It’s Time Film Festivals Became Accountable

In this day and age of the inter webs, and the ease of feedback, why should this even be a question?

Film festivals, it has been debated, are either a useless thing or a very useless thing. And the reason they are for the most part a useless thing, is because film festivals so clearly select films according to a very narrow set of criteria that are not necessarily clear.

What is clear? It’s clear that film festivals now get inundated with thousands of entries from hopeful filmmakers.

In the old days, making films was expensive. You had to buy film. Rent a film camera and lighting equipment that was worth thousands of dollars and could cost that much just to rent.  You had to maybe hire crew, actors, have a production team. Then when production was done, you had to get the film processed, audio mastered. Film is expensive. So that limited how many films could actually be feasibly made. How many of those films were any good got inevitably whittled down. So a film festival likely would only have received a scant minority of these film products from filmmaking hopefuls.

A film festival had to make clear choices about what films should be selected to put on their program, because there were very real variables that needed to be considered: how big their screening venue was, and how much it would cost. How many volunteers and employees it could get together. How many people would actually show up and purchase tickets. How to make this film festival different than that film festival. Maybe it was just about screening locally-made films. Maybe it was about getting some prestige and becoming the next Cannes, the next Sundance. 

The digital costs of making a film are much cheaper. Getting locations, crew, cast, and all the other physical costs of producing the film are still the same costs. Equipment may be cheaper or it may be exactly the same cost as well, depending on the quality and where this equipment was manufactured. But making a film and being able to submit it to a festival was turned from a many-step procedure into a simple click of the button to upload and submit.

In the old days, perhaps it was easier to run a film festival. There no doubt was fewer of them. But the ease in making a film, and submitting it, has also created the ease in hosting the film through a film festival–and charging filmmakers for the privilege in submitting a film to that film festival. 

Perhaps the question of “whither accountability?” has always been present in a system that judges the quality of a film on purely subjective grounds. But in this day and age where there are so many film festivals and even more hopeful filmmakers, submitting their work, it is clear that some kind of accountability needs to be put in place. 

Why does a film get rejected? Does it even get seen? Is there some way these questions and issues can be answered adequately by a film festival?

It is clear that some accountability mechanism to make the judging process of a film festival clear is needed. A simple breakdown of a film, what works in it, what doesn’t, is all that would be required. 

This system would ensure that the hopeful filmmaker gets some reassurance that someone has seen his or her work, and that there is some accountability for the money paid to submit a work. This is the least that a film festival can do: to honor a filmmaker’s hard work and passion.

 

The Problem with the Canadian TV and Film Industry Is That There Is None

 

There’s been some kerfuffle over the Senate’s recommendations to the CBC to start finding alternate ways to generate revenue. There’s been the usual indignant response from the CBC — signalling their continued policy that if there is no acknowledgement of a problem, then there is no problem. From the public either a collective shrug, or some defence of the CBC — usually along the lines of what value they give to the public — or righteous damnation from the zealous far-right that considers any government involvement a sign of the coming Apocalypse and that the CBC is full of trough-eating pig-people.

The fact of the matter is the CBC’s market share of the tv-watching Canadian audience is 5.3%, according to statistics from the 2011-2012 year (is there a reason this market share data hasn’t been updated in nearly 6 years?). CBC receives 1.1 Billion dollars in taxpayer money to attain this paltry percentage of 5.3% of the Canadian tv audience. This number bears repeating again: 5-point-3 percent. On top of that, CBC earns revenue through selling advertising, which in itself is enough to send a right-winger into red-faced palpitations. So the CBC has access to even more money to attain…5.3%. Oh by the way, CBC does not broadcast exclusively Canadian content, it carries some American content too. Even with that, CBC’s market share is…again, it bears repeating: 5.3%.

To be clear, to me there is no problem if the CBC wants to generate revenue and receive taxpayer money, or really, even carry some American content (no actually that one is total BS) but, it should be performing better than a 5.3% market share of the Canadian tv-viewing audience. It’s pathetic, really. And the revolting thing is that the CBC is puttering along, unaccountable and unapologetic, and continues to say their problem is a lack of funds.

