It’s pretty ridiculous how few Canadians see Canadian movies, especially in the cinema. By this, I’m largely talking about the anglophone bits of the country – Quebec’s cinema industry is far healthier in general, with more homegrown stars with household names. Yes, a movie like Goon can hit the top of the box office (briefly), but it is the exception rather than the rule and a) is about hockey, b) stars Americans, c) is a broad comedy, and d) benefits somewhat from the involvement of Jay Baruchel (who will forever be remembered in my heart for ‘Popular Mechanics for Kids‘ and ‘Undeclared‘) and Evan Goldberg (Seth Rogen’s writing partner on a bunch of American blockbusters).*
And the cinema where I work does fairly well with Canadian films, but we have several advantages that even the TIFF Lightbox does not, chiefly that we’re located in the middle of a city full of politicians, diplomats, and arts industry stakeholders. We almost literally couldn’t have played Monsieur Lazhar, The Barbarian Invasions, Away from Her, or Incendies enough. These films also all received Oscar nominations, though, which meant they were on more people’s radars than most other Canadian films would be; the coverage on CBC Radio and in newspapers was thorough and, gasp, there were even television commercials promoting them.
But for every Monsieur Lazhar, we play three or four Canadian films that you’ve probably never heard of. The Genie Awards are kind of a joke at this point – the ceremony is pretty tiny, very few people watch it, hell, very few of the stars bother showing up to pick up their own statuettes. Joshua Jackson won a Genie a few years ago, but any U.S./U.K. chat show that he’s mentioned it on jokes about how silly a ‘Canadian Oscar’ is (STILL LOVE YOU, PACEY). If the people winning Canada’s top movie awards don’t give much of a shit about them (Viggo Mortensen being an exception, thankfully, this year), then why the hell should anyone else?
(Again, the cinema where I work is an exception when it comes to Canadian film – we played all five Genie nominees for the Best Picture this year and did well with all of them.)
Also, of course, there are a lot of truly shitty Canadian films out there; two of the five worst films I’ve seen in my professional usherial life were homegrown arse gravy. For every Last Night, there’s an Horloge Biologique. But look at the nonsense coming out of Hollywood! At least our terrible movies don’t cost the GDP of Guinea-Bissau to produce, eh? For every The Descendants, Hollywood makes six Wrath of the Titans and a new Chipmunks movie.
But movies are a matter of taste. Many Canadians are bored stiff just by the phrase ‘Canadian film’; we do like our bleakness, or, at least, produce a lot of films about it. Maybe that’s not for everyone. And that’s fine. Again, not everyone who watches films will want to see Winter’s Bone if the new Pirates of the Caribbean sequel has been released. I even know people who AREN’T INTERESTED IN MOVIES AT ALL. And that’s fine, if baffling. But what about Canadian films that are good and that people (somehow) have heard of? Y’know, the ones Jian Ghomeshi talks about that Paul Giamatti isn’t in? How do people get to see them?
There’s a troubling tendency for Canadian distributors to not release things theatrically outside of major city centres (or even outside of Toronto) this is true of a lot of arty movies, not just Canadian ones) or just dump them onto On Demand and Netflix in hopes that someone might see it accidentally. That’s no way to market anything. I live in a weird realm of moviedom, so I’m unlikely to decide to watch a film I’ve never heard of on a whim. I think others who watch even fewer movies than I do are even less likely to do so.
There is some hope, though. The Toronto International Film Festival does two awesome things to help Canadian film. One is the Film Circuit, which gets indie (often Canadian) films touring Canada, especially centres and small towns that are unserved/underserved by the movie industry, holding screenings in movie theatres, museums, libraries, and community centres all over the country. The other is Canada’s Top Ten, which makes a list of the ten best Canadian films of the year and, through the Film Circuits, gets them on the road so that folks in Moose Jaw and Kirkland Lake and New Glasgow might have a chance to see them. But that can only be successful if people have heard of the movies that are touring.
Which brings me (finally) to my reason for ranting today: How the fuck can Canadian movie ‘make it’ if (almost) no one, not even production companies or distributors, gives an iota of a fuck about marketing and promotion outside of Toronto (and sometimes Vancouver, Montréal, Ottawa, etc.)? Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth just to get a poster to put up in the cinema – and sometimes they have the Toronto-only release date printed right on them. How often do non-comedy Canadian films get mainstream commercials on English-language television stations? Very fucking rarely, unless an Oscar nomination come around.
(By the way, those Oscar-nominated films ‘must-play’ films I mentioned earlier? One of those (I won’t say which one, since I don’t want to burn bridges our programmer has to cross regularly) had to be ‘unbooked’ a couple of times because the CANADIAN distributor of a CANADIAN FILM couldn’t set a release date IN CANADA until the U.S. distributor gave the O.K. What the HELL is that about?)
We’ve been showing the Top Ten of 2011 at the Cinematorium over the last few weeks, with varying success. Successes have been based on prior successes or big names (Cronenberg, huzzah!). Others have not done nearly so well, and not just because of perceived quality of the films. It’s difficult for a film, even a film that we’ve been promoting in our programme guide (of which 35000 copies are distributed) and website for almost two months, to find an audience if no one’s heard of it. One of these films is coming up for commercial release (meaning, outside of this film series), played at TIFF last September, and only has a trailer as of two days ago (meaning we haven’t been promoting it in-house) and, as yet, doesn’t have an official website (making it hard to promote on our website). How do you convince the punters to see a film if you have no way of promoting it? Until this week (and the film is playing very soon indeed), I had no idea how the film is shot, nor what its tone is, because there was nearly nothing to clue me in beyond a few capsule reviews from last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and mentions that my once future husband Ben Covington is in it.
So this, really, is a plea to the Canadian film industry: Do your work a favour and get some better marketing teams and tools. Have longer term plans. Stop producing drivel and start investing in getting the good stuff known and seen. Can’t afford marketing advisors and PR people? I have no idea how to cut a trailer, but I can put a (very) half-assed website together. Send me some stills and a synopsis (a press kit’s even better) and I’ll get it online for the masses to see. Hell, I’ll put it up here if I have to. Get cracking, people. Budget cuts bedamned, we have a reputation to upgrade and an industry to promote.
*Other ways to make an English-language Canadian film comparably successful: Base it on a novel by a beloved (preferably female) Canadian author and/or involve Paul Gross.