Canada’s National Film Board: That was then and this is now…

When producer Adam Symansky joined the ranks at the National Film Board of Canada in 1977, he was amazed by what he saw. 'It was like arriving in Valhalla,' says the veteran NFB staffer, adding, 'but it was also like joining...
May 1, 2000

When producer Adam Symansky joined the ranks at the National Film Board of Canada in 1977, he was amazed by what he saw. ‘It was like arriving in Valhalla,’ says the veteran NFB staffer, adding, ‘but it was also like joining a monastic order.’

What Symansky found was a government-funded, but filmmaker-run production house. With both English and French divisions, the organization was headquartered in Montreal and had smaller regional studios dotted across the country. Outfitted with a complete array of in-house facilities, including a lab, editing equipment and sound stages, and boasting a permanent staff of directors, producers, cinematographers, editors and technicians, a film could be taken from idea to release print within the Film Board’s walls. Under this structure, the NFB was a hothouse for innovation and produced some of the most outstanding films and filmmakers in Canadian cinema.

But the Film Board was also a closed environment. The task of creating documents that ‘interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations’ was, for the most part, relegated to a small, cloistered group of filmmakers. Says Symansky, ‘What I discovered was that it was quite hermetically sealed. It was very hard for people to get in and it became, over the years, more and more ingrown. As people got older, they stayed here, the ideas got stale . . . All organizations get old and tired and need to find some way of renewing themselves.’

In 1994, renewal became a necessity when the Canadian government announced a one-third budget cut to cultural institutions, to be carried out over five years. This meant a CDN$27 million (US$18.3 million) loss for the NFB, reducing their budget from $80 million to $53 million (from US$54.1 million to $36 million) annually. Coupled with serious questions about the Board’s relevance from both the government and the Canadian film industry, some feared these setbacks would spell the end for the famed production house.

But today the Film Board has re-emerged as a refreshed and refurbished – albeit leaner – organization. By the end of 1998-1999, the NFB had completed 98 new productions including documentary, animation and multimedia products. The question is, how have they done this, and at what cost?

Tough times, tougher decisions

‘If you’re going to lose 30% of your budget, you don’t do it by making little nips and tucks. It means radical surgery,’ says Barbara Janes, director-general of the NFB’s English program. ‘We cut back everything that we could to protect the amount of money we needed to produce the number of films that we thought we should produce.’

Drama was the first to go as the Film Board decided to concentrate on documentary, animation, children’s and interactive projects, with specifically allocated budgets for each. According to Janes, before the cuts, projects were evaluated on a case by case basis. ‘We acted more on what the opportunities were at the time,’ she says. ‘There was a certain amount of flexibility.’ Today the Film Board’s English program operates on a set production budget, about 68% of which goes to docs. On the French side, the figure is slightly higher.

The Film Board also closed some of their production facilities. Janes explains: ‘The size and capacity of the lab we had far outstripped our needs [with more production originating in video]. The lab was capable of processing millions of feet of film and we weren’t putting that through anymore. We closed our sound stage because it was mainly for dramatic production, so we no longer had any need for it.’ Editing suites were among the few facilities that survived the cuts.

Also eliminated were many of the regional studios. ‘We started off being a totally centralized organization with just one location [in Montreal],’ says Janes. ‘Then, starting in the 1960s, we regionalized across the country. We had this hybrid between a large percentage of our production in Montreal with these small regional satellites. At a certain point it became difficult to do both jobs adequately. If we gave enough money to the regional studios to do the job that we wanted them to do, then we would have staff filmmakers in Montreal who didn’t have enough money to make films.’

Naturally, the most painful cuts were to the staff – which included the renowned technical department (credited for making significant contributions to Imax technology) and the in-house directors. Only three staff directors remain – the Film Board now employs directors on short-term contracts, where they might develop one or two films before heading out the door.

None of these changes were implemented without a certain degree of internal bitterness. Many people lost their jobs and others simply quit. Recalls Symansky: ‘It was absolute hell. A lot of us thought about leaving and some of us did. We lost some very good people and we lost much of the feeling of our community of filmmakers that existed here before.’

