How Canada is Rethinking Film Financing Amid a Racial Reckoning: "Something Has Changed"

Akilla's Escape
Courtesy of TIFF

'Akilla's Escape'

The country's top film financier is reworking a two-tier industry to get filmmakers from communities of color to the top table.

Telefilm Canada, the country's top film financier, has vowed to fix a two-tiered industry where privileged producers receive generous and automatic funding long kept out of reach of Canadian filmmakers from BIPOC communities.

"We're being very mindful to not leave any voices behind and to support this impactful industry for today and for the future with, yes, an eye to equity and dismantling what would have been previously barriers to access," Telefilm executive director Christa Dickenson tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Each year, Telefilm pours around $100 million into homegrown movie development, production and marketing on behalf of the federal government. But the agency's public consultation to reform how Canada funds its own movies for greater gender and racial equity has sparked a fierce backlash from top producers fighting to keep their seats and influence at the industry's top table.

"When it becomes up to bureaucrats and its gets political, I think that's the worst case scenario for everyone," David Gross, who co-produced the Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay-starrer Room as a Canada-Ireland partnership, tells THR. At issue is the future of Telefilm's Fast Track funding program as it guarantees generous taxpayer subsidies to top-tier producers, including Gross and his No Trace Camping banner, to get their next movie made as they wish, whatever the script or film packaging they have in mind.

Telefilm is also revamping its Success Index, long used to measure Canadian box office and international sales for local titles, amid a structural shift in movie viewership from cinemas to streaming platforms. Gross calls for the Fast Track program to be retained, while being revised, and for Telefilm to not subject its producer members to a time-consuming vetting process likely to thwart dealmaking with Hollywood and other international partners.

And he urges Telefilm to put a promised $50 million in additional money from Ottawa into separate Fast Track stream for smaller producers from overlooked communities of color.

"If we did that, a lot of these different programs could co-exist and we wouldn't have to pit everybody against one another," Gross argues.

But Jennifer Holness, a screenwriter and producer with Hungry Eyes Films & Television, counters that maintaining a caste system led by privileged producers with guaranteed funding is at odds with Telefilm's goal to support new film voices and producers at the bottom of the ladder for greater diversity and inclusion.

"Something has changed. The system has been designed to benefit them [Fast Track]. And if the system changes, we can be more equitable and tell better stories," says Holness, who is also co-chair of the Canadian Independent Screen Fund for underrepresented content creators.

In Hollywood, top producers not having to make the case to a major investor for guaranteed film financing would be a strange state of affairs. "If you polled an American studio head on the way we make movies up here, and the fact that the creative and the script is not paramount in the decision-making, they would be scratching their heads," argues veteran movie director Warren Sonoda, who was recently named as the new national president for the Directors Guild of Canada.

Sonoda adds that Telefilm could place inclusion at the center of its decision-making process for Canadian film by moving from a focus on the producer to the project itself — its performers, writers, directors and other key creatives. "We're not suggesting we do anything radical. We're just saying let's go back to first principles and look at the creative, look at what the script is, look at who the team is," he insists.

Floyd Kane, creator of the CBC legal drama Diggstown that airs stateside on BET+, adds that Telefilm wants to level an uneven playing field for Canadian filmmakers, and reforming the Fast Track stream will do that. "The issue here is the [Fast Track] envelope, where you can spend that money as you please. You don't have to actually compete with everybody else. And when you know that you've got a $4 million envelope, you can make an offer of $500,000 for a U.S. actor to be in your movie because you know what's coming," Kane explains.

The Fast Track program wasn't supposed to turn out this way. René Bourdages, Telefilm's senior director of cultural portfolio management, explains the marquee funding stream was originally hatched to ensure predictability for top Canadian film producers looking for their next box office success.

But using Fast Track producers as a proxy for picking successful movies has had an unintended consequence for Telefilm: There are too few battle-hardened production companies receiving its generous checks. After two decades, Fast Track has effectively concentrated investment and power in a few hands that automatically received nearly $26 million, or just under one-third of available Telefilm film development and production spend, in 2019.

