Minister Joly talks Creative Canada, Netflix partnership, pathways to arts funding at VIFF


In a late addition to VIFF’s Industry events, Mélanie Joly, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, appeared for a “fireside chat” at Vancity Theatre in which she re-explained and defended the new “Creative Canada” policy framework, a series of forthcoming changes to the laws governing arts funding and legislation.

It was the Minister’s first public appearance, outside of media interviews, since the plan’s announcement last week. The main point made in headlines has been a Netflix partnership, which will see a production house set up in the country and a promised $100 million per year for five years in Canadian selections for the streaming platform. But the Minister emphasized that the biggest impact of this new effort may come from the details to be worked out under the new direction.

“It’s the first time [in a long time] that we will review the Broadcasting Act, we will review the Telecommunications Act, Copyright Act, and that will help us build a new system to support our creators and actually make sure that we have a strong voice here at home and abroad,” she said.

The specifics of the promise — to support creators — are largely being cited in a new influx of funding for the Canada Media Fund (mainly used for television and digital productions) and an increased emphasis on international co-productions and what is being labelled a new “Creative Export Strategy.”

At a film festival filled with co-productions and works acquired through international sales agents, these aren’t unprecedented ideas. The Minister opened her discussion by conceding that, as much as the plan is being billed as one that looks forward to the future, a lot of the work will be catch-up.

“It’s funny to be the Heritage Minister and inherit a system that is … not necessarily in line with how people consume information and content,” she said.

In short, the much-hyped changes have zeroed in on what is currently the state of affairs, carefully addressing gaps rather than taking large steps, whether in the digital or traditional areas of the arts, that go against the tide. You can’t go far reading the trades without encountering a mention of streaming disruption (where Netflix is the leader, in spending and subscriber base), growth in China (where the Minister is organizing a trade mission for next spring), or the gradual symbolic changeover to tech jargon (the Minister is far more likely to speak of “content” and “consumption” than “art” or “culture”).

Attendees had questions; the Minister couldn’t answer most of them directly.

“I want to know what’s your strategy to ensure that our theatrical screenings are part of the continuum of our film [industry] and not seen as a sunset technology,” asked one member of the audience. “Particularly outside of the big six cities, I’m seeing it’s virtually impossible for Canadian film to get onto Canadian theatrical screens.”

But that was a question for Telefilm (who will adapt, the Minister promised, but to an unknown degree), and specifics surrounding the Netflix deal — the questions, asked in columns across the country (only some answered), seem endless — are for the future, and Netflix, to decide.

“[With the Netflix deal,] we knew what was mostly important for our producers here was to scale up budgets to make sure that content could be even of greater quality,” the Minister said. “And so it’s really to the benefit of the writers and the directors and the producers … it is not only service production.”

While Quebec has already taken steps in response to the Netflix deal, passing a motion to impose a tax on the service after days of confrontational criticism, the response in Vancouver was relaxed, if wary. After the scaling back of the Harper-led Conservatives, the promise of money, in whatever form (and this news follows last year’s budget increases to Telefilm, the National Film Board, and the Canada Council for the Arts) perhaps gives a sense of old pathways re-opened and new opportunities.

That’s certainly the impression the Minister wants to create. While some of the uproar, fuelled by the different treatment given to Netflix contra the major media companies in Canada (Rogers saw its streaming attempt fail last year, while Bell’s relies almost entirely on American productions), will not go away, the specific details of what Canada’s art institutions will do, and what the government will legislate in its official revisions, currently unknown, are perhaps where the future of state-supported art will be altered most.

“If a film is presented at VIFF (or TIFF) and has not been bought, then that’s a Canadian original production,” the Minister noted, suggesting that Netflix, as it has done at festivals like Sundance, could purchase films and have it count towards its promised investment in Canadian film and television. While the likelihood of this happening is as vague as most of the other guesses, educated or otherwise, made about the Netflix deal, and the benefits of adding an independent film to an ocean of options are debatable, it would be quite the change for a VIFF premiere to not only elevate an artist’s standing in the world of festivals, but lead to a permanent way for people to watch the film after the two weeks are done.