Really? No. It supremely the fuck is not.

The lip-gloss of defensive obfuscating jargon is wearing thin, and it is glaringly obvious that something desperately needs to change, and the solution cannot simply be that the CBC needs more funds.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the CBC that money simply cannot fix.

But is CBC entirely broken? Maybe we’re focusing on the wrong media here. CBC Radio is (somewhat) successful in ways CBC Television laughably is not. So maybe, the problem has something more to do with the film and television industry in Canada — or the lack thereof.

The film and television “industry” in Canada is a perversion, kept alive only through subsidies and laws that forbid foreign ownership of media properties. It is through the unholy interpenetration of these two dynamics that we can understand that Canada — despite it being one of the best countries to live in and one of the richest in the world — for all intents and purposes, has no media industry.

The basic problem is this: federal law (the Broadcasting Act to be precise) dictates that there shall be no foreign ownership of Canadian media broadcasting companies. Canadian media companies are actually Canadian: Rogers, Bell, Shaw, etc. In return, these companies are required to provide a certain percentage of Canadian content. Read: instead of “provide”, substitute “buy”. That is why the CRTC exists: to ensure that these companies hold up their end of the bargain. Because, really, we protect their industry.

The problem is, the CRTC mandates that these private media companies must carry a certain percentage of Canadian content — which is roughly around 30%. Furthermore, the CRTC does not stipulate what would constitute this content, only that it be “Canadian”.

So what do these private media companies do? Protected by law, they buy American programming that is guaranteed millions of views and thus demanding the highest price of ad dollars, reap in the cash as their market is protected and there’s no real competition through simulcast shows, and then spend as little money as possible to fulfill their Canadian content obligations  —  namely sports and news.

What is the result? No *good* Canadian content is produced because there is no demand for it from these private companies. It’s not like there is a fundamental lack of creative talented Canadians who can provide this content. These private Canadian media companies that are supposed to build a domestic Canadian market, do not buy Canadian tv shows. Therefore there are no Canadian production companies who can make good tv shows. There are no stable jobs for actors, for crew, for writers, directors, etc. for anyone who would be involved in the film industry ecosystem, because the lynchpin that would form the foundation of such an industry–the distributor–doesn’t buy what they make.

The irony is, this talent, finding no work locally, goes to Hollywood to help create American programming that these same “Canadian” broadcasters then buy back.

In this void, the Canadian government and the CRTC, instead of doing what they should have done, which is raise the percentage of Canadian content these private media companies should carry to over 80%, do something even worse. They wrangle bureaucratic bylaws to try to force these private companies to fund “good” domestic programming.

For instance, these private media companies have to pay a certain percentage of their profits into the Canadian Media Fund (the latest iteration of previous programs in previous years) to…create programming that they then “buy” to fulfill their required CanCon. No doubt this fund is topped up with more government subsidies. Not only is our government protecting these private companies from competition and allowing them to generate billions in revenue, they are subsidizing them even more to coax them to carry Canadian content. And the production of that content is itself subsidized by the government yet again through tax credits, in order to pull these grudging private media companies, kicking and screaming all the way, into hitting their paltry quota of Canadian content.

Does that sound like a policy that comes close to anything resembling sense?

The ideal would be these private media companies–without any grants or subsidies–buying good Canadian content because they know they can draw an audience. But, despite capitalist spoutings of “up from the bootstraps” and rigid individuality coupled with hard work, this sounds like too much hard work.

In addition, the government pumps money to try to create a media industry through arts groups and councils, which then divvy up the money to artists through grants. The problem with this system is, again, there is the creation of content without the accountability of demand. The result is–cough cough–“high art”, or documentaries. The connection between these two ostensibly polar opposite niches is hard to see at first, until you realize that that is precisely the point: on one end, you have the the funding of navel-gazing, solipsistic “academic” art that because of it’s high specialized “complexity”, no one but the incentivized, snobby few will valorize. On the other end–documentaries are pretty straightfoward, and relatively easy to make as they do not require the writing and producing skills needed to create fictional media content. In other words, “media art” and documentaries are relatively free from criticism, and thus accountability. The other side of perspective is, they are free of the mass market, because the mass market renders them next to worthless.

