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Canadian Filmmaker Matt Johnson chats with other filmmakers during the reception for Telefilm Canada's Talent Fund, at Pinewood Toronto Studios on June 27, 2018.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

The first day of Canadian cinema’s bold new era feels a lot like the first day of school.

It is the last Tuesday of June, and though classes are done for the semester at Ryerson University, the depths of the Toronto campus are buzzing. In the engineering centre’s basement, a gaggle of mostly young, largely fashionable and extremely hungry men and women are busy emptying steam trays full of scrambled eggs, bacon and home fries (as well as tofu with roasted peppers, for the vegans in the crowd). Some work the room with ease, extending hands and making fast friends. Others find quiet spots to huddle with laptops or other trusted companions. Just as the chatter and laughter threaten to overwhelm the space, a booming voice from the top of the stairs interrupts.

“Everyone ... shut up!” shouts Matt Johnson, the Toronto filmmaker known for his dark comedy The Dirties and meta-fiction series Nirvanna the Band the Show. “No, I’m kidding. But we’re going to kick things off in 10 minutes. And on time.”

With his white T-shirt, worn jeans and knapsack, Johnson looks like any one of the fresh-faced youth assembled below. But the 33-year-old isn’t here to lead a frosh mixer, and the crowd isn’t nattering on about course schedules – they are budding film directors and producers in town for the inaugural Talent Summit, Telefilm’s big, risky, unprecedented bet on the future of homegrown cinema. And for the next 48 hours, Johnson will be their cheerleader, coach and occasional drill sergeant.

For those familiar with the Canadian arts industry, or merely with Johnson’s audacious filmography, the idea that he would be working hand-in-hand with Telefilm seems as believable as the plot to, say, the director’s own 2016 mockumentary Operation Avalanche, which posited that two CIA agents faked the moon landing.

Just three years ago, Johnson used every opportunity he was afforded to decry the traditional institutions of Cancon – from Telefilm to TIFF – culminating in a quote that will, appropriately, be etched in his eventual obituary: “A lot of people just need to die of old age for the system to change.”

Today, though, Johnson and his producing partner Matthew Miller, 37, are the system’s biggest boosters, thanks to their work developing Telefilm’s new Talent to Watch program, an initiative that -- if everything lines up -- will flood the country with a tidal wave of fresh and diverse cinematic talent.

Talent to Watch is deceptively simple. An update of Telefilm’s five-year-old microbudget production fund, the new program will finance up to 50 features per year from first-time directors, with cash funding capped at $125,000 per project. That is more than double the number of productions supported under the previous plan, and this time the grants are non-repayable, meaning filmmakers completely own their work. (Financing is mostly supported through Telefilm’s Talent Fund, a private-donation fund supported by donors and media partners.)

Another new plank is Fast Track, which will automatically green light the sophomore efforts of directors whose feature debuts are recognized at top-tier international festivals such as Cannes or Berlin, with Telefilm contributing $500,000 per film.

“The goal is to introduce the country to new voices that we would never have seen otherwise,” Johnson said last year, just before unveiling the revamp. “This is a sea change in film funding.”

Discussions started this past fall, when Johnson and Miller were connected with Carolle Brabant, Telefilm’s then executive director, through producer Niv Fichman.

“I basically challenged [Matt]: ‘You’re talking on behalf of emerging filmmakers, but now you’re part of the establishment,’” Fichman recalled. ”‘You have to help, if you’re serious about this, to design the program that you think should exist.’”

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Members of Talent to Watch pose for a group photo. The artists hail from across the country.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

Eight months later, and Talent to Watch is a reality. After 102 rookie directors and producers applied through Telefilm’s designated partners (film schools, co-ops, festival talent incubators), 45 projects now have cash in hand.

The artists hail from across the country – Émilie Serri, director of the immigration tale Damascus Dreams, is Québécoise; Madison Thomas, the director of the Indigenous-focused drama Ruthless Souls is from Manitoba; Jillian Acreman, director of the “gentle sci-fi” entry Queen of the Andes, lives in New Brunswick – and arrive with different backgrounds.

“This program is about respecting that talent can come from anywhere in this country,” says Jean-Claude Mahé, Telefilm’s interim executive director. (Brabant stepped down in March at the end of her eight-year tenure; Christa Dickenson will assume the role July 30.)

But all members of Talent to Watch’s “Class of 2018” share one crucial bit of work experience, or lack thereof: No one has ever shot a feature-length film. With a tight deadline of 18 months – all projects must be at final cut with Telefilm by the end of 2019 – Johnson and Miller decided that the artists, and the future of the program, necessitated guidance and, occasionally, tough love.

Which is why a few dozen filmmakers today find themselves sitting in a Ryerson lecture hall filled with shiny desks and squeaky chairs, listening to Johnson warn them that they are living on borrowed time.

