Canada

Canada's culture cash

JOHN GEDDES July 13 1998
Canada

Canada's culture cash

JOHN GEDDES July 13 1998

Canada's culture cash

Canada

JOHN GEDDES

On the afternoon before Canada Day, CBC president Perrin Beatty sat in his Ottawa office straining his voice to be heard over Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It, the infectious hit song by U.S. movie star and hip-hop recording artist Will Smith. The beat pulsating from Beatty’s desktop computer was blasted out over the Internet by Radio VBC in Vladivostok. He makes a habit of checking out the growing number of these so-called Webcasts from radio stations around the world—including the CBC’s own. An American song, on a Russian station, over a medium beyond the reach of Canadian regulators—what better background music for Beatty’s musing on how technology is fast rendering old cultural protection policies obsolete? He contends that even a public broadcaster must now rely on its ability to succeed in the marketplace if it is to survive and thrive. “If anybody wants to build an electronic wall around Canada,” he said, “there is no wall high enough or thick enough that it can’t be leapt by a satellite or pierced by a fibre-optics cable.”

As Beatty spoke, Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps was across town wrapping up two days of meetings on much the same theme with 20 culture ministers, representing countries from Brazil to Britain. Their common denominator: shared misgivings about the seductive onslaught of U.S. movies, television and music. No American politician was invited to attend. The ministers pledged to form

a permanent network to try to prevent their national cultures from being steamrolled by global trade and economic forces. Copps told Maclean’s that she hopes the summit sowed the seeds for cultural institutions that will someday grow to parallel the powerful bodies, such as the World Trade Organization, that hold sway over global commerce. “Globalization is a fact of life,” she said. “But it has come on us so rapidly that on the cultural side we don’t have any international instruments to deal with it.”

Canadian entertainment entrepreneurs are not waiting for the new global culture club to ensure their survival. With a series of key federal policy changes on film, TV and magazines in the works, many are urging Ottawa to find ways to inject new commercial incentives into traditionally sheltered cultural sectors. While the key decisions are still to be made, at least some federal policy-makers appear to be listening. “They’re looking for a way to nurture culture while avoiding dependence on government,” says Toronto film consultant Dan Johnson. Even the CBC is taking a market-oriented approach, such as looking to launch a specialty TV channel with independent film producer Atlantis, rather than pleading for more taxpayers’ money. ‘We’re going to have to make do with what we have,” Beatty said, “and what we can generate in the marketplace.”

If Copps’s culture summit showed that she is thinking globally, the upcoming policy decisions will test her ability to act domestically. She will play a key role in overhauling the rules that largely dictate

the homegrown choices Canadians see in the TV listings, on the marquees of movie theatres and on magazine racks. A WTO ruling last year forced Ottawa’s hand on magazine policy. But when it comes to film and TV, the shift is being driven largely by a growing consensus that Canadian products need more consumer appeal.

Nowhere is the emerging, more market-oriented mind-set more apparent than in the film industry. Copps launched consultations on reforming federal film policy five months ago. Instead of turning into a clamor for more taxpayers’ money, participants say the discussions are concentrated on how to boost the popular appeal of Canadian films. In the past, the creators of Canadian movies tended to blame distributors and theatre chains for the failure to lure large audiences. But according to Allan King, president of the Directors Guild of Canada, that grumble is heard less often and carries less weight these days. “My experience has been extremely good with any exhibitor or distributor I have ever worked with,” the veteran director of films like Who Has Seen the Wind says.

If those who control the screens are not to blame, why do so few Canadian films score in the marketplace? Last year’s The Sweet Hereafter by Toronto director Atom Egoyan was the first Canadian feature film to turn a profit since Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire in 1986. Both were challenging films that managed to break through to wider audiences— brilliant exceptions to the dismal rule. Industry observers say most Canadian movies are made with budgets for both production and promotion that are too skimpy. “A film with a particularly unusual subject and treatment can sometimes overcome minimal budgeting,” King says, “but you can’t consistently do it.”

