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The critically acclaimed Antigone is one of the top-line nominees in the Cinematic Arts category of the Canadian Screen Awards.Courtesy of TIFF

If the Canadian entertainment industry had to boil down its mantra over these past few months to one word, it might simply be: “Survive.” At least that is the case for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.

“Has it only been eight weeks? I can’t believe that; it feels like it’s been literally four months,” says Beth Janson, chief executive of the ACCT, over the phone last week. “For the first weeks, we were in crisis mode. And shell-shocked.”

In March, the ACCT was two weeks away from unveiling its eighth edition of Canadian Screen Week, a giant annual industry confab that celebrates homegrown film, television and digital media, and which would have been capped off with the televised Canadian Screen Awards gala. But then COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Suddenly, nine months of intense preparation and careful arts-industry diplomacy were put on indefinite pause. Sponsors had been booked, cheques to the telecast’s writers had been cut, and the nominees – all 1,598 of them across 144 categories – had been waiting to see if this was going to be their year at the podium.

“We were right there ready to hit go, and we had to walk away from it all. That’s hard to do; not in the context of being an emergency-room doctor or anything like that, but it knocks you off your centre,” says Janson. “Afterward, though, we looked at where things are and what our members need right now, and how we can bring our community together.”

Which is how the ACCT landed on announcing the winners of this year’s CSAs in a series of live-streamed “virtual presentations." From May 25 through May 28, the CSAs will unveil its 2020 winners across its social-media platforms on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, with each segment featuring footage of the nominated productions and narrated by such industry icons as Eric McCormack, Herbie Kuhn and Lloyd Robertson.

The series will open with the Broadcast News category and close with this year’s Cinematic Arts slate. That latter category is top-lined by the films White Lie, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, The Twentieth Century, Anne at 13,000 ft. and Antigone – all critically acclaimed works from the film-festival circuit that rely upon CSA word-of-mouth to boost precious general-audience exposure.

CSA nominees such as The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open typically rely on word-of-mouth to find a wider audience.Experimental Forest Films

“It feels strange to have the awards before our release, while cinemas are closed,” says Kazik Radwanski, director of Anne at 13,000 ft., which is up for four CSAs, including best picture, best director, best lead actress (Deragh Campbell), and best supporting actor (Matt Johnson). “But we look forward to opening Anne in Canada and the U.S. when it’s safe to.”

While other arts organizations have taken a wait-and-see approach when it comes to revisiting delayed events – the Juno Awards, originally set for March 15, have yet to announce plans for either restaging its gala or announcing this year’s winners – the CSAs decided that it was either now or never.

“We’re stuck at home, we’re looking for new things to engage with, and we wanted to get this word out now so that we didn’t lose any of the momentum of the year,” says Janson. “If we looked at doing something like this in October, we are so far beyond being relevant in terms of things getting awards that it just doesn’t work. We may get criticism, but we felt comfortable that this timing was okay and that waiting any longer would do a disservice to the nominees.”

Announcing the winners through social media, with recipients encouraged to upload their home-shot acceptance speeches afterward, might seem like an unusual approach for an unusual time. But it also fits well with the evolution of the CSAs itself, which began in 2013 as a somewhat gangly hybrid of the Genie and Gemini awards that initially relied on parachuted-from-L.A. hosts (Martin Short, Howie Mandel, Norm Macdonald), before taking a more explicitly homegrown approach (Jonny Harris and Emma Hunter), and then opting for no host at all. Also, it was not as if the ACCT could simply resurrect the CSAs-as-planned later this year.

“We are a non-profit. We scrape by, and every penny that we earn goes into what we do,” says Janson, who notes that the ACCT had to eliminate contract positions and furlough two staff positions in its Toronto and Quebec offices (the latter of which is still planning for the Sept. 20 broadcast of the Prix Gémeaux, honouring French-language television).

“We couldn’t remount something that we’d already paid 60 per cent of, and we don’t want it to look cheap or rushed or slapdash. That’s why we landed on doing something that’s different but still sophisticated, and something that the winners and nominees will be excited about.”

While there are countless issues at the top of people’s minds right now other than awards shows, the hard-hit entertainment industry can use all the good news it can get. And if there was ever any moment that benefited from shining a spotlight on typically under-seen and under-valued Canadian content, now is that time.

Normally I like to say something really controversial or biting, but this time I really can’t say anything other than how very lucky I feel to be a part of this industry,” says Janson. “So often there are alliances and allegiances in this industry, with one company against the other. But I’m overwhelmed right now by how the industry has come together. We have really big issues to face, and we cannot solve this total disruption singularly.”

The Canadian Screen Awards will be live-streamed March 25 through March 28 (academy.ca)

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