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An image from Dans la brume (Just a Breath Away), a sci-fi thriller about a toxic mist that engulfs Paris.Mars Films

When the Canadian Screen Awards announced its 2019 nominees for best motion picture the other week, a collective “huh?” could be heard across the country. Well, everywhere outside Quebec, at least. In an unprecedented move, all five features up for best Canadian film at next month’s awards ceremony are French-language productions: Une colonie (A Colony), Chien de garde (Family First), Genèse (Genesis), Dans la brume (Just a Breath Away) and La grande noirceur (The Great Darkened Days).

But it is not as if this year’s English-language contingent can claim ubiquity, either. Octavio Is Dead!, Firecrackers, and Stockholm might be familiar to critics on the festival circuit, yet for all the expected reasons – lack of marketing funds, the dominance of U.S. product, a psychological aversion to homegrown cinema – many of this country’s films fly under the radar of even the most dedicated Canadian film-goers.

The CSAs – now in their seventh year after amalgamating the Genie Awards (for film) and Gemini Awards (for television) and adding digital content for good measure – exist to rectify this lack of awareness. But a one-night telecast can only do so much. Which is why this year the CSAs are launching the Canadian Screen Arts Festival – a new country-wide effort to give CSA-nominated films as much prolonged exposure as possible.

Every Saturday leading up to the March 31 CSA telecast starting March 2, the CSAF will screen a different Canadian film at theatres in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, St. John’s and Iqaluit. Each event, hosted in partnership with Cineplex Entertainment (though with the Astro Theatre hosting in the Cineplex-less Iqaluit), will include specially curated bonus content, including interviews with filmmakers and special guests.

“The whole idea was to approach this from a marketing perspective – let’s show these films across the country, on the same day at the same time, so we can make an event out of it, and market it wide,” says Beth Janson, chief executive of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, which administers the CSAs. “And let’s curate these films, too. We’re not just showing the best-picture nominees – we’ve curated films for a specific audience, films that have a broad appeal, because if you put your most challenging content first, you’re not going to catch as many people.”

To that end, this year’s CSAF selections, while likely unfamiliar to Canadian audiences, have easy selling points and cross the genre spectrum. There is sci-fi thriller Dans la brume, a Canada-France co-production about a toxic mist that engulfs Paris; Stockholm, a crime-drama starring Ethan Hawke and directed by the actor’s Born to Be Blue collaborator, Canadian Robert Budreau; the French-language family drama Sashinka, which Janson likens to a “reverse French-language Lady Bird”; and two documentaries, Immaculate Memories: The Uncluttered Worlds of Christopher Pratt and What Walaa Wants, the latter of which was also a selection for TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten program this year.

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Documentary film What Walaa Wants was a selection in TIFF's Canada's Top Ten program this year.Murmur Media / National Film Board of Canada

“We curated the films internally, and we’re programming for a target audience: older, educated people who tend to still go to the cinemas,” says Janson, noting that box-office revenues will be split between the film’s distributors and Cineplex, not the ACCT. “We’re not trying to bring millennials into it right now. It’s us saying, if you’re going to a Cineplex to see something like The Favourite, then guess what, these films will also appeal to you.”

It is not as if the CSAs are abandoning younger audiences, though. Janson stresses that if the CSAs are to have a future, “it has to be a priority for everyone. We have a curated list of CSA films on iTunes, but the challenge is that not all these films are available there, and while we thought about doing [this festival] online, we wanted to make it a little more special, to do it the old-fashioned way in a theatre with extra bells and whistles. We’re watching closely what will work in each situation.”

In its cross-country exposure, the initiative is reminiscent of TIFF’s Film Circuit outreach program, albeit with a broader mandate. “I think [TIFF] has a great network in the educational and museum market, but we’re trying to go even bigger,” says Janson. “These are the films you want to watch now. They are mainstream. You want to watch them before the awards.”

It also represents a conscious decision to keep the ACCT and CSAs part of a larger national conversation.

“One of the criticisms levelled against the Academy since we closed our Vancouver office, which would’ve been about 10 years ago, is that we’re very Toronto-centric. I think that’s valid to some degree,” adds Janson. “But bringing everything cross-country is extremely important to us.”

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Stockholm pairs Ethan Hawke with his Born to Be Blue collaborator, Robert Budreau.Entertainment One

The Canadian Screen Arts Festival begins March 2 with screenings of Dans la brume; the 2019 Canadian Screen Awards Gala airs live March 31 at 8 p.m. ET on CBC-TV.

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