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Helga Stephenson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, and Martin Short, who is hosting Sunday’s inaugural Canadian Screen Awards. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Helga Stephenson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, and Martin Short, who is hosting Sunday’s inaugural Canadian Screen Awards. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

See ya, Genies. Bye-bye, Geminis: What's at stake at Sunday's Canadian Screen Awards? Add to ...

The stage of the Sony Centre in Toronto is crawling with technicians, busy building the lighting rig and erecting the set for the brand-new Canadian Screen Awards. Chatting with producers in the auditorium, comedian Martin Short, who will host the awards Sunday, is offering free advice: The new prize doesn’t have a nickname yet.

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“Call it the Marty … call it the Shorty,” he jokes, before brainstorming about a Twitter campaign to let viewers of Sunday’s CBC telecast vote on the name. Helga Stephenson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, listens politely. Sensing that showbiz myths are born not made, she had thought a nickname should bubble up naturally, but no doubt she can organize a national name-the-statuette contest on two days’ notice. A lifelong promoter of Canadian film, she has already moved heaven and earth to merge the old Genie Awards for film with the Gemini TV awards, and get this replacement up and running.

“Helga is really a master at doing this,” notes film distributor Hussain Amarshi, president of Mongrel Media. “There is a definite excitement about it.”

Airing a mere week after Jennifer Lawrence burbled and Ben Affleck babbled at the Oscars, the new Canadian awards have their work cut out for them.

The Canadian Screen Awards must blend the too-plentiful Geminis with the often-obscure Genies while providing some much-needed glamour for a Canadian scene overdue for its closeup. No one is expecting the Oscars when the red-carpet parade begins at 8 p.m. ET on CBC, but the awards must at least register on the Canadian ratings charts and produce the milder excitement associated with shows such as Britain’s BAFTA Awards or France’s Césars. They need to pay homage to celebrity, the only media currency these days, and yet they also need Short and the presenters to inject a bit of self-deprecating Canadian irony into the proceedings if they are going to convince audiences that this is more than a laughably pale imitation.“If, for both award shows, the ratings had gone through the roof [in previous years], there would still be two award shows,” Short said in an interview. “Not that it’s all about ratings, but it’s an attempt to make two evenings one truly exciting evening.”

Short on recognizable stars, Canadian film is largely a succès d’estime in which filmmakers such as Sarah Polley and Atom Egoyan earn international plaudits but the movies themselves never break through at the box office. Canadian television, on the other hand, is rapidly recovering from a miserable downturn in the 2000s, and is now gaining traction, with shows such as Flashpoint, Republic of Doyle and Bomb Girls earning respectable ratings. In an age in which social media can drive niche audiences into unexpected corners of the celebrity culture, the timing is actually rather good to put a push on for a Canadian glam-fest.

“By combining the shows we send a much stronger message to the Canadian public,” Stephenson said. “There is a motherlode of talent in this country.”

The merger, which the academy undertook at the behest of the industry itself, will combine the Genies’ 22 film categories with the behemoth that was the Geminis, an awards program of 90 TV categories covering everything from the top dramatic series to children’s programing, news reporting and sportscasting, as well as the five digital-media categories created in 2003. Quebec’s television awards, the Gémeaux, will remain separate in recognition that the two television audiences don’t overlap.

For the Genies, the merger is something of a strategic retreat: Canada’s film awards, a sparkly TV event back in the 1970s and 1980s, got bounced around by various broadcasters after the CBC dropped the show in 2003 and had become invisible to most viewers. English-Canadian insiders who did watch or attend the actual ceremony often complained they were mainly celebrating Quebec films they did not know. In the past decade, seven Genie best-picture winners came from Quebec, although some, such as 2012’s Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, had great success in both markets.

A red carpet decorated by current television figures such as Meg Tilly, Gordon Pinsent, Bob Martin, Erin Karpluk, Rick Mercer and Shaun Majumder (to name a few of 2013 TV nominees) can bring some lift to the film awards. Film, meanwhile, can bring a bit of artistic credibility to the cumbersome television awards.

“Given the success of Canadian TV in the last few years, it will boost film,” Amarshi said. “But film will bring a different vibe to the event.… Film has a distinct place in the cultural landscape.”

Of course, only a fraction of those TV awards will be shown on-air Sunday. Many of the awards were handed out this week as Stephenson and the academy launched a Canadian Screen Week, part industry convention, part fan-fest. It’s a strategy that has worked well for the Junos – the Canadian music awards have now morphed into Juno Week – but the key component is reaching out to actual fans. Stephenson may not be able to offer the public glimpses of Anne Hathaway or Daniel Day-Lewis, but she does believe that Canadians are eager to use social media to connect with local talent.

“I think Canadians actually do know more about their stars then we give them credit for and they want to know more,” she said. “Our job is to tell them: There is an appetite for it that needs to be fed and because of social media we are going to be able to do that.”

Still, it might help if notable heartthrobs such as Murdoch Mysteries’s Yannick Bisson or Republic of Doyle’s Allan Hawco had been nominated this year. Both were noticeably absent from a list of television nominees that looks like as painful an exercise in egalitarianism as a kindergarten pet show: CBC, CTV and Global are the three nominees in the best newscast category, while four of the five nominees in the best performance in a children’s program are actors on Degrassi Street. The new awards might benefit from taking a look at the Junos, where nominees in several key categories are partly determined by sales figures, guaranteeing that audience favourites are in the crowd.

“I hope at some point we do a people’s choice award,” suggests Michael Hennessy, CEO of the Canadian Media Production Association. “We have the technology to build buzz.”

In other words, the awards should be a popularity contest if they are going to launch a virtuous cycle of celebrating celebrities who in turn bring attention to the content. Canada has long struggled not merely with the reality that Hollywood stars easily eclipse Canadian talents, but also with a seeming reluctance to nurture something as patently hierarchical as a star system.

“We need name recognition, and somebody has to change it unless they want everybody to leave,” veteran performer Shirley Douglas complained in a video interview with The Canadian Press this week as she received a career-achievement award from ACTRA. She also singled out the CBC for criticism, noting that it does not include the names of stars from popular shows such as Heartland or Republic of Doyle on its billboards. Her son Kiefer Sutherland, darling of U.S. TV audiences, sat beside her during the interview, a clear reminder of the pattern she was complaining about.

As celebrity becomes increasingly important and the business increasingly global – leaving Canadian performers to build bi-national careers like Short’s that do bring them back home from L.A. regularly – those attitudes may be changing. For starters, the new screen awards did include an online fan vote for Canada’s favourite screen star: 15,000 people voted and the results, which will be announced during Sunday’s telecast, should say something about whether English Canada is finally ready to follow Quebec’s lead in lionizing its own.

Quebec’s well-established star system, dominated by television figures from game-show hosts to soap-opera stars, is part of the reason the academy has decided the Gémeaux awards must remain their own independent program, which will be broadcast in September. Quebec talents who win three Gémeaux are honoured with a special triple statuette nicknamed L’immortel.

“In English Canada, if you win three Geminis, they say it’s somebody else’s turn,” jokes Martin Katz, chair of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.

Immortal? Now, there’s a name: They could call the new prize the Morty.

The Canadian Screen Awards will be broadcast Sunday on CBC-TV at 8 p.m. ET.

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