Telefilm Canada Focuses on Finding Fresh Voices But Faces Financing Roadblocks

Last year, at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, Telefilm Canada had launched a campaign to invite audiences to return to cinemas. They called it “Feel Again” and had partnered with distributors, cinemas, festivals, broadcasters, Air Canada — and even filmmaker Director X — to help drive audiences to re-discover Canadian films. “We really spent last summer doing different audience-focused partnerships,” says Francesca Accinelli, VP, promotion, communications and international relations at Telefilm Canada and interim CEO for the past 10 months. “As always, we try and connect with audiences where they are versus creating a whole new audience.” That meant that if they were going to Tim Hortons, part of their strategy was to reach them there.

“One of the things we’ve always sort of focused on is discoverability,” she explains. The website See It All (seeitall.telefilm.ca) was finally seeing traction. “I don’t know what it was, but I have to say that something kind of happened and I felt like people were talking Canadian films again for the first time in a long time and more journalists started doing profiles on Canadian filmmakers.”

There was an atmosphere of excitement. There was fresh talent on the horizon. Anthony Shim’s “Riceboy Sleeps,” about the trauma of immigration, had won the TIFF 2022 Platform Prize and several other awards. Chandler Levack’s “I Like Movies,” about a socially inept 17-year-old cinephile, was getting some buzz, and at this Cannes fest, Monia Chokri is back for the second time with an official selection in Un Certain Regard, “Simple Comme Sylvain,” a drama/comedy about a 40-year-old philosophy professor and her romantic exploits. There’s a move at Telefilm to uncover and cultivate talent on the rise — and not be afraid to say no to projects before they are ready — while supporting them in that journey. “Next year or two, we’re going to see results,” says Accinelli.

The other differentiator globally is that Telefilm is able to finance films in all languages. “Imagine if Canada could be the one country…  [where] an Oscar submission for international feature can be in any language, because we can finance that IP at home.”

Meanwhile, local producers have been encountering some challenges when it comes to financing. “There’s limited places to get money, and although we have been successful with raising equity many times it always feels like we’re back to square one when we get a new project,” says Tilt9 CEO Dylan Collingwood. “Stability in financing is hard to find in Canada. Recently, the bumps in interest rates have significantly increased the cost of borrowing. This has had the biggest impact for us in how we fund tax credits.”

Collingwood’s shingle has focused mostly on developing its own original IP, but to make the projects more marketable, they haven’t always met Telefilm’s strict Canadian content quotas when it comes to attaching talent.

Their last release, “Corner Office,” which premiered at the Tribeca Festival last year, starred Jon Hamm, Danny Pudy and Sarah Gadon, was directed by Joachim Back, written by Ted Kupper and lensed by Pawel Edelman. The producers were Canadian, but the film technically didn’t meet the criteria, which is not an insignificant hurdle for them to overcome. 

“It takes us out of the running for any government funding like Telefilm or CMF,” says Collingwood. “Canadian theatrical distributors aren’t interested because it doesn’t qualify towards their envelope and we receive the same tax credits provincially and federally as a foreign production. None of this makes sense when we are funding it with Canadian equity and we own the IP. For the tax credits we have to essentially service-produce our own film. The system needs to be updated to assist producers in making content in Canada and owned by Canadians that can have a global appeal.”

As the writer’s strike in the U.S. has significantly impacted Vancouver’s production output, Collingwood is more certain than ever that the system needs to change: “Our local industry cannot rely solely on foreign production to sustain itself.”  

Meanwhile, Telefilm is looking to figure out how to involve expat Canadian talent in more Canadian projects at home. “Maybe they could bring in investors, but because they have already established a certain level of attention or notoriety, they’re able to keep the IP,” says Accinelli. “We’re looking at any way we can to encourage Canadian IP to stay with us.”

She realizes that the current Telefilm model isn’t serving the needs of all filmmakers, but suggests that filmmakers consider reaching out even if they are not eligible to explore various levels of support in post-production, marketing, co-ventures, et cetera. 

“We’re open,” she says. “People talk to us early on and sometimes it can work. Come and talk to us. I think that’s the big message I’m really trying to put out right now. Don’t presuppose that we can’t be in it.”

Nonetheless, there is still much debate about what’s Canadian and what’s not. “Our goal is always to make sure that the best Canadian talent, the best stories are getting made,” Accinelli says.

For Vancouver-based filmmaker Kevin Eastwood of Optic Nerve Films, one of the biggest hurdles is that there are so few distributors and broadcasters in Canada. “If you’re in the States there’s a lot more doors to knock on to try and get a [project] made, but in Canada you can knock on three to five doors, and if none of them happen to be into what you’re pitching at that particular time, then it’s game over.”

This means that there’s an artificial ceiling on how many films can actually be made in Canada, since there are so few options of where to pitch. “And how bold or original that work is,” he adds. 

He also points out that it’s difficult to find crews and vendors that indie filmmakers can afford because they are so accustomed to the higher rates working on U.S. productions.  

“And then the other big problem is the cultural cringe factor. It obviously has nothing to do with reality as there’s tons of great Canadian TV and movies, but there’s a real stigma by Canadian audiences against anything Canadian,” says Eastwood, who adds that in other countries, there’s a stronger sense of cultural pride and interest in one’s national cinema. 

Right now the big Canadian movie breakout hopeful is Matt Johnson’s “Blackberry,” starring Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Cary Elwes and Saul Rubinek. Accinelli says that the film feels like it has real momentum behind it and has received a strong reception across festivals like Berlin, SXSW and TIFF. “ ‘Blackberry’s’ got a real chance to reach big audiences,” she says. It’s a film about the extraordinary rise of a huge Canadian company that’s a household name — and its ultimate decline. 

“It’s like a really important Canadian story that no Canadians really know and building on kind of our idea of making fun of ourselves with comedy,” she adds. It’s the quintessential Canadian story. 

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