“After tomorrow, what are you even doing? This is your lives now,” Johnson tells his audience. His delivery oscillates between the wild enthusiasm he brings to the screen playing an unctuous version of himself on Nirvanna the Band the Show and Dead Poets Society-esque sincerity. Johnson knows how hard it is to make something out of nothing – The Dirties cost just $10,000 to shoot – and he wants to turn his past mistakes into the next wave’s cautionary tales.

“Don’t betray yourselves. You have the months right now, so … get it done.”

Two-thirds of his audience nod knowingly, while a handful of others furtively glance around the room, wondering just what they got themselves into. This is to be expected. No one is convinced that Talent to Watch will produce 45 or 50 Canadian masterpieces every year. “If we see anybody who cracks the surface of this, even one person, we will be so much further than we were five years ago,” Johnson says.

One of the program’s positive outcomes, Johnson explains to the class, is “if you decide you hate making movies.”

“Better to figure it out in 18 months rather than five years,” adds Miller.

This year’s English-language projects were selected by a jury consisting of filmmakers Albert Shin (In Her Place), Chelsea McMullan (My Prairie Home), and Cory Bowles (Black Cop), as well as producer Karen Harnisch (Sleeping Giant) and film critic Adam Nayman. Diversity was a key consideration, though there were no quotas and jurors operated without oversight from Johnson, Miller or Telefilm. (There were separate peer-based juries for the French-language and Indigenous projects.)

In the end, 21 of the 45 successful applicants, or about 47 per cent, have female directors attached. Geographically, 20 come from Ontario, 11 from Quebec, five from British Columbia, three from Nova Scotia, two from Manitoba and one each from Alberta, New Brunswick, the Yukon and Newfoundland and Labrador.

No matter the filmmakers’ backgrounds, everyone will face the same myriad obstacles that come with producing a debut film. To underline this point, Johnson and Miller enlisted industry experts, from festival programming to public relations, to dole out advice and horror stories during the summit.

McMullan offers a warning that some men in the industry live to run women out of it. How Heavy This Hammer director Kazik Radwanski, who kept Johnson out shooting a role in his new movie until 2 a.m. the previous night (“I knew your work habits,” he teases), explains how crucial it is to cast actors who have no dreams of fame or even craft services. And Shin, asked for his biggest mistakes, recalls, “pretty much everything.”

For the most part, the neophyte filmmakers are unfazed. Many are just grateful to be here.

Jordan Molaro, the 30-year-old director of Billy, which follows an Indigenous man who believes he’s being haunted by a wendigo, recalls how he found out his team made the cut: “It can only be described as a moment you will remember for the rest of your life ... This program evens the playing field a little bit more for a couple of kids who grew up in the hood of Winnipeg.”

“I’ve done four short films and I felt like I was stalled,” says 30-year-old Sanja Zivkovic, whose drama Easy Land looks at the fraught relationship between a mother and daughter after they leave Serbia for Toronto. “Having an opportunity to get something done, even if it’s not expensive at all, it feels like such a step forward.”

After two days of advice and warnings and problem-solving – the first evening finds the filmmakers split into teams to recreate scenes on their iPhones from Paul Gross’s war drama Passchendaele, with the winners judged by Fichman, the film’s “good sport” producer – everyone boards a shuttle to the Pinewood Studios for a splashy party.

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Xavier Dolan delivers the keynote address at the reception for Telefilm Canada's Talent Fund.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

The event is designed to introduce Talent Fund’s benefactors – Bell Media’s Randy Lennox is in one corner, Sleep Country Canada’s Christine Magee the other – to Telefilm’s best new hopes. But it is also an opportunity for the filmmakers to enjoy an open bar, graze on bites of whisky-braised Alberta beef short ribs – and experience one final burst of contagious you-can-do-it encouragement, thanks to a surprise keynote address from Xavier Dolan.

As the Quebecois filmmaker behind Laurence Anyways and the forthcoming The Death and Life of John F. Donovan takes the stage, the suits in the audience politely applaud –but the filmmakers don’t dare turn their attention anywhere else.

“I saw I Killed My Mother on Monday night, just two days ago, and I had forgotten all about it,” Dolan tells the crowd, recalling his first film, which he wrote at 16 and which went on to play the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. “There exists a trace of the young man I was back then: tortured and insecure and loud and brash and loving and creating evermore. And that is everything.

“You’re lucky to be able to create without being scared of people or yourself. That’s what a first-time film is. It’s a shameless act of self-discovery. It’s a way to insist on the value of the worth of your very own existence, and the worth of our desire to solve problems, and change the world. It’s perhaps naive and flawed and whatever.”

“But,” he adds, “it is true. So, good luck to you.”

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