Barry Avrich, the Toronto-based producer/director, tried a Zoom yoga class. Now he wants to get back to work. The producer Michael McMahon is editing, remotely, his four-part CBC series about Canadian authors, Writing the Land. (“I now know what it feels like to be a lighthouse keeper,” he says, laughing.) The director Sergio Navarretta, whose drama The Cuban was set to open in theatres this month, has been videoconferencing with Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture, advocating for the entertainment business.
“Being pessimistic is a luxury we don’t have right now,” Navarretta says. “We have to find pro-active, constructive ways to keep creating.”
Now that the initial shock to the Canadian film and television industry is wearing off, creators are doing some big-picture thinking: what are the flaws in the system they’ve always wanted to fix? What would they love to see more of?
Everyone agrees on one thing – that creators should have projects ready to go the minute the business opens. It’s likely that will happen in Canada before it does in the United States, which means locals will have a rare window of access to the crews, equipment, studio space and locations that are usually scooped up by higher-budget U.S. productions.
“How much will a downtown hotel ask to shoot a scene in their lobby now, versus last summer, when 20 or 30 productions were banging at their door?” asks Jim Mirkopoulos, vice-president of Toronto’s Cinespace Film Studios.
“The networks and streamers are still buying,” says Avrich, who has two films in post-production. “This is an opportunity for Canadians to get our work in front of international buyers – give them a second look at projects they may have passed on. Show them work that’s close to being finished. Create sizzle reels for work they’ve been developing.”
So how do we make that happen? More money, in every sector of the industry. MacLeod and her panels are brainstorming ways to increase the number of film-friendly locales, to build more sound stages and to retrain workers – online, for free – from other industries, such as automotive, to work in film. Take the shuttered GM plant in Oshawa: workers who build electrical systems for cars could easily learn to lay cable on a film set.
“Content creation is the new mode of manufacturing,” Mirkopoulos says. “In 2019, a record year, our entertainment business generated $2.1-billion. But we could be at $4- and $5-billion if the human and physical infrastructure grew.”
One silver lining of the new reality, in which post-production work is being done remotely from technicians’ homes, is that sound and special effects companies are realizing they may no longer need their giant facilities. If they can lower their overheads, they can be more competitive. Think about the Avengers movies. Their visual effects work is farmed out all over the world, especially to India and China, where it’s cheaper. Why can’t we do more of that here?
MacLeod is also working to refine and streamline Ontario’s tax credit system, to provide easier access to more people. For example, any film or television production that’s already in the queue for a tax credit, whether it’s a Canadian or service production (an international project shot in Canada), should receive it without delay. Also, credits are usually only paid out once a project is completed. But projects that shut down due to COVID-19 should now be eligible. Producers have spent hundreds of thousands on those pilots and films. They created economic activity, so they should benefit from the credits.
“We’re also preaching the stability of our tax credit,” MacLeod says – unlike, for example, New York State, which just lowered its credit from 30 to 25 per cent. “We want to position Ontario to directly compete with anywhere in the world.”
Creators feel that funding systems could be revised even further. Avrich believes there should be a government fund to entice Canadian creators living elsewhere to come back for homegrown projects. Navarretta would also like to see more money available for development – giving producers more to option hit books and for screenwriters to develop scripts – and for marketing.
“When we export an artist,” Navarretta says, be it Drake or Daniel Levy, “the residual benefit to Canada is valuable.”
“Some people say the government has no business subsidizing media content,” says producer Martin Katz, president of Prospero Pictures. “But think of these waves of programming we’re watching: Fauda, Fleabag, Broadchurch. Most of this great stuff is financed by national subsidies. These shows from Norway, Denmark, Germany and everywhere weren’t created because Netflix spent the money or because of a competitive struggle among private companies. It’s because countries around the world invest in creating art and culture.”
To that end, McMahon hopes the funding systems can be revised to correct what he calls “a wild power imbalance.” The Canadian Media Fund, the public/private partnership that puts money into the industry, favours broadcasters over individual producers. He thinks the system would be more balanced if producers could access funds without having a broadcaster attached to a project or if they could spend more of the money developing their own infrastructures.
“Australia did something like this, to help producers survive from project to project,” McMahon continues. “If we could allocate more funds to build our companies, we could develop stuff, employ people. We’d pay them, they’d pay their taxes – it’s revenue neutral.”
Once these creators start blue-sky thinking, they don’t stop. Avrich suggests refining the points system (which mandates the number of people on a Canadian production that must be Canadian), so that more young filmmakers could pair up with experienced international creators to do more co-productions. Navarretta would love to see initiatives that would burnish the Canadian star system. Katz dreams of creating a national version of the Quebec Sunday-night staple Tout le monde en parle, a talk show that mixes politicians, singers, industry leaders, astronauts and actors.
“Broadcasters don’t think English Canadians would watch that. I think they’re wrong,” Katz says. “We don’t have, on television, a sense of community focus, and I think we’re missing that more than ever right now.”
Community – that’s what these creators are focusing on most. They’re meeting virtually, FaceTiming daily, pitching each other concepts, repurposing projects, keeping their creative muscles moving. “It’s staggering to me,” Katz says, “how productive people are being, when it feels like the world is coming to an end and we can’t be together.”
“People in this industry are so resilient,” Mirkopoulos agrees. “They work really hard, 12-hour days, eight months at a time. They’re creative, problem-solvers. I think we’ll be just fine."
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