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Word of mouth helped make the film "The Help" a box-office success. Can it do the same for Canadian films? (Dale Robinette/DreamWorks)
Word of mouth helped make the film "The Help" a box-office success. Can it do the same for Canadian films? (Dale Robinette/DreamWorks)

Liam Lacey: Behind the Screens

For Canadian films, the missing ingredient is word-of-mouth Add to ...

There are probably no big fixes for the issues facing the Canadian film industry, but there may be some smart small ones. Consider The First Weekend Club, a national organization based in Vancouver that’s tackling the chronic problem of getting Canadians to go see made-in-Canada movies.

At film festivals, Canadian films do well, but they fare very poorly at the regular box office up against Hollywood competition. According to the Motion Picture Theatre Associations of Canada, between 2000 and 2010 Canadians spent only 3.1 per cent of their movie-going dollars on home-grown products.

Previous columns by Liam Lacey

The First Weekend Club’s strategy is to encourage film fans to see Canadian films on the first weekend of their release. Theatre owners look to the opening weekend box-office receipts to determine whether a film will be held over for a second week. If it stays in theatres longer, it can develop word-of-mouth support and maybe even profitability. Since 2003, says the First Weekend’s executive director Anita Adams, the non-profit organization has promoted about 150 Canadian films. Surveys indicate that 75 per cent of its 15,000 members say that, after seeing a Canadian film, they will email five or more friends, and about 80 per cent say that, after seeing the film, they will recommend it on Facebook.

That model of consumer advocacy is practised by some American minority groups. The prototype First Weekend Club, for instance, was started in 1997 by the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Centre. The organization has about 35,000 members who support movies that are made by black filmmakers or that show positive black performances. Word-of-mouth on those movies has had a significant impact in recent years, helping films such as Tate Taylor’s The Help and Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself to unexpected box-office success.

Now there are numerous first-weekend film organizations, including ones for Hispanics, Asian-Americans, women and gays and lesbians.

Of course, the weekend box office is just small first link in a revenue chain that includes foreign sales, television, DVD sales and a growing source of movie profits, video-on-demand. The media research company Screen Digest reports that global consumer spending on VOD movie rentals went from $23-million in 2006 to $259.4-million in 2010. Screen Digest estimates that annual VOD spending will more than triple by 2014.

In late January or early February, the First Weekend Club will launch an online pay-for-view Canadian film service with a mixture of new and older Canadian films. Most of the country’s film distributors are already on board as partners. The idea, says Adams, is “to emphasize quality, not quantity. We’re not going to be a dumping ground.” The service will start with a few titles picked by Paul Gratton, a veteran television executive and programmer.

On its website (www.indiegogo.com/first-weekend-club), First Weekend is looking to get Canadian film fans to help raise another $20,000 online to handle hosting fees and pay for transaction software. Adams sees the fund-raising as another way for Canadian film lovers to convince the bigger players to give them what they want.

“We don’t have the finances or the structure to come out the gate big,” says Adams. “We’re going to come out small. We’re going to start with a core of loyal Canadian enthusiasts and we’re hoping to show the major funders that this is timely and people are interested and they should get behind it.”

OPENING NEXT WEEK

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas John Cho and Kal Penn’s third in the series of stoner comedies takes place six years after the last film. Kumar inadvertently burns down Harold’s father-in-law’s prize Christmas tree, sending the friends on a quest through New York City to find a replacement.

Le Havre A critical hit at Cannes, this soulful comedy from Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki follows an elderly bohemian shoe-shine man, Marcel (André Wilms), who befriends and assists a refugee African boy in the French port city of Le Havre.

Like Crazy Drake Doremus’s romantic drama about first love stars Felicity Jones as an English girl who is forced to leave her American boyfriend (Anton Yelchin). The film has been intriguingly polarizing in festival appearances, where it is described either as a truthful gem or just really annoying.

Tower Heist Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) directs this comedy about a group of swindled employees (Ben Stiller, Casey Affleck. Matthew Broderick, Tea Leoni and Gabourey Siddibe) who hire a con (Eddie Murphy) to help them rob the high-rise residence of their old boss (Alan Alda).

The Way Martin Sheen’s less controversial son, Emilio Estevez, directs this drama about a father (Sheen Sr.) who goes to Europe to recover the body of his son who died while walking Spain’s famed Camino De Santiago pilgrimage route.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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