- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 21 Jan 1999, p. 330-338
- King, Allan, Speaker
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- The most interesting year in a decade, for those concerned about freedom, cultural sovereignty and public policy in film and television. A top-to-bottom review of television policy by the CRTC, as well as a comprehensive review of feature film policy by the Ministry of Canadian Heritage. The problem stated. The lack of ability of the country to sustain its own film industry without government funding or regulation. Why this is so. The need to subsidise, and two questions that arise: Is there any real value in being able to hear your own voice in your own home?; If so, what is the most effective way of enabling this? Discussion follows. The question of identity. The need for a distinct identity. Cultural diversity and its positive effects. Some statistics to show how we do in this realm. A proposal to broadcasters. Comparisons with other countries. Federal policies and their effects. Learning why we have not yet created a healthy base for Canadian feature films. What falls under provincial law and the results of that structure. The issue of theatrical distribution. Some of our successes. New worlds of feeling being explored in feature films. Ways in which feature films rise beyond entertainment. Some comments on entertainment and art and society. Recommendations to the Minister for Canadian Heritage from the Feature Film Advisory Committee. The future of Canadian feature films. Providing support to the Minister to champion the extraordinary potential of Canadian films.
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- 21 Jan 1999
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- Full Text
- Allan King, President, The Directors Guild of Canada
CREATING A HEALTHY BASE FOR CANADIAN FEATURE FILMS
Chairman: George L. Cooke, President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests
Ken Shaw, National Editor, CFTO Television and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Rev. Vic Reigel, Honorary Assistant, Christ Church, Brampton; Tammy Mohammed, Grade 11 Student, Bloor Collegiate Institute; Elizabeth McDonald, President and CEO, CFTPA (Canadian Film and Television Production Association); Piers Handling, Director, Toronto International Film Festival Group; The Hon. Isabel Bassett, MPP, Minister of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation; Peter Grant, Partner, McCarthy Tetrault; Robert Morrice, Head, Media and Entertainment, Royal Bank of Canada; and Ann Curran, Partner, Lewis Companies Inc. and Third VicePresident, The Empire Club of Canada.
Introduction by George L. Cooke
It is my pleasure to introduce as our guest speaker today, Mr. Allan King, President of the Directors Guild of Canada. The Guild is a national labour organisation representing 5,000 key creative and logistical personnel in the film and television industry. In 1962, the Guild began as an association of creative film directors and expanded into all areas of the production, design and editing of film and television in Canada.
Last August, when we agreed to have Mr. King speak to our Club to "celebrate the accomplishments of our better known directors and also the sophistication of the industry," who would have thought that today's headline in The Globe and Mail would read: "Panel wants mandatory Canadian films on TV." I would like to tell you that we were clairvoyant-but it is not so. We are, however, a relevant, non-partisan, speakers' forum that encourages and enables informed and constructive speakers to express their views.
Allan King is one of Canada's leading filmmakers. His prolific career spans four decades. As an independent filmmaker, Mr. King opened a studio in London, England in the early 60s. He pioneered the then novel techniques of cinema verite and "direct cinema" and he garnered a reputation as the most innovative and controversial director in Canadian film.
By the mid-60s, he moved toward a genre he describes as "actuality drama" shaping spontaneous action into dramatic form to explore personal experience.
I don't have the time to list all of Mr. King's many awards and accomplishments, but I must highlight a few.
His film "Warrendale" was acclaimed by Jean Renoir as the most remarkable documentary he had ever seen. It won the Prix d'art et d'essai at Cannes in 1967 and shared the British Academy's Best Foreign Film Award and the New York Critics' Award.
He followed this success with "A Married Couple," described by Clive Barnes, the New York Times' Critic, as one of the best films he had ever seen.
In 1983, Mr. King offered one further essay, a two-hour documentary on unemployment, "Who's in Charge?" It earned him his most treasured epithet: "Media Monster of the 1980s." Despite the rage it aroused, the programme received invitations to the Toronto and London Film Festivals.
Allan King made his first dramatic feature film, "Who Has Seen The Wind?" in 1976. It won the Grand Prix at the Paris International Film Festival and the Golden Reel Award for the highest grossing Canadian film of the year.
His "Ready for Slaughter" won the Banff Festival's Best TV Drama in 1983. Mr. King has also directed many episodes of the Emmy Award winning series "Road to Avonlea," earning a Gemni Award for Best Direction in 1992.
In 1988, Mr. King was given the Ontario Film Institute Award for Excellence in Canadian cinema. And, in 1998, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, in recognition for his long and distinguished career.
Mr. King, welcome to The Empire Club of Canada.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you, though I never speak without remembering the painter, Bruno Bobak, who said that all artists should have their tongues cut out so that they can't talk about their work or about cultural politics.
