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Film Heritage Minister rescues Telefilm Canada from a funding debacle in Quebec

Mr. Rodriguez first signalled his concern after an April meeting with an industry group.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A made-in-Quebec drama starring Telefilm Canada and the province’s film industry came to a happy ending Thursday, as Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Pablo Rodriguez gave Telefilm $7.5-million to fill a hole in its budget for francophone feature films. Mr. Rodriguez also named two new board members for the federal agency, which will commission an external audit of its funding programs.

The minister’s largesse stilled the turmoil that had wracked the Quebec film community and the federal agency since early April, when reports began circulating that Telefilm had already exhausted its 2019-20 budget for French-language feature films. Cinema professionals, alarmed by the increasing presence in Quebec of Netflix and its mainly English content, were suddenly faced with a funding drought till next year.

The most disturbing charge was that Telefilm had blown through some of its 2019-20 funds during 2018-19. On April 30, three long-serving senior managers were abruptly let go with no explanation, including Michel Pradier, director of project financing.

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The industry rallied behind the exiting bureaucrats, who included director of business affairs and co-productions Roxane Girard and director of administration and corporate services Denis Pion. Eight professional organizations, representing every sector of the Quebec film industry, accused Telefilm executive director Christa Dickenson of “decapitating” the agency, scapegoating the departed managers, and putting Telefilm’s mission and raison d’être in danger. The organizations demanded to know why Ms. Dickenson, who took up her post last June, was mum about what had happened and why Telefilm’s board had not used its oversight power to protect the 2019-20 funding envelope.

In a phone interview on Friday, Ms. Dickenson said “there’s no doubt there was underfunding and overcommitment” in the French feature-film program for 2018-19. She declined to give more detail.

“The cycle of funding for film straddles several years,” she said. “What I’m looking to do is to make sure there’s predictability and agility [in Telefilm programs], so that this kind of situation doesn’t happen again.” She had no comment about the three departed directors.

Mr. Rodriguez first signalled his concern after an April meeting with an industry group. No one, however, took it for granted that Heritage would fill the gap. The 2016 federal budget included a gradual increase of $29.5-million in Telefilm funding, after two years of shrinking or flat parliamentary appropriations (The agency’s budget for 2018-19 is $111-million). Heritage also provided a one-time additional transfer of $2.5-million in 2017-18, specifically to support international exposure for Canadian cinema.

“We can’t simply stand by while good films are not produced,” Mr. Rodriguez said, as he disbursed his $7.5-million Thursday. There’s no doubt that the money was also intended to protect Quebec’s cinema ecosystem from the effects of a dry spigot at Telefilm. If film professionals start leaving, it will be harder to keep or increase Quebec film’s 13-per-cent share of the province’s film theatre audience.

On Thursday, Ms. Dickenson praised the minister’s appearance as the saviour in this narrative. She also acknowledged, in Friday’s phone interview, that her image had taken a beating in Quebec.

“The image has been a bit damaged, and I’m certainly working on that,” she said. “I had conversations yesterday with Quebec producers about re-establishing dialogue.” She said the producers responded favourably to her invitation to join a working group, to evaluate Telefilm’s funding programs.

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One bit of news that could have spared Ms. Dickenson from ill will was somehow overlooked when it was first mentioned on April 18. Mr. Pradier told an industry conference that the agency would add $2.5-million in previously unallocated funds to French-language features. That increase didn’t appear in Quebec media until it was reiterated Thursday.

The appointment of new board members might seem to support the industry’s feeling that the existing board didn’t do all it should have, but Ms. Dickenson said there were two vacancies, which Heritage had been working for months to fill.

Robert Spickler, the new board chair, has extensive experience as an arts manager, although not in film. His arrival, and the learning curve that awaits him, may not calm the fears of those lamenting the departure of Telefilm veterans who knew the scene intimately. Karen Horcher, the other new board member, is an expert in financial risk management. The three departed managers have been replaced, in two cases on an interim basis, by long-standing Telefilm personnel.

As for Mr. Rodriguez, he still faces the task of finding a coherent and effective approach to Netflix and its ilk, which are still immune to federal sales tax. Quebec, meanwhile, stands to gain $62-million a year from its recent application of sales tax to online entertainment subscriptions, according to Revenue Canada. That money could help keep the provincial film industry alive to shoot another day.

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