"Now Fast Track creates a hermetic circle of companies, very few, less than 10 companies, that have that predictability, but because they're able to make a film every year, they're part of that circle that no one else can touch," Bourdages observes. The result is emerging and established filmmakers from communities of color, by not being able to make their own movies year after year or with sufficient budgets and marketing, have been effectively excluded from Fast Track eligibility.

Charles Officer, whose latest movie is Akilla's Escape, a crime-noir about an urban child-soldier who captures a Jamaican teen after an armed robbery, tells THR it's unfair that BIPOC filmmakers must kiss a Fast Track producer's ring to get their movies made, rather than be given sufficient financing to produce for themselves and own and advance their own destinies.

"That leaves filmmakers in this curious position where they're hopefully liked by one of these [Fast Track] producers, that they will want to work with them, or if not four or five years will go by and they won't have found a producing team to help them move forward," Officer says.

Sudz Sutherland, director of the Canadian movies Love, Sex & Eating the Bones and the Tatyana Ali and C.C.H. Pounder-starrer Home Again, is typical of BIPOC filmmakers in having to helm U.S. series like Batwoman and The Flash shot north of the border or keep day jobs elsewhere in the industry to bide their time before getting back into the film director's chair. "Put me in, coach. Take me off the bench and put me in, because I've been on the bench for a long time. And we've got a lot of talent on the bench that want to get into the game," Sutherland says.

Predictably, Canadian industry powerbrokers don't want their automatic Telefilm funding ended or reduced as the agency rolls out the carpet to marginalized filmmakers. Pierre Even, producer of French-language hits like Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y. and Kim Nguyen's War Witch, joined the Fast Track stream two years ago after turning to the English-language market and co-producing the Saoirse Ronan-starrer Brooklyn, another Canada-Ireland partnership.

Even argues that having guaranteed Fast Track cash before he needs it comes in handy when the right opportunity with an American or British producer for his next film comes along. "When we go to partners, we can come into a room and say we have financing in place. We have access to X percent of financing from Telefilm, and that can add up to 50 percent or 55 percent of a budget. That gives us a tremendous edge to do the films we want to do," Even explains.

Possibly losing that edge has Fast Track producers and supporters shaking their fists. Around 30 Canadian film producers, directors and distributors, including Even and David Gross, signed a sharply worded Sept. 25 letter sent to Heritage minister Steven Guilbeault that demanded Ottawa retain the Fast Track program.

"Canadian filmmakers are also at the mercy of Telefilm, an increasingly bureaucratic, calcified fiefdom, that under present leadership has become less grounded in commercial realities than ever before," stated the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by THR and was first revealed by Now Magazine. But seeing the ground under well-connected and mostly white producers shift to make way for new voices has some BIPOC filmmakers pumping their own fists.

"We're hoping for many steps forward and not just tiny ones as indigenous filmmakers need support to get past their first films and work full-time in the industry and make features with budgets that are reasonable for their goals," Métis filmmaker Alex Bailey insists. That optimism is shared by Marie Ka, a Sengalese Canadian director who only recently qualified to apply to Telefilm for film financing as the fortunes of diverse creators shift.

"I'm very excited right now about all the films that are going to come out of this opening, and it will bring a new wind and a new energy to the industry," Ka says. The pandemic also has accelerated Telefilm's modernizing drive after it exposed industry fault lines when many Black, Indigenous and other underrepresented filmmakers were left empty-handed as the federal government distributed COVID-19 emergency relief funds industrywide.

Then Canadians watched the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and industrywide action to open doors for people of color only grew louder. "That moment was the pivotal opening of a door that has been tested a few times, but that was a flashpoint, a tragic flashpoint," says Damon D'Oliveira, a producing partner with director Clement Virgo at Conquering Lion Pictures.

He adds the remaking of Telefilm's Fast Track stream, while not yet concluded amid the current industry consultation, promises sweeping structural change to finally open doors to overlooked and underrepresented filmmakers. "The previous model was, 'racialized people, there's your sandbox, there's your $1 million, go and make your little films in that corner and leave the rest of us alone,'" D'Oliveira insists.

That's been replaced by what he sees as a watershed moment for Canadian film. "Now you see something become normalized, you see support for different voices, for BIPOC creators. And when this goes into the structure of how Telefilm makes its decisions, it becomes ensconced, and that to me is a much fairer way," D'Oliveira argues.