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Learn to Swim was a recent Talent to Watch title.Leilani Films

Almost two years after announcing a “pan-Canadian consultation” to modernize and optimize its funding programs, federal agency Telefilm on Thursday unveiled its final round of changes stemming from the initiative.

Following relaunches of its development, theatrical exhibition and microbudget programs over the summer and early fall, Telefilm’s production program and diverse languages policies have now been updated.

Highlights include: productions with budgets under $3.5-million will no longer be required to secure an eligible distributor to receive support; funding participation has been increased for productions with budgets between $1.5-million and $2.5-million; the “two-strikes” rule, which saw applicants barred from resubmitting projects previously refused by Telefilm or otherwise abandoned, has been discontinued for the 2022/23 fiscal year; and projects filmed in all languages – not just English, French or Indigenous languages – are now eligible for support.

Taken together, these updates effectively usher in a new era for Telefilm. The organization, led by executive director and chief executive officer Christa Dickenson since July, 2018, has endured a tumultuous pandemic-long stretch that’s encompassed everything from a battle between emerging filmmakers and industry veterans, the arrival of a long-awaited budget increase from Ottawa, the departure of key Telefilm executives and the temporary collapse of the entire theatrical market.

When Dickenson first announced plans in December, 2019, to modernize Telefilm’s Success Index – the performance measure that determines which films the organization supports – the landscape was, if not stable, at least somewhat predictable.

Introduced in 2011, the Success Index calculated a film’s performance based on three factors: commercial appeal (60 per cent), cultural significance such as film-festival runs and awards (30 per cent), and private-investment appeal (10 per cent).

Telefilm executive director and CEO Christa Dickenson.Courtesy of Telefilm

But by the time that Telefilm launched its “inclusive, transparent and open” consultations in September, 2020, the Success Index had already been suspended because of the pandemic. Also put on hold was the controversial Fast Track, an automatic funding program that allocated $20-million to $25-million a year, or roughly 30 per cent of Telefilm’s annual production budget, to producers with favoured track records – a qualification determined by the Success Index. Both of these initiatives have now been permanently discontinued.

A tool called the Evaluation Grid will instead be used by advisory committees to evaluate projects based on four weighted criteria: creative elements, track record of key creative personnel, project viability, and cultural impact and audience reach potential. (Telefilm notes, though, that the decision-making process will also take into account the organization’s objective “to foster a diversity of voices.”)

The many changes resulting from the industry-wide consultation process come after a lengthy and fraught debate within the domestic film community over how Canadian movies get made, and by whom.

In the fall of 2020, there were two open letters sent to Telefilm – one a “Directors Manifesto” from the Independent Filmmakers Committee of the Directors Guild of Canada, the other a call to action signed by more than 500 industry members and associations – calling for an organizational reboot, including the elimination of Fast Track, which was labelled “archaic and incoherent.”

At the same time, almost three dozen producers, directors and exhibitors sent a letter to then-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,” while also labelling Telefilm’s consultation process a “cynically launched” exercise.

With the results of Telefilm’s consultation now finalized, expect the conversation to reignite. (Telefilm will continue to meet with its three working groups – Diversity & Inclusion, Indigenous, Gender Parity – and recently created a panel of industry representatives that will convene four times a year to offer feedback.)

Meanwhile, Telefilm last month relaunched its Talent to Watch microbudget program. Once touted as a game-changing initiative to flood the domestic market with fresh-faced filmmakers, the program has been significantly scaled back in the number of productions it supports – but also given a boost in how much money each project will receive.

The Talent to Watch changes include: increasing the maximum amount of Telefilm support to $250,000 per production, from $125,000; boosting total production budgets to $500,000, from $250,000; widening eligibility to include “other industry-related experience”; introducing a new direct application stream for underrepresented filmmakers; and adding a mandatory mentorship program.

Originally designed to support up to 50 first-time filmmakers each fiscal year – with funds largely financed through the Talent Fund, a private-donation system supported by donors and media partners solicited by Telefilm – Talent to Watch’s slates never reached the heights of that initial vision.

In its inaugural cohort of 2018/19, 45 creative teams (38 feature films, seven web series) were selected. In 2019/20, 31 productions (28 films, three web series) made the cut. In 2020/21, it was 16 (15 films, one web series). And in 2021/22, the program was paused because of the pandemic.

Telefilm says that the changes in the program are the result of hearing from past participants, who reported that making features with such tight budgetary constraints was unreasonable.

“We were hearing stories of people working for free, so we needed to address that,” Peggy Lainis, a regional feature film executive for Telefilm, said in an interview last week.

While budget numbers for 2022/23 are not yet available, Lainis said that the revamped Talent to Watch will result in fewer films than 2020/21, but “I don’t see it being less than 10″ productions

Recent Talent to Watch titles include the acclaimed dramas Learn to Swim and Scarborough, both of which premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and Islands, which opens next week’s Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival after premiering at the SXSW Festival this past March.

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