Men at the film board, as they now sheepishly admit, sneered at the women’s unit when it began 12 years ago, but the jokes abruptly dried up after the stunning popular success of Studio D …And yet, preposterously, Studio D, which the film board should be celebrating and applauding, is imperiled. Even as its popularity soared, its share of NFB money shrank.
So wrote Michele Landsberg in her weekly Globe and Mail column last September 13. Landsberg’s comments were typical of how the media explained what went wrong at Studio D. Fingers pointing, they implied that a sexist film board was ruining the women’s unit by slashing its budget.
Coverage was convincing. It seemed astonishing that Studio D was frozen, with no money to continue making the bold, stirring documentaries for which it was renowned. The antinuclear If You Love this Planet not only won a 1983 Oscar, it was labelled political propaganda by the Reagan administration and blacklisted in the U.S. Not a Love Story, a controversial documentary on pornography released in 1981, has had a major impact on the pornography debate in Canada: in 1981-82, it was booked more often than any other National Film Board offering. Yet the real story of how such successful filmmakers wound up with their hands tied has more to do with mismanaged money and attitude problems than with sexism.
Studio D’s funds have not been cut off. The real reason the unit has no money is “extensive overspending,” according to Dwight Clermont, financial officer for English programming.
Yet the press has consistently reported otherwise. As The Canadian Forum wrote in its August/September, 1986, issue, “Three years ago Studio D received 10 per cent of the English language division’s allocation. When this share fell to six per cent [Executive Producer Kathleen] Shannon protested. She was first told there must have been ‘an accounting error’ and was then assured that things were going to be different. She managed to get the seven per cent portion the studio has now. Even 10 per cent, she says, would be just ‘marginally fair.'” In The Toronto Star of February 22, 1986, Doris Anderson wrote, “This year, instead of having its budget increased, Studio D has had its budget cut.”
The media’s misrepresentation of the story probably has to do with their misunderstanding of the way NFB budgets work. To set the record straight, each fiscal year, which runs from April 1 to March 31, Parliament allots the NFB’s budget. NFB Chairman Francois Macerola then splits that figure among English programming, French programming and administration. Both the French and the English directors of programming then allocate money to the individual studios within their divisions. Amounts given to each studio are based on how many filmmakers it has, the types of movies it makes (some, like drama, are more costly than others) and the NFB’s attempt to distribute money evenly between headquarters and the regions. English programming-under which Studio D falls-has 10 studios, five at the Montreal headquarters on Cote de Liesse and five in regions across the country.
By the time any studio receives its funding, overhead for salaries and NFB technical services has been taken off the top. What is left is called “free money” and it’s used to pay the key expenses of making films: contracting freelancers, travel and buying film stock. In 1984-85, Studio D’s free money totalled $344,000, in 1985-86 it jumped to $554,000 and in 1986-87 it was $580,000. Over those three years, the unit’s free money increased by 43.2 per cent.
Under Executive Producer Shannon, who stepped down exhausted last June, Studio D has been seeking more free money since its inception in 1974. Mainly, that’s because of how the unit sets up productions. While most studios use film board staff for crew, Shannon usually didn’t. Often, the producer and perhaps the writer were the only NFB staff assigned to a film. This means all other crew members-director, narrator, soundperson, cinematographer, editor, lighting person-must be free lancers whose pay came out of Studio D’s free money. One reason for this was that almost all NFB technical employees are men, and very often, Studio D’s productions demanded all women crews. Abortion: Stories from North and South and Behind the Veil: Nuns, both released in 1984, are two such films. As well, part of Studio D’s mandate is to hire women.
Despite these costly needs, Shannon managed to turn out some 70 films in 11 years without going significantly over budget. Then in 1985-86 the studio exceeded its $554,000 budget by $308,000. Shannon cites two reasons. The first: “a serious cut from which we never recovered.” But that cut was only $20,000-from $364,000 in 198384, to $344,000 the next year. The second: the unit was let down by Peter Katadotis, director of English programming, who had implied that it1 1984-85 Studio D could expect a substantial boost in free money. Based on that, Shannon undertook three new films-but says the increase never came through. “It was like a time bomb. I was trying to keep everything up in the air simultaneously. We juggled and juggled and juggled. At some point it was bound to come to rest.”
But in 1985-86 Studio D’s free money did jump, from $344,000 up to $544,000; the same year that frantic juggling collapsed into overspending. “It was no surprise that we came in over budget,” says Shannon. “It was a conscious decision.”
