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Director Michael Dowse actors Seann William Scott (right) and George Laraque work on a scene from GOON.

Director Michael Dowse actors Seann William Scott (right) and George Laraque work on a scene from GOON.

Nearly 50 homegrown features will make their debut at the Toronto International Film Festival – but most will disappear without a trace

It was a small film, sure, but the reviews were promising. One critic called it "a blessing," and blessed it with three stars. Others praised its young lead actress, a confident 16-year-old tapped by the Toronto International Film Festival last year to be part of its "Rising Stars" mentorship program. The film in question, a rewarding coming-of-age tale, had sold out two screenings at TIFF 2014.

True, it had an unfortunate title: Wet Bum, a nod to the lead character's reluctance to change out of her bathing suit after lifeguard class. Still, it had plenty of other things to recommend it, including music by Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning and a script that had been a Top 10 finalist in Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Screenwriting Competition.

And so, on May 15, Wet Bum opened at TIFF's Bell Lightbox cinema complex in downtown Toronto. Its total box office that weekend, according to the film-industry paper Playback? $3,301.

"I was in a funk," admitted producer Lauren Grant, sipping tea during a rainy summer afternoon in an east-end coffee spot. "Everything we needed for it to maybe break out, I think we got – and then it still didn't happen."

Wet Bum had all the conditions for success – then it earned $3,301 on opening weekend.

Wet Bum had all the conditions for success – then it earned $3,301 on opening weekend.

But then, the English-Canadian film landscape is crowded with Wet Bums: worthy, spirited, handmade entertainments that take their bows in empty houses. If you blinked this summer, you would have missed Diamond Tongues, a Toronto-set drama about a menacing wannabe actress that did $7,424 during a one-week run; the dark comedy Guidance ($4,644); and The Cocksure Lads Movie ($7,054). Last weekend, Bang Bang Baby – a Lynchian musical sci-fi that got approving reviews – earned a total of $3,587.

With few exceptions, anglo-Canadians do not go to the theatre to see movies made by their countrymen. The market share of English-language Canadian films at the domestic box office consistently hovers in the 1-per-cent to 1.5-per-cent range of total ticket sales. Last year, it hit 2 per cent. That translated to a total box-office take for all domestic English-language films of $16.3-million – or roughly what the critically panned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot earned.

Over the course of seven weeks this summer, English-language Canadian audiences spent $26.6-million at the box office to see Minions; the animated Hollywood movie is still in theatres. (For a constellation of reasons, Quebec filmmakers are celebrated in their home province, though they, too, rarely find success in the rest of the country.)

Beginning next Thursday, Canadian film will take its annual turn on the world's stage, with nearly 50 new features bowing at this year's edition of TIFF.

There are a few hotly anticipated titles, including Paul Gross's Afghanistan war drama Hyena Road, Deepa Mehta's crime thriller Beeba Boys and the Irish-Canadian film adaptation of the gripping novel Room. But most will disappear without a trace. If you occasionally wondered why we bother, you would not be alone. But if English-Canadian film has spent most of its life insisting, like Monty Python's hapless invalid, that it is not dead yet, a perfect storm of developments is gathering on the horizon.

The independent film sector as a whole is in turmoil across North America and Europe, as audiences spend more of their box-office dollars on blockbusters and wait for smaller films to show up in their Netflix queues. And industry veterans worry the changes roiling the TV landscape could cut the legs out from under the Canadian industry.

Act 1: A brief lesson in the film economy

To grasp the scope of the looming problem, it's helpful to understand how the movie industry works.

Contrary to popular belief, most films are not profitable at the box office. An independent distributor – say, Canada's eOne – will split the theatrical revenue with an exhibitor such as Cineplex. The splits are typically about 50-50, though art houses such as the TIFF Lightbox might take 60 per cent or more of the ticket sales. (With that structure, $1,981 of Wet Bum's $3,301 first-weekend would go to the theatre; $1,320 would go to the distributor, Search Engine Films.) That's why even a movie such as Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, with an estimated production budget of $150-million (U.S.), is not a slam dunk: The $172-million it has so far earned at the North American box office will bring its studio, Paramount Pictures, only about $85-million.

Distributors usually pay a so-called "minimum guarantee" in exchange for most rights (theatrical, DVD, iTunes or cable-TV video-on-demand, pay TV, free TV, airlines etc.) to a film within a given territory. The distributor is first in line for any resulting revenue, until the minimum guarantee has been earned back and the film crosses into so-called "overages," at which point the film's equity investors might start to see some money. (The structure is different for Hollywood's major studios, which both produce and distribute films.)

"Historically, the theatrical release of a film – even for big studios – is a loss leader," said Hussain Amarshi, the founder of Mongrel Media, a large independent Toronto-based distributor. It was early August, and he sat at a tiny table outside the Federal on Dundas Street West munching on a sandwich and talking about the costs of building a film's brand. "You spend more money on marketing than you will ever get from the film rentals [at the box office]. Where you make money is in the second and third window," such as DVD or pay TV, where the profit margins are higher. "That is exactly what justifies the kind of money that we spend. That everybody spends."

