High drama behind the screen

ANN SHORTELL October 26 1987

High drama behind the screen

ANN SHORTELL October 26 1987

High drama behind the screen


Armed with documents, a film producer and his lawyer walked into a meeting at Telefilm Canada’s midtown Toronto offices last month expecting to conclude a deal. Months earlier officials of the federal agency, which was founded in 1967 to help fund Canadian film productions—later expanding to television-

had assured him that if he found independent financing and a commitment from a major broadcaster, Telefilm would guarantee the rest of the money he needed. But the producer, who requested anonymity, was in for a shock. Telefilm officials flatly told him that they had no money for the project. Indeed, halfway through its current fiscal year, the agency has run out of money. And last week Peter Pearson resigned as the executive director of Telefilm. Meanwhile, the producer—according to Samuel Jephcott, executive director of the Canadian Film & Television Association—“is running around figuring out how he can restructure his project and keep it alive.”

A debate over whether the agency should actively help to shape the content of the projects it funds is causing a rift within Telefilm and the movie community. As well, the agency has been under fire for sloppy management practices. Since the beginning of

October, telegrams have been arriving at the agency’s Montreal headquarters from producers, broadcasters and technicians seeking explanations for Telefilm’s statements to producers that it has financial problems and a controversial five-year plan to promote Canadian content even more aggressively. The document, obtained by

Maclean's, says that Telefilm could combine present funds—both those destined for TV production and those earmarked for film —and that it could take a “more aggressive role as an industry builder.”

Last August, in a preview of the current crisis, Telefilm threatened to withhold its partial funding of Alliance Entertainment Corp.’s 16-part soap opera Mount Royal, a coproduction with CTV and the French production giant SFP, because one of five lead actors was not a Canadian citizen. Said Alliance cofounder Robert Lantos: “Telefilm has perverted its mandate.”

Major broadcasters object to any interference in programming; they say that they want money from Telefilm but not advice. “We believe as a group that Telefilm has evolved in the wrong direction,” said David Mintz, president of the Global Television Network. “Telefilm has become a studio, whether they know it or not.” As one of the

plan’s major champions, Pearson would have pushed for that new role had he stayed. It is unclear whether the plan will be implemented by his interim successor, the agency’s deputy director Judith McCann.

Pearson’s departure followed a number of other staff resignations and a series of internal and consultants’ studies citing tension between management and the board, and frustration by staff members. In January a staff report criticized both Telefilm’s operations and its policy goals. Two months later a 57-page consultants’ report by the Montreal office of the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand stated that too much power was concentrated in the hands of the executive director. The report also said that too much time was wasted in meetings and day-to-day management, that staff lacked guidelines and that the agency lacked a longterm strategy.

Pearson, who had served as executive director of Telefilm since July, 1985, often acknowledged that his main strength was not as an organizer. This is the third year that Telefilm has had a major budgeting problem. It ran out of money for new projects in December, 1985three months before its March 31 yearend. And in 1986 the agency turned away scores of projects that qualified for loans because officials said that Telefilm was out of money. Then, at fiscal year-end, the agency was forced by a cost-conscious federal government to hand back to Ottawa $17 million of its $107-million budget.

This year, sources say, Telefilm overspent on French-language projects. By early this month there were indications that money was running out. Auditors from the accounting firm Thorne Ernst & Whinney arrived at the agency’s Montreal headquarters two weeks ago to discover exactly how much money the agency had already committed to projects this year. The firm was expected to deliver an interim report to the Telefilm board by late last week.

But movie industry sources say that

the blame for Telefilm’s management problems should not be borne solely by Pearson. The agency’s budget has grown from $5 million in 1982 to more than 20 times that size this year. Meanwhile, Pearson hired entertainment industry people, many of them film-makers themselves, as administrators. Often they appeared to be envious of independent producers working on projects. Said Lantos: “It’s almost as if those running Telefilm resent the notion that they must sign large cheques that others spend.”

Telefilm’s crisis may reflect Ottawa’s own unclear film policy. The government claims that it is committed to increasing domestic movie production. Telefilm is one tool for doing that. Another is a policy announced earlier this year to bolster the domestic film distribution industry in order to guarantee Canadian movies more than the two to five per cent of screen time that they currently command. But the department of communications has delayed implementing the policy largely because of strenuous objections by members of the U.S. entertainment industry, which controls North American film distribution.

The American industry has also expressed anger with publicly supported action series and romantic dramas broadcast on U.S. television. Downplaying any distinctive Canadian content, such shows are clearly designed to compete directly with American productions in the U.S. market. Those productions could put into question Telefilm’s distinctly Canadian role, leading to criticism in Congress during discussions of the free trade accord.

Without a strong indication of Ottawa’s own priorities, Telefilm is now working hard to chart a clearer course. In April it introduced a discussion document on its future at a Quebec industry forum. Over the summer a staff committee drafted the five-year strategy paper to serve as a working guide for long-range planning. One controversial section says that Telefilm could help fund National Film Board productions that were intended for broadcast. What appears to anger independent producers is that officials at the allegedly broke agency have been discussing

that proposal with broadcasters—without explaining whether that money will come from the same empty pot.

Since August officials of the agency have been meeting with broadcast industry executives and individual producers to talk about its five-year plan. Telefilm executives have stressed their intention to take a more active role in the day-to-day decision-making. Clearly alarmed, the chief executives from major television networks decided to demonstrate their concern by taking joint action to inform the agency about their grave concerns. On Oct. 6 they sent a Telex to the board of Telefilm, expressing “concern” over Telefilm’s “current operating policies and proposed direction” and requesting urgent meetings to discuss both issues. At week’s end, they had not received a reply.

As for the agency taking a more interventionist role, producers claim that Telefilm already uses its position as a financier to influence the type of project approved. Instead of choosing a project on the basis of whether it has support from a broadcaster, Telefilm looks at a movie for excessive sexual and

1 violent content. Deje fending that position,

2 John Watt, director Q of Film, Video and x Sound Recording Policy and Programs at

the federal department of communications, points out that the agency dispenses taxpayers’ money—“and the public does not want women portrayed as victims.” He added: “How far one goes in that subjective decision-making is up to Telefilm.” This week the Commons culture and communications committee is scheduled to hear Telefilm officials speak in Montreal about the future of the agency. But even its harshest critics say that the agency is vital to the survival of the Canadian film and video production industry. Said Lantos: “If, as a result of any of this commotion, the existence and ability of Telefilm to function is hurt, that will be a tragedy.”

For his part, Mintz says that change at Telefilm is worth fighting for. “Telefilm is the greatest thing that this industry has ever had,” he said. “If it is run right with the right policy, it could be ever greater.”