NFB to co-launch global Netflix of documentaries

Jesse Brown on the film board’s latest project

The NFB just gets it.

Today, as the wildly popular Hot Docs festival plays to packed crowds in Toronto, they’ve announced a major new effort: a global subscription-based movie service specializing in “auteur” documentaries, debuting in 2014. No word yet on pricing or who their “prestigious” international partners are, but I’m sold on the idea alone. This is a product strangely absent from the online streaming video marketplace, and it’s awesome to see a Canadian cultural institution seizing that opportunity and leading, instead of waiting to see if some American startup can make a go of it first.

In unveiling the initiative, NFB chair Tom Perlmutter pointed to Canada’s role as “one of the most important world centres for documentary”. This may not be true today, but it was for a long time. The first feature length doc ever produced, Nanook of the North, was a Canadian production, and we’ve made dozens of world-class documentaries since (personal favourites include Comic Book Confidential and Up the Yangtze). But lately we’ve been treating the genre like an ugly stepchild, starving documentary production and eliminating docs from TV airwaves. Documentary, like comedy, is something we can actually do well, and the NFB is doing a very good thing in laying a digital claim on this turf.

The launch follows a prior innovative move from the National Film Board. In 2009, they threw a huge chunk of their archives online for free. Go ahead and watch something now, if you haven’t already. It was both a radical move and one totally in keeping with the ethos of a public cultural institution. After all, Canadians paid for these films, so it seems reasonable that we should be able to easily watch them. Telefilm, the CBC, and others making art with public funds could learn a thing or two here.

The promised documentary service will require a monthly payment.  I have two hopes for this: one is that the pricing is in line with the modern marketplace (a buck or two less than Netflix sounds about right). My second wish is that when the service launches, the NFB won’t take any old docs off of their free NFB.ca service, but will instead add value by offering an expansive international library and by streaming everything in HD.

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NFB to co-launch global Netflix of documentaries

  1. Thanks for the links. It was fun to browse through some of that.What a treasure trove!

    I love the old Donald Brittain stuff. It was a pleasure to see stuff i’d completely forgotten – the marvelous Trudeau/Levesque stand- offs for instance. Sadly it isn’t complete[yet?] Brittain’s seminal doc of the carnage of the Great War was missing, as was his bureaucracy master piece, whose tittle i can’t remember…er, i think it was called, The Bureaucrat, oddly enough? Couldn’t find an obscure aboriginal doc i prize either. Maybe they’ll come? Thanks again.

    • What’s the aboriginal doc you are looking for? I promoted all kinds of docs for a few years for a broadaster, many by, for or about aboriginal peoples, and maybe I can find out where you could access it. I will try if you shoot me the name of it.

      • http://vimeo.com/42146387

        Just dug this up. There’s going to be a gathering of the canoes again in ’14.[ i still recognize people from this some 13 years after i left, cool]

        The original gathering was in 93. There was a marvelous doc [called Qatuwas] made by Barb Cranmer. I’m not even sure NFB did it now, but i think so. Thx for asking.

        • It was NFB, and Barb Cranmer is still producing as far as I know: she did My Big Fat Diet a few years ago, I remember that one. The broadcaster I worked with did not broadcast that one, but suggested you could email Cranmer and see if you can buy a DVD.

          • thx

      • I believe they are indeed. Many thanks.

        I don’t suppose you know where the 1996[?] version of Qatuwas got to as well? :)

  2. “Telefilm, the CBC, and others making art with public funds could learn a thing or two here.” Truth. And that goes for ANY institution using public funds. Our public organizations must start thinking BIG about how to deliver services online. Get creative and entrepreneurial, even. Take new approaches to fulfilling their mandates.

  3. Last year, I found the old Remembrance Day video there — do you remember the one where the young punk robs the old Vet of his medals? I don’t know why they stopped broadcasting that every year, but it is really well done.

  4. Agree about the 2 points in your last paragraph!!! Don’t be surprised if the govt find ways to tax this to death :-/

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