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In the sometimes confusing, always insular world of Canadian film and television, there is an understandable mystery surrounding the Canadian Film Centre, which is often name-checked by gate-keepers and power brokers but not so frequently understood. So: What exactly does this venerable arts institution do?

maxine bailey, the new executive director of the Canadian Film Centre.Courtesy of CFC

Founded in 1988 by iconic Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Moonstruck, The Hurricane), the charitable organization sits on expansive, lush grounds in north Toronto – literal and metaphorical miles away from the epicentre of the country’s entertainment sector. But despite its far-flung location, quiet profile and history of media-shy leadership, the CFC has operated as an essential talent-development pipeline. Over 34 years, it has pumped out 1,900-plus graduates from its film, television, music, digital and acting programs, with 78 per cent of its alumni currently working in the industry.

Still, even the CFC’s new executive director maxine bailey is sympathetic to those outside who are not quite sure what the CFC does, or what it can do. Before joining the organization last year, after spending 18 years with the Toronto International Film Festival, bailey wasn’t quite sure herself, either.

“The CFC was a sister organization to TIFF, but I was never all that involved in its programs or coming up to the centre, because it was a hike. Although I’ve learned to enjoy that hike!” bailey, whose name is stylized without capital letters, says in an interview one year into her new job. “When I was approached by the CFC, I wondered what I could bring, considering I didn’t know a lot about it. The answer: new thinking.”

And it is that new, outside-the-CFC-history thinking that has led to one big institutional development. On Wednesday, the organization announced that tuition fees will be offset entirely for all incoming residents of the centre’s film, television and acting programs. The new scholarship initiative – which covers the standard $8,000 tuition, in addition to providing monthly bursaries of $750 to each resident for the duration of their five- to six-month program – is aimed at increasing access for the country’s diverse storytellers. Or, as bailey puts it, the CFC has been doing “stellar work for many years, but it has been the same kind of work.”

“It’s one thing to say you’re open and invite everybody to the party, but if people can’t afford it or are stressing out about bills while trying to be creative, it’s not helpful,” bailey adds of the initiative, which is intended to be indefinite thanks to support from new and existing donors, and the CFC’s own endowment fund. “Sometimes these things that seem so hard or big, it’s just a matter of going to new people and saying, ‘Here’s our new story. Are you in for the ride?’ It’s amazing what happens when you just ask people.”

Taking over from longtime chief executive Slawko Klymkiw after his retirement in the spring of 2021, bailey has spent the past year not only navigating the pandemic, but also reshaping the CFC to fit her new five-year strategic plan, which pivots on five key words: crucial, relevant, visible, transparent, innovative.

“I want the stories that come out of the CFC to reflect what Canada looks like, which is continually evolving,” says bailey. “A great deal of this, we’re not going to be able to do on our own. So how do we partner with others, and do so wisely?”

Last month, the CFC announced that it was collaborating with the CBC and the grassroots industry group BIPOC TV & Film to create the CBC-BIPOC TV & Film Showrunner Catalyst, a career-accelerator program that will support the advancement of senior writers who identify as Indigenous, Black or people of colour.

Next up for bailey: reforming the CFC’s board to align with the updated Ontario Not-for-Profit Corporations Act (“We want to make sure that our board looks like how we want our residents to look like”), improving alumni relations by hiring a full-time coordinator (“everyone wants help and support after they graduate”), and revamping the CFC’s website (“It’s hard to search for alumni there, it needs a lot of fixing”).

Bailey, whose work with TIFF specialized in public affairs, government relations and fundraising (she was the driving force behind the gender-parity-focused Share Her Journey campaign), is also aiming to diversify the CFC’s revenue streams. The majority of the CFC’s 2021 revenue (61.5 per cent) came from federal, provincial and municipal government support, with private-sector contributions including donations and membership (26 per cent), and earned revenue such as tuition (12.5 per cent), accounting for the remainder.

Under bailey’s first year of leadership, the CFC is no longer in a deficit. But the executive director also notes that the CFC has an outdated financial model, and “we haven’t been as opportunistic in going after money. … We do not get the kind of funding that we should get from federal support, so we’re looking at that, for instance. Or maybe we just haven’t told our story properly?”

To help tell that story, bailey last summer hired E.J. Alon as the new executive lead of creative impact and revenue. Calling him her “secret weapon,” Alon joins the CFC after holding senior roles with TIFF, Telefilm Canada, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.

Bailey, who describes her time at TIFF alongside younger brother and current CEO Cameron Bailey as being far different from the CFC (“TIFF is a machine, with a lot more staff”), is also careful to keep the 95-year-old Jewison up to date with all the changes.

“He’s still on his game – you can’t get anything past him, not that I’m trying to,” she says. “We’re trying to get him to the centre in a safe manner to meet the new cohort. I want him to give a ‘win-one-for-the-Gipper’ kind of talk. Most of Norman’s films were about social justice, and that’s where we find ourselves today. I want Norman to feel that we’re continuing his legacy in a new way.”

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