Mina Shum was fresh out of film school, a self-described nobody, when a script she had been working on was accepted into the Praxis Centre for Screenwriters. She was able to work on it for days with an experienced mentor – in her case, screenwriter John Frizzell – and return the next spring to hear the reworked script read aloud by actors. Two years later, her debut feature, Double Happiness, was on the festival circuit, winning awards, propelled in part by Praxis.
"It was great because there's no other program in Canada that studies and celebrates and fosters the screenplay artist – not the director, not the producer, the writer," said Ms. Shum, who lives in Vancouver. "We're talking about original ideas coming from Canadians. And the great thing too is they really foster new voices, which wouldn't have a hope in hell now in the film landscape."
Ms. Shum has returned several times as an adviser to emerging screenwriters between her many other projects. But it appears her services will no longer be needed.
The Praxis program, which has operated out of Simon Fraser University since 1987, will end next year, its funding cut to the point where continuing is impossible.
"We've just been coasting on the funds we have left and some money that we socked aside, and that's running out," said Patricia Gruben, a filmmaker and professor at SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, who founded and runs the program.
The centrepiece is the annual feature film screenplay competition, in which eight screenwriters are chosen from across the country to come to Vancouver and work on their screenplays, tuition-free, with advisers – who have included Don McKellar, Atom Egoyan, Dennis Foon and Robocop writer Michael Miner. Most return in the spring, when each script is cast with professional actors and readings help the writers make further changes.
Ms. Gruben figures nearly 300 writers have gone through the program and more than 30 Praxis scripts have been produced– including Jacob Tierney's The Trotsky, starring Jay Baruchel, and, going way back, Thom Fitzgerald's award-winning debut feature, The Hanging Garden.
"It's really so valuable to be able to sit down with someone who knows what they're doing and look at everything," said aspiring screenwriter Cathryn Atkinson, who went through what could be the program's final fall workshop earlier this month. Ms. Atkinson, who is arts editor at Pique Newsmagazine in Whistler, was chosen from more than 100 applicants. She said that after going through the workshop with veteran Bruce Sweeney (The Dick Knost Show), her script can be sent out in an effort to raise funds.
Praxis – which also includes seminars and other programs – was established with $233,000 a year from the provincial government. When SFU became the chief funder a few years later, the operating fund dropped to just over $110,000. Ms. Gruben raised money from other sources, but a contributor, BC Film (now folded into Creative BC), that gave the program $25,000 a year, pulled out a few years ago as it dealt with its own funding problems. Money from other sources including Telefilm, the Harold Greenberg Fund, Corus Entertainment and a local IATSE branch continues, but it is not enough to sustain the program in its current form, with an annual budget of about $70,000 a year (which does not include salaries for Ms. Gruben and her part-time assistant, which are covered by SFU).
Ms. Gruben is not blaming SFU – which rightly, she said, is focusing on academic credit programs. She believes the province has dropped the ball. "For many years, they've shown no interest in supporting the local film industry … despite the fact that there's already a large talent pool and infrastructure here," said Ms. Gruben, who laments the exodus of filmmakers and production companies to Toronto. "If this government invested half the money in our indigenous industry annually that they gave to the Times of India Film Awards this year, we'd have something that would be closer to sustainable."
Ms. Gruben said she is committed to running part two of the program for the current Praxis cohort – which also includes writers from the Yukon, Manitoba and Ontario – but then, without intervention, it will be shut down.
"To remove a stepping stone for eight screenwriters every year this way would be a big loss," Ms. Atkinson said. "These are people who want to do their work in Canada, most of them, and if they didn't, they'd be going to Los Angeles. And that should be respected and supported. They want to tell Canadian stories to Canadian audiences, and that's super important."