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In Features, Issues

BEYOND TORONTO
Anthony Kaufman on Edmonton's National Screen Institute.

Question: How many Canadian filmmakers does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: One, but it takes two years for the grant.

Can Canada's independent filmmakers rival their brethren down south? For those in Canada's film industry, living next to the U.S. can be a curse. Canadian films garner only 3% of their national box office while American product dominates the other 97%. Struggling to make their industry more formidable, professionals in Canada continue to seek new ways to foster their own filmmaking community.

The National Screen Institute (NSI) is one such force for change. It was established in 1986 as a result of several instigating factors: the success of Edmonton's Local Heroes Film Festival just two years prior, the subsequent development of Drama Lab, a popular professional film and television workshop, and the problems in Canadian film and television training. But with their many workshops, off-shoot festivals and industry seminars, NSI's homebase of Edmonton is now becoming the Park City of Canada, serving as a networking center for independent filmmakers from New Brunswick to Saskatchewan.

NSI Executive Director Jan Miller says that today, "The country is much more film literate, creatively and technologically." In 1984, Canadians weren't making movies outside the film centers of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. In her earlier efforts to collect short films, she could only find five to eight films per region, but last year, there was well over a 100. "That's a huge change," she explains. "A lot of it is due to the inspiration of things like the [Local Heroes] festival where there's this amazing interchange of ideas and recognition." Besides opportunities like the NSI and other training facilities, Miller credits Canada's indie boom to an "inspiration coming from south of the border."

But, Miller says, Canada faces some unique problems: "It's so big geographically." A director in New Brunswick or an Inuit writer in the Yukon is going to feel more isolated than a filmmaker in Omaha, Nebraska. Accordingly, Tom Dent-Cox, one of the Board of Directors at NSI, said that their programs encourage students "to go back and attempt to work in their own communities" in an attempt to grow the industry nationwide.

Drama Prize, (formerly Drama Lab) one of NSI's main initiatives, gives an opportunity for first time writers, directors and producers to make their first film. Sara Snow, a former University professor and playwright, just became a member of one of Drama Prize's six filmmaking teams after her script, The Chicken Tree, was chosen this March. After winning, Snow and Director/Producer Susan Terrill, were offered a trip to screen at Local Heroes."

Snow and the rest of the Drama Prize teams garner $6,000 in cash grants plus $5,500 in service sponsorships from sponsors like Kodak Canada Motion Picture, which donates $2,000 worth of film stock, PS Production Services Ltd., and Thompson Entertainment Insurance Brokers. Each producer is then required to raise at least another $2,000.

"What's unique about the program is that it's really professional development," Miller says. "We're not trying to create a greenhouse where life is wonderful." Unlike many U.S. film programs, Drama Prize applicants must already have a minimum of one year's experience working in film or television. NSI does not favor film school alumni. Nor does Local Heroes, which is often criticized for not accepting film school films. Part of the reason, Miller explains "is that when you're in school, it's still a fairly decent life. What I see in the whole process of the National Screen Institute is to reinspire, reignite, rejuvenate," Miller explains. "We're not generating a series of graduates to take over the world, we're taking people already in the industry who are ready to take that next step."

Although Snow had written for television and Terrill worked in video (her most recent "Cream Sauce" debuted at this year's Local Heroes) The Chicken Tree will be their first film project. So far, the production team has applied to the Canada Council for a Film Production Grant, the Ontario Arts Council, the Ottawa/Carleton Municipality for a regional cultural grant, and later, a postproduction grant to the National Film Board Filmmaker Assistance Program. "Despite the relatively high number of possible grants available in Canada," says Snow, "I might have given a misleading picture of the finances of filmmakers in Canada. They are all struggling and certainly not making any money from these grants."

In fact, some Canadian funding resources are diminishing. In July 1995, the Ontario government announced it was freezing film subsidies programs via the Ontario Film Development Corporation. They also cut $1.7 million from OFDC's annual $14 million Investment Program that offers investors cash rebates of 13-18% of the amount they put into movies, tv series, and documentaries. And the Ontario Arts Council recently ceased their funding altogether.

The Alberta Motion Picture Film Development Corp., the funding arm for Canadian productions, was also recently axed. And the most important funding association in Canada, Telefilm, one of the major contributors to the NSI, recently cut the budget of the Feature Film Fund by 13%. Fortunately, a new fund was established this year, the Canadian Television and Cable Production Fund (CTCPF) which brings the new total $6 million past its original mark.

Swimming in a sea of funding applications, many Canadian filmmakers do, in fact, have to wait two years for the grant. But NSI's programs include the very necessary business of getting money and "it commits to them in a way that even the grant agencies do not. With the NSI there's a support team there all the way through production," says Mark Williams, a filmmaker whose feature Secrets showed at Toronto in '95.

And in a country where most directors work in television before features, NSI's answer to this preordained career path is a new program, Features First. Tailor-made to struggling independent filmmaker's needs, Features First takes up where Drama Prize leaves off. Miller asked Canada's up and coming directors and producers (Lynne Stopkewitch, Thom Fitzgerald, Mort Ransen among them) whether they would choose to have $35,000-$40,000 dollars to make their film or to spend on professional development. Only three out of 40 chose the cash. The majority wished "to have access to professional sources" and this instigated Features First.

Not a production program, Features First gives five filmmaking teams from across Canada a chance to turn their scripts into films through such activities as mentorships, workshops, market planning and script development. After projects are selected by a jury of peers, Miller looks at each individual's needs and creates a customized program. If a writer needs a producer, a director needs a production manager, a producer needs to understand contracts and distribution, a script demands work with actors, Features First has the fluidity to accommodate them.

Anthony Kaufman is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in New York City.



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