Windfall or Weakness?

With the debut of the Canadian Television Fund in 1996, Canada's doc community was handed a lifeline. Now, following news that the fund will be scaled back, producers are aware of the need to temper their reliance on the CTF. But, what are the options? DEANNA WONG investigates
June 1, 2003

With the debut of the Canadian Television Fund in 1996, Canada’s doc community was handed a lifeline. Now, following news that the fund will be scaled back, producers are aware of the need to temper their reliance on the CTF. But, what are the options? DEANNA WONG investigates

Toronto, Canada-based producer Barbara Barde had a problem. It was the middle of March 2002; bombs were no longer falling on Afghanistan, and her team from Take 3 Productions had roughly two weeks before the schools in Kabul would reopen to female students for the first time in five years. It would be a triumphant moment marking the end of Taliban rule, and Barde wanted it filmed for her doc Daughters of Afghanistan. But, she couldn’t fund the trip on her own.

The project’s application to the Canadian Television Fund (the country’s main government funding body for TV programs) had been submitted, but Barde knew she didn’t have two months to wait for an answer – so did Catherine Olsen, commissioning editor and producer of doc strand ‘The Passionate Eye’ on CBC Newsworld, a 24-hour cable news channel. Olsen, who had been in talks with Barde for some time, was supportive of the project, so she arranged for the release of enough pre-production money to finance the trip.

Barde was lucky – her story has a happy ending. With roughly CDN$35,000 (US$25,400) in development funding, a team of three made it to Afghanistan in time to catch the school opening, and in the spring, the CTF money came through, enabling the crew to return in the fall to complete shooting. The finished doc aired on ‘The Passionate Eye’ this past March.

Not all Canadian doc-makers are so fortunate, however. Without a plan to bridge the gap between applying for CTF funding and receiving it – applications are accepted only in the spring and fall, and decisions are handed down months later – producers risk having their projects fall through the cracks, particularly those with time-sensitive shooting schedules. Now they have the added pressure of knowing there’s less money in the pot.

The CTF has become key to Canada’s doc funding landscape, because its contribution can be significant. To be eligible for CTF funds, a project must have the commitment of a broadcaster for at least 10% of the budget. But, a successful applicant receives anywhere from 15% to 35% of its budget from the CTF. That means a project with CTF funds has already secured at least 25% of its overall budget.

In 2001/02 (the last reporting year), the CTF had $201 million (US$146 million) to distribute to all types of programming – animation, dramas, etc. – and helped finance 107 documentaries. In spring 2002, a total of 232 applications for doc projects were submitted to the Licence Fee Program, one of the CTF’s two funding programs. Of these applications, 173 were approved, a rejection rate of 25%. But in February, the Government of Canada announced that it was reducing its contribution to the fund by $25 million (US$18 million). This combined with an increase in applications in spring 2003 meant that 67% of non-doc applicants were rejected. At press time, the successful doc projects had not yet been announced, but the rejection rate is likely to be equally high. A total of 418 doc projects requested CTF funding, an increase of 55% over the same period last year.

Producer Peter Raymont of Toronto’s White Pine Pictures says this could be an intentional wake-up call. ‘[The] concept of the fund from the beginning [was] that over time, the independent production community would be able to wean itself off reliance of the CTF for funding,’ he says. The question is, how?

Cast your net far and wide

Eric Paulsson of Vancouver-based Red Storm Productions has pondered this very question. He is one of the producers of Build Me Up, Break Me Down, a doc that follows three young U.S. military recruits after 9/11. New York-based director Sarah Goodman had labored on the project independently before joining forces with Red Storm, and had run out of money. So, Paulsson began talks with CBC Newsworld’s Olsen in February. ‘It’s a classic story where a young, first-time filmmaker maxed out her credit cards and got loans from her relatives to finance the film for more than a year,’ says Olsen.

Luckily, Paulsson was able to get US$84,000 in license fees from Newsworld and Société Radio-Canada, the French arm of the CBC. With broadcasters on board, an application was submitted to the CTF in March. But, Paulsson has a Plan B if the funding isn’t approved. ‘Once we have a rough cut we can take it to HBO and PBS’s ‘POV’,’ he says. ‘We’ll submit to the Sundance Documentary Fund, the CanWest [Western] Independent Producers fund… There’s lots of routes for us if the CTF doesn’t come through. If we don’t raise all our budget then we’ll do what most people do – defer our salaries and work for free.’