A new beginning…

After deciding where the cuts would take place, the next step was to reorganize the pieces that were left.

A new regional structure was developed. In the old system, production was largely based in Montreal, and spread over a number of regional studios across the country. In some cases, these studios had specific mandates, such as Studio One, an Edmonton-based aboriginal studio. While some of these studios were shut down, the NFB scaled back the Montreal office and distributed its resources more evenly across the country. In the English program, there are now three main documentary centers, each led by an executive producer, working with a yearly budget of about CDN$3.5 million (US$2.4 million). Vancouver hosts Doc West, with two producers placed in Vancouver, one in Edmonton and one in Winnipeg; Toronto is home to Doc Ontario, which has four producers under one roof; and Doc East has three producers posted in Montreal and one in Halifax, Nova Scotia. On the French side, Montreal is the main center for documentary production with three producers, as well as one additional producer each in Quebec City, Toronto and Moncton.

The organization also developed funds and initiatives to compensate for the loss of the studios with specific mandates, including an Aboriginal program, which operates on CDN$1 million (US$680,000) annually and the Reel Diversity competition, a CDN$100,000 (US$68,000) award for the filmmakers in the ethnically diverse community.

The Film Board revised its coproduction strategy as well. While coproductions have been undertaken by the NFB since the 1980s, a decision was made to invest a larger amount of money into a smaller number of productions than prior to the cutbacks, when the NFB would invest as a minority stakeholder. Today, the Board will invest 40-49% in coproductions. The English side generally coproduces with Canadian indie producers, while on the French side international copros are more common.

Another area that was tightened is distribution. With separate offices for English and French domestic sales and a combined office for international sales, the NFB used to apply an essentially cultural mandate to its distribution activities. Faced with pressures from the government to be ‘cost recoverable’ and even profitable, the organization has shifted those operations to be more commercially driven.

Says Howard Krosnick, head of English program marketing, ‘When the cutbacks were happening, the organization made the right decisions about what its core businesses were – production and distribution. What we did on the distribution side is re-look at all of our costs and make serious changes in our infrastructure and direct spending for marketing and distribution, while at the same time maintaining – or improving – the revenue from our films, and the accessibility of our films to users.’ He adds, ‘We operate a commercial enterprise like any distributor, but at the same time, we have other goals.’

As a government-funded organization, the Film Board has a cultural responsibility to Canadians, ‘who are paying the bill.’ Krosnick’s challenge is to maintain a cost-recoverable operation while keeping Canadians in the know about the Film Board’s projects and providing access to them, whether it be via Canadian television, educational institutions or home video. In fact, in all three respects, the Film Board has achieved fairly wide coverage. Since the advent of specialty channels, more venues exist on TV for the NFB’s type of work, including films from its back catalog. Says Krosnick, ‘Before specialty channels, the Film Board was fighting extremely hard just to get on television. There was a time when if the CBC didn’t take it, where was it going to go? . . . [Today] we sell a lot of second windows, third windows… tenth windows. There are classics in our collection that just never go away.’

As far as television goes, the continuing problem for Krosnick is making people aware they are watching an NFB production, due to the fact that the Film Board generally produces one-offs that end up on otherwise branded strands, such as the CBC’s Passionate Eye.

On the education front, the NFB is the predominant supplier of Canadian product in Canada. To make their titles even more accessible to the education market, the Film Board has been developing an internet-based delivery system, which will make available about 850 film titles to universities across Canada. Called CineRoute, the ultimate goal of the project is to provide film on demand service for all Canadian institutions and households that are connected to the Internet.

Home video sales have also been increasingly successful – particularly since the Film Board introduced an toll-free number that Canadians can call to order any title from the NFB’s collection. This operation has also been carried over to the Film Board’s website, where people can order films online.