To generate more regular successes, King says, mainstream Canadian movies need to be made with budgets of $5 million to $10 million—sufficient to give the finished product the polish expected by moviegoers used to slick Hollywood fare. In a controversial recommendation to Copps, the directors guild calls for a tax to be paid by film distributors on video rentals and theatrical releases, with the proceeds earmarked for a new $ 100-million feature film fund. Government sources, however, say the chances of such a tax gaining support from the powerful finance department are slim.

A proposal with a better chance of gaining government support is to reward film-makers who score at the box office—effectively punishing those who bomb by making it harder for them to get money. That approach is favored by King’s guild, the provincial film agencies and the theatre owners lobby group. “It’s not enough to just be giving out money,” contends Michael Herman, president of the Motion Picture Theatre Associations of Canada. “Those who show they have the capacity [to succeed] are the ones who should continue to be able to draw on that money.” As well, Herman calls for Telefilm Canada, the federal film financing agency, to tilt its funding towards movies targeted for wide release, by separating funding for commercial movies from the money available for more art-house projects.

The debate swirling around Canadian film is about to be extended to television. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission plans, subject to cabinet approval, to overhaul

Commercialism may soon drive federal policy

Canadian content rules after hearings this fall. Private broadcasters are fighting hard to avoid a repeat of last winter’s controversial CRTC decision to boost the required Canadian music content on radio to 35 per cent from 30 per cent. They are demanding policies that reward boosting the viewership for Canadian shows—not only hours of Canadian programming. CRTC chairwoman Françoise Bertrand hinted in an interview with Maclean’s that she is open to such an approach. “Let’s say someone does some kind of original or ingenious promotion of Canadian programs,” Bertrand said. “Shouldn’t that get some recognition at the level of Canadian-content points?”

Canadian TV programs tend to fare better in the marketplace than Canadian films. But Beatty laments that domestic programs have failed—despite substantial government spending and strict Canadian content rules—to grab more audience share over the decades. In 1960, Canadians watched Canadian shows 32 per cent

of the time. Last year, the Canadian share was 34 per cent. In the future, with more U.S. channels, and direct-to-home satellite services, Beatty suggests that just holding that traditional level will be a challenge. “The struggle,” he says, “is to make sure Canadians don’t become strangers in their own land.” Looming behind the whole rethinking of cultural policy is a fear that international trade rules will gradually tear down protection for arts and entertainment. Already, Canada faces a European Union challenge to federal rules that kept Dutch entertainment giant PolyGram from setting up a full-scale film distribution arm in Canada. (Montrealbased Seagram Co. Ltd.’s recent takeover of PolyGram may squelch that dispute.) And last year, a WTO panel ruled that Canadian tax advantages and postal subsidies for domestic magazines, including Maclean’s, discriminated against U.S. publications. Copps said she plans to deliver a workable new policy to cabinet late this month. She has ruled out a stiff tax levy on Canadian firms that advertise in foreign magazines. Beyond that, she refuses to outline what sort of package is in the works—citing the need to keep Washington in the dark for as long as possible.

Copps’s move on magazines will be closely watched by the left flank of the government caucus. Liberal MPs who cling to the economic nationalism that was the hallmark of their party through the 1970s and 1980s see culture as one of the few policy areas where they need not bow to the free-market bent that has defined Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s regime. “For sure, let’s have a liberalized economy,” says Quebec MP Clifford Lincoln, chairman of the House of Commons heritage committee. “At the same time, let’s preserve a cultural identity— a value system—in relation to a huge U.S. entertainment industry.” Lincoln’s committee is working on an ambitious study of the whole spectrum of cultural policies. By the time that report is delivered to Copps, likely late this year, her new policies on magazines and films should be in place and the CRTC’s hearings may well have sparked a lively debate about Canadian TV. With the new emphasis on making commercial success a core aim of cultural protection, the fall political season stands to put a fresh spin on familiar questions about preserving Canada’s identity. □