movies for the sake of making a quick buck. It bears mentioning that the Mask was also the first Canadian film to get an international distribution deal from a major studio and do decent business at the North American box office.

Watching it some half a century later, one can’t help but feel a little disheartened by the fact that, adjusted for inflation, this silly, slipshod, utterly forgotten little film is still probably amongst the most lucrative English Canadian productions of all time.

By other (non-economic) measures, Canadian cinema has come a long way since then. Like I already said, TIFF 2015 opened a slew of acclaimed Canadian features—Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy this Hammer, or Deepa Mehta’s Beeba Boys to name a few. But like the Mask, unless you’re reading this because you’re a TIFF programmer, there’s a pretty decent chance that you’ve never heard of these films until exactly this second.

Looking at all the pomp surrounding TIFF 2015, this seems kind of odd, doesn’t it? By all accounts, our national cinema’s flagship celebration was as flashy, glamorous, and lucrative as we’ve come to expect it to be. As usual, theatres and auditoriums across Toronto sold out. And as usual, the festival—along with virtually all of the Canadian movies playing in it—was partially funded by grants from various levels of government in addition to a public-private partnership with Telefilm, a federal crown corporation.

And here, as they say, is the rub. If Telefilm’s mandate is to promote “the cultural, commercial and industrial success of Canada’s audio visual industry,” and TIFF’s rasion d’etre is “to showcase Canadian achievements in an international context,” then why was the first image to come to mind when I said “TIFF 2015” Matt Damon growing potatoes with his poop on Mars? The answer, in short, is that in its capacity as a federally funded instrument of Canada’s cultural policy, TIFF is not functioning entirely as it’s meant to.

The Politics of Show Business: Canadian Cinema and the State

The federal government’s involvement with the Canadian film industry is long, storied, and way too complex and paradoxical to get into here. For our purposes, it’s sufficient to say that since the passing of Bill C-204, An Act to Provide For the Establishment of a Feature Film Industry, in 1967 (and indeed, long before that) politicians, bureaucrats, scholars, and producers have been trying to sort out whether this sector of Canadian cultural policy should be primarily concerned with making money or making art. Telefilm’s corporate mandate reflects this duality, and its presence in the Canadian film festival scene is an interesting case study.

For example, on the one hand, the Toronto International Film Festival is a veritable windfall for Canada and the city of Toronto: it pumps about two-hundred million dollars of annual revenue into the local economy, boosts tourism, employs people—every year, without fail, TIFF is a roaring commercial success. On the other hand, though, almost none of this has anything to do with the homegrown Canadian art produced by its main funding partner, Telefilm.

If the point is to show to the world—and ourselves—that our movies can hold their own with the best from around the globe, then the fact that the “showcasing Canadian achievements,” part of TIFF has been more or less completely eclipsed by the “international context” is sending a clear, unhappy message about the worth of our cinematic culture.

It seems that the Canadian government’s policy goals in regards to its film industry— to make art, and to make money—are working towards mutually exclusive ends: Telefilm is capable of making art, and it’s capable of making money, but it has thus far has proven mostly inept at making art that makes money.

It’s not necessarily the case that nobody goes to the flashy opening galas that TIFF throws for new Telefilm releases (although sometimes, regretfully few do). It’s that, in terms of generating hype, these movies simply can’t compete with the Matt-Damon-Industrial-Complex. They’re barely advertised or promoted outside of the context of the festival’s annual program, and when the circus leaves town and the rental tuxes go back to the shop, they fall off the radar immediately.

Lights, Camera, Legislative Action

Despite Telefilm’s best efforts, Canadian productions only capture a measly 1 to 2 per cent share of annual English Canadian domestic box office revenues. Part of the reason for this, of course, is the tiny advertising budgets these films get. In 2011, the average marketing and promotional budget for a Telefilm-supported English Canadian production was around 610, 026$, a microscopic sum when thought of in the context of the larger North American studio system. Until 1988, when the Feds enacted a piece of legislation called the Policy on Foreign Investment in the Canadian Film Distribution Sector, films in Canada were distributed and marketed more or less exclusively by American firms with ties to the big studios, but since then a space has been carved out for smaller Canadian distributers.

For reasons that have vexed some commentators, Telefilm has stayed out of the distribution game, and its promotion strategy seems to consist mostly of putting up funds for Canadian film festivals, a system that hasn’t exactly been a runaway success.

Thus, the Canadian state has left the marketing of Canadian feature films almost entirely to a legislatively protected private sector, and with the new Liberal government pledging a whole whack of arts and culture funding—including twenty-five million more a year to Telefilm and the National Film Board—in order to “help Canadian artists share our stories,” now might be the time to review our film industry’s ineffectual distribution model. More specifically, it might be time to allow for a larger role for the state in the marketing and distribution of Canadian pictures. This could take the form of tax-incentives for theatres that screen and advertise a certain minimum of Canadian content; more advertising time on government-funded media; more support for Canadian independent distributers trading in not-so-profitable Canadian art films; or making money spent on the advertising and promotion of Canadian films eligible for the same tax credits as money spent on production.

As far as Telefilm goes, according to the company’s annual report, only around 12 per cent of their total funding for the 2012-2013 period went to marketing, compared to roughly 62 per cent to film production. When Telefilm (or as it was then called, the Canadian Film Development Company, CFDC) was first created in 1967, aspiring filmmakers without the backing of a major studio faced impossible economic barriers to getting their movies produced, and the idea was that the CFDC would help promising talent surmount these obstacles. Since then, per capita production costs have gone down, and the monopoly on movie making equipment and technology once held by Hollywood studios has eroded considerably. If the last thirty years or so have taught us anything, in fact, it’s that nowadays, pretty much anyone with enough gusto can make a movie (I’m looking at you, Tommy Wiseau), and new revenue sources like crowd-funding have only made this more so. In short, the problem that Telefilm was created to deal with isn’t as big of a problem as it used to be—it’s arguably the case now that getting anyone to care that you made a movie is almost as big of a challenge as actually making one. Maybe Telefilm’s board of directors should give this some thought when they sit down to hash out an allocation plan for their new funding.

This isn’t to say that Telefilm needs to jump head first into the business of selling Canadian movies directly. Rather, it needs to work on selling Canadians on the idea of watching Canadian movies, and a good first step might be getting the word out—online, on social media, on T.V, wherever—that Canadian cinema actually exists, and some of it is pretty damn good. The next step—ensuring that Canadians outside the GTA actually have access to these movies—might require some parliamentary intervention, and if the Liberals are serious about promoting the arts, then they should consider making this an agenda item.

Would all this emphasis on marketing and selling produce a national film scene that pumps out gimmicky features like the Mask faster than 3D glasses on an assembly line? Not necessarily. Although, true to form, Telefilm’s criteria for selecting projects reflects some confusion about whether it wants to make blockbusters or solid, cinematic art, one can only presume that it wants to make both, and at the same time if possible. Given that the lion’s share of the corporation’s revenue comes from the federal government rather than the market, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to expect that Telefilm will sell its soul in the immediate future (although the glamour and opulence of Canadian show business can be a dizzying drug, I’m sure).

However Telefilm decides to spend its money, the state of our nation’s cinema (or rather our nation’s interest in its cinema) probably can’t get any worse than it already is. With a lot of luck and a little planning though, who knows? The stories of the Great White North might be coming to a theatre near you.


Mike is a graduate student at the University of Toronto (previously McGill). He grew up on Vancouver Island but now sticks mostly to the ten square blocks surrounding his Toronto apartment. His interests include politics, post-punk, and 80s slasher flicks. He can’t believe he’s thirty.


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