How an industry outsider changed Telefilm from the inside out
As executive director Carolle Brabant's term comes to an end this month, the Canadian film community faces disruptions on almost every front
By BARRY HERTZ
Saturday, March 10, 2018 Print Edition, Page R7
If you find yourself with an afternoon to kill at the tail end of this year's Canadian Screen Week - and possess a high tolerance for exposure to regional boxoffice statistics - take some time to read Telefilm Canada's annual reports from the past two decades. Along with all the facts and figures expected in the filings of a federal agency, there's a curious repetition in the statements from its board chairs and executive directors: "It was an ambitious yet challenging year." "We continued to struggle." "Clearly we have many challenges to face." "This was a year of many accomplishments ..." - great! - "but we still face substantial challenges."
Running the institution charged with supporting Canada's feature-film industry has never been an easy job - and it's only gotten harder since Carolle Brabant took over as executive director in 2010. Traditional business models have gone sideways.
Theatrical exposure for Canadian films has imploded, thanks to threats both foreign (Hollywood's big-footing blockbusters) and domestic (disruptive digital technology). Ottawa seems to be more interested in playing with Netflix than investing in its own Crown corporation, with its funding of Telefilm largely static.
Yet, as Brabant prepares to step down this month, she seems to have met the challenges her predecessors warned of with something resembling success - if such a thing can be had in the easily disagreeable world of Canadian film.
"Carolle's one of the best executive directors Telefilm has ever had," veteran producer Robert Lantos (The Sweet Hereafter, Eastern Promises) said.
"She has been absolutely extraordinary, turning around Telefilm from a point where there was a lot of turmoil and uncertainty," said Denise Robert, a producer for Denys Arcand (The Barbarian Invasions) .
"How efficiently she's run that corporation is insanely admirable," said Beth Janson, chief executive officer of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television.
Even director Matt Johnson, one of Telefilm's most vocal critics - who once said "a lot of people just need to die of old age for the system to change" - reversed course on Brabant, working with her late last year to launch Telefilm's Talent to Watch program, a potential game-changer for emerging filmmakers.
"Before we met, I thought: 'Oh, what does this person know?
She's an accountant - she knows nothing about what it's like to be a young filmmaker,' "Johnson said recently. "But what she's done there, especially on microbudget, took such bravery. The fact that this could have a major lasting cultural impact is a bold statement to make, and she's made it her swan song."
For Brabant, though, Talent to Watch was never about solidifying her legacy. Or about her brand.
Or even about Telefilm, really.
"I remember my first big speech as executive director - it was presenting Barney's Version at TIFF. The speech originally had 'Telefilm' written all over the place. I said we should be putting the spotlight on the filmmakers, not on me, not on Telefilm," Brabant recalled during a recent interview . "And the reaction from here was, 'If you don't say it, who's going to?' Well, if no one does say it, it's because we're not doing a good enough job. We're not there because the talent needs us - it's because we need them."
It was a shift in Telefilm philosophy - away from being a ministudio toward becoming a talentfirst incubator and promoter - as unexpected as Brabant's appointment itself. She actually is an accountant by trade and joined Telefilm in 1990 as an auditor, going on to fill senior administrative roles. Although she briefly served as acting executive director in 2004, between the time Richard Stursberg left for the CBC and Wayne Clarkson took over, Brabant was either a mystery to those on the creative side of the industry or an object of fear.
"It was kind of scary because she used to be the actual auditor, travelling across the country and coming to our boardroom, and you can never be friendly with an auditor. I thought: How could they choose someone like that?" said Niv Fichman, co-founder of Toronto's Rhombus Media (Enemy). "But her skill set, combined with her curious personality, turned out to be the perfect combination for what was needed."
While Brabant was proud to be the first Telefilm employee to rise to the top, it didn't matter much to her that she was also the organization's first female leader. "I had mixed feelings because, after 42 years, it's about time. You shouldn't be celebrating something that should've happened already," she said. "But otherwise, because I wasn't from the industry, it gave me some time. The expectations were not high. There wasn't the pressure that Wayne had when he came in."
Not that the pressure wasn't there. Back when she was appointed, Telefilm's measure of success was based purely on whether its films could capture 5 per cent of the English-Canadian box office - a fantasy when one considers that in 2010, English-Canadian cinema accounted for just 1 per cent. Ottawa had recently killed a $3-million to $4-million national training program for emerging filmmakers and shelved an international co-production fund. Many complained that Telefilm was too bureaucratic in deciding which movies could get made. Conversations around diversity were bubbling, but were just frustrating. So Brabant did what she believes any good manager should: listen.
