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Firecrackers director Jasmin Mozaffari.The Canadian Press

With Telefilm Canada in the midst of a cross-country consultation to revise its “Success Index” – that is, the performance measure that determines which films the federal funding agency supports – the Independent Filmmakers Committee of the Directors Guild of Canada on Thursday released a “Directors Manifesto” urging massive change in the system.

“Telefilm is an indispensable part of Canada’s cultural landscape with a dedicated team in place, but their current system is literally built to pick the movies they invest in based on a mathematical formula. We need to put the creative elements back at the centre of project selection,” DGC president and filmmaker Warren P. Sonoda (Trailer Park Boys) said in a statement.

The DGC committee urged Telefilm to focus on three areas: Replace the Success Index with a rotating, inclusive and representational jury to judge the creative elements of productions seeking funding; make inclusion a priority by adopting specific targets for gender, race and region, both in terms of Telefilm staff and applicants; and shift the funding model from treating production companies as “clients” to a more collaborative effort with a project’s creative forces.

Director Clement Virgo.Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SCAD

“These recommendations reflect input from dozens of filmmakers and the only surprise here is how united our community is on the direction that we believe Telefilm should take moving forward,” said filmmaker Clement Virgo (The Book of Negroes). “We have a rare opportunity to make our industry fairer, more inclusive, and better positioned to create exceptional works, all at the same time.”

In September, Telefilm announced that it was revising its funding model after suspending the Success Index for the remainder of the 2020-21 fiscal year owing to the impact of COVID-19. Introduced in 2011, the Success Index calculated a film’s performance based on three factors: commercial appeal (60 per cent), cultural significance such as film-festival runs and awards (30 per cent) and private-investment appeal (10 per cent).

The decision by Telefilm’s then-executive director Carolle Brabant to give less weight to domestic box office was at the time cautiously applauded, given how most Canadian films cannot hope to compete with Hollywood product in the theatrical marketplace. Yet there was criticism even back then, with the group Producers Roundtable of Ontario in the fall of 2012 mounting a campaign to roll back the Success Index, arguing it still placed too much importance on box-office results.

“The success of Ontario’s, and Canada’s, film industry has always been based on the visions, innovations and talents of our up-and-coming talent,” producer Wyeth Clarkson said at the time. “We’re afraid Telefilm’s proposed funding-criteria changes will cut people out before they get a start.”

That same argument – that Telefilm risks underserving the country’s artists in favour of accommodating the marketplace – is more or less echoed in the DGC committee’s new manifesto.

“Telefilm’s single-minded focus on production companies excludes all other facets of the creative process and shirks any meaningful engagement or consideration given to key creative talents on a project,” the document says. “Telefilm has created a class system rewarding the same ‘clients’ year after year and resulting in only 10 or 12 companies benefitting from this valuable pool of guaranteed funding. Gatekeepers now guard the status quo, enjoying this privilege at the expense of filmmakers and the broader industry community. This has created a minefield of adverse incentive and it must end.”

The DGC committee does see a path forward, though, in Telefilm’s Talent to Watch micro-budget program, which relies not on regional Telefilm executives to select projects, but a system of peered juries.

“Among Telefilm’s three main streams for feature film production, only the Talent to Watch program employs a selective process guided by a broad range of industry professionals – and the results are telling,” the document says. “Despite limited resources, and little transparency on how institutional partners put forward projects for consideration, Talent to Watch has produced a diverse range of creative voices and award-winning films.”

The DGC committee emphasized that its document, which arrives a few months after Telefilm found itself facing a cultural reckoning over issues of diversity and representation, is intended more as constructive scrutiny than fiery criticism.

“Telefilm can achieve greater reach and deeper cultural impact engaging directly with filmmakers both to help the agency shape its programs and help creatives to build their careers," said Firecrackers director Jasmin Mozaffari.

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