Typically, skimming an annual report from Telefilm Canada is an exercise in tallying how many times the words “challenges” and “struggles” appear. But the federal funding agency’s 2022-23 report, which was released last week, substitutes the usual existential panic for something close to bright-eyed optimism, with such words as “recovery,” “modernization” and “success” peppering the copy.
Noting that Telefilm administered $158.7-million in funding support over the course of 2022-23 – 16 per cent more than the previous year – board chairman Robert Spickler emphasized that production is back on track, cinemas have reopened and film festivals have returned to their prepandemic in-person sizes and strengths. Meanwhile, Telefilm is embarking on its second year of its diversity and inclusion action plan, noting in the report that its long-in-the-works self-identification tool – designed to capture data covering the identities and statuses of the filmmakers it works with – had a strong response rate of 81 per cent.
Yet this doesn’t mean new executive director Julie Roy doesn’t have her work cut out for her.
Taking over from Christa Dickenson this past April, Roy faces a landscape in which box-office receipts for homegrown films are nowhere near prepandemic levels, and the Online Streaming Act Bill C-11 is set to make radical waves. Then there’s the fact that Telefilm itself is facing a potentially massive funding shortfall, with the federal government yet to confirm whether the agency will receive permanent additional funding beyond its 2023-24 fiscal year. (In 2021, Ottawa announced that Telefilm would receive $105-million in new funds over three years.)
Now six months into her job, Roy spoke with The Globe and Mail to discuss the ever-shaky future of Canadian film.
What is the biggest challenge facing Telefilm right now?
The first is our funding – to get that confirmation of additional money. If we don’t have that, it will be another kind of Telefilm. But we’re working actively with our partners in Heritage. The CRTC and C-11 is different – it’s important for Telefilm there to reinforce that cinema is different and still relevant compared to TV and new digital content. So if new funds become available through C-11, a portion should go to Canadian feature films.
You joined Telefilm after it came off a long round of massive pan-Canadian consultations on how it should evolve as an organization.
I can observe the transformation from that, that desire to continue on the process of modernization. What can we do with artificial intelligence? What can we do with the streaming platforms? How can we continue to represent under-represented voices? During TIFF, I was happy to see so many of the Canadian films directed by women, which I feel is a direct result of the bold initiatives taken by Telefilm many years ago. We have to continue that momentum, like on the [micro-budget] Talent to Watch program for first-time filmmakers.
On Talent to Watch, over the years Telefilm has heavily reduced the number of first-time features the program was intended to fund, though the amount each film receives has increased.
I was just at a conference this morning about the problem of over-production – this notion of too many projects getting developed and not enough money to produce them. But we did increase the budgets to give a better opportunity for creative ambition. And we’ve seen it become very successful – we had a Talent to Watch film, In Flames, at Cannes this year.
How important is Canadian box office as a success metric for you? According to a recent report from the Canadian Media Producers Association, it was still significantly lower in 2022 than prepandemic levels, and shows no real sign of bouncing back.
We had very impressive box office numbers in Quebec this summer and it continues, so is it a sign that it will increase? My point of view is that we have to reconsider what we consider as a success. To be frank, I don’t have the answer now. But I have the question. One challenge is that working with the streaming platforms, we don’t have access to the audience data, to see the success. Box office is one element, but there are others. I have a lot of questions on that, but not a lot of answers.
When she was serving as interim Telefilm director between Christa and yourself, Francesca Accinelli mentioned that Telefilm needed to have a conversation about the U.S. studios that are rigid in terms of their booking practices for theatres. That’s not really Telefilm’s territory, but could help get Canadian films better access to Canadian theatres, and thus increase exposure. Has there been progress on that?
We had a delegation go to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, just on a question of connections and re-explain what is the role of Telefilm and the Canadian feature world. There’s a misunderstanding of our role as a public service, and I think it’s somewhere we need to continue to work on.
In 2021, Telefilm launched a tool to measure the diversity of its filmmaking clients. Where do you see that initiative going?
I’m super happy about the results. We have the data, so what’s next? We want to see where the gaps are and collectively agree on what we should work closely on with our sister agencies such as the NFB and the Canada Media Fund.
Speaking of the CMF, what do you say to the perpetual whispers that Telefilm will, or at least should, merge to create a super-agency?
I will call this more modernization than “super-agency.” Right now, it’s important to focus on our funding, the CRTC results and aligning with sister agencies. Eventually, that might be the result, but if it is, it will take time, and be the recommendation from the minister – a legislative process which is very long. So my focus now is on the current challenges.
This interview has been condensed and edited.