The annual Prime Time conference held last week in Ottawa offered us five words to describe the ever-shifting state of Canada’s film and television industry – plus one that cannot be reprinted in a family-friendly newspaper.
When moderator Joy Loewen of the National Screen Institute asked five industry leaders on a panel for their quick thoughts on the current mood of the Canadian screen sector, single-word answers ranged from volatile, transition, byzantine, scrappy and – after Blue Ant Media’s Michael MacMillan initially suggested an R-rated adjective – discombobulating.
That oh-so-Canadian mixture of anxiety, despair and dogged endurance summed up the chilly air at Prime Time nicely. For three days, nearly a thousand producers, executives and industry insiders paced the hallways of Ottawa’s Westin alternately fretting and celebrating the state of this country’s entertainment industry. Now in its 29th year, the conference, put together by the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), has evolved from a strictly business gathering of execs, lawyers and bureaucrats to a vast and diverse microcosm of a multibillion-dollar industry that has been, more or less, under constant threat since its very inception.
Yet this year’s edition was weighed down by a particularly heavy kind of uneasiness, as if the many crises of the past few decades in Canadian content were coming to a head all at once.
“We’re being buffeted by forces that are bigger than legislation, bigger than all of us. The industry anxiety is palpable, and with good reason,” Reynolds Mastin, chief executive of the CMPA, said in his opening address. “Let’s just say the collective zeitgeist is at a very low ebb, certainly the lowest I’ve ever seen it.”
Sure, Bill C-11 – the Online Streaming Act designed to compel such foreign-owned streaming platforms as Netflix and Disney+ to produce Canadian content – is no longer a daydream, having been passed into law this past spring. But whatever salvation C-11 may deliver is still years away, with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission now tasked with modernizing the official definition of what “Canadian content” actually is, leaving much of the industry in a kind of regulatory limbo.
In the meantime, there is no shortage of ancillary concerns.
On the global side of things, the streaming wars – a battle thought to be in its dying days, albeit with further conglomeration and widespread layoffs before any white flag is flown – has domestic producers scrambling to sell projects to international giants before budgets dry up. But the persistence of high interest rates in the U.S. has slashed budgets of productions that did manage to find a home, while executives burned by the two major Hollywood strikes are stuck in a risk-averse mindset. And if you are lucky enough to get your series or film made, then good luck finding an audience that has not been overwhelmed by choice for years.
Inside Canada, things are – surprise – even worse. If you took a shot of the Westin’s house red every time the word “CBC” came up in despairing conversation, you’d be up Schitt’s Creek faster than Dan Levy’s new Netflix movie disappeared into the algorithmic ether. Ditto anything involving the Canada Media Fund (whose $60-million fund to boost equity-deserving film and TV creators is set to expire March 31 unless Ottawa renews it in the 2024 federal budget), the Indigenous Screen Office (an organization whose federal funding also runs out at the end of next month), and such once-dominating market forces as Corus Entertainment (which, like all companies dependent on linear broadcast television, has been wracked by restructuring in a bid to reduce operating costs).
“It’s really chilly out there. It’s cold and confusing and there are big, huge assaults on the structure of the industry,” Blue Ant’s MacMillan said during his panel. “Budgets are lower, commissions are fewer, and the audience continues to fragment.”
A few hours before Prime Time kicked off, Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge threw the sector a much-needed bone by announcing, after months of seemingly needless delay, that the Liberal Party would keep its 2021 election promise and invest $100-million in federal funding agency Telefilm over the next two years.
“It feels good to have good news,” St-Onge told the appreciative crowd.
In her next breath, the minister pledged to support the Indigenous Screen Office – “We’re extremely committed to reconciliation, and it’s not an easy goal but it’s a commitment we’re making to future generations” – though she stopped short of announcing anything official. This despite the ISO facing the same rapidly approaching funding deadline as Telefilm.
The film community got a further jolt later in the day when Telefilm revealed the results of a yet-to-be-published study conducted by ERm Research on audience behaviour, which included this distressing – though perhaps not completely shocking – statistic: 98 per cent of movies watched in Canada last year were consumed at home, not inside theatres.
Partial blame on that tidbit has to go to the international streaming giants, some of which (Paramount+, Apple TV+, Prime Video) had boots on the ground at Prime Time in a bid to play nice with C-11-era Canada, and some of which (Netflix, Disney+) were nowhere to be seen.
On the CBC front, matters were even more tremulous. After alluding to Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre’s pitch to defund the public broadcaster (while maintaining Radio-Canada’s French-language services), St-Onge said that updating CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate through an expert committee was one of her top priorities. Although she also noted that there will not be a “big, broad” consultation this time around, as that’s “been done many times.”
Yet the next day, CBC chief executive Catherine Tait dismissed such an approach. “Let’s be clear: the mandate of CBC/Radio-Canada actually does not need to be reviewed,” Tait said. “What needs to be reviewed is the financial model and how we are governed.”
In the middle, independent producers at Prime Time either walked a fine line of appreciating the CBC while noting its flaws or distancing themselves from the broadcaster entirely. Instead, conversations tended to focus on how the future of Canadian television rests with international partnerships.
“Everything that we’re developing, we’re looking at that international market – who we can co-produce and co-finance with, and trying to bring that global thinking so that it’s not just for a Canadian or North American audience,” Mark Bishop, co-president of Blue Ant Studios, said during a panel. “How do we create something that can work around the world?”
Then there was the AI of it all, which the CMPA’s Mastin noted makes “C-11 look like a walk in the park.”
“These platforms won’t regulate themselves. One of the challenges that a government has is to be able to move as quickly as technology, and nobody knows the extent of changes AI is going to bring forward,” St-Onge said. “We need to regulate and make sure it’s done in a way that we can protect people’s privacy, that we can protect intellectual property, and we can also make sure that people are well-compensated for the work that they’re doing.”
That kind of government-fronted confidence arrived in stark contrast to a discussion earlier in the day, when lawyer Charles Morgan, national co-leader of McCarthy Tetrault’s cyber/data group, castigated Canada’s Artificial Intelligence and Data Act.
“The Europeans have grounded their EU AI act in fundamental values with lots of public consultation – they’re at a PhD level in terms of the amount of thinking and depth, and Canada is not there,” he said.
Yet despite all the tumult, it was hard to leave Prime Time completely defeated – and not only because Rogers handed out a whack of delightful toy buttons that played the familiar “DUN-DUN” sound from Law & Order to mark the network’s new Toronto spinoff.
From the global breakthroughs of Letterkenny, Sort Of and BlackBerry (three productions name-checked almost as much as C-11) to the critical success of the National Film Board’s To Kill a Tiger (whose team was riding high at the conference thanks to snagging a best documentary Oscar nomination the week before), there were a decent number of success stories to counteract the doom and gloom. Despite the uncontrollable market forces and unavoidable bureaucratic frustrations, there remains the space and the need for Canadian stories, both inside and outside this country.
“We’ll figure it out. We always do,” Mastin told the crowd. “If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from working with the people in this room, it’s that there is always, always a way forward. On with the show.”
Cue the Law & Order “DUN-DUN.”