Every once in a while I find myself wondering if the Canadian film industry is dead, or if it was ever actually alive to begin with. There's certainly no shortage of Canadian films being made, but how many Canadians are actually seeing them? According to the Canadian Film and Television Production Association and Canadian Heritage reports as of 2006 only 4.4% of Canadian made films are shown in Canadian theaters. Why is it that Canadians have so little opportunity to see their own films?
The Canadian television and radio industries are guided, in part, by Canadian content policies which ensure that a portion of airtime is devoted to Canadian programming. Our film industry has no such guidelines, which means that theaters in Canada are not required to show Canadian films. There have been attempts in the past to establish content policies for the film industry, but all have come to nothing largely due to the power and influence of the American film industry. It’s no secret that a large number of American films are produced in Canada, giving them a cheaper way to produce their films and giving us a boost to our economy. The suggestion of developing content laws for the film industry brought with it the threat of fewer American productions taking place in Canada. I’ve never fully understood why there was such a strong reaction when, firstly, Canadian content policies in television and radio haven’t stopped Canadians from watching American shows or buying American records; and secondly, if the content policy was, say, ten percent, that would be perhaps one theater in a multiplex devoted to showing Canadian films, and in smaller theatres it would likely be little more than one showing of a Canadian film per week. Would it really be that big a deal, and would that much revenue really be lost? Apparently, no one wants to find out.
Of course, just because Canadian theaters don’t have to show Canadian films, doesn’t mean that they can’t, and herein lies the bigger problem, and the root to the reason why there will never be Canadian content policies for the film industry. Canadian theater owners don’t want to show Canadian films and would oppose a content law just as strongly as American film producers. This is because there’s an idea that Canadians won’t come to see their own films and, therefore, the films won’t make any money. There’s something to this, of course, because Canadians tend to think their own product inferior to that of the Americans (and there is an abundance of American film product easily available to us, which only makes it more difficult for Canadian productions to compete), until and unless the Americans embrace it first and then Canadians begin to proudly proclaim the object as theirs. When a Canadian film is celebrated in the United States then, and only then, does it begin to gain mainstream recognition in Canada. This is the major obstacle that the Canadian film industry must somehow overcome.
There’s no easy solution to this problem. Canadian films perhaps suffer in comparison to American productions because Canadian films, generally, don’t have budgets on the scale of those produced in the States. Canadian films don’t get big budgets because they tend not to make money back, they don’t make money back because they don’t get played often (or sometimes at all) in theaters, they don’t get played in theaters because they don’t make money, they don’t make money because they don’t have bigger budgets and stronger production values, which is because they don’t get enough play in theaters to set money-making precedents, and around and around. This isn’t an issue that’s likely to be resolved any time soon and if it is, it will have to be because Canadian viewers have proved that there’s a demand for their own films. Whether it’s by supporting local film festivals, or encouraging your local video store to carry more Canadian films, or even just watching the Genie Awards (which, incidentally, is a great way to find out what’s happening in Canadian cinema). We have to actively show an interest in cinematic expressions of our own culture, otherwise we will always be at the mercy of the American cinema’s stranglehold on our theaters.