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Illustration by Katie Carey

When writer and director Clement Virgo read the novel Brother – a powerful bestseller about class, race, familial love and the trauma of police violence set in Toronto’s Scarborough neighbourhood – he knew he wanted to bring it to the screen.

Like the novelist David Chariandy, Virgo has mined stories from the place where he grew up, and its often marginalized residents. His feature film debut, Rude, projected Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood on to film screens at Cannes in 1995. Brother, he believes, is “a great Canadian story” that deserves an even wider audience than it has already earned as a literary phenom. The 2019 novel was a finalist for the Governor-General’s Award and winner of the US$165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction – one of the world’s most prestigious grants.

But to bring this internationally acclaimed Canadian story to the screen, Virgo would ultimately need one significant ally: Cineplex, a major power broker in the domestic film market.

In order to access a pool of federal funding from Telefilm Canada, as well as tax credits, directors and producers need a guarantee that their film will screen somewhere – ideally Canada’s largest theatre chain. First, filmmakers need the buy-in of a distributor, who typically will choose pictures that have a shot at getting into theatres. So if a distributor can land a slot for a film like Brother at Cineplex, which represents three-quarters of the box office in Canada, the money will flow.

“It is a whole ecosystem that nurtures and helps promote filmmakers across the country,” Virgo said.

So what would this delicate landscape look like if Cineplex no longer bought into it? In December, Britain’s Cineworld Group PLC announced a $2.2-billion deal to buy Cineplex, which would make it the largest movie-theatre owner in North America and the second largest in the world.

Leading cultural figures and cultural organizations are now worried that, with so much of the business in foreign hands, support for Canadian films could diminish significantly.

“We always relied on Cineplex,” said Deepa Mehta, director of movies such as Water and Midnight’s Children. “… I know at times, [Cineplex chief executive officer Ellis Jacob] knew he wasn’t going to make money, but he felt it was his obligation.”

Even with a certain noblesse oblige exhibited by Canada’s largest theatre chain, exposure for homegrown films is dwarfed by the box office power of the Hollywood studios. Considering the blockbuster preoccupations of the big theatre chains, Canadian filmmakers and distributors acknowledge it’s a tenuous arrangement to count on Cineplex for support even under domestic ownership. As it stands, Canadian titles take up just 3.7 per cent of the screen time across all Canadian movie theatres, according to Telefilm.

The Directors Guild of Canada (DGC) and its Quebec counterpart, the Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec, submitted a letter on Feb. 19 to Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. The deal still requires approval under the Investment Canada Act, and the two groups urged the government to secure commitments from Cineworld, including that it keeps Cineplex’s head office in Canada and that the executives making programming decisions continue to be based here.

Cineplex has said it expects the deal to close sometime between March 23 and June 30.

The groups are also urging the government to consider a requirement for Cineworld to devote a percentage of the deal’s value to support the sector, such as by contributing to funding Canadian production on a continuing basis, mentorship and professional development training, and festival sponsorships. The groups are encouraging the Department of Canadian Heritage to discuss options for such support with Cineworld.

“When you’re struggling for screen time in your own country, it’s doubly difficult to carve out a presence internationally,” DGC president Tim Southam said.

The growth of foreign-owned streaming services does not help matters, he added. “We’re very happy that there’s this parallel ecology with film festivals that can carry our remarkable voices out into the world. But in the end, without distribution, without a revenue source, without a business plan for feature film, we’re constantly at risk of disappearing.”

Illustration by Katie Carey

Other cultural groups are also raising concerns about the Cineplex deal with the federal government. The Canadian Association of Film Distributors and Exporters has asked the government to take steps to ensure the viability of Canadian distribution and production under the deal, and the Canadian Media Producers Association has also asked the government to consider how to safeguard screen time for Canadian films.

In an interview, Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger said he would not rule out such conditions, “as long as it makes sense, and as long as it is clear that we’re not going to show movies in front of empty halls.” But he added that he considers such regulations “artificial.”

