There was a time in the not too distant past when the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was more revered for its past than appreciated for its present. The publicly funded producer, in its 71 years, has collected over 5,000 awards internationally for its thousands of documentaries, animated films and shorts, including 12 Oscars. But in the mid-1990s, government budget cuts that had slashed away a third of its allocation drove the Board to move towards TV as the primary target for its work.
“In 2002, the thought was the only way we could reach a wider audience was through television,’ says chairman and government film commissioner Tom Perlmutter about the environment he saw when coming to the NFB as director-general of English productions. “But nobody knew that the Film Board was doing any of [the work] and our raison d’etre had been diluted.”
Upon naming Perlmutter as chair in 2007, forward thinking became the order of the day at the NFB, culminating in the arrival of an online screening room in 2009 (at nfb.ca), where a sizable chunk of the Film Board’s catalog of some 13,000 films can be watched via streaming, for free. iPhone and iPad applications followed, and a range of older classics such as the Oscar-winning If You Love This Planet by Terre Nash as well as newer, acclaimed docs such as RiP: A Remix Manifesto were now available with a click and a tap.
“The response out of the gate was heart-warming. Canadians said, ‘You’ve opened up the treasure box,’” says Deborah Drisdell, director general of accessibilty and digital enterprises. So far, there have been 8.4 million views of the films.
The innovative approach doesn’t only apply to distribution of content. Following up its Filmmaker in Residence web doc project, which saw director Katerina Cizek embed herself at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, is the Highrise interactive doc initiative, again directed by Cizek. The multi-year, multimedia project kicked off this year with Out My Window, an interactive doc that illustrates the vibrancy hidden within urban high-rises around the world. It won the DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November.
“In terms of creation, the Film Board is driving [multimedia content production] forward in a way that very few others are, or can,” offers Perlmutter.