After four years leading Telefilm Canada through the most tumultuous period in Canadian film history, Christa Dickenson is stepping down from her role as executive director and chief executive officer of the federally funded agency effective Sept. 9.
“I’ve always said that I’m going to be a one-term leader at Telefilm, and an opportunity that is passionate for me came along, so I’ve just accelerated my departure a little bit,” Dickenson said Thursday in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “I’ve tried to build in as much notice as possible for a proper transition.”
Dickenson joined Telefilm, which distributes more than $100-million annually in support of this country’s film industry, in 2018. She arrived after serving as president and chief executive of Interactive Ontario, a digital industry lobbying group, and before that worked for Rogers Cable in a variety of marketing roles.
Taking over from Carolle Brabant, a long-time Telefilm administrator who retired in 2018 after serving eight years as the Crown corporation’s head, Dickenson joined an organization that was wrestling with all manner of transformation. In addition to perennial challenges such as the lack of market awareness for English-language Canadian film and chronic underfunding from the federal government, Telefilm was reckoning with how to best support emerging filmmakers, especially diverse and under-represented voices.
One of Dickenson’s largest initiatives was Telefilm’s pan-Canadian consultation, which was announced in December, 2019, with the intention of modernizing the organization’s Success Index – the performance measure that determines which films the organization supports. At the time, the industry landscape was, if not stable, at least somewhat predictable. But then the pandemic hit, resulting in an anxiety-wracked stretch that has encompassed everything from a heated battle between emerging filmmakers and industry veterans, the departure of key Telefilm executives and the temporary collapse of the entire theatrical market.
By the time that Telefilm was able to launch its “inclusive, transparent and open” consultations in September, 2020, the Success Index had already been suspended because of the pandemic. Also put on hold was the controversial Fast Track, an automatic funding program that allocated $20-million to $25-million a year, or roughly 30 per cent of Telefilm’s annual production budget, to producers with favoured track records – a qualification determined by the Success Index. Both of these initiatives have now been permanently discontinued – a move that drew sharp criticism from veteran Canadian film producers.
“I would do everything all over again,” Dickenson says today. “Not every decision is well-received, but as I look back, I feel that Telefilm is better positioned today, and the team is empowered. All those decisions were done in full consultation with the industry.”
There have certainly been unqualified success stories over Dickenson’s tenure, including: Telefilm’s administration of the Canadian Audio-Visual Short-Term Compensation Fund (which is essentially COVID-19 insurance for productions affected by pandemic-related shutdowns); relaunches of the development, theatrical exhibition and microbudget programs; the start of Telefilm’s first-ever eco-responsibility action plan; the deployment of a long-awaited tool to define and measure diversity among participants; and changes to Telefilm’s diverse-languages policies, allowing projects filmed in all languages – not just English, French or Indigenous languages – to be eligible for support.
“We really took the time to listen, and with the industry modernize our programs, and taken a lot of steps to break down some barriers of access,” Dickenson says.
Under Dickenson’s watch, Telefilm also secured $105-million in additional funding over a three-year period from the federal government. Although there was sharp disappointment from certain corners of the industry following the Liberal Party’s failure in its 2022 budget to follow through on a 2021 election promise to permanently boost Telefilm funding.
“We are currently in year two of three of that funding allocation, having gone from $20-million extra to $35-million, and we’ll see $50-million more in the next fiscal year of 2023/24. But the big challenge and opportunity for the next leader is to make sure that’s a recurring $50-million,” says Dickenson.
Dickenson, who joined Telefilm without experience in feature-film production or funding, faced skepticism from some members of the industry when she was appointed in 2018. As she nears the end of her time with Telefilm, though – she was not able to yet detail her new opportunity – Dickenson is confident that her legacy speaks for itself.
“One doesn’t have to be a big-budget film producer to run Telefilm. You have to be able to work with stakeholders, work with government and be able to lead the team that has the abilities to make those decisions,” she says. “I’m a trisector leader, and there’s intellectual context that I bring when I lead an organization. You don’t need to be a film producer to be a head of this organization.”
As to the state of Canadian film, Dickenson is nothing if not bullish.
“We’re one of the very few countries in the world that has insurance for our sets to keep rolling, which enables 20,000 workers. We’re a $1.1-billion industry that is becoming truly inclusive from the inside out,” she says. “We should be incredibly optimistic about the future.”
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