When the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were announced in January, a strange and rarely felt sensation began to radiate from Canada’s chattering class: pride.
Look at us, Hollywood’s low-budget neighbour to the north, producing a wealth of made-in-Canada Oscar-certified sensations! There was Turning Red, writer-director Domee Shi’s love letter to her hometown of Toronto, which is up for best animated feature on Sunday. Nominated in the same category was The Sea Beast, from the mind of prolific Kitchener, Ont., animator Chris Williams. What about Toronto documentarian Daniel Roher, nominated for his timely political documentary Navalny? And of course, there was the big headline: Sarah Polley’s Women Talking – a drama shot in Canada, co-starring several Canadians, and adapted from a novel by Canadian author Miriam Toews – which scored nominations for best adapted screenplay and best picture. It was a Canadian invasion of the likes not seen since 1812.
The only bubble-bursting trouble with this narrative is that none of the films noted above is, technically, Canadian. They have been made by Canadians, many of whom started their careers in Canada. But they are not – and, for the health of the Canadian film industry, should not be – considered Canadian movies.
To understand the reasons why, you have to get into the bureaucratic weeds of some heavy-duty acronyms. These include the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office (CAVCO), which co-administers two federal tax credit programs with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). And while we’re here, we might as look at everyone’s favourite piece of Canadian legislation, Bill C-11, better known as the Online Streaming Act.
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Do I still have you? Maybe let’s take a cue from Hollywood and cut to the chase: It’s all about the money.
Is the film funded by a Canadian company? Are the film’s intellectual property (IP) rights owned by Canadians? Or does the movie just happen to involve a lot of Canadian talent, financially backed by a Hollywood outfit or another foreign-owned entity?
If the answer is that last option – as it is for Turning Red (produced by Disney), The Sea Beast (Netflix), Navalny (CNN Films, HBO Max, a handful of other U.S. production companies) and Women Talking (Plan B and Frances McDormand’s Hear/Say Productions) – then it simply isn’t fair or accurate to call those movies Canadian. Just as no one would consider Avatar: The Way of Water a Canadian film, despite it being helmed by James Cameron, the favourite son of Kapuskasing, Ont.
This is also why you don’t see any of the films mentioned above up for nominations at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, as much as the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television and its broadcasting partner the CBC would love to have some celebrities on hand for this year’s gala.
Already, I can sense the outcries, or maybe just the shoulder-shrugging. They’re Canadian enough, what’s the problem, cut the tall poppy syndrome already etc. But as the intense debate around C-11 has revealed, it is important for the health of this country’s screens industry – which has helped Polley and so many other marquee filmmakers get to where they are today – to understand just how much the sector has at stake in this game of rhetoric and red herrings.
Under the current CRTC rules, a Canadian production can only qualify for financial incentives, including tax breaks, if it has Canadians in key creative positions (director, writer, star) and is at least 75 per cent financed by Canadians or Canadian companies that retain the IP rights. If a Canadian company makes a successful movie inside the Canadian system, then it will have incentive to keep doing so. This means that Canadian artists and craftspeople – actors, writers, assistant directors, set designers, makeup artists – continue to get work, and that Canadian stories continue to be told for (presumably) appreciative Canadian audiences.
Anything else – such as U.S.-backed productions coming up here to shoot, then leave – means that the industry is reduced to mere service production. This isn’t all bad: It means that our skilled workers get jobs. But any money that those films make gets sent right back to Hollywood, not reinvested into the Canadian system to contribute to Canadian culture.
The domestic film industry as it stands is – it might not surprise you to learn – far from perfect. There are issues of resources, talent pools, star systems, discoverability, arbitrary box-ticking, marketing, proper exhibition, and myriad other obstacles and challenges that cause Canada’s film community to exist in a state of perpetual panic and struggle. But if we are to have any hope of getting it to work, even just a little bit better, then we need to embrace some cold, hard truths about what makes a Canadian film Canadian.
So as much as an American behemoth like Disney would like to convince Canadian politicians and regulators that Turning Red should be considered Canadian content under C-11, the Mouse House is not going to suddenly stop sending the film’s revenues directly back to its Magic Kingdom in Los Angeles, either. And then there is the question of how much faith Canadian audiences should have in trusting American studios to keep on telling “Canadian” stories.
Certainly, our country’s film industry has already reaped the benefits of this year’s Canadian-ish Oscar nominees. Turning Red has surely inspired an unknown number of young animators studying at Toronto’s Sheridan College, Shi’s alma mater. Women Talking, which was shot here at Polley’s insistence, has raised the international profiles of its Canadian performers, including relative newcomer Michelle McLeod and veteran actress Sheila McCarthy.
And I don’t begrudge any Canadian filmmaker in the slightest for securing financing where and when they can. The opportunities at home to make large- or even medium-scale films are so rare that the decision to partner with a foreign backer isn’t often much of a decision at all.
Even if Women Talking doesn’t end up taking home an Oscar or two Sunday night, Polley’s career has been given such a well-deserved boost by the nominations that she will have an easier (not easy, but easier) time spending her new creative capital on whatever she might choose for her next project. Whether that’s a Hollywood-backed production or a film that’s developed and funded here is her choice. We should be proud – yes, there’s that weird feeling again – that Polley and others like her have been able to reach such a point.
But if we want to keep producing future Sarah Polleys and future Domee Shis and future Daniel Rohers and so many others, then we need to also remind ourselves of just what it means to make, watch and celebrate Canadian cinema. For your consideration, and theirs.
Canadians at the 2023 Oscars
- James Cameron, writer-director of Avatar: The Way of Water, nominated for best picture, best visual effects, best production design and best sound
- Sarah Polley, writer-director of Women Talking, nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay
- Brendan Fraser, star of The Whale, nominated for best actor
- Chris Williams, writer-director of The Sea Beast, nominated for best animated feature
- Domee Shi, writer-director of Turning Red, nominated for best animated feature
- Daniel Roher, director of Navalny, nominated for best documentary feature
- Ina Fichman, producer of Fire of Love, nominated for best documentary feature
- Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, co-directors of The Flying Sailor, nominated for best short film (animation)
- Adrien Morot, makeup artist of The Whale, nominated for best makeup and hairstyling