For those of us concerned with freedom, cultural sovereignty and public policy in film and television, this has been the most interesting year in a decade. Last spring the CRTC rightly thought it wise to call for a top-to-bottom review of television policy. At about the same time the Honorable Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage, called for a comprehensive review of feature film policy. Although feature films and television drama face the same problem, policy for them has been strikingly different.
The problem is this. With the exception of the United States of America, no country in the western world is able to sustain its own film industry without government funding or regulation. This is not because Americans have innate superiority as creative artists. It's because they have a home market four times and a language base 10 times greater than their closest competitor. It is also because the size of their budgets-now over $55 million, plus $20 million for promotion-dwarf the average budgets of films anywhere else in the world.
The size of their home market assures American producers huge economies in the relation of cost to income and allows their product to be dumped, in effect, in other countries. It is an advantage that overwhelms competition in all markets.
Therefore, if a nation wants its own film and television entertainment, it must subsidise it. Two questions arise:
Is there any real value in being able to hear your own voice in your own home? If so, what is the most effective way of enabling this?
The first question is about identity-a subject so chewed over in Canada that one hesitates to tackle it again. But the issue has absorbed me most of my life--obsessively for the past four or five years. It is at the heart of the feature documentary I have just finished. The film is set in Estonia and is called "The Dragon's Egg."
There are only a million and a half Estonians and one-third of them are Russian speakers-most of them put there by Stalin. The Estonian Estonians say it's like having a dragon's egg laid in your nest; you wait in fear for it to hatch. Canadians have a phrase about elephants, mice and sneezing. Quebeckers fear being lost in an Anglo mer de merde. The fear of being overwhelmed by another culture or country is a fundamental one. Can a society survive without real internal communication? Perhaps. Estonians say they have survived for the past five thousand years by hiding in their impenetrable forests and language-but small as it is, Estonia subsidises broadcasting and feature filmmaking.
Do we need a distinct identity?
Child studies show that one cannot fully mature without a clear sense of both personal identity and identification with a group. Psychiatrists say that nothing is so horrifying as the loss of identity; it's at the heart of schizophrenia.
There are two opposing forces grappling for dominance in the world. The first is the concept of a popular culture originating in Hollywood and distributed worldwide by multinationals around the world. Some have dubbed this the McWorld idea of culture.
An opposite force is at work in some countries, which focuses on censorship and protectionism. So concerned are these countries with the attack by McWorld on their value systems that they try to ban that expression. That focus on fundamentalism has been called the Jihad idea of culture.
Both theories of cultural dissemination, the McWorld concept and the Jihad concept, are opposed to true cultural diversity where cultural dissemination is a two-way street. Cultural diversity implies a world where no one view of life dominates cultural expression, a world where we are able to see and hear stories from a number of cultures, including our own, and where we celebrate differences instead of trying to obliterate them.
Only when differences are acknowledged and accepted can those who hold them feel safe enough to see the much broader field of common values which they and all humans share. Understanding comes from communication and being able to put oneself in the place of the other-to see the view from both sides-that of 'us' and 'them.' And it is in the field of art and entertainment that values are pre-eminently expressed. The evidence? Observe your children in front of a television set watching cartoons or movies.
In English Canada we have always been in danger of being unable to see the world even from our side. Canadian films have less than 1 per cent of screen time in English Canada. The U.S., by contrast, offers about 2 per cent of its screen time to the work of all other countries of the world combined.
In television drama we do better. Over the past few years, through a combination of regulation and public funding, our television networks have been exhibiting about 3-1/2 hours of original Canadian drama a week in prime time. It was thought a bold stroke (Izzy Asper called it dangerously socialistic) for the Directors Guild and others to propose that the CRTC ask each Canadian TV station or network-as the price of its licence to print money (the phrase of another great Canadian television baron)-to include an hour a night of Canadian entertainment, seven nights a week in prime time-in effect doubling the 3-1/2 hours to seven. And we asked that broadcasters spend 7 per cent of their budgets on these programmes so they might be well made.
It seems a modest enough proposal. It asks less than any other western country already provides and it has taken us four decades to reach even this level. But if you started your career at the beginning of television in Canada, as I did, the growth of Canadian content on TV is astonishing. It didn't happen by chance. It is the direct outcome of prudent, incremental government policy. There are two strands--one for television, the other for feature films. Television policy has been an outstanding success. Feature film policy has been hog-tied.
Since television is under federal jurisdiction it was possible to put an economic structure in place which acted in the public interest. This began with the CBC as the first solid base for Canadian content and for the fostering of Canadian talent. Private stations were then allowed to develop into networks, to offer competition to the CBC, but were required to show a growing level of Canadian content. Finally, the independent production sector was created, again by public policy, through Telefilm Canada. And a real market for talent and creativity resulted. An industry was developed and this is precisely what the Broadcasting Act and the Canadian Film Development Corporation were asked to do.
