As arts leaders across the country begin the painful process of tallying up the year that was, an intriguing dynamic is emerging, splitting the landscape in two. In the first half, there are the organizations that were flooded by the pandemic, and remain under water. Then there are the institutions – sometimes monolithic, sometimes scrappy – that used the crisis as an opportunity to reinvent themselves. Enter the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television.
“COVID ripped us apart and gave us a chance to rebuild in a completely different way. We could have put up our hands and said this isn’t the time to do anything,” says Beth Janson, chief executive officer of the Academy, “but we chose to do the opposite.”
Our interview comes on the heels of the Academy, which administers the annual Canadian Screen Awards, unveiling a massive rollout of initiatives and structural changes. The goal: to ensure that Canadian arts’ newfound attention to the all-encompassing concept of “diversity” isn’t mere lip service. There are almost too many Academy changes to detail, but all centre on attempting to change the way that Canadian film and television is made, and who makes it.
First up are the Academy’s new diversity initiatives, including an Equity and Inclusion Fund to assist underrepresented content creators with CSA submission fees, gala tickets and Academy membership dues, plus an equity committee to develop and monitor anti-racism policies. Then there are new CSA eligibility requirements that reflect the Indigenous Screen Office’s pursuit of “narrative sovereignty” (essentially, eligible films and series must have at least two-thirds of their writing and directing talent identify as Indigenous, or the production company behind the project must be majority Indigenous-owned).
The Academy has also launched the WarnerMedia x Canadian Academy Global Access Writers Program, a “talent development initiative” that will focus on mid-career, but underrepresented, creatives.
“Mentorship programs do nothing if you don’t also focus on the industry that you’re bringing people into. The onus on change and diversity is not on the shoulders of BIPOC creators, and that’s what mentorship and funding programs sometimes feel like: ‘Here’s how you can make yourselves like us to get into our party,’” Janson says. “Canada is going to fall behind if we don’t open our eyes and support these storytellers.”
Finally, there are substantial changes to the Academy’s board of directors, whose revised membership helped make the above initiatives a reality. New additions include actor and winner of last year’s inaugural CSA Radius Award Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk, Homecoming) and his older brother, actor Shamier Anderson (Wynonna Earp); actor and producer Tina Keeper (North of 60, Through Black Spruce); agent Jennifer Hollyer; and Andréa Grau, founder of Toronto’s Touchwood PR.
“Everyone has been put there for a specific reason and each brings a unique skill set and an enthusiasm,” Janson says. “If there’s one thing Canadian content needs, it’s enthusiasm.”
But because this is the Canadian arts sector, the Academy has had to push forward these changes with reduced resources. Earlier this fall, and for the first time in five years, the organization faced a reduction in funding from Telefilm of about 30 per cent, although the Academy is now “collaborating with Telefilm on reinstating our original funding, and are extremely grateful to the organization for their continued support." Still, anticipating less funding from corporate sponsors hurting from the pandemic, the Academy slashed its operating budget by about $2-million.
Overhead sustainability is also a challenge – the Academy is still paying rent on a downtown Toronto office that it hasn’t occupied for eight months – although the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy has “completely saved” the organization’s staff. And although the Academy eliminated contract roles that “became redundant” with the cancellation of the 2020 CSAs, there haven’t been reductions in full-time staff in Toronto. And in its Montreal office, the organization brought back on a part-time basis the two staff members it previously furloughed.
“We’re working with less, but trying to do everything much leaner, and to make sure that everything we’re doing has an important purpose," Janson says. "We have had to shed those nice-to-haves, though, like IT support. Our staff is now working like a start-up.”
A looming priority for that staff is the 2021 CSAs. While the Academy scrapped its week-long Canadian Screen Week and televised CSA gala this past March, opting for a virtual event in May, it is now weighing approaches for next year’s ceremony. Just as the Academy Awards and other traditionally first-quarter arts celebrations are pushing their events to later in 2021, the ninth edition of the CSAs will occur in May, with plans for some sort of public element.
“I was very happy with how our virtual presentations went, but it wasn’t really a public event,” Janson says. “We want next year to be entertaining, and in a bigger way. But it’s very much still in the ideation phase.”
One pressing question, though, is whether there will be enough Canadian movies to celebrate next year. A good number of 2020 releases have been pushed off the calendar, and even one of 2020′s Best Picture CSA nominees, Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft., has yet to announce its release, theatrical or otherwise.
Yet Janson’s worry “isn’t about 2021, but 2022,” with the CEO noting that the Academy’s submission guidelines have been adjusted to reflect the different release strategies film producers have been forced to take. “So long as it’s on a platform that Canadians can watch, it’s eligible for this round. But with so much production interrupted by COVID, we might see a decline in content for 2022.”
Still, there are signs for optimism everywhere, whether it is other recent diversity initiatives like the HireBIPOC program launched last month by Bell Media and the grassroots group BIPOC TV and Film, or the start last week of the federal government’s Short-Term Compensation Fund for Canadian Audiovisual Productions, which will support producers dealing with an industrywide lack of COVID-19 insurance.
“We’re going to get through this. And we’ll be stronger on the other side,” she says. “You have to believe that. The people who are going to survive are going to do the interesting thing and not the easy thing.”