When is a Canadian film actually Canadian?
If you work for the Walt Disney Corporation, your answer might be Turning Red, which was directed by a Canadian filmmaker, takes place in a Canadian city, features the vocal talents of Canadian performers – but was completely financed by an American company.
If you work for Netflix, your answer might be the thriller Jusqu’au déclin (The Decline), which was shot in Quebec, directed by a Québécois filmmaker, starring Canadian performers – but whose copyright is completely owned by an American company.
And if you are a member of the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), your answer might be Scarborough, which was made by Canadian directors, shot in Canada, starring Canadians and telling a Canadian story whose intellectual property – or IP, the bedrock of any piece of entertainment – is owned by Canadians, with revenue flowing back into Canada.
Ask a Canadian moviegoer the same question, though, and they might just shrug their shoulders.
Which is exactly what Hollywood studios and streamers are hoping for as they attempt to fine-tune the definition of CanCon while Bill C-11 is being examined by the Senate’s transport and communications committee. The much-discussed bill, which aims to modernize the country’s broadcast laws by bringing such foreign streamers as Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+ under the same jurisdiction as domestic operators, is currently playing host to a messy, loud, confusing debate that is as old as the Canadian film industry itself.
The details are complicated, mired in a weedy swamp of bureaucratic-ese that is almost designed to give big shiny American studios the rhetorical edge. But as the Senate continues to hear from representatives of Hollywood’s interests, it is important to understand just how much of Canada’s screens industry – a massive sector that contributes to the country’s cultural fabric and economy in myriad ways – is at stake.
For starters: Why is Disney currently asking the federal government to consider classifying a production like Turning Red – an animated blockbuster as big as they come – as a “Canadian” film? Simple: It is not a question of culture, but money.
Under the current rules overseen by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), a “Canadian” production can only qualify for financial incentives, including tax breaks, if it has Canadians in key creative positions (director, writer, lead performer) – and is at least 75-per-cent financed by Canadians or Canadian companies that retain the IP rights. Under C-11, foreign-owned companies would be obligated to spend a percentage of their revenues promoting Canadian content and making genuinely Canadian productions. Practically speaking, this means partnering with Canadian production companies – something a global behemoth like Disney (which prizes the control that it wields by retaining global IP rights, and their attendant revenue streams and franchise potential) would be loath to do.
Companies like Disney want access to the Canadian market – to our subscriber dollars – but do not feel obliged to play by the rules that Canadian companies currently abide by. Disney might occasionally film in Canada, and even adapt Canadian stories – such as the forthcoming series Washington Black, based on Canadian author Esi Edugyan’s novel – but any profits they generate get funnelled back to the Magic Kingdom in Los Angeles, not reinvested into the Canadian ecosystem.
The same goes for Netflix, which sent its director of Canadian public policy, Stéphane Cardin, to the Senate this week to argue that C-11 might “force” streamers to offer Canadian content that subscribers might not prefer to watch, due to proposed regulations that require the promotion of CanCon. According to Cardin, the bill could “create a situation where you will force a certain content option onto a viewer and it is something that they are not interested in: It’s a Canadian horror film and someone is only interested in Canadian romantic comedies. That results in that show being viewed less favourably, and that has an impact.”
That argument makes a certain kind of sense – but only if you accept that Netflix’s algorithm-powered homepage works perfectly as it stands, and that Canadian subscribers are incapable of using the service’s “search” function to find titles they’d like to watch. Or that we’re too thickheaded to figure out how to scroll down a few category tiles on our Netflix accounts. No audience is, or will ever be, forced to watch something that they have no interest in – and any streamer suggesting otherwise is playing to the same kind of confusion and fears that have existed since the portmanteau “CanCon” was first uttered generations ago.
C-11 is far from a perfect piece of legislation – there are legitimate concerns about the domino effect it has on screens-based unions, and there is the possibility that it opens up a Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) free trade complaint. The CanCon system as it stands would also benefit from significant tweaks, with co-productions often squeaking by even with questionable, or nonexistent, cultural connections to this country. But for Canadians who are genuinely invested in the future of homegrown storytelling – the industry and the audience – the answer is obvious.
Canadian companies that make Canadian productions with incentives courtesy of Canadian taxpayers – all while retaining their IP – are far more likely to continue making culturally relevant Canadian content here in the future. And in doing so, they will keep pumping money and energy into this country.
To briefly borrow the scare tactics of Hollywood’s C-11 playbook: If we bend to the major studios’ argument, we are only a few steps away from seeing something like the recently announced Deadpool 3 being defined as a Canadian film. I mean, why not, right? It stars a Canadian (Ryan Reynolds), is directed by a Canadian (Shawn Levy) and features, um, a comic-book character who is famously Canadian (Wolverine). Who ultimately owns the IP and where do all the eventual revenues go? Never mind that, silly – just give the nice Deadpool people their Canadian tax incentives, thank you, and please don’t compel Disney to promote other productions that might have anything to do with genuine Canadian culture.
Credit where it is due: Hollywood has become such a powerful global force because it has perfected the art of telling stories that audiences want to hear. And right now, it wants to tell us that it can make Canadian movies just as good, far better even, than we can. All without supporting the country – its economy, its culture, its artists, its audiences – it purports to care so very much about.