“You can have as many rules as you want, but if the audiences don’t want to see a certain movie, they will not see it. … We will make room for every movie that the public will want to see,” he said.

“If I [were] a small movie producer – Canadian or not – I would not release it on the weekend when Avengers is supposed to be released. But there are 52 weeks a year, and in most of them, unfortunately, we don’t have Avengers. I think there is room for movies to find their audience.”

But movies won’t find audiences, if audiences can’t find them – which is why filmmakers and cultural groups argue that exposure in theatres is important, both through screen time and through promotion.

(Currently, many film trailers in preshows are allocated to coming movies as part of the distribution deals; distributors with the marketing budgets to do so can buy additional trailer time, Greidinger said. He expects that arrangement to continue, although the company sees a commercial opportunity in selling advertising time for trailers.)

“I don’t think anyone can defend the idea that if it’s good enough, it will take care of itself,” Southam said.

The Department of Canadian Heritage declined to specify the number of submissions it has received related to the deal, or how many raised cultural concerns, citing confidentiality rules.

“In terms of protection for Canadian culture, the [Investment Canada] Act sets forth a number of factors that must be weighed … including effect on competition, innovation and employment, as well as compatibility with Canada’s financial, economic and cultural policies,” the department said in a statement.

The fears about distribution for independent films – as most Canadian films are – highlights the importance to the industry of smaller, indie movie theatres. But many of those smaller cinemas have complained they are disadvantaged by the corporate dominance of Cineplex, even under Canadian ownership.

A recent petition launched by Vancouver’s Rio Theatre claims that distributors often bow to pressure from Cineplex to hold back their big releases from smaller theatres, to provide exclusivity to nearby locations owned by Cineplex. The petition has been signed by more than 8,000 people, including the owners of other indie movie houses in Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal.

Cineplex spokeswoman Sarah Van Lange said in an e-mail that distributors own the rights to films and “it is up to film distributors to decide where they play their films.” Big releases help to keep afloat the kind of small theatres that are a ready venue for independent releases.

And recently, some film distributors began to report they had heard from Toronto International Film Festival programmers that they were considering a significant cut in screen time for new releases at the not-for-profit TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema – until now seen as a haven for independent movies – and that titles failing to meet box office minimums would be shown the door.

TIFF denied it was making such cuts, but the suggestion that changes are being considered has distributors on high alert. And Cineplex’s new ownership is another locus of tension.

If all decisions about film programming are made purely out of business motives, Mehta said she fears filmmakers will not have a chance to build any kind of career. “I’m really concerned,” she said.

According to François Girard, the director of The Red Violin and The Song of Names, Cineplex’s Jacob called recently to reassure him that Canadian films would still have a place on movie screens in the country. “If the deal goes forward, one can only hope that the promise will be kept,” Girard said.

Cineplex declined requests to comment for this story.

In 2014 when The Grand Seduction, an adaptation of a Quebecois film, was doing well in Newfoundland, Cineplex kept it running there for a number of weeks, director Don McKellar recalls. It was a partial victory: The theatres faced pressure to clear screens for a competing Hollywood release, which Cineplex did outside of Newfoundland. But he fears a multinational theatre chain would be even less inclined to extend the run.

“I don’t have confidence that a local success story would keep [Cineworld] from clearing their screens for the next Marvel blockbuster,” he said. “… There would be no incentive whatsoever to keep my film running even though it was profitable in Canada. Because the studio would say, if you want our movies, we want those screens.”

Cineworld’s Greidinger said that the success of Parasite at the Oscars is proof that, even in an industry in which Hollywood blockbusters pay the bills, there is room for independent and culturally specific movies to thrive. But McKellar countered that South Korea’s film industry is an example of one that was supported internally through incentives and screen time that gave it the chance to thrive.

“We have to nurture what we start,” Mehta added. “Our government has supported [filmmakers] with various grants, Telefilm, the Canada Council [for the Arts]. … You just can’t start a race, prep a runner and halfway through say it’s over, now you’re on your own. No water, nothing.

“It’s extremely important that … someone makes sure they do have a plan for us.”

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