When Wayne Clarkson took the thankless job of heading up Telefilm Canada in January, 2005, he ruefully joked that his biggest challenge would be finding an apartment to rent in Montreal. To no one's surprise - least of all Clarkson's - a pied-à-terre in La Belle Province was, by far, the easiest aspect of Clarkson's five-year mandate.
The reality for a Telefilm CEO is that it's impossible to please everyone. Regardless of who has filled the head honcho's shoes during the federal funding agency's 43 years, the hue and cry from the industry has always been the same: If you're a bully, as Clarkson's predecessor Richard Stursberg (now executive vice-president of CBC English services) was widely perceived to be, then you meddle too much. And if you're a gentler personality, as is the 62-year-old Clarkson - a fixture in Canadian arts and culture for 35 years - well then, you haven't made enough noise or got enough done.
As he prepares to exit the agency's Bathurst Street headquarters in Toronto and to let go of his Montreal pad, Clarkson took some time to discuss the highs and lows of trying to juggle the demands of government bosses (always desperate to hold budgets in check) with the needs of cash-strapped independent filmmakers, who, particularly in English Canada, struggle on a daily basis to get Canadians to watch their movies.
"When I first came in, I took the Hippocratic Oath that says Do No Harm," he says. "But my guiding light has been to help Canadian talent, to create Canadian movies or TV programs that engage Canadian audiences and the world."
Does he think he has succeeded? He concedes that English-language cinema - which accounts for just 1 per cent of total domestic box office - still lags well behind the country's French-language film industry, which captures 26 per cent of total box office in Quebec.
"We all know there's no one simple solution" to bridging those two solitudes, says Clarkson, who before joining Telefilm was head of the Canadian Film Centre, an incubator for emerging filmmakers. "French Canada is a nation of approximately nine million people, surrounded by 350 million anglophones, and the value they place on culture is second only to health and daycare.
"English-language Canada is almost the reverse, and English-language feature film is marginalized. That's just the way it is."
Still, he adds, "Internationally, we're a nation that is admired for our movies … We go to Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and Venice. English-Canadian cinema struggles for its place on the map, but our co-productions travel the world. And frankly, I'm tired of always trying to live up to a 5-per-cent-of-the-[total English Canadian box office]report card. To do so will require more money in the system," Clarkson asserts, "which is not going to happen.
"But as long as we're making Canadian TV dramas, documentaries and movies that are available to the Canadian public - that's the real deal."
During his tenure, Clarkson's critics have accused him of merely tinkering with - rather than overhauling - the system responsible for approving and funding English-language features. He has heard the complaints, but believes he has made strides in making Telefilm a more "efficient and effective administration, particularly through the merger of two big go-to funding agencies, the Canadian Television Fund and Telefilm.
"Those were difficult negotiations, because Telefilm was giving up governance over our broadcast money, while remaining administrator of those $300-million-plus funds [now called the Canadian New Media Fund] That happened my first year. I didn't plan it, but it was a major undertaking ... that fundamentally altered the nature of this organization for the better in the long term."
Early on, Clarkson also had to deal with a mess at the Montreal Film Festival (now called the World Film Festival), from which Telefilm yanked its funding. A 2004 study of Canada's major film festivals, commissioned by Telefilm and its Quebec counterpart, Société de développement des enterprises culturelles (SODEC), found the Montreal festival to be poorly managed and inadequately funded. Telefilm subsequently pulled its $525,000 annual investment from the WFF to bankroll a competing festival that failed after just one year.
"That was, again, something I inherited and dealt with as best the agency could. I think we were consistent in demanding greater accountability and governance, and when those standards were met, we renewed our financing. And we support them to this day."
Eighteen months into the job, he also had to deal with the embarrassing hiring/non-hiring of Los Angeles-based studio executive Michael Jenkinson, who reneged at the last minute on a position that would have seen him overseeing approval for roughly $80-million in funding for English-language feature films. Clarkson had to step in and fill that role. And although he did not personally sign off on such Telefilm-funded movies as Passchendaele , Bon Cop, Bad Cop , De pere en flic , Silk , A History of Violence , One Week and Blindness , he says he's proud of those titles.
"When I came in, I wrote a list of what I wanted to do, and I wanted a Canadian film to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. That didn't happen, but we got nominations in other categories for [Sarah Polley's] Away From Her and [David Cronenberg's] Eastern Promises ," he points out. "We got close."
His regrets? They include the federal government's elimination in 2008 of a $3- to $4-million national training program that assisted emerging filmmakers. "I thought it was shortsighted and could not figure it out." He also was keenly disappointed by Ottawa's decision to shelve an international co-production fund.
Is he predicting who will succeed him? The front runner is rumoured to be Michel Roy, the current chairman of Telefilm's board and father of hockey superstar Patrick. But Clarkson maintains he has no idea if such a rumour is well-founded.
As for his own future, for the next 12 months, Clarkson is going to hang out at his Muskoka cottage, and also hike Spain's 800-kilometre Camino del Santiago with his wife. "I have to say the last five years have been the most challenging, most stimulating period in my life," he says.