Two years ago, director Matt Johnson launched an attack on the Canadian film industry.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail in late 2015, the Toronto filmmaker slammed such venerated institutions as TIFF, and thoroughly eviscerated Telefilm, the 50-year-old federal agency charged with investing upward of $100-million annually in Canadian cinema.
"You have a dozen filmmakers who, no matter what, are going to get funded by Telefilm and, no matter what, are going to have their world premiere at the biggest festival in the world [TIFF]," he said at the time. "You have a groove so deep-set for these filmmakers – filmmakers who are culturally irrelevant and have been for 15 years. They don't struggle. They just have to show up." Johnson's solution for such industry malaise? "A lot of people just need to die of old age for the system to change."
This coming Tuesday, the system will change – but nobody had to die to make it happen. What's more: Johnson is one of the key architects of Telefilm's bold new future.
On the morning of Nov. 28, Carolle Brabant, executive director of Telefilm, will announce critical updates to the agency's support of first- and second-time Canadian filmmakers, heralding a new wave of artists that may well reshape the country's cinematic landscape.
Starting next year, Telefilm's five-year-old microbudget production program will be renamed Talent to Watch, and will more than double the number of projects it finances. The agency will commit to supporting 50 films a year, capping cash funding at $120,000 for each movie; create a new support system in which previous Telefilm recipients will advise and guide new filmmakers; and create an automatic stream for internationally recognized short-film directors to receive funding for their first feature.
Outside of the microbudget arena, Telefilm will automatically green-light the second projects of filmmakers whose first features were recognized at top-tier international festivals such as Cannes or Berlin, contributing $500,000 a film.
Essentially, Telefilm is opening the floodgates for emerging, hungry filmmakers eager to make their mark in Canada and beyond.
"When we created the microbudget program five years ago, it came out of hearing from film schools and emerging talent saying how difficult it was to make that first film," Brabant said in an interview this week.
"We needed a way to create a path to success. And in the conversations we've had since then, we created these new programs to further discover and nurture talent in an environment that's less financially risky."
Those conversations included consultations with industry players and Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly during her cross-country listening tour – but also Johnson, not too long ago Telefilm's most vocal critic, and his producing partner Matthew Miller. The connection was made just three months ago by another perhaps improbable player: occasional Johnson target Niv Fichman, co-founder of Toronto's Rhombus Media.
"We finally met, and I basically challenged him: 'You're talking on behalf of emerging filmmakers, but you're now part of the establishment,' " Fichman recalls. " 'You have to help if you're serious about this, to design the program that you think should exist.' "
Fichman, who has a long history of producing first-time filmmakers, gave Johnson and Miller "homework," he says. "I asked them to write their plan out for me, with the aim of me being able to forward it to Carolle."
They did just that, and in late September, Fichman invited Johnson, Miller and Brabant to a quiet lunch at his home – "It'd be weird if people saw us together in a restaurant" – where, he says, "they all clicked like crazy."
"I was impressed that Carolle's first instinct wasn't to push Matt away, but to say, 'Why is this guy so upset? I want to hear from him,'" says Miller, who produced Johnson's ultralow-budget debut The Dirties (shooting cost: $10,000) and follow-up film Operation Avalanche, as well as the pair's Viceland series Nirvanna the Band the Show. "Carolle's ability to put ideas into action is amazing."
Initially, the filmmaking pair were skeptical. "When we said 50 films a year for about $120,000 each, we were prepared to bargain down," Johnson says.
"We thought, 'We better ask for something ridiculous because it'll turn into 50 per cent of that.' "
Brabant, though, was all in.
"Of course it was difficult not to hear their complaints. But it's always been my way to consult with people who are talking about things not working well, and what they said really resonated with me," she says. "At Telefilm, we thought it was time to change the initiative and beef it up."
The Talent to Watch program will largely be financed through Telefilm's Talent Fund, a private-donation fund supported by individual donors and partners. (Since the program's inception in 2012, it has supported 73 microbudget projects.) "We'll be working very actively to find additional sources of funds for this new program," Brabant says.
The automatic-green-light program for second-time filmmakers, called Fast Pass, will come from Telefilm's regular funding pool. "We're saying this is a reward for those who've done well internationally, like Andrew Cividino," Brabant says, referring to the director whose debut feature, Sleeping Giant, played Cannes in 2015.
The incoming 50 directors under Talent to Watch will be selected on creative merit by a yet-to-be-determined jury of artists, with an emphasis – but no quotas – on diversity. "I can guarantee that it's going to be an extremely diverse range of films," Johnson says. "Give us a year to see if we can do it. If anyone's upset come this time in 2018, we can talk about changing."
In terms of success metrics, no one involved anticipates 50 first-time indie sensations. Or even a fraction of that number.
"When we first created the microbudget program, it was called the 'right-to-fail' program," Brabant says. "It's a first film. Some are going to be more successful in reaching audiences. But if some of them are able to make a second or third film, that would be our goal."
Johnson is more blunt. "The success of the program is the moment we give the money away," he says. "The goal is to introduce the country to a wave of new voices that we would never have seen otherwise. If we see anybody who cracks the surface of this, even one person, we will be so much further than we were five years ago.
"And once somebody demonstrates that they're onto something, we're ready for them with [Fast Track]," he adds. "They don't need to hustle for that second-feature money or go to Los Angeles to waste eight weeks looking for an agent. … This is a sea change in film funding."
Adds Miller: "We want Canadians to be watching these films, to watch the filmmakers grow – and to keep them here. That's how you grow an industry."
If the once-unlikely team of Brabant, Johnson and Miller have their way, the program's reach into the notoriously hard-to-crack industry will simply grow exponentially over time. "It should go on forever," Brabant says. "Hopefully, it will."