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National Film Board of Canada chairman Tom Perlmutter. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
National Film Board of Canada chairman Tom Perlmutter. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

How Tom Perlmutter turned the NFB into a global new-media player Add to ...

When Tom Perlmutter took on the top job at the National Film Board of Canada in 2007, he did what was expected – travelled to Ottawa and began knocking on doors. He found a sympathetic audience among bureaucrats and politicians who agreed the NFB was a worthy thing and should digitize its remarkable collection of Canadian film, but nobody actually produced any cash for an institution that was gradually slipping into obscurity. So Perlmutter decided to give up. And that was how he saved the NFB.

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“Five years ago I was told we had no money to do what we wanted to do,” Perlmutter said. “… I went back [to the NFB office in Montreal] and said, ‘Wait a minute. Yes, budgets are eroding, but we do have money.’ That was the start of saying we are going to do things.”

Today, the NFB, which offers more than 2,000 films from its catalogue online at nfb.ca and through a popular smartphone and tablet app, is considered a global leader in both reaching audiences on multiple platforms and in pioneering the new field of transmedia, telling documentary stories on interactive websites.

The NFB is in Cannes this week, invited to the inaugural transmedia component in the festival’s powerful commercial market, to introduce Bla Bla, Vincent Morisset’s animated film-for-computer created by the viewer using a touch screen. That follows a headline-grabbing stop in mid-April at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it screened Journal of Insomnia, a project that asks users to take a late-night phone call to link to a site filled with interactive content about their condition.

At the end of April, in the midst of the Hot Docs festival in Toronto where it showed docs debating cancer care and the treatment of mentally ill offenders, the film board announced it planned to launch a Netflix-style documentary subscription service. More buzz followed a week later: The NFB released Perlmutter’s strategic plan to become a major player in the global media landscape by 2018, and won its seventh Webby, the Internet’s equivalent of an Oscar, this time for Bear 71, a transmedia project that used video collars on bears to collect footage. Meanwhile, the NFB’s work on interactive projects with both The New York Times and The Guardian is ongoing.

At home and abroad, the organization is fusing Canada’s traditional strengths in documentary and communications technology with its newer reputation as a new-media leader to build a uniquely accessible cultural institution dedicated to storytelling and democratic dialogue.

“By marrying documentaries to new media, they are making public service sexy again,” said Toronto documentarian Kevin McMahon.

And the film board is achieving all this without ever receiving the $5.7-million that Perlmutter requested back in 2007. Convinced that digitization was non-negotiable, he decided to allocate 4 to 5 per cent of his annual budget toward that end; to date, the NFB has spent $5-million on the project.

“I like what Tom is doing,” said Cameron Bailey, artistic director at the Toronto International Film Festival. “He is one of the last visionaries in Canadian film, but a visionary who doesn’t just dream big, but is able to do.”

A surprising mix of fervent old-school documentarian and media-age technocrat, the soft-spoken 64-year-old Perlmutter may seem an unlikely revolutionary. The son of a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Montreal from Hungary as a child, he was educated at McGill and Oxford and spent a decade working in Britain in publishing before returning to Canada and building a career as a documentary producer. He has a philosophical bent and typically, when he made the decision to apply for the job of general director for the English-language side of the NFB in 2001, he wrote out a manifesto for himself, articulating why the organization mattered and what it was he wanted to do.

“Coming as an immigrant, coming from a family of Holocaust survivors, you are coming from a place where you are marginalized, so immediately you say: ‘How do we create a place where we connect with others? How do we create communities despite where we come from, despite whatever baggage?’ ”

Officially, the NFB still has a markedly nationalistic mandate to unite Canadians by telling them about each other, but Perlmutter thinks it can play a more nuanced role.

“Traditional notions of national identity are out the window, particularly in Canada: You can eliminate this agonizing over who we are. ... What is interesting is how do you create this postmodern nation anchored in common democratic values no matter what your personal religion or culture?” he said. “Culture plays a significant role: Through cultural means you can explore things that may be difficult through other means.”

Specifically, he believes the NFB can instigate civilized debate, with documentaries that get Canadians talking about issues such as legalizing prostitution or the conditions behind the headlines about Attawapiskat. “To have these discussions is a wonderful thing,” he said.

When Perlmutter first arrived at the NFB in 2001, it was an institution that was fading into irrelevance, struggling after 1996 budget cuts that reduced production and closed regional offices. It was already an unusual survivor: Founded in 1939, it rose to prominence making homefront propaganda during the war, and continued after 1945 as a producer of Canadian content in a Hollywood-dominated landscape. Under Norman McLaren, it was an innovator in animation and the observational documentary style known as direct cinema. It was celebrated for its short films, such as McLaren’s 1952 Oscar-winning Neighbours, and groundbreaking docs such as 1969’s You Are on Indian Land and 1981’s Not A Love Story.

This was the famous collection that Perlmutter began to digitize after getting the top job in 2007. “There was this immense collection of treasures that would be seen on television and then disappear ... everybody asked: How do we see your stuff?” he said.

Digitization may seem like a no-brainer, but the process is both expensive and time-consuming, requiring legal clearance for any music or images used in a film, decisions made on which versions (French, English, short, long, subtitled) to preserve, and a painstaking restoration of the celluloid version. Then there’s the question of which digital format to use, among the two dozen available. The NFB’s solution, a just-in-time system that turns each celluloid treasure into a relatively small “mezzanine” file from which other formats can be generated, is innovative enough that the board hopes to license it. It also has an educational media player on the website (which lets teachers assemble clips from multiple films) that it hopes to sell to users outside Canada.

Increasingly, Perlmutter, who also has an MBA from the University of Toronto, is looking to the private sector to pay for expansion. He’s in discussion with potential investors in a Netflix-like documentary service for both Internet television and mobile platforms. The move is central to his vision of the NFB as an international media player, but can it attract enough subscribers?

“It’s a good idea and I really want it to work but it is going to require a lot of marketing,” said Chris MacDonald, executive director of Hot Docs. “The public is keen to watch documentaries [but] it’s a crowded marketplace. They will have to be clever about finding audiences.”

Perlmutter points out that these private-sector partnerships, while they will help the NFB reach audiences, are not a substitute for public funding – the NFB gets an annual government grant of about $67-million and earns another $7-million itself – and that he can’t keep reallocating the 5 per cent. “The problem is, it’s a short-term strategy,” Perlmutter said. “We can make ourselves leaner and more efficient, but it’s not investment.”

Meanwhile, further budget cuts have forced hard decisions: Last year, when the government announced a cut of 10 per cent over three years, Perlmutter laid off 73 people and shuttered the NFB’s two popular public screening rooms, in Montreal and Toronto, the “mediatheques” that gave the film board a presence in the heart of both cities.

Of course, the public increasingly accesses content online – nfb.ca and the apps have received about 41 million views since the site launched in 2009 – and Perlmutter believes that relationship will become even more interactive. Transmedia storytelling projects such as Journal of Insomnia, Bear 71 and High Rise (the Emmy-winning project about urban living that The New York Times – and now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – has joined) offer documentary content through which the audience can navigate at will. The interactivity aspect of the work is what gets Perlmutter most excited.

“Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, it has all been seen as a different pipe, a different delivery system but ... these are also media of invention and creation,” he said. “We need to explore what is the language, the grammar, the aesthetics. It’s something different. It’s not cinema, it’s not television, it’s not magazines. ... It is so rare to be at a birth of a completely new art form. It’s like being in 1900 at the birth of cinema, when you have got people like Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith playing around with bits of celluloid. ...

“People will say it happened in Canada, it happened at the NFB.”

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