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Beth Janson believes it’s ‘more important than ever’ for Canada’s voice to be heard on the world stage – and screens. (Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail)
Beth Janson believes it’s ‘more important than ever’ for Canada’s voice to be heard on the world stage – and screens. (Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail)

Film academy CEO on how to get Canadians to care about Canadian content Add to ...

Should the Canadian Screen Awards use that envelope-juggling accountant from PricewaterhouseCoopers who messed up the Oscars?

Say what you will about the gut-wrenching finale, people were certainly talking about the show for days afterward. And the CSAs, which on Sunday night will celebrate the best in Canadian films and TV shows, could use whatever publicity they can get.

Last June, Montreal-born Beth Janson returned from 20 years in the United States – where, among other jobs, she had been executive director of the Tribeca Film Institute – to take over as CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, which oversees the CSAs. Her first task? Figuring out how to get Canadians excited about an awards show celebrating movies that almost nobody has seen.

Why come home to take a seemingly thankless job like this?

I felt like I had a unique perspective on what was coming out of Canada. I was just blown away by the quality of the work, and by the unique perspective of it. The technology piece has always been really exceptional on the world stage. I was always amazed that the average Canadian had no idea.

“The technology piece”?

The work that’s being done in Canada in interactive storytelling and gaming.

Ah. Okay, so you’re excited about Canadian content, but how do you persuade regular folks to care about the CSAs when most of them haven’t even heard of the best picture nominees?

That’s obviously the heart of the question I ask myself every single day. The way the Canadian industry is set up right now, we fund people to make work, but we don’t fund people to market work. If people don’t know a film is out there, and you’re not marketing it to them as American companies do, then you won’t get people to see it. It’s not that complicated, actually. So, one of the things I’d like to see the Canadian Academy do is actually market our content to average Canadians.

But never mind marketing; most of these nominated movies haven’t even been in theatres yet.

First of all, half of the films can be seen on iTunes. I would like to have all of the films available somewhere digitally for people to watch, from the time the nominations are announced, to the time of the Screen Awards. You can build momentum around that if people can see it. That’s a bigger problem than I can solve right now.

Not to go down the rabbit hole of film distribution economics, but if you put a film on iTunes, most theatres won’t book it afterward because you’ve sharply reduced its value.

That’s obviously a question that a lot of distributors and theatre owners are talking about, and my opinion is you can have both.

But you’re basically saying, “Well, these movies aren’t going to make any money in theatres anyway, so let’s just go for the biggest audience”?

Or do both. What is the goal here? Is the goal to have people see your film and talk about it and celebrate it and have it as part of their consciousness? Or is it to get people in a seat, in a theatre, to watch it on a big screen? This new world is all about choice, and if you insist, “No, no, no, you have to see it in a theatre”; unless you’re creating an event around that – which I think the Academy can do, actually – good luck! Great. So you lose out on half your audience.

Do you really think Canadians care where their art and/or entertainment comes from?

Well, that’s a very loaded question.

We’re The Globe and Mail! We ask these loaded questions!

[Strangled sound] Ahh. Okay! “Do I think Canadians…?” Yes, I do. This is just conjecture, but I think most Canadians are proud of the fact that they’re Canadian, and they want to celebrate that. But what the average Canadian wants is good content. And we have it here in this country. We don’t have the brand but we have the talent, and we just have to create the brand, you know? And I’d much rather have the talent without the brand than the other way around.

The idea of creating a “Canadian star system” has been floated for decades. The CSAs are supposed to be part of that. Do you really think it’s possible?

No, I don’t think you create a Canadian star system. You figure out a way to authentically celebrate talent that’s already doing its thing. So [in terms of the Junos], CARAS [the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] helped support the soil that we’re growing our talent in, and helped to celebrate those successes, right? But CARAS did not create The Weeknd. Canada created The Weeknd.

One of the complaints about the CSAs is the number of categories. There are, what, 7,000?

144.

Okay, 144. Is that too many?

Yes.

What would be optimal?

[Exhalation] Ahh. Umm … I think fewer would be better. I haven’t – I think that, when we combined the Genies [film awards] and the Geminis [English-language TV awards] – that was only five years ago, and so I think we have realized over the course of those five years that it’s unmanageable. You can look for changes and reduction in the number of awards when we announce the call for entries in the summer.

What is the overall goal? Why is it important for us to produce our own content? Is it, for you, an issue of cultural, economic, political sovereignty?

It’s a question of Canadian identity, and that’s a perpetual question that Canadians have always struggled with. At this point, with voices of intolerance and protectionism in the world, for Canada to have a voice on the world stage I think is more important than ever. I think that Canadian content and Canadian voices are central to us moving forward as a country.

Howie Mandel is hosting the CSAs this year. Previously, you’ve had Martin Short, Andrea Martin and Norm Macdonald. They’re all great talents, but what does it say about the industry that the Academy always turns to Canadians who – like you – have made it in the States?

That’s a very difficult question to answer. I’d say, give me a chance. I haven’t had a year yet. I haven’t had the chance to really dig in on a lot of this stuff.

But I will say that also I think crossing borders and going places and coming here – that’s a part of being Canadian. It’s kind of unique. So I wouldn’t discount it. You know?

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