"She listened to everyone, but wasn't swayed by anyone in particular," said Lantos. "She wasn't beholden to anyone, and that has been a problem in the past, with people coming in from the private sector with friendships and obligations and baggage."
As the ultimate insider (at Telefilm) who was also a complete outsider (to the industry at large), Brabant was able to slowly - perhaps sometimes too slowly, as she prefers "incremental change" - craft landscape-shifting changes.
There was her introduction of the Success Index in 2011, with which Telefilm abandoned the notion of measuring a film's strength solely on domestic boxoffice ; now, it takes into account sales figures, awards and festival appearances, plus how much of a film's funding was private.
There was Brabant's commitment last year to quadruple the annual funding of Indigenous projects and her ambitious 2016 plan to achieve gender parity by 2020. And there was her radical push to expand the microbudget program last year by creating Talent to Watch - which will support 50 films a year, capping cash funding at $120,000 for each movie - and automatically green-lighting the second projects of filmmakers whose debuts were recognized at top-tier international festivals.
"My pitch [for the job] was that we had production companies that knew what they were doing, directors who were good, scriptwriters who were good - but we needed to let go and give more credibility and autonomy to the artists, our main clients," Brabant said. "It was tough, because even the production companies were like, 'Wow, are you sure?' But my conviction is that we are not a studio, we're a funder. We're there to leverage the success of the filmmakers, to help them be successful and to promote them."
"Especially in the past couple of years, she's introduced the kind of things I wish were around when I was getting out of school," director Andrew Cividino (Sleeping Giant) said. "I talk with Matt [Johnson] about this all the time, how we could've shaved off five years of trying to get things off the ground when we were starting out thanks to programs that didn't exist before her tenure."
It hasn't been an obstacle-free run, though. In 2011, Telefilm partnered with the Whistler Film Festival Society to launch a co-production initiative with the staterun China Film Group, which would see Canadian and Chinese filmmakers collaborate on projects. The whole thing fizzled.
"Going back and forth from country to country to select projects is going back to the idea that funders should be deciding what's good for a production company, and probably why it failed," Brabant said.
The push for gender parity is seeing results - last year, Telefilm boasted that 44 per cent of its indevelopment projects come from female directors - but only on productions where the agency is contributing less than $2.5-million. "It's difficult for everyone on bigger-budget films," she said.
"But there'll be more successes."
And some in the creative community are skeptical of how well positioned Talent to Watch and Telefilm as a whole are to attract a diversity of voices, and concerned that Indigenous artists are not receiving adequate attention.
"We have a recent census that tells us who we are as Canadians, and there's no reason our stories shouldn't match the breakdown of the country in terms of gender and cultural background and region. It doesn't yet, but it can," said Cameron Bailey, artistic director of TIFF. "Additional work needs to be done to address the absence of many stories."
Mark Slone, a long-time filmdistribution and production executive and president of SloneSoup Productions, adds: "There's been a very low participation rate in terms of Aboriginal voices, but with the creation of the new Indigenous Screen Office, there's huge opportunity to create something we've never seen before."
The issue of measuring diversity "is the priority for 2018-19," Brabant said. "What we need is a definition of diversity that the industry supports. We need this definition in order to track correctly and report back to the industry."
And then there is the problem overshadowing all these issues: money, or the lack thereof. In 2016-17, Telefilm's funding support (including development, production, marketing and promotion) sat at $101.6-million - the cost of a single lower-end Hollywood tent pole, maybe. Ten years ago, it was $138-million.
"There is some sort of disconnect, because we know that the industry is important to our GDP and that sharing our culture, our diversity, is putting the international spotlight on Canada," Brabant said. "We need to find more money, to revisit a system that was designed for a nascent industry, not a mature industry."
Still, she is cautiously optimistic as she prepares for the appointment of her yet-to-be-named successor, even as enormous challenges loom - from funding to diversity to, yes, Netflix. "Mmm, that's a tough one, being part of a Crown corporation," she said with a grimace when asked about the streaming service. "But my biggest concern is that the only thing we'll have on our screen is more of the same. We need to protect our ability to create content that's reflective of who we are.
"I think we have the talent, we have the creativity, we have the team. But we need to be more ambitious - way more," Brabant added. "And ambitious as Canadians, not Americans. We have strength in creating content that's diverse, that's unique, that's ours.
If we want to be delivering the same thing as Americans, we're not going to be able to. But if we're ambitious in delivering what we're good at, then the sky is the limit."
Carolle Brabant sits in Telefilm Canada's Montreal offices on Feb. 23. Brabant has been described as 'one of the best executive directors Telefilm has ever had.'
DARIO AYALA/THE GLOBE AND MAIL