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National Film Board of Canada chairman Tom Perlmutter. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
National Film Board of Canada chairman Tom Perlmutter. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

How Tom Perlmutter turned the NFB into a global new-media player Add to ...

When Tom Perlmutter took on the top job at the National Film Board of Canada in 2007, he did what was expected – travelled to Ottawa and began knocking on doors. He found a sympathetic audience among bureaucrats and politicians who agreed the NFB was a worthy thing and should digitize its remarkable collection of Canadian film, but nobody actually produced any cash for an institution that was gradually slipping into obscurity. So Perlmutter decided to give up. And that was how he saved the NFB.

“Five years ago I was told we had no money to do what we wanted to do,” Perlmutter said. “… I went back [to the NFB office in Montreal] and said, ‘Wait a minute. Yes, budgets are eroding, but we do have money.’ That was the start of saying we are going to do things.”

Today, the NFB, which offers more than 2,000 films from its catalogue online at nfb.ca and through a popular smartphone and tablet app, is considered a global leader in both reaching audiences on multiple platforms and in pioneering the new field of transmedia, telling documentary stories on interactive websites.

The NFB is in Cannes this week, invited to the inaugural transmedia component in the festival’s powerful commercial market, to introduce Bla Bla, Vincent Morisset’s animated film-for-computer created by the viewer using a touch screen. That follows a headline-grabbing stop in mid-April at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it screened Journal of Insomnia, a project that asks users to take a late-night phone call to link to a site filled with interactive content about their condition.

At the end of April, in the midst of the Hot Docs festival in Toronto where it showed docs debating cancer care and the treatment of mentally ill offenders, the film board announced it planned to launch a Netflix-style documentary subscription service. More buzz followed a week later: The NFB released Perlmutter’s strategic plan to become a major player in the global media landscape by 2018, and won its seventh Webby, the Internet’s equivalent of an Oscar, this time for Bear 71, a transmedia project that used video collars on bears to collect footage. Meanwhile, the NFB’s work on interactive projects with both The New York Times and The Guardian is ongoing.

At home and abroad, the organization is fusing Canada’s traditional strengths in documentary and communications technology with its newer reputation as a new-media leader to build a uniquely accessible cultural institution dedicated to storytelling and democratic dialogue.

“By marrying documentaries to new media, they are making public service sexy again,” said Toronto documentarian Kevin McMahon.

And the film board is achieving all this without ever receiving the $5.7-million that Perlmutter requested back in 2007. Convinced that digitization was non-negotiable, he decided to allocate 4 to 5 per cent of his annual budget toward that end; to date, the NFB has spent $5-million on the project.

“I like what Tom is doing,” said Cameron Bailey, artistic director at the Toronto International Film Festival. “He is one of the last visionaries in Canadian film, but a visionary who doesn’t just dream big, but is able to do.”

A surprising mix of fervent old-school documentarian and media-age technocrat, the soft-spoken 64-year-old Perlmutter may seem an unlikely revolutionary. The son of a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Montreal from Hungary as a child, he was educated at McGill and Oxford and spent a decade working in Britain in publishing before returning to Canada and building a career as a documentary producer. He has a philosophical bent and typically, when he made the decision to apply for the job of general director for the English-language side of the NFB in 2001, he wrote out a manifesto for himself, articulating why the organization mattered and what it was he wanted to do.

“Coming as an immigrant, coming from a family of Holocaust survivors, you are coming from a place where you are marginalized, so immediately you say: ‘How do we create a place where we connect with others? How do we create communities despite where we come from, despite whatever baggage?’ ”

Officially, the NFB still has a markedly nationalistic mandate to unite Canadians by telling them about each other, but Perlmutter thinks it can play a more nuanced role.

“Traditional notions of national identity are out the window, particularly in Canada: You can eliminate this agonizing over who we are. ... What is interesting is how do you create this postmodern nation anchored in common democratic values no matter what your personal religion or culture?” he said. “Culture plays a significant role: Through cultural means you can explore things that may be difficult through other means.”

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