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Off with his head?
by: May 10, 2010 Print

I was alarmed when SODEC head François Macerola said he'd back a Quebec version of Avatar with as much enthusiasm as a film by Cannes prize-winner Xavier Dolan. (Does the world need another Avatar, I thought, or worse, a French-language copy of it? A vision of joual-speaking blue and white Na'vi swinging to the beat of a Céline Dion song sent a shiver down my spine.)

While some might welcome Macerola's populist attitude, it has freaked out Quebec's auteur film community. And in typical Quebecois style, a group of them, including Philippe Falardeau, Denis Villeneuve and Dolan, have launched a media campaign against the former Telefilm Canada director's plans to boost this province's commercial film sector.

Their group, ¿ tout prendre - the title of a 1963 film by one of the fathers of Quebec auteur cinema, Claude Jutra - began their protest with an open letter in two French-language dailies and continued it with a public debate at one of the most prestigious art film venues in the province, the Cinémathèque Québécoise. At the time of writing, their online petition had more than 300 signatures.

Their anxiety is understandable. At an industry event organized by the Quebec branch of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television at the end of March, Macerola said he will scrap SODEC's stated objective of funding "cinema d'auteur."

"I don't see why SODEC should be less proud to invest in De père en flic than J'ai tué ma mère. I don't want Telefilm to be the only ones who fund profitable films," he said.

Because Macerola is steeped in Telefilm culture - he directed the funding body for a number of years - Quebec's independent film community worries that he thinks supporting films with commercial potential is the best way to ensure a healthy industry.

Macerola backtracked slightly after his initial comments sparked such controversy. He promises that both artistic and commercial films will get support and that he won't introduce the performance envelope system at SODEC. But the culture mandarin says he will change the method used to finance features. He also plans to set up a fund for private investors to finance more commercial titles.

"He will kill us," an award-winning independent film producer told me. "It's as if he doesn't understand the milieu. It was strange that at a time when it is getting harder and harder to finance Quebec auteur films, he didn't comfort us. It was very disappointing. I don't think he is the right man for this job."

Macerola believes SODEC is perceived as a bit of a snob. Yet in the last few years the provincial agency has supported horror flicks, cop comedies and buddy movies, including two of the biggest box-office success stories in recent Quebec history, Cinémaginaire's De père en flic (Fathers and Guns) and Zoofilms' Les trois p'tits cochons (Three Little Pigs). And of the eight films it recently announced its financing for, three are comedies and one is a thriller. In fact, of the 50 highest-grossing Quebec films in the last five years, 43 got money from SODEC, say the protesting directors.

Macerola also maintains it's not up to SODEC, but the viewing audience, to decide what constitutes a good or bad film. This is a very puzzling statement from the director of an organization whose mandate it is to fund Quebec culture. SODEC's job is to discern which film or music projects get support and which don't. It's a gatekeeper. And the last time I checked it used stringent criteria and its experienced staff, not public opinion polls, to gauge which features it green-lights.

Macerola should be commended for trying to figure out ways to finance Quebec films outside the public system, but his desire to rev up the so-called "profitable" side of the business here is misguided.

As everyone in the Quebec and Canadian film business knows, box-office success rarely ensures profit. In fact, it's almost impossible to make a profitable film in this country. This means that many film producers rely on a significant amount of government money to operate. The producers of box-office hits tend to pull in more cash because they automatically get a chunk of money from Telefilm if their films do well at the box office.

So since commercial films aren't profitable anyway, why change the way SODEC does things? The agency already funds a mix of artistic and popular films. Both types of films have a solid homegrown audience and pick up awards around the world.

If SODEC rejigs its mandate and starts to act more like Telefilm, who will such a strategy benefit? "Big distribution and production companies that make more commercial films and already profit from Telefilm's performance envelope," says ¿ tout prendre. Left to pick up the crumbs, it says, are the already cash-strapped producers of auteur films which are essential to keep the Quebec film evolving but tend to draw smaller audiences.

The group also believes the Quebec feature film community has to accept some responsibility for the cash-starved state of the industry.

"Unions, producers and directors need to get together to talk about reducing production costs," says one of the signatories of the online petition. "Some of these films cost too much considering how little profit they make. Some filmmakers have an inflated sense of themselves. They think they are working in Hollywood, but their films don't really earn much money."

Quebec producers and SODEC should keep trying to look for creative ways to finance films, but altering the mandate of an agency which already services the industry well is a mistake. Why fix a system if it's not broken?

SODEC did not respond to an interview request for this article.

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