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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 ...

Specifically, he believes the NFB can instigate civilized debate, with documentaries that get Canadians talking about issues such as legalizing prostitution or the conditions behind the headlines about Attawapiskat. “To have these discussions is a wonderful thing,” he said.

When Perlmutter first arrived at the NFB in 2001, it was an institution that was fading into irrelevance, struggling after 1996 budget cuts that reduced production and closed regional offices. It was already an unusual survivor: Founded in 1939, it rose to prominence making homefront propaganda during the war, and continued after 1945 as a producer of Canadian content in a Hollywood-dominated landscape. Under Norman McLaren, it was an innovator in animation and the observational documentary style known as direct cinema. It was celebrated for its short films, such as McLaren’s 1952 Oscar-winning Neighbours, and groundbreaking docs such as 1969’s You Are on Indian Land and 1981’s Not A Love Story.

This was the famous collection that Perlmutter began to digitize after getting the top job in 2007. “There was this immense collection of treasures that would be seen on television and then disappear ... everybody asked: How do we see your stuff?” he said.

Digitization may seem like a no-brainer, but the process is both expensive and time-consuming, requiring legal clearance for any music or images used in a film, decisions made on which versions (French, English, short, long, subtitled) to preserve, and a painstaking restoration of the celluloid version. Then there’s the question of which digital format to use, among the two dozen available. The NFB’s solution, a just-in-time system that turns each celluloid treasure into a relatively small “mezzanine” file from which other formats can be generated, is innovative enough that the board hopes to license it. It also has an educational media player on the website (which lets teachers assemble clips from multiple films) that it hopes to sell to users outside Canada.

Increasingly, Perlmutter, who also has an MBA from the University of Toronto, is looking to the private sector to pay for expansion. He’s in discussion with potential investors in a Netflix-like documentary service for both Internet television and mobile platforms. The move is central to his vision of the NFB as an international media player, but can it attract enough subscribers?

“It’s a good idea and I really want it to work but it is going to require a lot of marketing,” said Chris MacDonald, executive director of Hot Docs. “The public is keen to watch documentaries [but] it’s a crowded marketplace. They will have to be clever about finding audiences.”

Perlmutter points out that these private-sector partnerships, while they will help the NFB reach audiences, are not a substitute for public funding – the NFB gets an annual government grant of about $67-million and earns another $7-million itself – and that he can’t keep reallocating the 5 per cent. “The problem is, it’s a short-term strategy,” Perlmutter said. “We can make ourselves leaner and more efficient, but it’s not investment.”

Meanwhile, further budget cuts have forced hard decisions: Last year, when the government announced a cut of 10 per cent over three years, Perlmutter laid off 73 people and shuttered the NFB’s two popular public screening rooms, in Montreal and Toronto, the “mediatheques” that gave the film board a presence in the heart of both cities.

Of course, the public increasingly accesses content online – nfb.ca and the apps have received about 41 million views since the site launched in 2009 – and Perlmutter believes that relationship will become even more interactive. Transmedia storytelling projects such as Journal of Insomnia, Bear 71 and High Rise (the Emmy-winning project about urban living that The New York Times – and now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – has joined) offer documentary content through which the audience can navigate at will. The interactivity aspect of the work is what gets Perlmutter most excited.

“Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, it has all been seen as a different pipe, a different delivery system but ... these are also media of invention and creation,” he said. “We need to explore what is the language, the grammar, the aesthetics. It’s something different. It’s not cinema, it’s not television, it’s not magazines. ... It is so rare to be at a birth of a completely new art form. It’s like being in 1900 at the birth of cinema, when you have got people like Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith playing around with bits of celluloid. ...

“People will say it happened in Canada, it happened at the NFB.”

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