This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.
Author: Diane Burgess, Lecturer, University of British Columbia
For 10 days this September, the Toronto International Film Festival — or TIFF — will be the epicentre of the cinematic world.
The festival shines a spotlight on the latest trends with celebrity-studded red carpets and buzz-worthy premieres. But for makers of the many excellent Canadian feature films, life after the festival means facing new movie-streaming reality checks. In this Netflix era, they will inevitably struggle with significant challenges to reach domestic audiences.
Recently, the programming decisions of major film festivals have sparked global debate about the future of cinema. For the second year in a row, TIFF’s opening film comes from an over-the-top streaming service. Subscription video on-demand services, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, operate independently of delivery networks like cable; they are literally “over-the-top.” They bypass traditional programming as they deliver content via high-speed internet. They also are exempt from the rules that govern Canadian broadcasters.
Netflix is a source of controversy on the international festival circuit.
Their films have been absent from the Cannes Film Festival lineup for two years due to an impasse over theatrical release requirements in France. European exhibitors have also pushed back against the Venice Film Festival for programming films that will get only limited exposure in theatres, and then will be available exclusively for Netflix subscribers.
This year’s TIFF’s selection of the feature Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band marks the first time a Canadian documentary has nabbed the prestigious opening slot. The film is also a Crave Original, co-produced by a Canadian over-the-top service.
But TIFF’s opening night programming has yet to trigger an exploration of how Canadian-owned over-the-top services differ from transnational ones. As audiences cope with an increasing array of content choices, how will Canadian filmmakers gain access to audiences?
Attention and access
The ability of viewers to find content relies on both awareness and access. Content awareness has some potential to push viewers to different platforms.
But while Netflix can raise the international popularity of Canadian film, that doesn’t improve access for their Canadian subscribers. For example, in 2017, Netflix acquired global distribution rights for Les Affamés (Ravenous), winner of the Best Canadian Feature Film prize at TIFF that year.
When Netflix acquired Les Affamés, it said the film would be available for subscribers in Canada in 2019 (likely once exclusive domestic licences expire). The acquisition was touted as proof that the controversial Netflix deal would indeed include support for French-language films. Scott Stuber, head of Netflix’s film group, said: “This is another exciting example of the investment the company is making in Canadian culture and bringing its stories and artists to the world.”
Currently in Canada, this film is only available through transactional video on-demand platforms like YouTube or Google Play.
Another TIFF 2017 selection, Meditation Park by Canadian filmmaker Mina Shum, was theatrically launched in Canada at the same time Netflix streamed its release in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. A social media buzz spread via Twitter, especially from Sandra Oh fans (Killing Eve).
Even more than a year later, when a fan was advised to add Meditation Park to his movie-streaming playlist on Netflix, Shum chimed in and said her film is “streaming on CBC in Canada” — meaning that it can be found on the Canadian over-the-top service, Gem.
Canadian content for Canadians
A search of Netflix’s Canadian catalogue shows it’s not picked up many Canadian features. The tag “critically-acclaimed Canadian movies” leads to 15 titles. This list includes Academy Award-winners (Room), nominees (Monsieur Lahzar), box-office hits (Bon Cop, Bad Cop), internationally recognized stars (Ellen Page, Christopher Plummer) and directors (Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema). The broader category of “Canadian movies” (42 titles) adds in a few Christmas movies, which are also tagged as “Made-for-TV,” and some genre films (thrillers, sports, family).
Ironically, the American Netflix catalogue likely has a richer selection of Canadian feature films. The dearth of Canadian content for Canadian Netflix subscribers is further evidence of the myth of “endless choice” for online audiences.
Content discoverability is about making sure that Canadian content will “stand out” and “be easily found”.
Policy and research tend to focus on how the content captures attention or reaches global markets through promotion, and on how platforms organize and present that content. But audience access is affected by much more than marketing and algorithms.
The Canadian federal regulatory framework for feature film financing and distribution contributes to the absence of these films from the Canadian Netflix catalogue. To ensure Canadian stories reach Canadian audiences, Telefilm requires a commitment from a Canadian distributor for projects with a budget of $2.5 million or more that seek support from its feature film fund. The pre-sale of broadcast rights is another source of production financing.
Canadian over-the-top streaming services like Crave and Gem have a strong Canadian content presence in their catalogues because their parent companies — Bell Media and the CBC — can exploit broadcast rights across all of their platforms. The broadcasters are further tied into this arrangement by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s requirements that they participate in Canadian content production.
The future of Canadian streaming
Like Netflix and Amazon Prime, Crave is venturing into original content that will be shown in movie theatres. Their focus is on documentaries. Two previous Crave Originals — Anthropocene: The Human Epoch and Sharkwater Extinction —screened at TIFF 2018. After being released in theatres, both documentaries were launched on Crave and CTV as part of Earth Week programming.
The documentary genre has strong roots in Canadian film and television history. The common ground shared by nonfiction storytelling and broadcasting points to the Bell Media production of Crave Original documentaries as more of a synergistic business decision than a disruption of content delivery patterns.
Every year, TIFF is a catalyst for media attention about the health of the Canadian feature film industry. With a Netflix opener in 2018, coverage looked at the streamer’s dominant presence in a growing subscription video on-demand (SVOD) marketplace and efforts “to strengthen its image as a home to prestige films.”
Now that Crave is in the coveted gala spot, it’s time to take a closer look at the Canadian presence in over-the-top streaming offerings. How can Canadian filmmakers navigate the complex trade-offs between attention and access while trying to be discovered by audiences at home?
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Diane Burgess, Lecturer, University of British Columbia , The Canadian Press