Success to excess: made-in-Quebec movies

Made-in-Quebec movies are a big hit with local audiences. So why is the industry still in crisis?

Last year, Quebec went C.R.A.Z.Y. That film was one of five that earned more than $4 million, driving Quebec's domestic filmmaking industry to its highest-ever percentage of local box office: 18%, nearly one in five cinema tickets. While English-Canadians ignore films made by their peers, Quebeckers have been flocking to see made-in-Quebec movies. No prizes for guessing which industry is in crisis.

Guess again. If there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, the film industry in Quebec is experiencing it: a financial squeeze brought about by the popularity of locally produced films. When it comes to supporting homegrown movies, Telefilm Canada, the beleaguered federal film finance agency, is damned if they don't and damned if they do.

“The math is simple,” says Michel Pradier, director of French operations for Telefilm's Quebec office. “In 2001, the average budget of a film was $2.4 million. Now, it's closer to $5 million. But [Telefilm's] production budget has remained at $22 million.” Other sources of production financing, particularly at Telefilm's Quebec counterpart SODEC, have not increased, forcing Telefilm to fill the gap. “Our [per-project] investment has gone up from 26% to 35%,” says Pradier. “We cannot support the volume.”

The crisis underscores the tension between a subsidy system and the commercial imperative. Quebec's excess of success has inflated expectations from every quarter. Everyone is getting better paid, from the established players behind the camera–producers, directors, key creatives–to those in front. Meanwhile, new players are eager to get a piece of the action, driving up the demand for crews.

Back in 2001, then-Heritage Minister Sheila Copps boosted the funds available for film production, in an attempt to get market share for domestic films up to 5% from 1%. Quebec was allotted one-third of the $67.2-million annual budget devoted to film production. About half of Quebec's $22.4 million would be devoted to productions “with potential” (the colloquially known “selective” envelope); the other $11.5 million would go into so-called “performance” envelopes, awarded to producers of successful films.

No one could have foreseen just how well Quebec films would be performing six years later. Eighteen per cent is an astounding figure, given the commanding presence of Hollywood titles in the global exhibition business. (In EU nations, the average share for local product is about 7%.) Telefilm's 5% target was attained entirely on the back of Quebec's achievement; in the same time period, English-Canadian films never rose above 1.6%.

Why such an appetite for domestic films in La Belle Province? Quebec is culturally and politically unique, and the language bar gives its market a built-in barrier to Hollywood films, one English Canada lacks. But all this may be moot, if the funding crunch is not addressed.

In July, 43 Quebec filmmakers issued an open letter to Heritage Minister Bev Oda, whose department oversees Telefilm Canada. The letter's signatories included filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and stage-and-screen wunderkind Robert Lepage. They complained Telefilm's system of funding by performance envelope means five Quebec production companies received 56% of Telefilm's funding in the past five years. In other words, it tends to be the same companies getting the grant money. Smaller players are being forced out.

This year, Quebec's box office has had fewer big hits, but it definitely has a hero. Bon Cop, Bad Cop, produced by Montreal's Park Ex Pictures and distributed by Alliance Atlantis' Motion Picture Distribution, had earned $8.3 million as of Sept. 4, since its release Aug. 4. Its gross for the Aug. 18 weekend in Quebec, $953,649, was nearly five times the gross of the No. 2 film, Snakes On A Plane. But its success only makes matters worse: Park Ex has now earned the right to a huge performance envelope.

The impact of the funding crisis will be felt next year, when current production reaches the exhibition spigot. As of March 23, 2006, Telefilm had received proposals for 32 projects seeking approximately $52 million. The agency had $5 million in its kitty. Only two major projects were granted funding, Denys Arcand's L'âge des ténèbres, produced by Arcand's partner, Denise Robert of Cinémaginaire, and Bernard Émond's Contre toute espérance, produced by ACPAV, both of which received more than $2 million. (It's worth noting both ACPAV and Cinémaginaire were two of the five companies cited in the letter to Oda.) “Without a critical mass [of production] it's hard to offer the choices and keep that market share,” says Telefilm's Pradier.

Hence the letter to Oda. Now all that remains is for Heritage Canada to increase Telefilm's film finance budget, but there's not much chance of that. In July, Oda responded to the letter, which had requested an increase of $20 million per year, saying no new money was available. As for private money, it's difficult to find willing investors in Canada or markets abroad, for Quebec films have no export market. While France may seem a natural home for the former colony's French-language films, the accent is a definite block. In recent years, only four films have landed major theatrical releases in France: Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y., Emile Gaudreult's Mambo Italiano, Arcand's Les Invasions Barbares and Jean-Francois Pouliot's La Grande Seduction–the latter two boosted by invitations to the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Even a successful Quebec film has difficulty recouping its investment at home–which explains why 80% of Quebec film budgets are still derived from subsidy dollars. Film production just doesn't make economic sense.

One potential solution to the funding crunch: a box-office levy. “It's definitely a good alternative,” says Cinémaginaire's Robert. “It's a question of getting the different players to agree.” France, for example, has the billeterie, which amounts to 10% of each ticket sold. The money goes to the Centre National de la Cinématographie, which subsidizes a substantial portion of French film production.

There are a lot of strikes against a Quebec billeterie. Through federal and provincial income taxes, Quebec taxpayers are already funding Quebec movies, whether they see them or not. So the idea of paying again is unlikely to appeal. The tax, er, levy, would have to be applied to all movies, or it wouldn't have any impact. U.S. distributors (whose movies attract most of the remaining 82% of the Quebec audience share) will have a fit. Then again, the CNC-endowed French cinema enjoys the largest percentage of local market share in the EU, typically 30%.

“We've been asking for a billeterie for about 40 years,” says Jean Pierre Lefebvre, a veteran director and the president of L'Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec, which represents the province's directors. “It's what saved France after World War II. Argentina did it five years ago. Chile did it. It's what you do if you have a fragile culture. This crisis is killing Québécois cinema.”

Telefilm, like any reasonable bureaucracy, has convened an industry working group to study the idea. Is Lefebvre an alarmist? Says Pradier, “He was the first person I invited.”