By FRED LANGAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, December 1, 2018
François Macerola, who died last month at the age of 76, was a dynamic and charismatic leader of cultural institutions in Canada and Quebec for four decades, including the National Film Board (NFB), Telefilm Canada and Quebec's Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC).
Mr. Macerola used his natural charm, negotiating skills he learned as a lawyer and a love of film and television to cut deals with governments at home and abroad. Among his major achievements were finding markets for Canadian films abroad and establishing permanent funding for Canadian filmmakers.
"He was a diplomat for Canadian cinema," the prolific Canadian film producer Robert Lantos said. "At the time [Mr. Macerola] was running Telefilm, I was running Alliance, which was this country's biggest film-TV production and distribution company. We wouldn't discuss specific projects but would talk about politics, ideology and cinema at large."
Joan Pennefather, who worked with Mr. Macerola at the National Film Board, says he was responsible for helping the careers of Quebec filmmakers who went on to international fame.
"He was extremely supportive of Quebec filmmakers such as Denys Arcand and Roger Frappier and was instrumental in the success of their later careers," said Ms. Pennefather, who went on to head the NFB as well as holding many other important executive posts in the cultural world. "He was a fighter for filmmakers in Canada."
François Macerola was born in Montreal on Jan. 31, 1942. His father, Antonio Macerola, was an Italian immigrant, and his mother, Yvette (née Bayard), was a francophone. He grew up speaking French, Italian and English, in that order, though most of his education was in French. He earned a law degree at the Université de Montréal and practised law for several years at the firm of Malouf, Pateras, Macerola.
In 1976, he joined the NFB as director of its French program. Mr. Macerola was promoted to the No. 2 spot at the NFB in 1979. In early 1984, Mr. Macerola became head of the National Film Board.
One controversy he had to deal with during his time at the NFB related to the the docudrama The Kid Who Couldn't Miss, which portrayed the First World War ace Billy Bishop in an unflattering light. Mr. Macerola had to defend the film before a Senate subcommittee. He refused to withdraw the film, though it later appeared with a note explaining it was in part a drama and not a pure documentary.
As government film commissioner at the NFB, he was in charge of an experimental plan to encourage feature-film producers. That program was a success and resulted in a number of French-language films in Canada, including The Decline of the American Empire, by Mr. Arcand. Later, as executive director of Telefilm, he encouraged projects by some of Canada's top directors and producers of English-language films, including Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Mr. Lantos.
"François was an extraordinarily bright man who understood how to navigate the waters of cultural politics," said Helga Stephenson, who among other things was the third director of the Toronto International Film Festival (then known as the Festival of Festivals). "He dedicated his life to Canadian film, especially French-Canadian film. He was a very savvy political operator."
He resigned as government film commissioner in 1989 and joined Lavalin Communications, a private company, and two years later became vice-president of the board of directors of Malofilm Distribution Limited.
In 1995, he was back in public life as executive director of Telefilm Canada, the Crown corporation dedicated to financing and promoting Canadian films. According to an article at the time by the Toronto Star's film critic Sid Adilman, one of the people promoting Mr. Macerola for the Telefilm job was Francis Fox, an executive at Astral and a former secretary of state in former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's government.
It was a delicate political period. The Parti Québécois was in power and Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau was preparing for the referendum on Quebec independence in October, 1995. Mr. Macerola found himself fighting both sides. Members of Parliament in Ottawa accused Telefilm of backing films that were separatist propaganda.
At the same time, Mr. Parizeau was proposing that Quebec not provide any subsidies to English-speaking Quebec-based producers of television shows and movies, and only back French-language productions.
"I totally disagree with that approach," Mr. Macerola said in May, 1995. He said if Quebec went through with it, Telefilm would increase its support of Englishlanguage productions in Quebec and French-language productions in Ontario.
One of the key jobs of Telefilm at the time was supporting film festivals in Canada. In 1995, Telefilm supported 26 Canadian film festivals. Mr. Macerola cut that back to six: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Banff, Alta., Moncton and Halifax.
"I know a lot of MPs will complain to the Prime Minister about losing festivals in their areas," Mr. Macerola said. "But my role is to resist. Otherwise, I'll be at the service of the government. I am at the service of the film industry."
Under his direction, Telefilm continued to support a Canadian presence at the Cannes Film Festival, in particular working on deals for co-productions with other countries. The outcome of those negotiations is etched into the credits at the end of many films, which make note of co-operation from Telefilm and other federal and provincial agencies, such as SODEC, the cultural arm of the Quebec government that supports film and television projects. Mr. Macerola headed SODEC later in his career, from 2009 to 2013.
"He was a bon vivant, so good-natured, positive, happy and [he] loved people. His life was culture, not just cinema but culture in the sense of the public good of it. He could identify what was really special in music and painting and film and television in young artists," said Jean-Claude Mahé director of public and governmental affairs at Telefilm Canada. "We have lost a dear friend."
Mr. Macerola took a leave of absence from Telefilm to enter the real world of politics in 1998 when he ran for the provincial Liberals in Quebec, but the Parti Québécois candidate defeated him.
He went on to become the chairman of Telefilm, then worked as a lawyer for the federal government and eventually as a lawyer for Cirque du Soleil.
"François Macerola's passion for culture supported and stimulated the development and promotion of our homegrown creative talents over the last four decades," said Christa Dickenson the current Executive Director of Telefilm Canada. "He never failed to highlight our industry's immeasurable cultural and economic value, earning much appreciation across Canada and many other countries around the world, including China."
After Mr. Macerola's death in Montreal on Nov. 8, Quebec Premier François Legault said in a tweet that he was "a grand connoisseur of culture and a grand lover of life." Mr. Legault was among the many people who attended Mr. Macerola's funeral.
Mr. Macerola leaves his partner, Suzanne Levesque, and his children, Stéphanie and Louis.
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In executive roles with several Canadian and Québécois arts institutions, François Macerola was an ardent champion of this country's filmmakers.
COURTESY OF TELEFILM CANADA