RE-WRITING OUR FUTURE AT THE NIAGARA INTEGRATED FILM FESTIVAL (NIFF) INDUSTRY NIGHT

Like a theme out of a video game, filmmakers referred to them as “the four horsemen” who dangerously lurk in the shadows waiting to steal the power and control from Canada’s entertainment industry. These powers are better known by their names: Google, Apple, Amazon, and Netflix, which are expanding into Canada and threaten to monopolize our airwaves and industry. Currently, our government is not holding their hooves to the fire, so these companies do not pay their fair share of taxes on their many shows, web series, and other products aired in Canada.

This topic was just one of many discussed during Industry Day, a part of the Niagara Integrated Film Festival recently, where filmmakers converged to focus on “Striding Forward-Structuring a New Road Map for Canada.” The think tank included many funders, government representatives and personnel from various aspects of the film and television industry. The event falls on the heals of the federal cultural budget, which is intended to bolster the entertainment sector and turn creativity into sense, as well as dollars and cents.

Industry Day was sponsored by the Ontario Media Develop Corporation, RBC, and The Walrus Foundation, and held at the Stone Mill Inn, St. Catharines.

Melanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage, is reportedly looking for input on how to best spend $35 million in the next two years. Some of this money has been allocated to funding bodies: Telefilm Canada to the tune of $22 million for five years, and the National Film Board is receiving $13.5 million, among other arts institutions.

NIFF speaker Mark Shekter, CEO of Think 8
Mark Shekter, CEO of Think 8

Mark Shekter, Founder and CEO of Think 8 Systems, moderator of the first conference day panel, gave an overview of the film industry, which plays out as a bleak drama that needs to be rewritten in order to be successful, in future. According to Shekter, $7 billion was generated from film projects in Canada in 2014 to 2015, but two-thirds of that went into the pockets of foreign investors. For someone who likes to create and build things, Shekter believes we need to forge partnerships as leaders, not just followers.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Historically, in broadcasting and entertainment, Canada’s culture was considered first, so regulations were established solely on that basis. However, these regulations are far from the business model it needs to be, he said. Also, our system was not designed to ward off the large giants to the south infiltrating our airwaves. “We need leadership, investment, and partnerships.” Currently, our return on investment (ROI) is only two per cent, and Shekter said the aim is for at least three per cent in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A part of the problem is the lack of development funds, which is used to initiate projects. “Nothing happens without research and development,” he said.

It was noted by the panel that the partnerships Canada’s production companies do have with other countries do not put us on an even playing field. American broadcasters and producers call the shots, as they utilize our talent, labour and tax breaks. Shekter believes we need to negotiate deals, where we are equal partners and not just service providers, however, the rules and regulations needed for this are not in place.

Schizophrenic is the term Reynolds Mastin, President and CEO of the Canadian Media Producers Association, used to describe the current industry. He mentioned some of the large companies in the U.S. are investing in studios in Canada, and they will be reaping the profits while smaller Canadian producers working for them will be forced to take more of the financial risk.

Tim Smy, Director of Theatrical Sales for VVS Films, stated the large scale, high concept movies from the U.S. are raising the bar for us to produce movies of the same calibre. “We can’t sell crappy films,” he explained. This creates a shrinking market for Canadian producers, as our broadcasters purchase U.S. movies and television content, which includes paying the high exchange rates. Ironically, segments of those movies were most likely shot here, and the American companies were given tax breaks to do it.

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

Restructure the Canadian system to become a business model and not just a cultural entity, as our companies need to make higher profits.

On the same note, Canadians need to develop more partnerships or co-productions with other countries. This also includes considering projects on many platforms: games, web series, television, etc. Story-telling should be considered for its universality, and not just Canadian content, so that we can sell more of our films and television shows to other countries. This also means designing projects that have divergent voices and appeal to different cultures.

Develop a defining attitude at the bargaining table: “If I partner with you on this, you will help us produce our ideas on that.”

We also need to brand, package and promote ourselves better to make the most of our creativity and concepts.

The Canadian government has to make all companies transparent and accountable, especially foreign companies and investors. This means new regulations, licensing, tax and credit systems to benefit and protect our industry with the aim of becoming sustainable in future.

More money should be funneled into development so that more ideas and projects become a reality, and we create our own industry of writers and producers. As Mr. Mastin stated, Canadians have to learn to nurture and retain our talent, as well as repatriate the talent which has already moved to the U.S.

Panelists encouraged players in the industry to send email suggestions to the Minister of Heritage and culture, Ms. Joly on how to improve arts and culture in Canada.

The Benefits of Shooting in Niagara

The second panel of this conference was comprised of members directly from Niagara, and the experiences of filming projects in the Golden Horseshoe were expressed. Niagara is unique because of its vineyards, plush green landscapes and pristine-looking towns like Niagara-on-the-lake. It also contains one of the seven wonders of the worlds with the American and Horseshoe Falls. The region is also quite diverse in appearance from one end to the other, noted a panelist. The proximity to the U.S. border and other larger cities make Niagara easy to access from many destinations.

Other comments such as great parking and a supportive community willing to assist them were a bonus. Tax breaks or credits of up to 35 percent are also given to film crews shooting 100 kilometers from the GTA, which includes Niagara. It was suggested that Niagara’s Economic and Development Board hire a film commissioner, as they have in many other areas, to guide film crews in getting their projects completed.

Virtual Fun

The Industry Day conference had its eye-candy with a demonstration in virtual reality titled: The Sight and Sound in New Reality: A Case in VR Storytelling by production company, Jam 3.
From a large screen, the directors and producers of Jam 3, illustrated the visual gems of VR and the experience of being in another dimension. They also demonstrated how VR technology has evolved beyond gaming, and will be used by many platforms in the future.

FOUNDING FILM FATHERS

Bill Marshall, one of the founders of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and the Niagara Integrated Film Festival (NIFF), said Niagara is a perfect spot for a film festival. “I’ve always loved Shaw Festival, the wineries, and it’s a border point with the U.S.” The festival has received four features each year directly from Niagara, he said. With Niagara College and Brock University running film programs, Niagara is a “real training ground” for talent.

While he maintains, “we are still making mistakes and still learning,” Mr. Marshall is clearly dedicated to supporting Canadian talent: he has four other areas in Canada slated for establishing film festivals. In addition to promoting our industry and generating production, film festivals also increase tourism, and those much-needed dollars and cents.

 

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