‘Ideas are easy’: An interview with the NFB’s Tom Perlmutter

National Film Board of Canada chair Tom Perlmutter on 70 years of pushing forward
July 1, 2009

Since its inception in 1939, Canada’s National Film Board has dared to blaze new trails in storytelling. Established by British documentarian John Grierson as part of Canada’s National Film Act, the NFB established its reputation for brave filmmaking early on, by documenting action on the front lines during the Second World War. It’s a reputation that’s been upheld through the years by uncompromising efforts such as the cinema direct work of Michel Brault; Terre Nash’s If You Love This Planet, the 1982 short that was labeled as propaganda by the U.S. Department of Justice; Bonnie Sherr Klein’s Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, and more recently, Brett Gaylor’s RiP: A Remix Manifesto, which challenges the concept of copyright and upends notions of film creation and distribution itself. Through these efforts and scores of others, the NFB has been recognized with more than 5,000 film awards, including 12 Oscars.

Now in its 70th year, the NFB is spearheading innovation in online film distribution, with close to 1,000 titles from its 13,000-strong original catalog available online, and continues to create captivating stories with assorted national and international production and broadcast partners. In this interview with Playback‘s Marc Glassman, NFB chair Tom Perlmutter talks about the present, past and future of one of the documentary world’s most important entities. – Ed.

How would you describe the NFB’s role in the digital age?

Tom Perlmutter: What’s happening today is a fundamental revolution. We’re just at the very beginning of what the digital revolution means. It’s open-ended. How do we ensure that artists are playing online? Not using it as a platform but using it as a creative medium of its own? How will we master it so we can be leaders and pioneers in creating stories that are Canadian, using the medium to exploit its full potential? How do you create the auteur documentary that fully incorporates interactivity?

We’ve done a little bit of that with [Brett Gaylor's] RiP: A Remix Manifesto and a little bit of that with the Filmmaker-in-Residence project, which was a completely online initiative when it started, though it’s gone somewhere else as it’s evolved.

Will you experiment further in the years to come?

Yes. What the Film Board can do is push forward, and find ways of doing new things.

What change have you effected since your arrival at the NFB and how did you do it?

The fundamental shift since I came to the board as the English-language production head was to push the notion of risk-taking. When I arrived at the NFB, we were producing things with a television license and had to be aimed at that TV market. That no longer made any sense when I arrived. We had to move away from that, and it took a little while to start to sink in.

We deliberately pursued people who would make a difference – people who wanted to make point-of-view documentaries. And we looked for talent. Ideas are easy, quite frankly. A mundane idea in the hands of a talented filmmaker will end up being more interesting than an interesting idea in the hands of someone who’s not so good.

Since you became Canada’s film commissioner, the NFB has also actively begun using the Internet as a distribution platform. Do you envision this as the NFB’s ultimate purpose for this medium?

We’ll continue to experiment with new platforms to create the space, the grammar, and a fundamentally new experience for artists. The board is not only being socially engaged, it’s opening the world to different views. It’s not about the technology per se; it’s about how you interact with it.

I’ve had criticisms internally that I’ve been caught up with a fascination with technology. It strikes me as odd, because filmmaking is by definition an engagement with technology. Some of the greatest developments have been because of technology, like cinema direct. We’re doing things that weren’t done before and were thought to be impossible.

Take the work that Chris Landreth [Ryan] does and the way he works with the software. It shows you that an engagement with technology is not for the technology itself; it’s a means by which your creative expression is allowed to say something you have to say.

What are your highest priorities for the NFB?

What I’d really like to do is put in place the digital strategy and make sure we’re on the right track for overall programming. There’s a real possibility of exploring new revenue sources for the Film Board, creating partnerships, and working with branded channels elsewhere, as with iTunes. What we have online will keep growing, for people to own things on DVD or downloading, so we have to push those.

The Film Board is at a place where we can take this remarkable brand, and if we manage it properly, we can add real economic value to it. That’s important. I’d like to manage that and make sure it’s protected and recognized as a value-added entity, like say an HBO brand is, at that level, globally. That’s very important for the future of the Film Board.

What do you use for decision-making criteria for any NFB film project?

The real underlying concern is whether it’s a project that can only be done at the Film Board. If it can be done elsewhere or in the private sector, then our involvement won’t be necessary. We’re enormously privileged, because even with the tightening of purse strings and our own financial decline over the last 15 years, we still have money. The question is: How are we going to be fully responsive to that privilege? That means pushing the boundaries.

How do you determine what projects to pick under those circumstances?

Talent is absolutely crucial. The Film Board is a place everyone should have access to, but not everyone gets a kick at the can. It’s high-end in terms of creative ambition. Secondly, for certain projects, like the one we’re doing with the Canadian Film Centre [the NFB/CFC Feature Documentary Program], making sure we’re working with experienced filmmakers who have a passion for a particular subject. In that case, we’re creating a space not for them to make a pitch document, but to try to push through a reflection of what the films will be.

We’re in a time of fiscal crisis. How are you addressing that at the NFB?

The Film Board keeps losing purchasing power. We have had no increases in years. We’re not in debt, but our costs keep on going up. But in the current economic climate, it doesn’t make sense for me to say, ‘We need more money now.’

We’ve been [doing] internal work to clean up house. We’re making things less hierarchical, less bureaucratic and more efficient. I set a target – which we started in the fiscal year that ended March 31 and is continuing into the next fiscal year and thereafter – of finding five percent of our budget internally, anywhere between $2.5 million to $3 million out of our own allocation, to put it into programming and accessibility.

There are ways of liberating people’s time and money and putting them to different uses. It’s like renovating a house and redoing the plumbing and the wiring. You’re going to make the house more energy-efficient and more livable, but it’s not the kind of work anyone is going to see. But it makes a profound difference to how you operate in that house.

How do you see the NFB’s role in the future?

If we can retain our focus, I want to leave the Film Board solid for the next five to 10 years, positioned in a place where no one will question its relevance, which was very much the case when I arrived. It will be seen as a leader, as it’s starting to be. Personally, I have to stay focused on creating those things that are going to astound everyone. Like producing films in 3D – which I think we’ll be in something of a leadership position in creating. We’ll have some interesting announcements on that in the next two to three months.

So where does the Film Board fit in?

It’s in an imaginative space, where you can actually engage with what Canada is becoming, which is a series of ‘others.’ What ties us all together is the fact and the irony that we’ve all become marginal; there isn’t some centrality somewhere.

Where the Film Board goes is to push the boundaries of exploration of what that is, where the marginal becomes crucial to creating new centers. This is abstract, I know, and needs to be further formulated.

What it means for me concretely is: let’s open up those doors and give that space for creators and push them. Let’s not just do traditional things; let’s create a space where people are challenged to extend themselves beyond the boundaries of accepted wisdom.

This interview originally appeared in realscreen’s sister publication, Playback magazine.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.