The international distribution arm, which handles sales for both English and French productions, has changed its focus more drastically. Once having at least four or five offices at a time in such wide-ranging locales as Argentina, Japan, Australia and India, the international program used to serve an ambassador-type role in those countries. Since the mid-’80s, the program’s operations have been scaled down, but their coverage hasn’t. Today, the Film Board has distrib offices in Paris – which covers francophone Europe, Italy, Spain and the French-speaking African countries; London – which covers the U.K., the Middle East, Scandinavia and English-speaking Africa; New York – which handles the U.S.; and Montreal – which oversees Latin America and Asia Pacific as well as the Film Board’s festival activities.

According to Joanne Leduc, international program director, the secret to the program’s success is not just an increase in sales, but a decrease in operating expenses – the result of closing down many of the foreign offices. Says Leduc, ‘We are very cost-recoverable, and for the last three years, we have been profitable to this institution – we not only cover our costs and salaries, but also bring back a net profit that can range between 10-25% of our operation expenses.’

On the sales front, Leduc says pre-sales to foreign broadcasters are difficult to make due to the fact that the NFB produces one-offs. ‘We don’t do series – or what would be considered, by TV standards, highly commercial television productions,’ she explains. ‘We tend to fall in this gray area because the private sector produces more commercially viable films than we would.

‘But,’ she says, ‘we always have surprises. Films that we thought would have more regional or Canadian interest have actually turned out to be international successes.’

One such example is Veronica Alice Mannix’s Through A Blue Lens, a Doc West production that explores the horrors of drug addiction and poverty in Vancouver as seen through the eyes (and cameras) of a local police squad. The film has been bought by several broadcasters abroad, including HBO and ABC’s 20/20 in the U.S. Other films that have garnered impressive success worldwide are Catherine Annau’s Just Watch Me: Trudeau and the ’70s Generation, and Peter Wintonick’s Cinema Verite, Defining the Moment.

Combined with considerable sales from the worldwide education market, home video and theatrical distribution of certain titles (in particular, four Imax films that the NFB distributes, First Emperor of China, Mystery of the Maya, Momentum and Transitions – the first 3-D Imax film), the international program earns slightly over 50% of the NFB’s total annual revenues.

Answering the critics

While insiders were wounded by the effects of the cutbacks, some critics of the organization welcomed the changes that followed. In November 1994, Toronto-based producer/director Barri Cohen, then co-chair of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus, told Canadian film publication Playback, ‘The NFB is out of touch with its constituency. Its infrastructure is heavy and it needs to rethink its own relevance.’ Six years later, Cohen has a fresh opinion. ‘I think the NFB has tried valiantly to be responsive to criticism,’ she says.

In 1996 Cohen coproduced and directed the documentary Not Yet Diagnosed with the NFB’s Doc Ontario unit (and with Toronto’s Workweek Television Productions). Looking back, she says it was a positive experience overall. ‘[The Film Board] was tremendously supportive. They’re not broadcasters – you can have a wonderful and interesting conversation with them about your work, and that’s a pleasure.’ She adds, ‘I think the more market driven things are, storytelling takes a hit . . . And I really see the Film Board standing up for that. More so now than in ’94.’

Montreal-based filmmaker Peter Wintonick, who recently completed his film Cinema Verite inside the Film Board, agrees that while the cuts were traumatic for the

organization, the changes have had positive effects. ‘It was kind of depressing at the Film Board for a while because they were letting go of people. It wasn’t just nostalgia but also the loss of a gene pool of knowledge. And when you don’t have that transmission across generations of skill and expertise, I think that was a loss.’ But, he says, ‘They did seem to weather those cutbacks quite well . . . One thing I’ve noticed in the last year is there seems to be a lot of younger people. Right next door to my office, three 17-year-old-girls are making a film about their concerns. They’re just doing the editing now, it’s called Salt. The Film Board has initiatives that are allowing new blood to percolate through the hallways.’

Wintonick, who has worked with the Film Board on several projects over the years, also has good things to say about his experiences. He says making a doc with the NFB is a privilege for Canadians because once a project is approved, financing the film is no longer an issue. ‘It’s the ultimate luxury,’ he says. ‘There’s so much humbling, but also humiliating degradation that goes on as you go around with your cap in hand from market to market, begging commissioning editors to support you, and competing with your peers.’ He adds, ‘I have been able to concentrate on just the work instead of spending 90% of my time sitting in front of the computer trying to generate begging letters.’

