It is odd to find optimism in the Canadian film and television sector at the best of times. Yet here we are.
Thanks to the federal government recently renewing its Short-Term Compensation Fund (STCF) for another year and doubling coverage from $50-million to $100-million to help film and TV productions insure against COVID-related shutdowns – plus the progress of broadcasting legislation Bill C-10 – Canadian producers are busy bottling the small burst of pandemic-era hope that 2021 has so far delivered.
“Producers are willing, ready and able to make great Canadian content this year thanks to [the STCF],” Reynolds Mastin, president and CEO of the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), said in an interview. “And that announcement is a testament to how collaboratively the industry has worked together to ensure that film and TV sets are safe places. Ottawa has seen how effectively we’ve been working to ensure that we don’t even need to access those funds.”
The STCF acts as a lifeline that private insurance providers cannot currently provide, given that the insurance industry has universally written COVID-19 exclusions into its policies. While Hollywood films and TV series, including projects that shoot in Canada, are able to self-insure, many Canadian production companies would bankrupt themselves if faced with a COVID-sparked work stoppage.
By paying premiums toward the STCF, producers are able to tap into the federal government’s “backstop” for claims, if necessary. According to Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, this will save 35,000 jobs a quarter and keep alive an industry that generates up to $1-billion in economic activity.
Telefilm, which has administered the STCF since its launch this past September, reports that only three claims have so far been submitted owing to COVID-related filming interruptions out of 160 productions that have applied for the program. (The three claims are currently being evaluated by what Telefilm calls “an external, national firm with an expertise on assessing filming-production coverages.”)
“We’re small and scrappy up here in Canada, so without the STCF, we just weren’t going to get the financing to compete with U.S. studios and streamers coming up here to shoot,” says producer Damon D’Oliveira, who is preparing alongside director Clement Virgo to shoot an adaptation of David Chariandy’s acclaimed novel Brother this summer, thanks to the STCF.
Still, no matter the short-term success of the insurance program, the pandemic has delivered a wealth of unexpected curveballs to productions.
“The extra cost of paying toward the STCF is small compared to all the extra COVID expenses, and it keeps mounting,” says Mark Bishop, co-CEO of Toronto-based MarbleMedia, which has produced a number of series throughout the pandemic. “Every show that we’ve done since last year, we’ve learned more about the health and safety measures we need to address. I’d love to say it’s become more efficient, but it’s become more expensive, and we have to watch carefully what’s happening in each jurisdiction in which we shoot.”
D’Oliveira estimates that additional health and safety measures can add about 10 per cent to a production’s budget – significant costs for low-budget, independent Canadian films and TV series. Which is to say: All of them.
Looming over all this, too, are the larger twin existential threats that the domestic sector has been staring down for years: the state of federal funding agency Telefilm and the ever-rising power of global streaming services. There are developments on both fronts: Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has long promised a funding increase for Telefilm in Ottawa’s next budget, and the CMPA is optimistic about Bill C-10, which would among other things provide the CRTC with additional tools to regulate foreign streamers.
Yet foreign entities such as Netflix are not going away any time soon, nor are Canadian audiences’ appetites for such services. Last month, Netflix announced that it plans to open a Canadian office to “grow our relationship with the creative community.”
“We welcome the announcement, but what is revealing about it is its timing,” Mastin says of Netflix’s Canadian plans, which were revealed as Bill C-10 makes its way through Parliament. “Canada was the first foreign market that Netflix expanded into with its streaming service, yet there are already 21 offices around the world before Canada. In this sense, it reflects the long-standing reality that Canada is perceived as essentially an extension of the Hollywood marketplace. Will the Canadian office have any true decision-making authority? We don’t know.”
For the time being, though, the industry’s mood appears to be optimistic. With a degree of caution.
“Since the pandemic, producers across the country have been speaking with a unified voice, and the government is listening, helping us get back to work in a safe and responsible way,” Bishop says. “Our industry has a huge appetite for risk. But nobody planned for this.”
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