To celebrate National Canadian Film Day, it helps to know your numbers.
There is the number six, for instance, which represents how many years deep this country is now into the annual event, which was launched in 2014 by the non-profit organization Reel Canada to provide awareness for homegrown cinema. There is also 100, which is how many films Reel Canada has selected for presentation across the country on April 17, and 1,000, which represents the number of screenings and events expected to occur in 600 Canadian communities and 25 countries across the world.
All of these impressive numbers add up to what Reel Canada bills as “the world’s largest film festival.” It is cute marketing for a cute idea, which this year comes complete with a cute theme, celebrating movies that are equal parts “snow and sass.” (Someone alert Katherine Monk, author of the seminal 2001 book Weird Sex & Snowshoes: And Other Canadian Film Phenomena.)
Here is another number, though, that is not so much cute as it is stark: 122. That is how many, according to Telefilm’s 2017-18 annual report, Canadian films were released in 2017. I don’t mean as in 122 films and shorts and digital projects that trickled onto cable television or video-on-demand or online platforms only to disappear into the content ether. I mean 122 feature-length Canadian films that made it to real-deal theatres over the course of 12 months. Telefilm provided a list and everything. This is not a joke.
I’m a Canadian film critic paid to cover Canadian films, and I would have to summon all my polite Canadian strength to scratch out a list of maybe - maybe! - 75 homegrown films that were released in theatres in 2017 (numbers are not yet available for how many films were released in 2018). I highly doubt, on this, the sixth annual National Canadian Film Day, that anyone outside of Telefilm or Reel Canada’s hallways could do much better. Which leads to a perhaps obvious question: Is National Canadian Film Day necessary now more than ever, or an initiative forever fighting a losing battle?
"Whoa, let's fight this one day at a time," says Jack Blum, executive director of Reel Canada, in an interview.
"We think of this day as one giant ad," adds Sharon Corder, Reel Canada's artistic director. "It's a big ad campaign that says, guess what, Canadian film exists and it's fun and it has you in mind."
"There are big questions about the whole commercial distribution system," Blum interjects, "But what is important here is that we begin to stitch a fabric together where people consume Canadian culture and feel it reflects them. When that happens, people can enjoy it. And it can survive."
The pair are well aware of the obligatory hand-wringing that accompanies any mention of Canadian film - “I’m not saying it’s not an uphill challenge,” Corder says - but the problems facing the industry feel especially acute today. Not only because it is clear that so many Canadian films (say, 122-ish) are being released to almost zero marketing fanfare throughout the year, but because that national disinterest is reflected at the domestic box office.
In 2017, the top three highest-grossing Canadian films (De Pere En Flic 2, Bon Cop Bad Cop 2, and Maudie) earned a cumulative $16.9-million in theatres across the country. Last year, the top three highest-grossing Canadian films (1991, La Bolduc, and La chute de l’empire américain) earned just $8.5-million. In comparison, Canadians spent $46.7-million on tickets for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake alone in 2017, while in 2018 we spent $62-million on Avengers: Infinity War.
“We believe that we have to rethink the distribution model in this country, because we’ll never compete with the blockbusters, there’s just no way,” Corder says. “We don’t have billions of dollars to throw around either, and it would be inappropriate. So, we have to find inventive, new ways to reach people and engage people.”
Which is why, Blum counters, National Canadian Film Day exists in the first place. "We're introducing new audiences to Canadian films in the hopes of changing the dialogue year-round," he says. "It takes time, but events like this penetrate the Canadian consciousness."
Any help would be welcome, especially on the English-Canada side, given how almost all of the homegrown films that make money and earn awards (see this year’s exclusively Francophone contenders at the Canadian Screen Awards) come from one province: Quebec. To that end, this year’s National Canadian Film Day dedicates about two-thirds of its programming to English-language cinema, ranging from high-brow landmarks (Exotica, Crash) to under-seen festival hits (The Breadwinner) to more familiar crowd-pleasers (Goon).
“Quebec has a stronger past, in that they support their culture thoroughly, and those films always have a better life,” Corder says. “They deserve to be recognized, but we were sad that some of the wonderful new films this year from the English side of Canada didn’t get the support they needed [at the CSAs].”
“Although,” Blum interjects, “[Quebec producers] are worried that they’re losing their audience as well.”
So, then, National Canadian Film Day ends up being a distinctly Canadian holiday - in that absolutely everyone marking it has reason to both celebrate and worry.
"We don't pretend to solve all the problems," Corder says. "But we know that we're making a difference, and we know that we're exposing films to thousands of people in every part of the country. And that can't be bad."
It certainly can't. But as we all (hopefully) take this National Canadian Film Day to enjoy a work of homegrown cinema, I cannot help but wonder what numbers we'll be talking about around this same time next year.
For more information about National Canadian Film Day screenings on April 17, visit canadianfilmday.ca
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