Around the time they put in their CTF application, the war in Iraq was looming and Red Storm had to request pre-production financing from Newsworld in order to keep shooting. ‘They gave us a bit of development money for the interim,’ says Paulsson, which enabled Goodman to follow the young soldiers wherever they were deployed.

Olsen says it’s not unusual to get urgent requests for money while projects are waiting for an answer from the CTF. Because no portion of the budget for ‘The Passionate Eye’ is earmarked for pre-production financing, Olsen says the strand has to find ‘creative’ ways to keep projects afloat. ‘We don’t want timely events to pass us by while we’re going through the cumbersome and sometimes lengthy funding process,’ she says.

Olsen adds, ‘We’re rolling the dice on all these projects, because we don’t know if the funding pieces are going to fall into place. If it falls through, it will make [gathering funding] more challenging, but at least they’ll have some tape they can then use to market the story idea internationally. We’re trying to provide them with the support to do that.’

In this case, the dice came up sixes – Build Me Up, Break Me Down was recently pitched at the Toronto Documentary Forum (see On the Slate, page 20) and generated interest from France’s ARTE and Australia’s SBS.

Seek global partners

The CTF isn’t the only option available to independent doc-makers in Canada. Additional sources include public bodies such as the National Film Board, a government agency, and private ones such as Rogers Communications’ Rogers Documentary Fund, which has a $1 million (US$700,000) budget and supports three docs a year. Indie filmmakers also rely on tax credits offered by the federal government and most provinces.

But, Rudy Buttignol, head of docs at Canadian public broadcaster TVOntario (TVO), advises against complete reliance on these too. As an independent producer in the early ’80s, Buttignol came to see the value of breaking away from the cycle of applying for domestic funding and waiting for the results. ‘I made a conscious effort to unhook myself from that dependency and concentrate on the U.S. I started to develop partnerships and realized that…we [Canadians] really need to develop the entrepreneurial class of producer, the people that can go beyond filling out a form.’

Toronto-based Mark Johnston of Nomad Films agrees: ‘More than ever, international cofinancing is critical.’ Johnston produced the 1999 doc In the Shadow of a Saint – about the late Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa – which secured CTF backing, but was also coproduced with the CBC and the BBC in the U.K. Both pubcasters released $25,000 (US$18,000) for development, before the producers heard back from funding agencies, which allowed the crew to fly to Nigeria to film Saro-Wiwa’s burial. Without the CTF the film would still have been made, says Johnston, but more overseas financing would have been needed.

In some cases, filmmakers may have to choose between pursuing CTF monies and international funds. Jerry McIntosh, executive producer at the CBC’s ‘Passionate Eye’, notes that he’s heard international broadcasters say it’s too complicated to work with Canadians because of the uncertainty regarding funding. Nick Fraser, commissioning editor of BBC doc strand ‘Storyville’, confirms this is true. ‘I worry the whole time about these Canadian content rules… They’re a bit of a nuisance, but we go along with them because we don’t have a choice. I just hope the business of coproducing doesn’t get more complicated, because it’s very draining.’

With a little luck…

For first-time filmmakers, it can be difficult to find anyone willing to take a risk on an untested product. But, even for seasoned doc-makers, sometimes plain luck and good timing come into play. Raymont has a perfect example.

‘Four years ago, a group of community workers who were going to Rwanda [to help children orphaned during the 1994 massacre] approached me about documenting their trip, but they were leaving in six weeks,’ he says. ‘I went to the Banff Television Festival about a week later, and CIDA [the Canadian International Development Agency, which supports aid projects in developing countries] happened to make an announcement of new money they were making available that had to be spent within three months… So, I sat down at a table with [specialty channel] Vision TV and someone from cida; I drew up a quick budget, they gave me the money and I was off to Rwanda. It never would’ve been made if I had had to wait six months to apply, then wait for an answer.’

Raymont says the CTF allows for some filming beforehand if the subject is time-sensitive, but the strict rule is you can’t go into production before applying. ‘It’s an untenable situation. It has to be more flexible.’ Or, docmakers have to be, which looks like the best way forward.

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