Where Are the Canadian Films at Cannes? (Cannes 2011)

Courtesty of Serendipity Point Films
"Barney's Version"

Officially-selected Canadian films go missing in action in Cannes, follows Canuck producers increasingly telling foreign stories with American actors to secure international coin.

TORONTO -- No Canadian feature films were selected for competition in Cannes, and it's fueling a debate back home on what, if anything, the phrase “Canadian film” means these days.

Scanning the official selections, Canuck features have been largely overlooked, with only two short films, Nicolas Roy’s Ce n’est rien and Jefferson Moneo’s Big Muddy, flying the Maple Leaf flag this week on the Croisette.

The feature documentary La Nuit, elles dansent, shot in Cairo by Canadians Isabelle Lavigne and Stephane Thibault, is screening during the Directors’ Fortnight as part of a Cannes tribute to Egyptian cinema.

Sure, Canadian films will be screened and sold this week at the Marche.

But the paucity of officially-selected Canuck films on the Croisette comes as the Canadian government shuffles the deck for international treaty co-productions to secure more outside investment.

Among the Canadian feds’ more far-reaching proposals is making it easier for Hollywood stars to come onboard “Canadian” films with bigger budgets.

Indie producers like the flexibility Ottawa is promising to help them secure more foreign coin, but local film and TV unions and guilds fear their members will be big-footed by foreign producers on bigger budget projects that tell mostly foreign stories.

“It’s the only way to finance a Canadian movies these days,” said Neil Tabatznik of Blue Ice Productions, who executive produced The Bang Bang Club, a Canada-South Africa co-production about four war photographers in the last days of white rule in South Africa that co-starred Ryan Phillippe and Taylor Kitsch.

Other recent Hollywood star-driven Canadian co-productions include the Adrien Brody-starring sci-fi flick Splice, the Rachel Weisz-starrer The Whistleblower and Barney’s Version, toplined by Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman.

And upcoming Canadian films doing what they need to for U.S. distribution deals include the Winnie Mandela biopic Winnie, starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard in another Canada-South Africa co-production.

It’s not like Canadians have suddenly discovered that the secret to turning a script into box-office gold is in the casting.

Like Europeans and most everyone else these days looking beyond their borders for financing, the Canucks realize they can now dangle local tax credits and government subsidies to help fund a co-production with A-list talent in lead roles as if they were making a "Canadian" film.

The shrewdest among the Canadian movie producers can even turn a low-budget picture into an Oscar contender by securing Hollywood talent and a Roy Thomson Hall gala slot at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The result is a Canadian industry trend where local producers, tired of small paydays on homegrown art-house films, are looking to tell more European stories with American stars for the ultimate validation of commercial box-office success.

For its part, Ottawa, allowing commerce for the first time to trump nationality, wants local producers to do even more to pursue international partners to increase budgets and foreign sales for Canadian films that might not otherwise be produced.

For big-budget projects, for example, the feds have proposed that only one key creative position among the director, screenwriter and two main leads in a co-production be Canadian.

That will allow two of the four key positions in an expensive co-production to be filled by a “third-party” national, or a Hollywood star.

“They bring in revenue,” Tabatznik said of A-list talent, which for a Canadian producer may mean the difference between financing a movie or scrapping it altogether.

A Canadian film co-produced with a foreign partner tends to be in the $10 million to $30 million range, against a Canadian-only film that is typically shot for $1 million to $5 million in budget.

Telefilm Canada, the federal government’s film financier, in recent years has consistently told local filmmakers to look overseas for additional coin if they want their film budget to rise markedly above $5 million.

“We need to incorporate more flexibility in the co-production treaty model to make it easier for producers to raise the necessary funding and to reach out to partners,” argued Marc Seguin, senior vp of policy at the Canadian Media Production Association, representing Canadian indie producers.

The federal government proposing to direct more taxpayer dollars towards hiring Hollywood stars to tell foreign stories marks a major shift for a Canadian industry that has long criticized Hollywood for hindering its ability to tell local stories.

Canada has participated in official co-productions since signing its official treaty co-production in 1963 to share the risk and costs with foreign partners on films that aim to fight the Hollywood tide that has long dominated local cinema screens.

Today, Canada has co-production agreements with 53 nations, including a memoranda of understanding with India, with whom it is currently negotiating a treaty to better align Bollywood with Canada’s film industry.

It’s as if the Canadian government, the country’s biggest film financier, has woken up and decided through pending deregulation of its co-production rules to make local filmmakers less the prisoners of bureaucrats in Ottawa than bean counters in London or Paris.

Of course, Ottawa’s new scope for transatlantic projects has its critics, especially local film and TV unions and guilds that charge that co-productions shot overseas with foreign principals or performers cost local jobs.

“We’re now into minority co-productions -- Tudors, Borgias, Being Julia and Barney’s Version. Where are the Canadian stars in those productions? They are the stars of other countries,” Stephen Waddell, national executive director of ACTRA, Canada’s actors union, said.

And Maureen Parker, executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada, insisted Ottawa’s proposed deregulation of its co-production template will only blur the line between service productions, where no Canadian rights or creative elements are required, and minority co-productions where Canadian producers have little skin in the game.

“We can’t just be presenting ourselves as a service industry disguising as a Canadian content producer,” Parker insisted.