Culture  A tiff in the Canadian film industry

Quebecois film makers are heading for Hogtown

Now in its 35th year, the ever-burgeoning Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is living up to the name ‘Festival of Festivals’ under which it was founded. Critic Roger Ebert famously touted TIFF to be “just as great” as the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, the French venue where good films that few people will ever see, made by directors that most people never have heard of, compete for the Palme d’Or. The big and brawny TIFF is instead seen as the opening of Oscar season. The last three Best Picture winners – No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker – all played at TIFF.

Unfortunately for Quebec’s moviegoers, however, TIFF’s appeal is causing a decline in the number of Quebec films making their North American premieres in Quebec. “The Toronto International Film Festival has effectively displaced Montreal festivals in terms of marketability,” said Alanna Thain, assistant professor in McGill’s English department. TIFF’s pervasive influence was highlighted earlier this month by the underwhelming attendance at the typically high-profile Festival des Films du Monde in Montreal, the only Canadian festival besides Toronto accredited by the Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films, a Paris-based cinema watchdog. “It’s a business decision,” Quebec producer Kevin Tierney told the Gazette about his decision to debut his film Good Neighbours at TIFF. “In the highly competitive world that is international film festivals…decisions are made based on where the international buyers are. They are in Toronto. They are not in Montreal.”

The importance of major festivals, such as TIFF, for a movie’s marketability has been heightened because of what Thain explained as “the consolidation of what used to be a dispersed market in terms of independent and art cinema”. TIFF does not hesitate to line up avant-garde films alongside major studios’ Oscar hopefuls. “Festivals such as Sundance are no longer where undiscovered films go to be discovered,” said Thain. In the mix of 400 entries making the final cut at this year’s TIFF, which runs September 9 to 19, are 18 French-language films by Quebec filmmakers. Only seven Quebec feature films played at the 2010 Festival des Films du Monde.

As it stands, this is not an immediate cause of concern for the Quebec film industry. “Quebec is a unique case, for unlike the Canadian film industry it has its own identity and audience,” said Thain. “Filmmakers can have commercially viable products based solely on the Quebec market.” Bon Cop, Bad Cop, the tale of two policemen – one anglophone, one francophone – overcoming their linguistic prejudices and catching the bad guys, is the most commercially successful Canadian film to date. Made for the relatively small sum of $8 million, its box office take dwarfed that of Paschendale, the most expensive Canadian film ever made.

While this particular achievement is due more in part to the fact that Paschendale is an abysmal wartime melodrama, Quebec film still has much to be proud of. Three of Quebecois filmmaker Denys Arcand’s movies were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and his Les Invasions barbares actually picked up the statuette. Twenty-one-year-old Montreal wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s film Les Amours imaginaires, his second in as many years, was praised at Cannes this May. Critics and scholars consistently cite Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine as the greatest Canadian film of all time.

For a film to officially qualify as a Canadian production under federal audiovisual promotion agency Telefilm Canada – and to receive the accompanying funding – it must be eligible to receive a minimum number of Canadian content points. These are allotted when nationals fill positions such as director, writer, and lead actors. The film’s production team must also be Canadian. This last restriction is particularly daunting for up-and-coming Canadian filmmakers, who cast envious looks south of the border toward Hollywood’s bulging pockets. Many of our country’s finest filmmakers have migrated, including Paul Haggis (Crash) and Jason Reitman (Up in the Air).

The most notable case of Anglo-Canadian talent going south is James Cameron, raised in Kapuskasing, Ontario, and director of the epic blockbusters Avatar and Titanic – respectively the two highest-grossing films ever made. His compatriot Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), however, warned the Canadian film industry about following Avatar’s example. “We can’t make a film with that sort of budget,” he recently told a Cannes panel. “It would completely drain us in one fell swoop”. Dolan, speaking at the same panel, claimed that far from being a stumbling block, budgetary restrictions can actually inspire creativity. “What is great with these low budgets is that they conveniently serve the creativity of the film and allow you to go places you would not naturally go,” he said.

The temptation for Hollywood-sized budgets is perhaps easier to resist for Quebec filmmakers working in French, knowing that French-language films will never be given wide releases in non-francophone markets and, as a consequence, will never be soaked in funds. Of course, lack of recognition – especially on one’s own continent – serves as a deterrent to continue working in French. This problem is not especially new for Quebec filmmakers, but the nearby TIFF’s growing reputation as a festival swarming with distributors hungry for quality content – Juno, for example, grossed over $145 million despite its small budget ($8 million before advertising) and lack of spectacle – might exacerbate it. On top of simply vexing the province’s festivalgoers, TIFF’s new Hollywood status could prompt a decline in the production of Quebecois French-language films.