The grant system ultimately takes media programming that should be directed to a niche audience, and instead offers it up for mass consumption. And the mass market simply doesn’t want it.

So the result is again a death-spiral, because the emergency crutch that a grant-giving body is designed to do–which is jump-start original Canadian content–does not work. And it doesn’t work because it results in content almost no one wants to watch. In a normal system, horrible writers and directors would not be rewarded to continue writing and directing horribly. And yet, in the Canadian perverted media system–it is the norm.

The overall result is a mangled media “system” where bad content is the only content that can be made–because it is not made with the intent to entertain people, but merely to conform to a set of rules of what is “Canadian content”–and a system where billion-dollar private media companies are not punished, but encouraged, to *not* buy Canadian content. In fact, they are indirectly subsidized by restrictive laws to pursue an agenda that leads directly to the continued suppression of a domestic Canadian media industry.

The saddest thing of all, is that it would appear the majority of Canadians are perfectly happy with this state of affairs, because they certainly don’t signal any disapproval in any way.

Canadians remain wholly ignorant of the system, and are indirectly educated that they can’t do anything about it. And the constant creation of bad Canadian content reinforces the conception that this is a quality inherent in us–like that we’re not capable of creating quality entertainment like the Americans or other countries.

That’s utter hogwash, and a complete cop-out. There are plenty of talented people–the number of Canadians in Hollywood would attest to that–and creative people here merely need the ability to be supported in their talents in order for this complete perverted system to be utterly annihilated.

And it would be extremely simple to do. All we need to do is demand quality Canadian content. That’s it.

The CBC then, is merely a symptom of “voting with feet”. Canadians don’t watch CBC because the CBC does not produce good content. The CBC is not motivated to produce good content because it continues to get funding whether it produces good content or not. Indeed, the CBC has an attitude that because it merely exists, and it has a mandate of producing “Canadian” content, then the logical corollary is that it is doing its job. This is the downside of publicly funding programming–if there is an innate desire to avoid accountability to provide something good, then nothing good will be created.

There’s also an attitude of condencension in how the CBC conducts things. It’s similar to a parent trying to force his or her child to eat broccoli. The broccoli is not “good” per se, but it is good for you. So when criticism is made of the CBC that it’s programming sucks, the CBC merely retorts that of course it’s not good. But it’s good for you. 

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

At the end of the day, a government simply cannot create a media industry. It could play a part, by providing funds for productions that would not receive funds otherwise–and I would argue that in this day of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding ventures, that even in this aspect the government should not have to spend one tax-dollar on any media project when an artist can simply solicit funds from his patrons directly–but really the only role the government should play is a monitoring and balancing one.

The real culprit, again, is the private media companies, protected by law, to harvest billions in revenue, with no real regulation from the CRTC, and no accountability to actually buy quality Canadian content. And ironically, the only stressor in this entire media “industry” that started to force change was an American company called Netflix, and the spin-off effect of the realization that territorial rights for media content was no longer king of the jungle. Simply, if the internet rendered the cost of distribution to zero, then there would be no reason for territorial rights, because territorial rights is dependent on the high cost of distributing a media work.

Conclusion? Even if the CRTC increased the percentage of Canadian content, would it really matter in a world where all content is consumed online, which appears to be the trend?

So what to do?

The answer lies in where it always was: the only content that people will watch willingly is good content. A giant reset button should be hit for the entire “Canadian media industry”. At the very least, the CRTC should mandate up to 80% of Canadian content for the large Canadian media conglomerates. All the dead wood at CBC should be fired, and people who want to make good tv content hired, with the main goal to get as many Canadians watching. The CBC should get into distributing films as well so that there is some incentive to purchase, distribute and showcase Canadian content. Overall, at this point, I think any change is welcome than sticking with the status blow.