Friday, September 26, 2008

Over on the CBC site there is a lot of commentary activity over the last couple of days about "arts funding" specifically referencing the film and television business. The main complaint seems to focus around the idea that if what the film/TV industry produced was any good it would be able to stand on its own two feet.

These are all good points and if placed within the context of an uninfluenced marketplace it would make sense to all concerned. Unfortunately we are not in a free marketplace. We are not free to see our own movies on our own theatre screens, even if we were to somehow manage to do the impossible and finance them with our own money, and that of our families and friends. The movie houses are almost totally controlled either through investment/ownership or by intricate distribution deals where the theatre chains are virtually penalized for not showing the current crop of American Super Movies. Bluntly put, unless you go from town hall to town hall with your movies in the trunk of your car, and show them yourself at destination to destination there is no place to show our own homegrown self produced films! The same challenge exists for Canadian made TV shows. Prime time is dominated by American made product - dumped at comparatively low prices on Canadian Networks which have become nothing more than extensions of the American systems.

The American industry actually believes that it has the right to control the screens of the world and to dictate their viewing habits. Where their presence didn't exist before they are now intruding into the newly developing markets in India and China.

Yet the American Industry itself has gone from an arts based industry to a totally monetized model driven by Wall Street greed (we can all see where Wall Street has been going in the last few weeks). That model dictates that everything must have a guaranteed rate of return - the Wall Street solution has been to increase the budgets ever higher to the point where the usual summer blockbuster now costs around 200 million to produce. Almost as much is invested into promotion and advertising. It is a model out of control but we in Canada exist under the shadow of that economic monster.

It has gotten so out of hand that George Lucas said about a year ago that he was abandoning the mega movie rat race and going into low budget production - launching his own video on demand service in the process. If anybody can do it he can.

But I digress. This is the reason that Canadian government subsidy is required. On our own, our population base is too small to compete. A bit of history. Initially Hollywood was populated by a small group of predominantly Canadian entrepreneurs who went to Hollywood and created the Studio empires that ultimately flourished. A natural extension of that system was the distribution companies that were part of that growth - that and a natural desire to make sure that the people back home got to see their movies... naturally they wanted to make as much money as possible from their ventures.

The result was a Canadian network of distribution companies that were owned and fed by Hollywood. That network has been challenged at times to allow Canadian product - particularly by Garth Drabinski, who through the creation of the Cineplex empire, broke the American monopoly if only for a little while. When the American behemoth returned it returned with a vengeance. Just try and get an award winning Canadian film on a movie screen anywhere near you.

This is the key reason why there has been government involvement in the film industry since at least the late 60's if not longer. If you consider the National Film Board, government participation in the industry goes way back. Our population base has always been too small to make the kind of returns necessary to compete on an equal footing with the American market. Therefore the government stepped in and provided incentives to assist in the production of Canadian stories. This assistance allowed us to create an industry that today, is providing about 5 billion dollars annually to the Canadian economy.

That and previous governments understood the value of having and displaying our own culture to the rest of the world. A point that seems to be lost on Mr. Harper and the current crop of Conservatives. On the other hand, I imagine that if an MP disagreed with the party position they would be shut down very quickly by the "boss".

Yes you get the farmer in Saskatchewan, and the bible belt rednecks in Alberta and Nova Scotia up in arms about the kind of movies being supported, I mean, after all when you have a shock driven film maker release a movie with the title "Young People Fucking" you are going to get a negative reaction regardless of how tame the movie really was, but the bottom line is this: For every dollar that the Canadian Government puts forward as an economic stimulant its own figures show that it receives a minimum of four dollars (or more) back through the economic multiplier effect. In Alberta they discovered that in some cases it was closer to eight dollars in economic effect. Stelmach is looking like a convert to the reality that there is a strong economic argument for supporting the arts. We'll see on that one.

So where does that leave us? We have a Prime Minister who marginalizes our efforts and importance in our own country and markets, and at the same time guarantees failure on the international level by cutting the support for off shore marketing and future training. Some would call that self fulfilling prophecy! Niche market indeed!

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