Well, not everybody: Canadian films can't come close to matching the marketing budgets of their U.S. counterparts.

Hollywood studios begin their promotion efforts early, and are aided immeasurably by a massive media machine that breathlessly tracks films from production – sending paparazzi to stake out movie sets, negotiating access to stars for glossy magazine cover stories – through to the red-carpet premieres and box-office glory.

"They'll get the cover of Vanity Fair and they'll get somebody on Jimmy Fallon, and on [ Good Morning America]," said Laurie May, the co-president of Toronto-based Elevation Pictures, which is bringing the Canadian films Hyena Road, Room and Into the Forest to TIFF. "There's that whole machine of awareness." Major studios also spend tens of millions of dollars on paid advertising.

"The challenge is – bordering the United States, which is a massive cultural machine – to find product that's going to dance through the raindrops and find those eyeballs, get eyeballs onto a Canadian film as opposed to Avengers, or get them to download a Canadian film when they can download Hunger Games or they can be binge-watching House of Cards."

And now the economics of independent film are collapsing. "We've seen massive decreases in budgets for making feature films in the U.S. – cuts of up to 60 per cent or 70 per cent," says Noah Cowan, a former TIFF executive who last year became executive director of the San Francisco Film Society.

"Parallel to that, the variations of distribution opportunities have grown. Some of them are digital, some are wacky – they're patronage-based, or digital-first exclusive, some of them begin on TV, some have regional theatrical runs – everything is tailor-made to the marketplace. And the kinds of films that are suffering the most in this world are the kinds of films that Canada is known to make. Straightforward dramas – with a kind of quirky humour with a fairly serious theme, a soft social-action picture that has been the bread and butter of Canadian film and television – those films are not having an easy time of it in this evolving marketplace."

Neither, mind you, are many U.S. independents. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which was nabbed in a bidding war that reportedly hit $12-million during this year's Sundance Film Festival, has taken in only about $6.7-million in North America. The blockbuster segment of the market, meanwhile, is mirroring the rest of the rich-are-getting-richer economy: For years, the top 20 films at the North American box office took between 40 per cent and 45 per cent of total ticket sales. So far this year, the top 20 have earned a whopping 57.5-per-cent market share.

Lest you think a Canadian Screen Award is synonymous with theatrical success, here's a quick look at the English-language box-office take of this year's CSA nominees for best motion picture:

  • Cast No Shadow (N/A*)
  • Fall ($2,906 as of Dec. 5-11; didn’t show up again in top 5)
  • In Her Place ($5,767 as of Feb. 13-19; didn’t show up again in top 5)
  • Maps to the Stars ($151,253 as of Nov. 26, when it was in two theatres; didn’t show up again in top 5)
  • Mommy ($360,538; CSA best-picture winner)
  • Tu dors Nicole ($12,613 as of Oct. 23; only appearance in top 5)

*no data available: Film did not appear in top 5 of any week

Source: (Data courtesy of MPTAC/Zoom Services)

Act 2: Moving the goalposts

For many years, Telefilm Canada, the federal government agency that spends about $95-million (Canadian) annually on programs to help nurture a domestic film industry and culture, sought to raise the market share of domestic films to 5 per cent. But if you ask Carolle Brabant, the no-nonsense executive director of Telefilm since 2010, what happened to that goal, she will change the subject.

"I'd rather not talk about the box office, because for me it doesn't make sense," she said, speaking from Telefilm's Montreal headquarters during a telephone interview this week. "We think it's not fair to compare independent-film box office to big X-Men-movie box office." Journalists inquiring about box office are helpfully provided with charts that show, for example, that English-language Canadian films earned a 10-per-cent market share of the domestic indie-film box office in 2014.

Four years ago, Telefilm introduced what it calls a "Success Index," which it framed as a better measure of Canadian achievements. The index, calculated annually, is a basket of measures that includes domestic box office, international sales, selections in certain prestigious film festivals and awards.

"By constantly saying to the audiences, 'Well, you know, our films are not getting the box office, are not reaching the audiences,' we're building on the perception that Canadian films are not worth seeing. We felt that we needed to step away from that. We are trying to build a different perspective on Canadian films and Canadian content, trying to put an emphasis on the talent, on the international perspective," Brabant said.

"Our business plan is still about creating demand for our films, reaching audiences, but we think we can reach audiences in many different ways."

But Canadians are wary of such messages. At this year's Canadian Screen Awards – the domestic version of an Oscar and Emmy mashup – most of the films up for best motion picture hadn't even yet been released theatrically.

And if Canadian audiences don't see homegrown movies perform well at the box office – if they don't see trailers for them before a Friday-night feature at Cineplex, and they don't hear about them in the list of top 10 weekend movies posted to their friends' Facebook feeds – the films are regarded as second-class citizens.

In an industry built on hype, Telefilm is trying to get people to ignore instincts that are now so ingrained they might as well be Pavlovian.

The new Trailer Park Boys film earned $2-million, which is a rare positive for the Canadian cinema industry.

The new Trailer Park Boys film earned $2-million, which is a rare positive for the Canadian cinema industry.