But while filmmakers like Cohen and Wintonick seem pleased with the new and improved Film Board, they recognize that any organization that turns tax dollars into art will forever be called upon to justify its existence. Says Cohen, ‘When Sandra McDonald [Government Film Commissioner and NFB Chairperson] goes before the parliamentary committee on Heritage and Culture, imagine what she has to do. She has to justify this organization to the committee. They have heard all the bromides of ‘images of Canadians to Canadians and the world.’ She has to justify the costs, she has to justify the numbers and she has to stake out and make a pitch for the Film Board in the future. That’s not an easy job if you are not dead-on persuasive about the cultural value of doing things on cultural terms.’

Getting on with it

When Louise Lore, executive producer for Doc Ontario came to the Film Board in 1996, she noticed it was an organization struggling to come to grips with its changed environment. ‘It was a very painful process because this was an institution that had been around for 55 years,’ she says. ‘And today I really see a reborn organization. This year, for example, we’ve had tremendous successes, and to make that turnaround in such a big institution, in so short a time, is an amazing feat of management, and a tribute to the creative staff. They pulled up their socks, and said, ‘Let’s get on with it.”

While veterans like Symansky have noticed the changes in the atmosphere, (‘There isn’t as much of a support system as there used to be – we don’t have grizzled, 20-year veteran editors saying, ‘Now, you can’t do that kid.”), they’re not dwelling on the past. Says Symansky, ‘The one thing that’s so unique at the Film Board is that the filmmaker comes first – and that hasn’t changed . . . You can complain about the good old days, but the truth is, better things are happening.’


Coproducing with the NFB

Finding a subject that fits the NFB’s mandate – to produce films that ‘interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations’ – may be the biggest deterrent to coproducing with the Film Board. Furthermore, the needs of Canadian viewers – the NFB’s target audience – may not coincide with the needs of viewers abroad. But the NFB’s French program has found a way to make it work.

Says ƒric Michel, a Montreal-based NFB producer who has had a great deal of success coproducing with France, ‘When you have the right partners, there’s really no pain.’

In 1997 Michel teamed up with Paris-based prodco Les Films D’Ici to produce two films, La Grippe (The Flu) and Chili, La Mémoire Obstinée (Chile, Obstinate Memory). The films, budgeted at FF$1 million (US$150,000) and FF$700,000 (US$100,000) respectively, were produced in Montreal and took less than a year to complete. Currently, Moncton-based French program producer Diane Poitras is working on a coproduction with Paris-based prodco, Image et Compagnie. The film will follow a group of tourists from France visiting Eastern Canada (which has a large French-speaking population). The NFB will contribute 80% of the CDN$350,000 (US$240,000) budget. Michel is also working on a two-part series called Journalism and the Media, a copro with Marseilles-based 13 Productions and broadcaster La Sept/ARTE.

The Film Board’s English program has attempted few international copros to date and mainly sticks to working with Canadian companies. Past attempts to coproduce internationally have not necessarily failed, but the outcome has not always been ideal.

Such was the case with 1993′s Battle for the Trees (CDN$500,000/US$340,000), undertaken by the U.K.’s Otmoor Productions and Channel 4 Television, Canada’s Sarus Productions and the NFB. Barbara Janes, director-general of the English program explains that while the relationship between coproducers went smoothly, the two parties found that the informational needs of viewers in Canada and the U.K. were very different. The film, which explores issues surrounding the forestry industry in western Canada, required more background info to reach U.K. audiences, while Canadian spectators were more familiar with forestry issues and required less explanation in the film. ‘The result,’ says Janes ‘was that we had to cut two completely different versions of the film – not an ideal situation from our point of view.’

Problems aside, the English program has not necessarily abandoned the idea of coproducing outside of Canada. NFB producer Adam Symansky says he is currently exploring an idea with a PBS affiliate in the U.S. The film, which is in the earliest stages of development will explore the history of money.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.