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For Canadian films to succeed, put audiences first

Want to go see a great Canadian film this holiday season? Great, me too. But the movie listings will confirm that the multiplex is largely devoid of homegrown offerings, neither commercial-minded nor art. So where are the movies? They are getting made, and the national film funder Telefilm has a much-needed plan to ease the path to make many more, but most won't be discovered by Canadians at the box office or anywhere else.

I have spent my career in the business of Canadian film as a production and distribution executive and yes, I admit, lots of people think Canadian films are not for them – and many more would be hard-pressed to name one from recent memory. There is a paradox in the missing cohort of current homegrown films and filmmakers at the box office. It's not a lack of talent. Canadians make movies for Hollywood every day. We have the best movie craftspeople on the planet. It, X Men: Apocalypse and Blade Runner 2049 are recent Hollywood releases made mostly by Canadian crews. It's also not a lack of market. Canadians spent around a billion dollars on movie tickets last year. So why has it become so rare for an English-language Canadian film to connect with audiences?

It's mostly about time and money. It takes ages to get a movie made in Canada. Public, private and distribution funding are not aligned and every project is competing with others for these scarce dollars. Producers try hard to develop scripts that they feel have the greatest chance to receive this money. In last week's Telefilm announcement, I was glad to see that someone such as Andrew Cividino, the talented filmmaker behind the beautiful art film Sleeping Giant, will have an easier time getting his next movie made. Of course, since all Canadian theatrical films rely to some extent on public funds, it will make it harder for the director who wants to fund, say, her zombie movie or hockey comedy, for now anyway. The pendulum in Canadian movie funding swings between an auteur-driven model (the current announcement) and the commercial "Success Index" model, brought in a few years ago, which primarily rewarded market interest. Art to commercial and back again, with some excellent films at the extremes. Think Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg at one end and Michael Dowse's Goon at the other.

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But the truth is, despite our pluralism, the system in Canada has stayed largely homogeneous and is increasingly out of touch with contemporary audiences, be it art-house aficionados or multiplex moviegoers. Films are made with little regard to how they will be discovered or received here or internationally. New voices that represent the multicultural reality of Canada have not emerged in sufficient numbers to take advantage of the programs offered. Diverse, urban Canadians form the vast majority of the movie-going audience and yet are poorly represented on screen. Women get more chances to direct, but the career-changing opportunities remain elusive.

Enough with the pendulum, then. Let's make a range of films for audiences both big and small and work from there to produce a mix of art and broad entertainment that has a shot at success by reflecting the Canada of today. Call it the Tetherball Model – the funding ball goes around the circle with its direction and velocity determined by the many audiences standing around it.

Here's an example: Can we make movies specifically for the huge cohort of active, urban seniors who love films but have aged out of going to Justice League? This crowd wants comedies or dramas with heart, but don't need giant stars with big paycheques. The critical and commercial success of films such as Maudie and The Grand Seduction are prime examples. We can afford to make such films for our own consumption, and export them around the English-speaking world. Or consider family animation, where Canada has a huge pool of talent and the cost of production has plummeted in recent years with the advent of new technologies. As all parents know, movies are a great activity for kids on a dark February day. Last winter's Canadian animated feature, Ballerina, is a rare example of a non-Hollywood kids' film that worked at the box office and played around the world, including in the United Statess (where it was called Leap). Or, since many Canadians kids of South Asian descent go to see Bollywood and Hollywood movies in equal measure, let's foster a unique Canadian South Asian filmmaking tradition. Whether you think about audience by age, gender, geography or community, Canada should train filmmakers to create stories that want to be heard.

A distinctly Canadian challenge is the lack of Indigenous participation in our national cinema, which agencies such as Telefilm and the Canada Council for the Arts have recognized with the creation of specialized funding programs. Anyone who has seen one of the very few examples of such films, including the breathtaking action-adventure Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and this year's festival darling Indian Horse, knows that oral storytelling traditions can be perfectly attuned to the medium of film. Now let's train the filmmakers: get mentors into communities to get kids making movies on their phones and match with serious apprenticeship opportunities. Never in history has the Canadian arts community been so receptive to redressing historic inequities and properly funding Indigenous content. The industry must act now to capitalize on this potential.

When spending precious public and donation-based funding, it is essential to remember that people go to see movies that reflect their lives and values. There are meaningful stories and great entertainment constantly created by new Canadian voices on many platforms. Through mentorship and outreach, those voices can learn to cross the funding minefield into mainstream filmmaking, where others will follow. Without an active, hands-on plan to reach a wider range of Canadians, our brilliant national cinema project will wither. Even gender parity among filmmakers, an issue that the industry is now urgently addressing, will not flourish without a kinetic strategy to draw in new communities and mentor that talent. We have the right intentions and the right goals. Now, to succeed, we need to put audiences into the picture.

Mark Slone is a long-time film distribution and production executive, and president of SloneSoup Productions.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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