Canada's Academy Scrambles to Get Genies Back in the Battle For TV Viewers

6:21 AM PST 01/16/2012 by Etan Vlessing

A boardroom clear-out, new eligibility rules and a CBC air date aim to restore an awards show for Canadian films few see at the multiplex.

TORONTO - Two crises confront the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television as it gets set Tuesday to unveil nominations for the 2012 Genies, the country’s film awards.

The familiar crisis is the tiny audience for homegrown films at the local multiplex outside Quebec, which has left TV viewers over two decades mostly ignoring Canada’s answer to the Oscars.

The new crisis is the Academy, which organizes Canada’s film and TV awards, last summer wielding a broom to replace president Sara Morton and her 22-strong board of directors with a 12-strong board of Toronto power players and interim president Helga Stephenson.

Though led by new leadership and new competition rules, the Academy is taking baby steps to make the Genies more relevant and watchable for ordinary Canadians.

The entry fee for low-budget short and feature films has been cut to secure more awards show bait.

And a commercial theatrical release is no longer required for a local movie to qualify for Genie consideration.

Screening at two accredited film festivals now makes a film eligible.

“The business has changed a lot. And we felt that was way too onerous a requirement to place on a film,” Stephenson said of another rule change to shrink from three to one week the theatrical lifespan a Canadian film requires to compete at the Genies.

The rule changes managed to get more Canadian features in front of Genie competition juries this year -- 46 in all, against 33 features last year.

Here the Academy is following Telefilm Canada, the federal government’s film financier, in looking beyond theatrical box office to international film festivals to grade homegrown movies.

Canadian directors no longer need to succeed at the local multiplex, or die of shame.

Telefilm Canada’s new “success index” instead abandons a long-standing goal to grab 5 percent of the Canadian box office to now include measuring how long critics and industry peers stand to cheer Canadian films at Cannes or Sundance.

That conveniently replaces an intractable present with an implausible future.

The Academy’s Stephenson insists it takes time to work through reforms, especially when there has to be consensus.

She’s promising a national advisory council to be unveiled this spring to restore a voice at the Academy for fly-over provinces beyond Toronto and Montreal.

And the Academy, which was in financial straits before shuttering its Vancouver office last year, is chasing private dollars to offset a possible reduction in government sponsorship.

Elsewhere, the Genies have returned to an over-the-air network, the CBC, after losing stature when the industry kudosfest aired on IFC Canada, a cable channel.

It’s a climb back for an Academy that has seen industry unions and guilds in the last decade launch their own award shows like the Directors Guild of Canada’s DGC Awards, the Writers Guild of Canada’s WGC Screenwriting Awards and the ACTRA Awards, produced by Canada’s actors union.

The goal is producing a better Genies to get tuxed and gowned celebrities, many American and British stars in Canadian movies like Barney's Version and Splice, to show up and walk down the red carpet so Canadians will tune in.

After all, the interest factor plunges when Canadian distributors don’t get top talent to an event that promotes their product and industry.

Award shows, like much TV celebrity coverage, are formulaic.

And the Genies can’t help but look strained and awkward to TV viewers in Moose Jaw and Moncton who don’t recognize presenters and prize-winners -- often from Quebec which has its own insulated and successful film industry -- that make all-too-serious speeches about the importance of Canadian film.

That’s especially so when big name Canadian directors these days make fewer movies without American and European stars, foreign locations and international co-production dollars in the mix to offset dwindling government support.

“The real key is to have a very good show that they (talent) want to be on, and an event they want to come to,” Stephenson said.

The 32nd Genie Awards will take place on March 8 in Toronto.

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