In Canada, building your production company on federal funding is like planning for retirement by playing the lottery. It could happen, but it’s a loser’s bet.
Like the production communities of European territories dominated, until recently, by public television and/or fully commissioned systems, Canadian producers are in the process of shirking off entitlement syndrome. It’s a smart move.
Having not altogether forsaken financial support for production – either by equity investment, or by chipping into a public/private fund – the feds and the provinces, via tax credits, are still in the business of supporting the industry. But this system, being somewhat of a holdover from an enlightened policy of developing Canadian culture’s infrastructure to fend off ever-encroaching American influence, is woefully oversubscribed. It hasn’t kept pace with market realities outside the borders, nor the development of the industry inside. There are mature, fully-developed, internationally-experienced production entities in Canada, documentary producers among them, who shouldn’t be in the federal funding system anymore. Public companies are one example, with arms and offices all over the world. By anyone’s standards they are good and ‘developed,’ and can afford lawyers to find the loopholes that make sure the funding keeps coming their way.
The equity investment program is tailored to help somewhat mature production entities, and, in theory, it’s not giving away money because the fund expects to recoup. That’s fine. There are strategies within the fund to help programs destined for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). That’s fine, too. Some producers have eschewed the process altogether, fending for themselves in the international marketplace rather than apply, wrestle the red tape and wait. These are documentaries after all; sometimes you can’t wait for the paperwork to come through. Again, all very fine.
It’s producers who want to do the big projects – the coproduceable ones, with internationally appealing stories and top-end production values – but still want the domestic money, who cause problems. Despite the fact they suck up money that might otherwise be available for ‘CanCon’ (i.e. only marketable in Canada), such producers do themselves a disservice by counting on that cash. Governments and policies change, and such funding is dodgy. As History Television’s Norm Bolen says in our Canadian report (pg. 31): ‘People who play in the international coproduction market and want to build their business…have to do it independently. You can’t always be looking for a handout to make these things happen.’
Besides, in a country like Canada, with the U.S. media machine casting its formidable shadow, the handouts (while they still exist) should be handed to Canadian projects without obvious appeal elsewhere. The rest will probably get made anyway. Let the broadcasters pay for what they find commercially attractive.
Watch closely, Europe: the Canadian model is a case study of what happens when cultural/economic development policies meet the market.
Mary Ellen Armstrong