Canadian filmmaker Paul Cowan personifies the financial struggle of Canada’s independent documentary community. When Cowan failed to find $400,000 to make a documentary about Donald Miarshall Jr., but secured $2 million to produce the idea as a movie, he lent credence to what Canadian documentary maker Magnus Isacsson called a “crisis in documentary.”
This crisis can be attributed to the preeminence of television infotainment-the eighties version of pre-masticated news and current affairs. The emergence of this hybrid of news and entertainment made broadcasters reluctant to rock the political boat or to challenge social values-apparently in deference to powerful advertisers with political interests. So it is not surprising that point-of-view documentaries have been ravaged by networks. But thanks to Telefilm Canada, a publicly funded institution whose credo is to invest in “high-quality, culturally relevant Canadian television programs,” producers of Canadian documentaries may now have an opportunity to create films which challenge more traditional journalistic ideas of balance and objectivity.
This year, Telefilm has added $16.5 million to its Auxiliary Fund, which finances dramas, documentaries, children’s programs and variety programs. Noel Cormier, Telefilm’s director of policy and planning, insists that most of the funds are earmarked for drama and documentary. Though perhaps more importantly, Telefilm has lowered its unwritten regional broadcast licensing requirements from 15 to 10 per cent for documentaries costing under $500,000.
Simply put, a broadcast licensing fee is the amount of money networks are willing to invest up front on the production of films. So on a documentary whose projected cost is $300,000, an independent producer must now obtain 10 per cent ($30,000) from the network(s) rather than the 15 per cent ($45,000) previously required.
When the licensing fee is obtained, a producer becomes eligible for Telefilm financing, which, if granted, will cover 30 to 49 per cent of projected total costs. The amount of the award depends on such criteria as Canadian content, quality of the script, business outlook and experience of the producer. Telefilm stipulates the film must be “compatible” for prime-time viewing within two years.
Although their intentions seem honorable, Telefilm’s actions are greeted with mixed emotion in Canada’s documentary community. Robert Lang, chairman of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (CIFC), says that Telefilm’s actions will be “an incredible boost to documentary production.” He reasons that obtaining a broadcast licence in Canada for a $300,000 film wasn’t feasible before the reduction-even if producers acquired funding from all of Canada’s small broadcasters. Now Lang feels it’s not only possible, but likely. “We [CIFC) will come into projects that we couldn’t do before. It’s very exciting.”
Fellow CIFC member and award.winning documentary maker Peter Raymont agrees the reduction will “make it a little easier,” but says it’s “‘still important to get foreign presales” to meet any remaining costs.
Despite the encouraging support of Telefilm, Montreal based filmmaker Mark Ackbar believes financing for controversial material will still be extremely difficult to get. He and partner Peter Wintonick are having trouble getting a broadcast licence; their aim is to make a documentary about media critic Noam Chomsky.
“It’s still impossible for marginal productions like ours…to raise $35,000 to $40,000 in licensing fees,” says Ackbar. “Telefilm doesn’t want programs that are compatible for prime time, they want programs that are compatible for mainstream broadcasting.” Ackbar feels the reduction is a token gesture:”They (Telefilm) should do more.”
Whether Telefilm is doing enough to support Canadian documentary production is debatable. Some argue that because Telefilm’s original mandate was to boost the production of drama, any help is appreciated; others feel that because it is now within Telefilm’s mandate to nurture Canadian documentary, the original mandate is inconsequential -only the present is relevant.
Though it is unclear whether Telefilm’s actions will alleviate the current crisis in documentary, one thing is clear: short of a fundamental transformation in the attitudes of Canadian broadcasters, no single act will be the panacea.