Ten months ago, the National Film Board under Commissioner Tom Perlmutter was riding high on a wave of praise for its fancy new digital content. It had won its seventh Webby Award for an interactive doc and had got all New York talking about another such project, which showed at a festival in that city. Everything seemed possible, even the NFB’s ambitious plan to launch a Netflix-style subscription service for documentaries, and to become a media player with global reach by 2018.
Today the NFB is all but leaderless. This week the NFB confirmed that Perlmutter, who had already sidestepped into a consulting role two months ago, was no longer an employee. Nor was Ravida Din, the woman he had promoted to the post of director-general of English-language production only a year ago. The institution now faces questions about whether it can maintain its digital momentum.
“He redefined the film board,” said Montreal documentary filmmaker Mila Aung-Thwin. “He was upping its mandate every year. He had a real driving force about him. He was in the middle of things; he wasn’t finished.”
Before his departure from the top job at NFB, Perlmutter had been performing some administrative magic as the organization struggled with ever-diminishing government funding. He was redirecting money from other areas – cutting budgets for the production of actual films – to fund two key digital initiatives: the NFB website, where the public can now stream more than 2,000 titles from the board’s rich archive; and interactive Web documentaries that allow viewers to choose their own path through a story, and which Perlmutter has hailed as a new art form.
It was a plan, as he himself pointed out, that was finite: You can rob Peter to pay Paul for only so long. Several of Perlmutter’s ideas, such as collaborations with The New York Times and The Guardian, and the documentary subscription service, would help the organization generate its own revenue. But in the long term, the NFB needed to be the kind of glamorous attention-getter and national ego-booster that gets rewarded with bigger government grants.
Nobody is irreplaceable. But without Perlmutter to drive his ambitious strategy, and with several other key jobs vacant, there is a danger that the NFB will slide back into the risky position of irrelevant venerability that it had been flirting with prior to the digital push.
Signs of internal troubles emerged in December when the NFB announced that Perlmutter, who was in the middle of his second term as film commissioner, was stepping aside to take on a consulting role with the institution and to write books about government’s relationship with cultural institutions. Sources in the media community who know the parties say Perlmutter has had, and continues to have, a relationship with Din, the woman whom he promoted in February, 2013, to the top producing role on the English-language side of the NFB.
Those sources say that Din, a producer on such films as Pink Ribbons, Inc. and Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, was a credible candidate, but they speculate that Perlmutter initially stepped aside when the NFB’s board of trustees recognized his possible conflict of interest.
Acting commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur declined to discuss the reasons behind this week’s final departures, saying the NFB will not comment on internal personnel matters. Neither Perlmutter nor Din replied to separate requests for comment this week, but previously Perlmutter had responded by e-mail to a request for an interview with The Globe and Mail: “My personal life is private, but I have always operated in the best interests of the Board. It was entirely my decision to resign, one that I had made early last summer.”
Reached by phone in Montreal before she, too, left the NFB, Din had said, “I’m not going to comment on my private life; it’s private.”
Along with some other key staff changes, the situation leaves the film board short on creative leadership. Joli-Coeur, a lawyer and the NFB’s assistant commissioner, has been named acting commissioner until the government gets around to posting and filling the job permanently, which could take until the end of the year. Din’s francophone counterpart, Colette Loumède, is, like Joli-Coeur, in the job only in an acting capacity. Her predecessor, Monique Simard, left the position last year to take over SODEC, Quebec’s cultural-industry funding agency.
The all-important Toronto studio is also weak at the moment. The position of executive producer for Ontario has been sitting vacant since Silva Basmajian, the producer behind Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, retired last year, while senior Ontario producer Gerry Flahive is also set to retire, in May.
There is no obvious candidate to take over the top job Perlmutter had held since 2007, and the appointment may prove a tricky one for the government: A new commissioner would need to be bilingual and have both a deep knowledge of the film business and a powerful track record in public administration. Most observers assume that the job will go to a francophone – traditionally it has alternated between English and French Canadians – but few in the film industry can come up with strong contenders.
One possibility would be Sylvain Lafrance, the former head of Radio-Canada, who is now teaching as well as sitting on various public-sector boards in Montreal. Another would be Doris Girard, a former head of French production at the NFB and now chair of the board at SODEC. The recently departed Simard would herself be a natural – she is the name Quebec film types mention first when asked for suggestions. But she just started as CEO at SODEC; and she has strong links to the Parti Québécois, having served briefly as an MNA in the 1990s, which could be held against her in Ottawa.
Filmmakers on both sides of the language divide want to see a leader with deep roots in documentary film. Strapped for funds at a time when broadcasters have increasingly resorted to so-called factual entertainment, Canada’s award-winning documentarians are suffering from reduced NFB spending in their field. They question whether interactive documentaries are merely a fad, suggesting they satisfy neither digitally savvy young audiences nor older audiences used to conventional films, although the NFB can show strong numbers – unique visitors in the hundreds of thousands – for online hits such as Fort McMoney and Bear 71.
Whatever the ultimate fate of the NFB’s digital dreams, there is no doubt that it was high time the board made its archives accessible to all Canadians online: After the dust has settled, Perlmutter’s legacy may be nfb.ca. The site may not be as glamorous as launching the Netflix of the doc world or becoming a global media company, but that online treasure trove is a great gift to Canadians.