Growing pains in the film industry

May 4 1981

Growing pains in the film industry

May 4 1981

Growing pains in the film industry


Last Aug. 1, André Lamy replaced Michael McCabe in the executive director's hot seat at the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC). McCabe had presided over, indeed promoted, the multimillion-dollar boom in Canadian feature film-making. Fuelled to a large exten t by federal tax allowances, the total value of production in Canada jumped from $7.6 million in 1975 to $150 million in 1979. But behind all the enthusiasm about “Hollywood North," problems were brewing. Critics questioned the quality of the films; actors', writers' and directors’ unions objected to Canadian films being made with American scripts, stars and sometimes co-producers.

Lam y took over at the CFDC just as the storm broke. Canadian films at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival had not been well received, the loudest boos coming from Canadian critics. Investors were similarly disenchanted: sales of public issues of 1980 film units fell $1+0 million short of expectation. Of 52 films made last year, 13 failed to complete the sale of their units. Six of them were films the CFDC had invested in.

Lamy, 1+8, is a veteran of both the film industry and the cultural bureaucracy. His low-key, low-profile style has kept h im out of the public eye since assuming the job, but he surfaced recently to answer questions from Maclean’s contributing editor Wayne Grigsby.

Maclean’s: A lot of films didn't sell all their units by the end of 1980. Does that m ean that the Canadian film industry is now experiencing the bust of 1980 as opposed to that boom of 1979?

Lamy: No. I think that we will experience a kind of levelling of activity that will be acceptable for the industry. This year we were successful with $120 to $125 million worth of production. That’s an awful lot. As for the other $40 million or so ... I think that there are many reasons why people didn’t predict, even at the CFDC, that they might not sell. There was a series of three articles in Le Devoir* . . . accurate articles. That was kind of a cold shower for people, especially brokers, who were quite upset by the image of the film industry created by those articles.

*From Dec. 2 to Dec. 1+ last year Le Devoir pointed out that, among other things, more than half the Canadian films produced in 1979 were never shown in American theatres. The paper rhetorically asked if Canadian film investment was “a financial fiasco. ”

Maclean’s: But that only affected Quebec films, or Quebec investment.

Lamy: I am quite sure that for the [investment] milieu, there’s no such thing as a “Quebec” article. People do communicate, and I think that it affected the market as a whole. Secondly, we have discovered that, in the last five or six months of 1980, practically only newcomers were buying units. The people that were there in the past, because they didn’t receive reports, or didn’t get any information about their investment, didn’t want to buy new units this year. This was a very important factor. If you want to increase the value of production from $100 million to $175 million, not only will you have to look to new markets, but also keep the people that were sympathetic to that kind of financing. It’s also clear that there’s too much [production] activity now. I think that we are going to learn that there is a level of approximately $120 to $125 million that would be acceptable to the financial community. There were also some articles not only in French Canada, but in the English Canadian media over the past 12 months—about Cannes, about some of the films, about the lack of reports from producers to brokers and shareholders—that were not as good as one could expect. I think that it created an image of a film industry that was not well organized.

Maclean’s: Do you think the film industry is back to square one as a result of the failure to sell all the units?

Lamy: No. I think the film industry will have to learn to structure itself more adequately. There is a language if you want to talk to the bank, if you want to talk to brokers, it’s the same for any industry. All of us were caught short of information. All of us are going to be a lot more careful.

Maclean’s: One of the big criticisms levelled at Canadian films is that they simply aren't that good; that we are making Hollywood B movies, formula movies, horror movies.

Lamy: I won’t argue that. I think that’s a matter of taste. There will be horror films shown in theatres on Ste. Catherine Street, or on Bloor Street. If it’s a good horror film, I think the CFDC should be involved. And we are involved in a good one in Canada—Scanners. As for other films: Grey Fox, wait and see, it’s a good film; Les Plouffe—it’s marvellous; L'homme à tout faire is a marvellous film; Les Bons Débarras is a good film. That’s good enough for me. Maclean’s: Is the CFDC still important to the film industry ?

Lamy: I still believe that it is very important. Maybe there are now some players that don’t need the CFDC any more and that’s okay. Part of the process and part of our mandate is to develop an industry. That means that after a certain period of time, after some support from the CFDC, those guys should walk alone. But for other people, and for newcomers in the industry, I think the CFDC is crucial.

