Year Ahead

Canadian film will stay stuck in the past—for now

If we expand our idea of what Canadian film means, we can watch our industry boom 
Matt Johnson
(Illustration by Anna Minzhulina)

Matt Johnson is a filmmaker, actor, writer, and the director of BlackBerry

It’s been an incredible year for Canadian film. Sarah Polley won an Oscar for Women Talking, Celine Song destroyed the festival circuit with Past Lives, and Emma Seligman directed the cult-comedy of the year with Bottoms. To the casual fan it would seem Canada is in the midst of a film renaissance. There’s just one small problem: none of those movies are actually Canadian. Sure, they’re all written and directed by Canadians. You could even argue they’re about the Canadian experience—outsiders vs. insiders, traditionalists vs. trailblazers. But what disqualifies these movies from being a part of our heritage is the simple fact that American studios paid for them. That is the terminal sin that will rip the little Canadian flag sticker off every one of their DVDs (an anachronism that helps illustrate the bygone era our system is still stuck in).

Of course, the fact that some enterprising Canadians were able to fool American producers into paying for their deeply personal projects should be celebrated. Somehow we got American money to finance three distinct, Oscar-calibre pictures by Canadian filmmakers. But because some faceless L.A. producer signed the cheque, Canada is left with nothing to show for it—and certainly no cut of the profits.

The crown corporation Telefilm Canada, which is the single largest funder of filmmaking in Canada, only finances productions owned by Canadians, and which have a Canadian copyright. On its face, this seems like common sense. Why would the Canadian government give money and tax breaks to Netflix, Amazon and Disney, just because they hire a Canadian crew and shoot in Toronto? Those companies are going to make millions, or billions, off these pictures; taxpayer money should instead be going to Canadian-owned movies, and all the profits should stay in Canada, right?

Here’s the problem with that logic: Canadian movies rarely make money anyway. If a film in this country is a financial success, it’s national news. Telefilm invests around $100 million annually in Canadian movies and is entitled to a share of revenues. It knows it will recoup very little, however. When I hear, “We can’t have the profits of these Canadian movies going back to American companies,” my response is, “What profits?” If Telefilm invested in American-owned movies by Canadian filmmakers, it would be rolling in cash. It would be recouping investments left and right, which would lead to far more operating capital to invest in smaller, wholly Canadian pictures. Just think of what this would do for talent development. If we were incentivizing studios to take risks on Canadian writers and directors, they’d be knocking down the doors of every film-school graduate in the country. Suddenly it would be a distinct market advantage to be a Canadian.

We’ve been crazy to leave this on the table for so long; instead, we’ve been viewing our proximity to the U.S. film industry through the most protectionist, outdated lens. That’s led to a bizarre, inverted system where our superstar filmmakers all move to L.A. and we’re left with the rest, making movies that premiere to half-empty theatres at TIFF, then vanish forever. Instead, we should be jumping on this opportunity: “Come to Canada, hire our directors, release movies that make money, and then do it again.”

And let’s get real: the whole point of having a national film program is to develop voices who will show us (and hopefully the world) what it means to be Canadian. They should be defining our culture. Don’t we want those filmmakers to be in the best possible situation, with the most opportunities? Should they have to move to the U.S. if they want to work on films that cost more than a pittance? Let’s have our cake and eat it. This would be an amazing deal for young filmmakers, for Telefilm, for the flagging “Canada” brand and, yes, for the Netflixes of the world. With one small change to how we define Canadian film, we can reverse the brain drain of actors, writers and creators of all kinds to Hollywood. We need to take financial ownership out of the equation. Make it about creative ownership.

Barry Hertz, a critic with the Globe and Mail, recently made the tongue-in-cheek point that, if what I’m proposing were to happen, then we’d only be “a few steps away from seeing something like the recently announced Deadpool 3 being defined as a Canadian film. It stars a Canadian (Ryan Reynolds), is directed by a Canadian (Shawn Levy) and features, um, a comic-book character who is famously Canadian (Wolverine).”

To which I say: bring it on. Let’s get a Canadian flag on that DVD. The next generation of Canadian filmmakers, and filmgoers, will thank us.

This article is part of the Year Ahead 2024, which is Maclean’s annual look at everything that’s coming your way next year. You can buy the print version right here.