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Canadian Film Awards Underscore Issues With Attention, Distribution, And Funding

The Canadian Screen Awards doled out some of its top trophies last night. BlackBerry was Thursday’s top winner, with 11 awards in a week-long ceremony honouring film, television and almost everything else we watch on our screens. 

But perhaps more than anyone else, Canadian filmmakers are learning that not everything that glitters is gold. Because despite success at Cannes — and a few unforgettable notes at the Oscars — Canadian films and filmmakers still make up a small sliver of the box office, and a dismal ripple in a sea of streaming platforms.

In 2023, Canadian films made up just three per cent of the Canadian box office, largely supported by the outsized successes of BlackBerry and the country’s new cultural behemoth, Paw Patrol.

It all paints a dismal picture for the health of the Canadian film industry. To take the temperature, and ask for answers, CBC News asked three members of the industry to see what they think about whether Canadian film can be saved.

WATCH | Director Albert Shin on fixing Canadian film: 


Director Albert Shin on the ‘magic button’ to fix Canadian film

Canadian director Albert Shin speaks to CBC News about the difficult state of the Canadian film industry, and whether there’s anything that can save it.

For Albert Shin, the job has never been easy. But it’s getting even tougher.

“You’re really … hustling to have some kind of sustainable career, to support yourself and to be able to do what you do,” he said. 

“There’s really no way to sugarcoat it. It’s really, really tough.”

Because even after directing two acclaimed films — 2014’s In Her Place and 2019’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill — last year’s Hollywood strikes and the subsequently contracting marketplace have put his future in jeopardy. (“I would say ‘austerity’ and ‘contraction’ are two very apt words,” Shin said about the current landscape.)

“Sometimes you’re thinking several years out, you know, and then sometimes — nowadays — I’m thinking, ‘Is there an audience left by the time this movie hopefully gets made?'” he said. “Will movie theatres exist? Will people care?'”

A smiling woman holds up a trophy. On the trophy is a small toy tank engine.
Composer Erica Procunier, who won an award for best original music for her work on the animated series Thomas and Friends, is pictured at the 12th Canadian Screen Awards, May 29. Even as the awards celebrate Canadian film and TV, some are asking whether there’s more cause for worry. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

That has come due to shrinking or disappearing film festivals, fewer films being made per year, less demand for those films from streamers and fewer people going to the theatres.

Though those issues are seen internationally, Shin says the last two in particular have been felt in Canada. Even as Canadian filmmakers create films, get awards for them and endeavour to get them seen, their box office results aren’t reflecting their efforts.  

“Is it partly on us as filmmakers to make better movies?” he asked.

“It’s like, what can we all do collectively? And I think there’s a lot of things that can be done, but, you know, I don’t think there’s a magic button.”

WATCH | Elevation Pictures’ co-president says commercialization is the way forward: 


Noah Segal on working with streamers: ‘They think commercially, not culturally’

Elevation Pictures co-president Noah Segal says there is demand for international productions from streamers like Netflix. The issue is what type of stories they’re hungry for.

Noah Segal has his own opinion on why things have been getting harder, as the co-president of Elevation Pictures, one of Canada’s largest film distributors. But what’s not up for debate is whether there’s an appetite for content from this country.

“There are 40 million Canadians. And they don’t just want what the Americans want to give them.

“The streamers have recognized that globally — they’re buying Squid Game, they’re buying Narcos,” he said, referring to the hit TV series set in South Korea and Colombia, respectively. “They want their Canadian version of [those shows]. And they want features that fit that bill, too.”

That increased interest in non-American content could bode well for Canada — a country where 98 per cent of feature film consumption is currently done at home, according to a Telefilm report

Getting streamers to choose Canadian films is a different story though, he says. For years, the money and focus has gone toward Canadian films that are, Segal says, more probing, earnest and “arty.

“The average consumer may not want to see that on a Friday night when they come home from a busy week,” he said. “So we’re going to have to make a bit more effort to be commercialized.” 

The moves have already begun on that. After a few dismal COVID-19 years, Canada’s 2023 English-language box office hit $10.6 million — the highest in nearly a decade (though, without adjusting for inflation, only slightly above the average going back to 2001).

Segal sees part of that being due to the more commercial bent some Canadian films have taken, like 2021’s Paw Patrol movie, which made over five times more than that year’s top 10 English-language films combined. 

Meanwhile, 2023’s highly commercial BlackBerry managed to scoop in $1.8 million as the year’s second-place earner. (Paw Patrol‘s second film was first.)

Combined with rave reviews for more accessible Canadian films like Guy Maddin’s Rumours and Donald Trump biopic The Apprentice co-produced by Toronto’s Scythia Films, Segal says Canada is learning its lesson — if slowly. 

“The U.S. has always faced this. They’ve never got subsidy support to make their films, so they’ve had to find a market,” he said. “Canadians are going to have to find a market for their content, and that’s the challenge.”

WATCH | Chandler Levack says diverse voices ‘are succeeding in spite of’ the system: 


Chandler Levack says Canadian film is fine. It’s just not getting chances

I Like Movies director Chandler Levack tells CBC News that there is a huge number of capable Canadian filmmakers ready to work. They’re just not being given the chance.

But it’s not just about simplifying the stories, director Chandler Levack said. 

Canadians have been able to directly pitch to foreign distributors and platforms — the audience and faith from executives just don’t exist here, she said. 

For Levack’s efforts, despite making the much-lauded I Like Movies in 2022 and now working on her second feature, she says she has never managed to profit from an independent film project. 

I Like Movies was the ninth most successful English-language release the year it premiered, she said, and pulled off the unusual feat of making back its budget. But she’s still left owing her distributor money. 

She says it’s never been more terrifying to be a filmmaker.

“It’s just kind of wild, in terms of how to sustainably make a living doing this, if Canada is your only market for your films?”

A young man and woman sitting on the floor smiling.
Burlington filmmaker Chandler Levack (right) and lead I Like Movies actor Isaiah Lehtinen (left). Levack said she and Lehtinen formed a close bond during filming. (Submitted by Mongrel Media)

In her mind, the answer is twofold. The first is to shake off the stigma of Canadian movies being boring or an afterthought — and not just by going commercial. 

Instead, it’s to look for diverse and interesting voices — people and projects like Sophie Depuis’s Solo or Luis De Filippis’s Something You Said Last Night.

“If you bet on us, you would see how we would really thrive and create really interesting, progressive content,” she said. 

“But I think people are just stuck in this mentality that Heartland is what Canadians want to see on screen. Or like, let’s say, the 95th Murdoch Mysteries spinoff.”

Betting on them, Levack says, means more trust in filmmakers with more to say, but also — importantly  — more marketing. While some Canadian filmmakers, like Emma Seligman and Kyle Edward Ball, are cited as prime examples of filmmakers saving the industry on a shoestring budget, Levack says there’s no cool Canadian distributor or marketer, akin to America’s A24, generating excitement and putting them on Canadians’ radar. 

And if Canadians don’t know about the fantastic content they’re already putting out, there’s no reason to go see them at the theatres — and definitely no reason to care about their awards at the CSAs.

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