A modest proposal that could save Canadian film

please, give this film a home!

It’s nice to have famous readers.

Last week I posted an interview with George Burger, an executive at a fledgling Internet TV startup who put forth a compelling argument against movie producer Robert Lantos’ proposal for Starlight, a mandatory, all-Canadian movie channel.  Forcing Canadians to buy another channel, he argued, will only balloon “basic” cable packages, hampering unbundled Internet TV startups like his own.

Apparently, Lantos didn’t care for the bad press.  He gave my Maclean’s colleague Brian D. Johnson this interview, where he insinuated that Burger is motivated by some unexplained personal grudge.  Lantos also took his famous buddies Paul Gross and David Cronenberg to the editorial boards of the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, where they vowed to not draw salaries from Starlight, presenting the project as a benevolent project for the common cultural good.  They called Starlight something “important for the country” that they don’t particularly want to do, but feel compelled to do, out of “deep emotions” for Canadian culture.  Lantos called Canadian films “orphans,” and cast himself as their saviour. They convinced Martin Knelman of the Star that resistance to their plan comes not from a public unwilling to subsidize their costly passion project, but from the greedy”cable giants.”

I’m re-engaging with the topic now to clear up a couple of points, and to put forth a modest proposal.

Lantos’ chief complaint is with George Burger’s numbers.  Burger says Starlight will cost Canadians around $775 million over its 7-year licence, a fairly epic sum for a private company to ask of the public. Lantos calls this figure “grossly exaggerated,” as Starlight is requesting the CRTC grant them wholesale fees of just 45 cents a month per viewer, or $300 million over seven years, “unless,” he says “the carriers mark up the price.”

They will. It’s all but certain the price will double before it shows up on your monthly cable bill. That’s how it works, plus there are other hidden costs. Lantos seems to feel that just because he won’t be getting the addition hundreds of million, then we won’t be spending them.  Either that, or he’s insulting the public’s intelligence with a huckster’s pitch: “for just pennies a day…” when he knows the true costs.   It’s similarly meaningless that he won’t be drawing a salary.  Starlight would be a for-profit company built with public funds.  Lantos stands to make millions.

There’s another big problem with Starlight’s holy mission to save Canadian film.  You might call it “The Tom Green Problem.”

You probably haven’t seen Freezer Burn, the 2008 comedy starring Tom Green as a down-and-out hockey player who protects Earth from an alien invasion.  But you did pay for it:  $1.5 million in taxpayer funds went to the production through Telefilm Canada.  More recent examples include Space Milkshake and Dead by Dawn 3D, both released last year.  I haven’t seen any of these movies, so I won’t call them duds.  But I think they definitely qualify as some of Lantos’ “orphans,” CanCon films that nobody wanted.   Cronenberg, Lantos and Gross would have us believe the films they wish to showcase are all art house gems that fell through the gears of the merciless Hollywood-driven movie machine.  But the truth is, most Canadian films are unseen because Canadians don’t want to see them.  In other words, maybe it’s not the lack of a mandatory all-Canadian movie channel that stands between Canadian films and Canadian audiences.  Maybe it’s a lack of (enough) good Canadian films.

Which brings me to my modest proposal (and back to my official technology beat):

If Robert Lantos sincerely believes Canadian films are in dire need of a good platform, then by all means, let him build one. But let it be a modern one—not an obligatory TV station, rammed down the public’s throat by the CRTC, but a Canadian Netflix equivalent that gives the public online access to the films we pay for each year.

Many will demand that such an enterprise be forced to fend for itself on the free market, charging a Netflix-like monthly fee.  But c’mon- as if!  We all know such a site would go bust in a year.  The truth is,  I would have no problem supporting a subsidized online Canadian  film portal.  It would cost a fraction of the scandalous sum Starlight wants, and it would enable Lantos to stream Canadian films to the Canadian public for free.

Which makes sense to me.  After all, we’ve already paid for them.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown