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Canadian Dis-Content

Issue: 35 Section: Business Geography: Canada Topics: film, corporate

April 3, 2006

Canadian Dis-Content

Examining CANCON's role in our film industry

by Ezra Winton

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Why aren't Canadian films being shown in Canadian theatres? photo: Rob Maguire
CANCON: a strange and mysterious compound highlighting the cultural, the Canadiana, and even some elements that may be at odds with economic globalization. An abbreviation for Canadian Content, CANCON is a bold protectionist policy featuring a quota system that is applied to various areas of Canadian cultural creation to ensure that a minimum of cultural product in Canada is homegrown.

This policy has done wonders for the Canadian music scene. With a mandatory minimum airtime for our artists on radio airwaves, singers and songwriters alike have enjoyed a guaranteed audience in this country.

So Canadians have a system for protecting their music, but what about their movies?

Try to name five Canadian films you have seen in the last year. Most of us cannot name five Canadian films we have seen in the last decade. Is it because Canada does not tell its own stories through film? Is it because audiences are simply not interested in those stories when presented with the options available to them at the megaplexes? Or are all the Canadian films being made actually American productions that trim their budgets by coming up north?

When one considers that less than two per cent of all films screened in English-Canada last year were truly Canadian, these questions become quite pressing.

Canadians do make films, and damn good ones at that. This country is the birthplace of the documentary, and the National Film Board is a respected institution modeled by several countries around the world. At any given time, there are dozens of Canadian film productions being planned, produced, distributed and even exhibited. So why isn't anyone seeing them?

Film distributors and exhibitors repeatedly state that until Canadians start producing Hollywood-type blockbusters, their films won't be in demand for paying audiences in this country. This is particularly the argument of the three largest film exhibitors – Cineplex Entertainment (which owns Famous Players), Empire Theatres, and the American owned and operated by AMC Loews.

These exhibitors control roughly three-quarters of Canadian movie screens. With their connections to American multinational media corporations and Hollywood studios, these cultural powerhouses have vested interests in marketing, promoting and screening mainstream American films in their Canadian theatres.

Canadians went to the movies 60 million times in 2004 – that's a veritable river of money going back to shareholders in Hollywood and the US in general. There is a good chance shareholders do not even know where that money is coming from, as Canada is considered part of the domestic American market for box-office sales.

So Hollywood studios make Hollywood films, distribute them with Hollywood-owned and connected companies, and screen them in Canadian theatres owned by or connected to Hollywood. Could this rather incestuous, self-serving system have anything to do with why we're not seeing any Canadian films on Canadian screens? Mainstream industry pundits posit a resounding "no" – Canadian films just aren't good enough.

This argument misses a factor, which is now bringing international recognition to Canada: diversity. In Quebec, nearly one third of films seen at all cinema houses are homegrown products, and Canadians from coast to coast to coast came out in droves to see domestic productions Atanarujat (The Fast Runner), The Corporation and Where the Truth Lies. Clearly, when a Canadian film makes it into the theatres and people find out about it, audiences show up and pay to see it.

Since the exhibition companies in Canada seem to answer more to Hollywood and their American shareholders than they do to the average Canadian moviegoer, maybe it is time to level the playing field a little. Perhaps a little CANCON-like intervention needs to happen in this multi-billion dollar industry.

As cultural products, how can Canadian films even begin to find a foothold in a terrain that is mapped out entirely by multinationals outside our own borders? As we have seen, Quebec is an exception, partly because Hollywood doesn't speak French, but also because of protective policies penned by the provincial government. In English-Canada, filmmakers are not given many choices when considering markets for their films. It is either straight to video or one of the three principle television broadcasters.

Getting Canadian film on the big screen should not be a lone battle against Hollywood. The forces of convergence and concentration of ownership in the film industry are coming up against grassroots and alternative methods - like community film screenings - but eventually theatres in this country will need to support our own filmmakers. When that time comes, it will be up to audiences to decide whether Canadians make good films or not. At this point in time, there's no way of knowing, if there's no way of showing.

Ezra Winton is a graduate student in Media Studies at Concordia University.
He can be reached at
ezra@uberculture.org.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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