These policies vastly increased the number, quality, and, especially, the diversity of Canadian television drama, for example "Traders," "Emily of New Moon," "DaVinci's Inquest" and "Lexx." At the same time, the volume of American production here in Canada grew exponentially. The role of the low cost of the Canadian dollar is well known, but the size and skill of the talent base, which was created directly out of public policy initiatives, were equally important.
We have not yet created a healthy base for Canadian feature films, but we have certainly learned why.
Theatrical exhibition and distribution fall under provincial law. Eighty-five per cent of Canadian distribution is in the hands of six major Hollywood studios. Two of them own almost all Canadian theatres. As an oligopoly, the majors dominate every aspect of the entertainment world--from film and television production to music recording, publishing, broadcast and cable TV and theme parks. Their sole obligation--quite rightly--is to their shareholders. The majors are all but unreachable by public policy. Therefore it has been remarkably difficult to affect the structural economics of feature filmmaking in Canada. The policy instruments so successfully applied to create a Canadian television industry have been impossible to apply through provincial theatre acts.
We have achieved outstanding success with such films as "Crash," "The Sweet Hereafter" and "The Red Violin." Their gifted directors, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Francois Girard regularly contribute world-class, original work. Promising new talents like Lynn Stopkewich, Jeremy Podeswa and Thom Fitzgerald are emerging. But far too few of our features reach the market with the promotional support they deserve. We have at last got one mini-major distributor with Alliance Atlantic. We need at least two or three more. That, too, will happen only through government policy; the muscle of Alliance's theatrical distribution depends on its good fortune in having landed and retained the rights to the Miramax and New Line libraries.
Most other Canadian theatrical distributors work under a crippling handicap. Few international films are available to them. North American film rights are tied together as one market. If you want distribution of your film in the United States, you must also sign over Canadian rights. Film rights must be separated. Canadian rights to independently produced films must be opened to bidding from Canadian distributors. We need a real market.
Why are feature films so important? Because feature films are at the heart of a healthy audio-visual culture. They are its most creative and rewarding expression. We pay to see them in theatres. We buy them at video stores. Only after they have moved through the market are they offered up for free, like TV drama, as filler for commercials.
It is in feature films that new worlds of feeling are explored. This is where exciting new discoveries are made. At their best, feature films rise beyond entertainment. Entertainment is something that holds and refreshes us between the more gripping engagements of real life. Art aims to make real life meaningful. It is our primary way of exploring and expressing feeling. From cave paintings to the present day, art is humankind's way of learning, of 'playing at life,' as it were, without getting killed. It allows us to 'experience' experience. Loving and hating are at the root of all feeling and feelings are at the root of all action and of all value judgments. The real world now changes with dizzying speed. A society that is unable to ground its values freshly in the midst of this change will inevitably endure intolerable social stress.
Making feature films attracts our brightest and best. Without a vibrant feature film industry, we will always and inevitably export our best talent. It is a culturally devastating loss. It is also a preposterous economic waste. Imagine mobilising our educational system to train doctors, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in order to send the most brilliant of them abroad to serve and enrich another economy? That is what we do in film.
The Feature Film Advisory Committee is submitting its recommendations to the Minister for Canadian Heritage today. Based on wide consultation throughout the industry, it will recommend that a minimum of $150 million be directed to feature films, with 100 million of these dollars coming from redirected present funds and $50 million in new federal funds. As balloons were floated about where
the money is to come from, you could hear the cries coming from every corner: Not me! Not me! Distributors fear a modest tax will damage them, though they are most in need of government assistance. If we move to amend our Competitions Act to open the market to fair bidding for non-proprietary films, you know who will scream. The furore has already begun.
The last time I spoke about the future of Canadian feature films was shortly after NAFTA was signed. There was intense debate on whether or not it secured our freedom to exercise 'cultural sovereignty.' We are perfectly free to pass Bill C55 and protect Canadian magazines from the unfair competition of split-run magazine imports, but the price is a threatened trade war and three or four billion dollars in retaliatory levies on Canadian exports. Some sovereignty! Some freedom! The United States demeans itself by such intolerance. After a decade of unmatched prosperity, the U.S. can surely afford to give others room to speak--especially in their own homes. The world needs more diversity, not less. Diversity enriches us all.
But, finally, the problem is ours. It's time to put aside petty squabbling, to give up warring with ourselves, to stand up. Not for a decade has a minister had the courage to champion the extraordinary potential of Canadian films. Let us give her the united support she deserves. It is time for us to summon the nerve to author our own destiny.
The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Ann Curran, Partner, Lewis Companies Inc. and Third Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada.