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The debate over how Canadian films get made, and by whom, escalated this week with the release of an open letter supporting Telefilm’s bid to revamp its funding mechanisms while also criticizing a ”small number of privileged producers” who it says are advocating for the continuation of an “archaic, incoherent” system.

Signed by 49 organizations and more than 500 individuals in the Canadian film industry, the letter released Monday urges Telefilm to eliminate its “Fast Track” automatic funding program because it is not “transparent, equitable or successful at consistently yielding profitable and culturally relevant films.” The missive also applauds Telefilm for facing “systemic racism head-on and [taking] active and timely steps to dismantle it.”

Signatories include such large-scale unions as the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC), ACTRA National and IATSE Canada, industry groups including the Indigenous Screen Office and BIPOC TV & Film, and such leading Canadian arts figures as Toronto International Film Festival co-head Cameron Bailey, actor Jay Baruchel and directors Clement Virgo and Michelle Latimer.

Introduced two decades ago as part of then-heritage minister Sheila Copps’s efforts to “put more bums in seats,” Fast Track automatically allocates $20- to $25-million a year, or roughly 30 per cent of Telefilm’s annual production budget, to producers with favoured track records. That qualification is determined by the agency’s Success Index, which calculates films’ performances based on three factors: commercial appeal, ie. box office (60 per cent); cultural significance, such as festival runs and awards (30 per cent); and private-investment appeal (10 per cent).

In August, Telefilm suspended use of its Success Index for the 2020-21 fiscal year, citing the impact of COVID-19. At the same time, the federal agency announced it was accelerating its “pan-Canadian” consultation to reform the measurement tool, a move that had been in the works since earlier that summer, as well as re-examining its development, production and microbudget Talent to Watch programs. The results are expected to be announced in early 2021.

The open letter also references recent articles in the National Post, in which producers Robert Lantos, Denise Robert, Niv Fichman, David Gross and Patrick Roy said that eliminating automatic streams would threaten industry predictability and place too much responsibility in the hands of civil servants. That coverage, the open letter says, “cherry-picked a few historically successful films produced by Fast Track producers over the last 22 years, but conveniently omitted the majority … which were financial and critical failures.” (Lantos, Robert, Fichman, Gross and Roy either declined or did not return requests for comment from The Globe and Mail.)

Open this photo in gallery:

The Broken Hearts Gallery is among the films that received Fast Track funding.Linda Kallerus/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Fast Track funding, which typically accounts for about 30 per cent of a film’s budget, helped produce 51 films over the past five years. This includes movies that disappointed commercially and critically (Our House, Lucky Day, The Song of Names) and productions that performed well (The Man Who Invented Christmas, The Broken Hearts Gallery and Menteur, the latter of which was Canada’s highest-grossing theatrical release last year with $6.3-million). Fast Track funds are also put to use by qualifying producers toward other, lower-budgeted projects.

This week’s open letter, which also stresses the “necessary and urgent” need to support diverse stories “reflective of and relevant to the multitude of cultures and communities in Canada,” arrives as the latest effort in a months-long campaign by various members of the industry to help determine the future of domestic film financing. (While Telefilm is not the sole avenue of public funding for Canadian filmmakers, with the National Film Board, the Canada Council for the Arts and other bodies equipped to support projects, the federal agency does partly fund production of upward of 100 films a year.)

In late September, almost three dozen producers, directors and exhibitors sent a letter to Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault requesting the immediate reinstatement of Fast Track, fearing its suspension could lead to the shuttering of “Canada’s foremost production companies.” The note also labelled Telefilm’s industry consultation a “cynically launched” exercise.

Two months later, the DGC’s Independent Filmmakers Committee released a “Directors Manifesto” that urged Telefilm to replace the Success Index with a rotating, inclusive and representational jury, as well as make inclusion a priority, and shift the funding model from treating production companies as “clients” to a more collaborative effort with a project’s creative forces.

Signatories of this week’s letter say they are not focused on specific Fast Track films or producers, but on creating a system that is competitive and transparent.

“Filmmaking is an incredibly difficult art form, and we don’t want to diminish the challenges any producer faces. But we do think it’s reasonable that every producer who is benefitting from access to government funding should be competing through the same rigorous process,” says producer Karen Harnisch, a member of the Independent Media Producers Association of Cinematic Talent (IMPACT). “Leaving decisions to bureaucrats is a slippery slope that we don’t want to encourage. But the way the programs work right now is not efficient or equitable.”

Adds filmmaker and DGC president Warren P. Sonoda: “How can a system be fair if 30 per cent of the funds are already allocated without consideration for the creative side, the script, the filmmaker?”

As for what could replace Fast Track, Montreal producer Samantha Kaine, also of IMPACT, says peer juries are a possibility, but that the “options are endless.”

“Look to countries around the world that have federal film funding and you can see lots of different models,” she says, noting Ireland’s system as an example. “We’re trying to encourage our peers as well as Telefilm to think outside the box as to how this can be done fairly and efficiently.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Telefilm executive director Christa Dickenson arrives on the red carpet for the 2019 Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto on March 31, 2019.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In a statement, Telefilm’s executive director Christa Dickenson said that she was “inspired by the solidarity” of Monday’s letter and that she is continuing to “work through open dialogue with all parties of the industry.”

Mr. Guilbeault’s office acknowledged receipt of all the correspondence and expressed “confidence in the engagement process,” but said that as an autonomous Crown corporation, Telefilm alone is responsible for its day-to-day operations.

What those operations might look like in 2021 is as yet undetermined. But for Winnipeg-based filmmaker Jeremy Torrie, who also signed Monday’s letter, a path forward appears clear.

“For years, I’ve been on the outside looking in as an Indigenous creator. So let’s take away some complacency,” he says, “and have you line up alongside all of us where we’re considered peers.”

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