If I wanted to see a Canadian film in a Toronto cinema this weekend, I'd have some interesting choices. I could see Atom Egoyan's Holocaust-revenge thriller Remember; I could see the much-praised drama Room; I could see film critic Brian D. Johnson's documentary about poet Al Purdy.
Truth is, who goes to the movies saying, "I want to see a Canadian film?" Both at home and in the multiplex, people pick their viewing by genre – they are up for action or pining for romance – and Canadian is not a genre. The lack of a clearly defined brand is a central conundrum for those who want to promote Canadian film.
That's why the Canada's Top Ten initiative is so smart. Since 2001, the Toronto International Film Festival has selected what its programmers consider the best 10 Canadian films of the year and then runs a festival of those titles in January. This year's list, announced this week, includes the Philippe Falardeau political satire My Internship in Canada; Alan Zweig's doc about Steve Fonyo, HURT; Patricia Rozema's apocalyptic drama Into the Forest; and Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson's psychedelic, multinarrative extravaganza The Forbidden Room. Unless you're a film buff, you've probably not heard of these films, and those four are among the best known on the list.
But that is rather the point. Canada's Top Ten positions itself as an arbiter of taste. You'll notice that the most notable of the year's big titles – Paul Gross's Hyena Road; Egoyan's Remember – have not made the cut. (Room, an Irish-Canadian co-production, doesn't qualify because the director, Lenny Abrahamson, is Irish.) The list brings attention to artistic achievement rather than crowning existing success, two things that may or may not be related.
So what's the brand? The brand is quality. It's not as popular a movie genre as romcom, action-adventure or even documentary, but it has the potential to position Canadian film in a niche from which some audiences will recognize it and seek it out. That looks like a smarter strategy than continually hoping that the next plucky, populist Canadian feature will somehow break through the Hollywood noise. For decades, the industry debated how Canadian films might earn a larger share of the Canadian box office – the amount is usually below 2 per cent for English Canada – as Telefilm Canada put the stress on funding winners. Trouble is, in the words of the wise old impresario, "If I knew what was going to be a hit, I could just produce that." Who knew Score: A Hockey Musical would bomb, but The Grand Seduction would soar? You can't pick hits, but you can promote a reliably diverse and high-quality independent cinema.
As Telefilm has switched its emphasis to a wider measure of success that includes not only the theatrical box office but also income from streaming and recognition at festivals, a more sensible approach has taken hold. Several initiatives fly domestic movies under the big-budget marketing radar to deliver them straight to Canadian eyeballs. This year, Canada's Top Ten is expanding its five-city national tour to Ottawa and Halifax while TIFF's long-running Film Circuit takes Canadian and foreign films to smaller communities. REEL Canada keeps up its good work getting Canadian films into high schools. And the streaming service Canada-screens.ca is offering you 12 days of 99-cent rentals this Christmas.
Canada is never going to challenge Hollywood at the box office, but it may yet create a connoisseur's brand in which a Canadian film sounds like an experience as reliably pleasurable as an Okanagan wine or a Giller-nominated novel.