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Great news for Canadian filmmakers! Madonna has dropped out of the Superbowl broadcast on Sunday. Her absence gives the Genie Awards on CBC Television, running opposite the pigskin battle, one more flicker of hope.

Some of the expected four-million Canadian Superbowl viewers will now have cause to flip away from the lure of colliding muscle mass and thigh-flashing cheerleaders to something a little humbler; a modest group of dressed-up Canadian filmmakers, honouring each other at the awards's 20th anniversary at Toronto's Metro Convention Centre.

There's something to celebrate this year, beyond the birthday, and even the almost constantly improving artistic quality of Canadian cinema: The pure tenacity of the Genies. After 20 years of hanging on by its fingernails, getting dropped by the CBC two years ago, seeing cutbacks from its government sponsors, changing its airdate from spring to winter and back again, travelling as far east as Montreal and as far west as Mississauga, the Genie Awards have survived.

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The show has even survived the critics, who have drubbed the Genies from the beginning, as a bunfest for folks who live off taxpayers' money to make films few people go to see. Maria Topalovich, who has headed the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television (the organization that produces the Genies) for the past 20 years, and remains the Canadian film industry's most tireless and loyal cheerleader, has heard it all.

"We've been a lightning rod for every grievance they have with Canadian film," admits Topalovich. "If there are problems with distribution or marketing the films, if they don't like the choices the voters made, the Genies are to blame."

Finally, of course, the biggest knock against the Genies is simply that it has never been the Oscars. The show represents the Canadian inferiority complex incarnate, a celebration of semi-celebrities, congratulating each other on movies that are often not advertised on television or even available to see at the local cineplex. Never mind that most film-producing countries have their own awards ceremonies: Here in Canada, we're just too close to Oscar's glare.

Joe Bodolai, who, along with producer David Rosen, has been handed the job of producing the Genie gala for live broadcast on Sunday evening, likes the symbolism of football versus film: "It's a metaphor for making films in Canada really. It's the Superbowl every day."

By throwing it opposite the black hole of television viewing, the CBC has it both ways: If the show draws as poorly as it generally has the last few years (last year's Genies drew 341,000 viewers over its two-hour broadcast), there's a ready-made excuse. If it gets a respectable audience, then it's an example of masterful counterprogramming. (Typically, American networks throw romance movies opposite the Superbowl, to attract women viewers.)

If the Superbowl is stereotypically American mass entertainment, the Genies aren't a bad alternative: Instead of high five's and instant replays from eight angles, you can watch a live broadcast of an event that has some modest perspective. One of the guiding rules behind the production of this year's show is "honesty." Bodolai, an independent writer-producer ( Saturday Night Live, Comics)puts the principle into practice. "Calling the Genie Awards show a challenge would be an understatement.

"You watch The Golden Globes and it's a terrible show that nobody even has to direct. The camera pans the audience and there's Tom Cruise. There's no entertainment required, just cutaways to stars. No offense, but it's just not the same clout to cut away to Saul Rubinek. Awards shows work because people have a stake in the outcome. The number of people who are knowledgeable about Canadian film is a pretty elite circle. Our whole industry is like one big Sundance. The public just doesn't have that stake. So part of our job is to provide that background, to really show enough of the films that people can care about them, and do it all in a way that's entertaining, self-deprecating and respectful without being reverent."

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"To think of this as the Oscars without money is just wrong," adds Rosen. "We have a show to make that's intended as a celebration of Canadian film. But what's the show about? It's not a variety show. It's about knowledge, background and access."

It's not about stars. Canada's directors (Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg) are more famous than its actors, which reflects the art-house orientation of most of our best work. This year the rules have been opened up to include movies that are Canadian minority co-productions and to allow foreign actors (Ralph Fiennes, Bob Hoskins this year) to be eligible for awards if they star in Canadian movies. Neither of the English actors is expected to show this weekend, but their absence hardly represents a blow to the Genies.

The competing films include Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's Sunshine (14 nominations), Egoyan's Felicia's Journey (10 nominations) and Jeremy Podeswa's Five Senses (nine nominations). Next in line are films by two Quebec filmmakers: François Bouvier's Histoires d'hiver with seven nominations and Louis Bélanger's Post Mortem with five, then Cronenberg's eXistenZ,with three. For a Sunday night audience, a little background wouldn't hurt.

The set is designed to look like a movie backdrop and the show will work on the vogueish "behind the scenes" theme. Host Patrick McKenna, an actor-comedian known for his work on the television series Traders and The New Red Green Show,will provide a kind of regular fan's perspective on Canadian film, and Burton Cummings will provide a musical number, reprising a previous Genie performance when he sang the song from the 1982 film, Melanie.

A plan to focus on the history of sex in Canadian film had to be scrapped because it was too much trouble getting the clearance for the film clips. The show will try to strike a balance, avoiding excessive silliness ("I believe that one year there were actually dancing Mounties," recalls Bodolai) and will also try to cut out the boring stuff because, as Bodolai reasons: "To my knowledge, there has not been one intelligent discussion in a single café in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver about the relative merits of the sound editing in Felicia's Journey as opposed to Sunshine."

No one is pretending the Genies are the last word in swankiness or glamour, but if, as the philosophers say, humour arises from a sense of disproportion, than Canadians have laughter on their side.

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As well, the industry is not as young as is sometimes imagined. Canadian film awards have been going on since 1949: The Genies are just the most recent and formal incarnation -- emerging from the seventies' boom in Canadian cinema. In those years, Canadian film laboured under its tax-shelter stigma, which too often meant worthy vehicles with international stars, or simple exploitation movies. Now there's more cause for pride, with Canadian films honoured at Cannes and the Oscars, and praised by international critics.