Act 3: A happy ending, or a tragedy waiting in the wings?

There are some signs of life. Last year, eOne, the country's largest independent distributor, released five movies that earned more than $1-million at the English-Canadian box office: Pompeii ($3-million), The Grand Seduction ($2.7-million), Trailer Park Boys 3: Don't Legalize It ($2-million), Dr. Cabbie ($1.7-million) and The F Word ($1.2-million).

"We've learned we cannot beat Hollywood at their own game," said Mark Slone, the executive vice-president of theatrical distribution for eOne Films Canada, who took a few minutes out of his pre-TIFF frenzy this week to voice some cautious optimism. "We're going to try to serve those parts of the audience that are traditionally less well served by Hollywood.

"An audience for, say, Canadian hoserdom isn't served well, and therefore movies like Fubar, and certainly the Trailer Park Boys movies, are very, very important and valuable in Canada. They also are telling a kind of Canadian story that you kind of can't get elsewhere."

Slone argues that last year's results aren't just an economic victory, they are a cultural one as well. "In the nineties and 2000s, we tended to make films that I'd call 'any place generics.' Now, a lot of the films that are actually finding success in the market are ones that are unabashedly Canadian in some way – whether that be The Grand Seduction, set in Newfoundland, or Atom Egoyan's The Captive set in Niagara Falls, across the border. We once believed we were a little embarrassed or it was cringe-inducing to see your country represented. I believe we're now in the era where we are very comfortable seeing ourselves represented on screen, and our own stories. So when a movie like The F Word comes out, a rom-com set in Toronto, you know we've come a long way."

Still, many producers and distributors are deeply concerned about changes on the horizon. Canadian TV networks currently serve as a primary pillar for the feature-film industry, through regulatory obligations to purchase and program Canadian content.

But a number of media companies have made noise about needing regulatory relief so they can better compete in a landscape in which consumers are able to pick-and-pay for exactly which channels they want. At their last licence renewal, the owners of The Movie Network (TMN) asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to lower the Canadian-content levels on their specialty channels by 5 per cent. The CRTC refused, but both TMN and Movie Central, a separately owned channel that operates in the Western half of Canada, have been cutting their spending in recent years on Canadian acquisition rights. Many producers have complained the channels are sidelining Canadian films in favour of U.S. cable-TV series purchased from HBO and Showtime. (In a statement, Scott Henderson, the vice-president of communications for Bell Media, which owns TMN, said: "As a premium movie service, TMN seeks to prelicense promotable big-budget theatrical films with marquee cast. As a result, the amount of prebuys can vary from year to year depending on the titles that are produced.")

If the CRTC reduces the regulatory requirements on TMN and Movie Central, says Elevation Pictures' May, it could be "a massive blow to the Canadian film industry."

Mongrel Media's Amarshi says that, while the emphasis on box-office results is understandable, it's important to realize that, like most other artistic endeavours, filmmaking is rarely a commercial enterprise. "In most countries, it's subsidized," he notes. "Very few films return their investment.

"At the core of this, we have to remember: Why are we putting our taxpayers' money into films, or making actually any cultural things? It's because it is part of our identity, it is an outlet for our own creative endeavours. It cannot be just about creating jobs, or creating some kind of industry. It has to be driven by the original impetus: That we as a nation, as a people, have stories to tell, both to ourselves and to the world. And we need to create the conditions under which we can do that."

Mark Slone wants to break some windows. The executive vice-president of theatrical distribution for eOne Films Canada says one of the biggest obstacles to success for homegrown movies is the insistence of Cineplex, which controls approximately 90 per cent of the screens in Canada, that films which play in its theatres cannot appear elsewhere until at least 90 days have passed since the premiere. In the United States, where no single theatre chain has a similar stranglehold, the separate exhibition windows (cinema, traditionally followed by DVD and video-on-demand, then pay TV, then free TV) are beginning to collapse as distributors seek new ways to tap into early buzz.

"There's a huge opportunity in Canada to figure out a way to compress the windows on certain films. I think Wet Bum is a great example of the kind of movie that would have highly benefited from being able to offer it to consumers – let's say, for the sake of argument, someone in Barrie who sees the advertising from Toronto; it's not playing in his Barrie theatre, but if he wanted to, and he could have spent five bucks to have a VOD stream of it, he very well might have done so. A taxpayer chips in to help make the movie, it goes to TIFF, all the marketing gets done, opens in a few cinemas and that guy in Barrie knows about it" – but can't order it until months later, by which point the buzz has likely worn off. "This is one of the most vital areas to expand the Canadian marketplace, to address the issue of windowing for smaller films."

It wasn't exactly a small film, but Corner Gas: The Movie succeeded in part by smashing windows. In a Telefilm Canada pilot project, the film played in cinemas last December for two weeks, earning a total gross of $694,000. It then played on a variety of platforms owned by Bell Media, and was released on DVD. According to Telefilm, the movie was seen by more than seven million Canadians.

"What this pilot project is telling us is, we need to approach promotion differently, identify better the intended audience and try to get them differently," says Carolle Brabant, the executive director of Telefilm.

Simon Houpt

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