If Robert Lantos has his way, every television-watching Canadian will become an investor in the country’s struggling film industry, even if they’re more likely to watch The Bachelor than Barney’s Version.
The flamboyant film producer is leading Canada’s highest-profile filmmakers in a bid to create a new television channel called Starlight, which would be dedicated exclusively to the Canadian films the country’s television networks show no interest in airing.
The group is asking the country’s broadcast regulator to pump the channel into every home in Canada that subscribes to basic cable packages, adding about $10 a year to the typical bill after traditional pricing mark-ups. It wouldn’t just dip into the archives for content – it wants to earmark about $25-million annually to fund up to 12 original movies a year that would debut on the channel, prior to theatrical openings.
“Canadian films, which are heavily subsidized by the government, are not available to be seen by Canadian consumers, who have indirectly helped finance their creation,” Lantos says. “Let us not twist the arms of the television networks that don’t want Canadian films on their network, let’s start our own network that only wants Canadian films.”
Canadians rarely venture to the theatres to see Canadian films. Data for 2012 compiled by the Motion Picture Theatre Associations of Canada show that while the country’s box office pulled in $1.1-billion in 2012, Canadian movies accounted for less than 3 per cent of that, or $25-million. And the country’s broadcasters have largely ignored the movies as well, opting to fill their Canadian-content requirements with dramatic series that are easier to market.
Lantos must convince the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that viewers across the country would benefit from a steady diet of domestic films, something they’ve lived without for as long as there has been basic cable. Other countries subsidize their filmmakers with levies tied to the broadcast system, and he believes this “deficiency” in the Canadian system can be addressed with a television station.
“It’s a very unusual situation we have in the Canadian broadcasting industry … the domestic feature film industry is essentially shut out of the domestic broadcast system,” he said. “That’s something that has been very sensitive and frustrating for everyone involved in Canadian films.”
Lantos is not new to controversial proposals. He launched his career in 1978, at age 29, by famously staring down the Ontario Board of Censors after it insisted he cut two minutes from George Kaczender’s risqué film In Praise of Older Women. He cut 30 seconds instead, and the film enjoyed a boost of attention at its Toronto International Film Festival world premiere. Lantos went on to produce other racy material, including the Blue Lagoon rip-off Paradise and Heavenly Bodies.
In time, he turned to more mainstream fare, including the film adaptations of Mordecai Richler’s Joshua Then and Now and Brian Moore’s Black Robe.
In 1985, Lantos co-founded Alliance Films to produce feature films and television shows for a variety of networks, including the CTV-CBS series Due South, CBC’s North of 60, and Night Heat.
A lifelong champion of Canadian film, Lantos has sometimes bitten the hand that feeds him. In 1991, during his acceptance speech for a special Genie Award sponsored by Air Canada, he attacked the airline for not putting domestic films on its flights.
In 1998, Alliance merged with Atlantis Communications to form Canada’s most powerful independent production and broadcast company, and Lantos stepped down to make features through his Serendipity Point Films.
Since then, he has had plenty of critical wins, but only intermittent commercial success. His biggest hit, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007), earned an estimated $56-million at the worldwide box office. Other films have fared less well: Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies (2005) flopped with less than $4-million, while his adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version (2010), a passion project he had nurtured for decades, earned $8.5-million but failed to live up to Lantos’s hopes for Oscar glory.
His latest project – whose major backers include outgoing Alliance chief executive officer Victor Loewy and financier David Kassie, as well as directors such as Cronenberg and Egoyan – joins about a dozen would-be and established channels seeking so-called mandatory carriage. Starlight would be largely commercial-free, relying on subscription fees over the course of its seven-year licence.
The CRTC will hold hearings in April to decide whether any of the channels meets the requirements, which include a dedication to Canadian content and a positive contribution to the Canadian broadcasting industry. While it is under no obligation to grant any of the services a free pass to the nation’s living rooms, Starlight’s incoming president Norm Bolen said the channel would provide Canadians with critically important programming they are unable to obtain anywhere else.
“I understand the way things are,” he said. “It’s hard for broadcasters to promote and market one-offs. They don’t want to support feature films, that’s not their business model. So rather than try to impose an obligation on broadcasters as other countries have, let’s accept the fact about the way things are and fill the gap with a new idea.”
Still, the odds of success appear to be low. There are only 10 channels enjoying mandatory carriage, including Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC). CBC News Network has the special status in French-language markets only, and its French-language counterpart RDI has it in English-language markets.
Other channels requesting mandatory carriage include Sun News Network, Vision TV, EqualiTV, which intends to offer programs of special interest to disabled Canadians, as well as the CBC-run French service ARTV, and Dolobox TV, a fledgling service dedicated to user-generated content for and by Canada’s youth.
Still, Lantos is not dissuaded. “We have a broadcasting act that says we need Canadian content in our system and we want to have quality,” he says. “It can’t be Canadian in name alone or a rerun system for American networks. Isn’t there space on the dial for something that is 100-per-cent Canadian? Can’t we afford to pay a modest amount of money for that? That is the critical question for Canadians.”
The fledgling film channel Starlight is owned by a who’s who of Canada’s film industry, including directors, producers and executives:
Victor Loewy: a former Robert Lantos business partner, who earlier this month left his position as CEO of Alliance Films when it was sold to Entertainment One.
Niv Fichman: producer, co-founder of Rhombus Media (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, Hobo With a Shotgun).
Hussain Amarshi: president and founder of film distributor Mongrel Media, which began by importing foreign films (The Lives of Others) but has also put its weight behind recent Canadian films (Stories We Tell, War Witch).
Patricia Rozema: director (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Mansfield Park).
Denys Arcand: Oscar-nominated director (The Decline of the American Empire, The Barbarian Invasions).
Guy Maddin: one of the more experimental members of the Winnipeg Film Group and a cult favourite for his offbeat features (The Saddest Music in the World).
Atom Egoyan: Cannes-winning, double Oscar-nominated director and screenwriter (The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey, the forthcoming Devil’s Knot).
Deepa Mehta: renowned director and screenwriter (Midnight’s Children, Water, Fire).
Paul Gross: star of television (Due South, Slings and Arrows) and stage who has also written and directed himself in the feature films Men With Brooms and Passchendaele.
Denis Villeneuve: director and screenwriter (Incendies, Polytechnique).
Denise Robert: film producer and president of Quebec production company Cinemaginaire.
David Cronenberg: one of Canada’s best known and accomplished film directors (Cosmopolis, A History of Violence).