Maclean’s: The CFDC has always been the philosophical motor of the Canadian film industry. A film needed to somehow look and feel a little Canadian before the CFDC was willing to be involved in it. If the CFDC has helped develop producers who can now go their own way without the CFDC, do you risk having more Americanized films than ever before? Lamy:(Long pause)That’s a good question, but I haven’t got any answer. For the past 25 years, people that want to be successful in cultural expression have had a tendency to go to Los Angeles or New York. I think that the film industry is only one dimension of that problem. Maybe with the capital cost allowance [the tax writeoff], maybe with the support of the CFDC there is a better control of those guys now. There is a milieu, there is a volume of activity that makes it possible for those who want to stay in Canada to produce some very good Canadian films.

Maclean’s: So you're 7'esigned to the fact that the CFDC will probably not be as important to the film industry as it was.

Lamy: With the amount of money we’ve got [$4.1 million], you’re quite right. But I would like to become more important and to make sure that we establish a better role for the CFDC.

Maclean’s: Why do you want the CFDC to be more important ?

Lamy: It’s the only way to ensure that the end result of the capital cost allowance [CCA] will be to create a Canadian film industry, If not, you’ll create a film industry, but I am not at all sure it will be a Canadian film industry. You could develop—with the CCA and only the CCA—a very good American film industry in Canada. But with the collaboration of the Canadian Film Development Corporation —if we can get more money, if we can develop training programs, a distribution program, if we could create more information to make sure that Canadians will stay in Canada to make good Canadian content—then at least we will offer solid competition to a phenomenon that could result in an American film industry in Canada.

We’re going in the right direction to produce more quality Canadian films ’

Maclean’s: Giving more money to the CFDC will solve that problem?

Lamy: It’s the only solution.

Maclean’s: That sounds like the bureaucrat's answer: ‘give my department more and I can play a bigger role Lamy: I don’t want to play a bigger role. I would like to play a better role. And the only way to play a better role is to try to play on the essence of what makes a good Canadian film. I’m talking about good scripts. I’m talking about good actors and actresses. I’m talking about clarifying our system of distribution. I’m talking about providing more information so that people will feel more confident about investing in Canadian films. I’m talking about better relationships with brokers; with the people in Ottawa. The only way to achieve that is to use some things we learned from the CBC, the National Film Board and the Canada Council.

Maclean’s: If we leave it to market decisions alone....

Lamy: You will get what the market wants.

Maclean’s: We will have an American film industry in Canada.

Lamy: It could happen.

Maclean’s: The only way to give it some sort of Canadian face is to keep the government involved.

Lamy: Absolutely, absolutely.

Maclean’s: Was the CCA [the tax allowance] worth it? Was the emphasis on building up Canadian producers worth it? Has it led to a stronger, better Canadian film industry ?

Lamy: If I look at the production of 1980, yes. I can tell you, based on the information that we’ve got at the CFDC in Montreal and Toronto, that scripts are much better and that we’re going in the right direction to produce more quality Canadian films. I think one must assume that you do not easily develop a film industry when you are so close to a neighbor that is the centre of the world. It’s not an easy situation for a Canadian producer, but it’s worth the effort. This is the story of Canada . . . with the CBC, the National Film Board, with the Canada Council. If you assume that because there’s now some flak, that maybe we’ve produced some monsters, [so now] we should close up shop, well ... I can tell you that it won’t be the only form of expression that we will have to shut down.

Maclean’s: Where do you see the Canadian film industry in five years? And where do you see the CFDC within it? Lamy: I think that in five years, the issue will be stabilized. I think that there will be a film industry that year in, year out, will produce anything between 30 and 40 feature films. I think it will be decentralized, with a lot more activity in B.C. and the West. I think that there will be better connections between the National Film Board, the CFDC and the private sector. I think the budgets of films in Canada will level off as people learn that maybe it’s as difficult to recoup an investment of $8 or $9 million in a film with some stars in it, as it is to recoup on a low budget film of $2 million. I hope that the role of the CFDC will be reorganized and adapted to this new situation.

Maclean’s: Will the film industry still be controversial?

Lamy: Oh yes. That’s good copy for you guys, and why not?