Yet in the financial statements Dwight Clermont received monthly from each studio, “the indication from Studio D was one of equilibrium. They weren’t expecting any problem.”
For some time, the unit had been telling the media that its budget was cut; that its percentage of English branch free money dropped from 9.9 in 1983-84, down to 6.2 the following year. While those percentages are accurate, they must be viewed against two facts. One: in real dollars, Studio D’s free money increased during that same period, and two: its percentage decrease was part of an overall political plan for the film board to decentralize and allocate more funds to its five regional studios. Until then, the regions had been receiving less than their share of the pie. In reports mentioning Studio D’s budget cuts, the media didn’t include either of these facts.
The NFB dictates that each studio must follow specific guidelines when it receives its free money. If a unit over spent or borrowed money from the film board the year before, it must pay that back before doing anything else. Next, it must earmark funds for “carry-in” costs. Those are funds to complete films begun in a previous fiscal year. Because productions often take two to three years to finish, most studios begin a new year with several projects already underway. Carry-in money is set aside for work planned on those films within that year.
Toward the end of the 1985-86 fiscal year, Studio D-hoping to reduce its expected deficit-borrowed $111,000 from the NFB. By the time the studio paid its overspending and loans bills at the start of 1986-87, it had $271,880 left. Within three months that was gobbled up by huge carry-in costs; the three films Shannon had taken on in 1984 were not completed.
Budgetary problems were compounded by Shannon’s attitude and the way the place was run. At the unit’s inception, Shannon had been a natural choice for executive producer. She had worked at the NFB for 18 years as a sound editor, picture editor, producer and director, but never as a manager.
In her new administrative position as executive producer she was required to deal extensively with male managers. Studio D’s Bonnie Sherr Klein, best known for directing Not a Love Story, says: “Kathleen was unable to communicate with men. She was so angry that she alienated them [from the women’s unit].” A sort of self-fulfilling prophecy was at work, according to Klein; Shannon believes that men invariably oppress women, so she expected it to happen to Studio D. With that expectation, she pitted her unit against the film board. “Studio D became a thorn in the side of men because we gave them no credit-we said we’d done it in spite of them,” says Klein. Ginny Stikeman, staff editor since 1975, says of Shannon’s attitude toward men: “It’s negative, I’d say, with men having all the bad attributes.”
One man who has worked with Shannon is John Taylor, now executive producer of the Ontario region. During the 10 years he headed the Pacific region he sat across from her in many meetings. “I think sometimes she’s felt very lonely and I think sometimes she’s been very upset.” Shannon describes her feelings differently: “Probably often I felt frustration and impatience at the difficulty of communicating my perspective. It was a source of stress, and anger often.”
It’s likely that those feelings contributed to the tense atmosphere at Studio D meetings. No one around the table would say what she really thought for fear of upsetting Shannon. “It was like a regime,” says one former freelance editor who refuses to be named. “No one wanted to rock the boat. Freelancers were scared.” Some voiced criticisms of the studio’s management. She says their contracts were never renewed.
There is no doubt that despite these conflicts, Studio D has produced a wealth of poignant, relevant work. Beverly Shaffer’s I’ll Find a Way, about a gutsy nine-year-old handicapped girl, won an Academy Award for best live action short in 1978. Sylvie’s Story, directed in 1986 by freelancer Barbara Doran, is a sensitive and instructive look at one battered woman’s efforts to change her life.
It’s the instructive side of films that the studio focuses on; the group is dedicated to inspiring social change. Judging by demand, Studio D’s audience clearly thirsts for this type of documentary. In her 1986 masters thesis on the studio done for Carleton University, Chris Scherbarth found that as of March, 1985, the unit’s films on average were booked twice as often as other English NFB movies. When Scherbarth excluded Studio D’s two most popular films-Not a Love Story and If You Love this Planet-the remaining ones were still screened 50 per cent more than other NFB films.
During Shannon’s time as executive producer, the unit grew from three women tucked away in a small basement office at the Montreal headquarters, without enough money to make a 30-minute documentary, to an internationally respected group of 13 filmmakers.
Formal recognition of Studio D’s success abounds. In 1984 Shannon received an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University for having “fostered the work of women filmmakers in Canada and encouraged the production of films which speak to people all over the world against sexism, violence andracism.”Last July Shannon was named a member of the Order of Canada.
If Studio D is to continue producing work that deserves such plaudits, it will need a new executive producer willing to inherit a financial mess and a damaged relationship with the NFB. She will have to be capable of repairing both.