It's not exactly breaking news that Canada's English-language film industry faces a crisis over distribution and exhibition. The acting may be brilliant, the direction inventive, the screenplay taut and clever -- it doesn't matter. Few Canadians know about their own films; fewer still see them. The prospective payback is so small that distributors are generally unwilling to invest the kind of advertising money needed to make an impact. Box-office blues thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most Canadian films spend no more than two or three weeks in commercial cinemas, before being consigned to the remainder bin of television. All sorts of solutions are earnestly discussed at high-tone conferences; nothing is ever done.
But Sean Garrity has an idea he thinks might work -- and cost essentially nothing. Garrity, 39, is the articulate Winnipeg-based director and writer of two features -- Inertia (2001) and, opening this week in Vancouver, Toronto and Winnipeg, Lucid, starring and co-written by Jonas Chernick.
Garrity thinks more of us would see Canadian films if we actually knew they existed. At the moment, he says, many broadcasters pay financial penalties to the CRTC for not meeting Cancon quotas. "They'd rather pay the fines than actually fulfill the quotas. They simply don't care. It's far more lucrative to run the American stuff and pay the fine."
Garrity's idea is that up to a maximum of 30 minutes a day, broadcasters would run trailers and promos and earn Cancon points. "So they'd pay fewer penalties. The private sector doesn't have to kick in any money. It's free to the producer. We're not asking the government to give more money. Everyone wins."
Although he says he's thrilled with how his own distributor, Mongrel Media, has handled the release of Lucid, "everyone twists themselves into yoga-like contortions to avoid spending money on TV ads. But 90 per cent of Canadians watch TV and that's how they know what's playing. You gotta get the ads on TV. Even to have exposure on a late-night show with 100,000 viewers, small by TV standards, would be a huge step up.
"I'd be very happy if Canadians could choose to see or not see a Canadian film -- and chose not to," Garrity says. "But at the moment, they really don't have a choice. They're unaware our films are even there. There was a film -- Emile, with Sir Ian McKellen and Debra Unger -- no shmucks, these actors -- and I did not see a single print ad, not a single poster."
With Inertia, an art film, under his belt, Garrity deliberately set out to make Lucid a more commercial work. The plot turns on a psychotherapist who can't sleep or focus on his work or family. He and Chernick put the script through 17 drafts, a process that took seven years.
The son of "seventies idealists who were teachers," Garrity divided his youth between remote communities (Cambridge Bay, Churchill, a Métis settlement near Rivers, Man.) and Winnipeg. He spent his twenties travelling -- living in India's Gujarat state for a year, in Argentina (two years), in Montreal, and in Japan (three years). He's now fluent in Japanese and Spanish. He eventually took a film degree from York University. It was on the eve of his 30th birthday, on a beach in Indonesia, that he decided to return to Winnipeg and become a filmmaker.
In addition to features, Garrity continues to dabble in short films -- he's made eight of them. "There are ideas that are great at three minutes long," he says. "You'd be in idiot to try and turn it into a feature."
In development now is a new script called Photographic Full Moon Point, which Garrity calls "the best thing I've ever written." It's about a North Korean/Japanese women who marries a Canadian and moves to Winnipeg. When he suddenly disappears, she tracks him down to a hippie beach town in Mexico. "But I'm not writing 17 drafts," he vows.
As for his notion of promoting Canadian features, he says he pitched it to former heritage Minister Sheila Copps. "She thought it was a great idea, and was promptly dismissed by then Prime Minister Paul Martin." But he'd be delighted if others want to pick up the ball and run with it. "In fact, I hope everybody steals it."