Also, while the estimated $250-million a year in Canadian film production isn't huge, a lot of people are employed in the industry: About 1,500 of them are expected to be in Toronto this weekend to network and celebrate Canadian filmmaking. The academy is essentially craft-driven, with 20 different categories of film professionals each voting on the awards. The juries are voluntary, the screenings widely available, and the peer nomination process above reproach, whether the critics like the results or not.

What remains is a troubling gap between the critical and public taste for Canadian film. The odds of a Canadian movie-ticket buyer choosing a Canadian movie are about one in 50. In spite of low viewing numbers (the Genies have only occasionally cracked one-million viewers), a Genie win can help at the box office. Genie laureates ( Margaret's Museum, The Hanging Garden)can expect a definite bump at the Canadian box office in the weeks following the awards.

Internationally, Genie Awards are now recognized both in international press about Canadian movies and in video guidebooks. In the past few years, says Academy head Topalovich, there has been a serious risk that the Genies might not survive. Financial cutbacks from the federal government (through Telefilm Canada) and provincial government (through the Ontario Film Development Corp.) have put it at risk. Unlike the cash-cow Oscars, the Genies, which are independently produced and licensed to the CBC, lose money each year.

Yet, when a real risk threatened, the Genies proved to have strong roots in the industry. One demonstration of support came two years ago when, in a period of ratings-obsessed alarm, the CBC decided to drop the show. The decision flew in the face of CBC's cultural mandate and looked bad. The year that Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter earned two Oscar nominations, the Genies were carried, a day late, on the cable channel Bravo! instead of the public network. Many other broadcasters also devoted extra time to Genie advance pieces. "We never had so much coverage on the other networks, more week-long interviews and profiles of Canadian filmmakers," Topalovich says.

By and large, the Academy represents ordinary people in the trenches of the film industry: "We're not a corporate big-gun board," says Topalovich. "A lot of the work is done by about 1,000 volunteers each year."

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Apart from the financial worries, she says, the climate for Canadian film is more positive these days. Especially in the last five years, the self-consciousness about Canadian entertainment products seems to have dissipated. Canadian cinema is relatively hip. Younger fans relate to Sarah Polley or Don McKellar the way they do to the Tragically Hip or Sarah McLachlan. Nationally, TV shows such as Open Mike with Mike Bullard push Canadian material along with Hollywood product.

Thus, it's the job of Bodolai and Rosen to take the positive momentum and to sell Canadian film to an audience that should be pleasantly surprised. They have served, collectively, on 10 previous Genies. Bodolai also wrote the 1992 Gemini Awards, a deliberate and successful attempt to repatriate Canadian show biz by not flying in a lot of displaced Canadian talent from Los Angeles as producers or hosts of the show. Instead, they began using Canadians who work here. Together, the two men ran up the top three rated years of the Geminis (the Genies' counterpart for television) in the early nineties. "We've gone back over the tapes," says Rosen. "I must admit it was fun to watch what they tried to do sometimes in the past, but we also know what doesn't work."

In the past, Rosen says, he and his friends often watched the Superbowl, just to rate the various multimillion-dollar commercials especially made for the broadcast. "I should point out that we won't be watching those really expensive, amazing Superbowl commercials in Canada," says Bodolai. "They'll substitute Canadian ones on the simulcast." He also says there will be a rule against anyone wearing "white boots" on the Genie Awards -- just so no viewer accidentally gets the two shows confused.

SELECTED NOMINEES

In the major categories, the Genie Award nominees are: Best Motion Picture: eXistenZ -- Robert Lantos, David Cronenberg, Andras Hamori Felicia's Journey -- Bruce Davey The Five Senses -- Camelia Frieberg, Jeremy Podeswa Histoires d'hiver -- Claude Gagnon, Yuri Yoshimura Gagnon Post Mortem -- Lorraine Dufour Sunshine -- Robert Lantos, Andras Hamori Achievement In Direction: Louis Bélanger -- Post Mortem Atom Egoyan -- Felicia's Journey Jeremy Podeswa -- The Five Senses Léa Pool -- Emporte-moi István Szab -- Sunshine Original Screenplay: Louis Bélanger -- Post Mortem Bruce McCulloch -- Dog Park Jeremy Podeswa -- The Five Senses Léa Pool -- Emporte-moi Monique Proulx -- Le Grand serpent du monde Adapted Screenplay: François Bouvier, Marc Robitaille -- Histoires d'hiver Jean-Philippe Duval, Alexis Martin -- Matroni et moi Atom Egoyan -- Felicia's Journey Kim Hogan -- Heart of the Sun Wayne Johnston -- The Divine Ryans Monique Proulx, Jean Beaudin -- Souvenirs intimes Actor in a Leading Role: Gabriel Arcand -- Post Mortem Denis Bouchard -- Histoires d'hiver Joel Drapeau-Dalpé -- Histoires d'hiver Ralph Fiennes -- Sunshine Bob Hoskins -- Felicia's Journey Daniel MacIvor -- The Five Senses Actress in a Leading Role: Elaine Cassidy -- Felicia's Journey Jennifer Ehle -- Sunshine Rosemary Harris -- Sunshine Sylvie Moreau -- Post Mortem Mary-Louise Parker -- The Five Senses Supporting Actor: Gabriel Arcand -- Le Grand serpent du monde James Frain -- Sunshine William Hurt -- Sunshine Alex Ivanovici -- Histoires d'hiver Mark McKinney -- Dog Park Supporting Actress: Suzanne Champagne -- Histoires d'hiver Catherine O'Hara -- The Life Before This Deborah Kara Unger -- Sunshine Rachel Weisz -- Sunshine Kathryn Zenna -- Jack & Jill

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