Happy 10th, Canada Media Fund. Now get to work!

As the Canada Media Fund celebrates its 10th anniversary we speak with the President and CEO Valerie Creighton about closing the decade amid a pandemic and why, despite the challenges, the disruption has brought tremendous opportunity for growth and positive change.

Back in January, when the Canada Media Fund’s team started thinking about its 10th anniversary and subsequent year of celebration, the vision didn’t include a pandemic that would grab the screen industry by the feet and turn it upside down.

Turmoil, job loss and heartbreak aren’t an ideal backdrop for any celebration. But, in retrospect, marking this milestone amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been somehow timely. It’s been a year of great upheaval, but also great opportunity, and the screen industry has never needed the not-for-profit body’s leadership more.

By quickly launching a bilingual hub with pandemic news and information, as well as overseeing the distribution of more than $100 million in government emergency relief for the audiovisual sector in addition to its regular $353 million budget, the Canada Media Fund was able to reach a steady hand across shaky ground.

“We were very fortunate that our government made a large amount of funds available, and we were able to start delivering that relief within 10 days of receiving it,” says Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the Canada Media Fund. “We couldn’t have imagined this situation but were able to respond quickly and work with the industry on solutions – that’s how we have always worked.”

The History of the CMF
The Canada Media Fund (CMF) was announced in 2009 and then launched in April 2010 to help Canadian content creators get the support needed to bring their ideas to life.

Growing out of a merger of the Canadian Television Fund and Canadian New Media Fund, the concept was to take financial investments from both the Government of Canada and the country’s cable, satellite and IPTV distributors and funnel them into Canadian content across a wide range of audiovisual platforms, including TV shows, videogames, web series, virtual reality, interactive digital media and software applications.

“The government saw where things were going,” says Creighton. “They realized most Canadians would soon be watching content whenever they wanted, wherever they wanted, on any available platform, and we’d better get with the program.”

The rewards of such investment have been great not just for audiences and consumers, but for the country as a whole. In 2019 Canada’s screen-based industry created 181,000 well-paid full-time jobs and contributed $12.8 billion to GDP.

”I think the CMF soon understood that even if we are an important player in the audiovisual ecosystem, we are of no use without the work of our creators. So we have always made it part of our mission to listen. We spent the last decade reaching out to as many stakeholders as possible, asking them how we can serve their stories and projects better, and adapting what we do. And it works.”

Change has been a constant in the last 10 years, and particularly in 2020. The CMF’s ability to stay connected with the industry and one to the future has served it well. The CMF’s team of experts who consult with stakeholders, analyze industry and market trends, and track the impact of change on the industry will help it keep up with the ever-changing landscape.

Schitt's Creek

What the CMF has accomplished
If it’s on screen and made by Canadians, especially if it tells a Canadian story, there’s a good chance the CMF had a hand in its creation.

By connecting content creators with financing, experts and each other, the CMF has been an important partner in many favourite Canadian shows, web series, videogames, VR and AR content.

Think of critically acclaimed comedies like Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience, Private Eyes, Letterkenny; or the French-Canadian New Year’s celebration Le Bye Bye, a diverse slate that ranges from sketch-com to sit-com to satire but that all take advantage of that famous Canadian sense of humour.

There are the dramas that escape the big city for a more rural life, whether grounded in our Prairie reality, like Heartland, the High River, Alberta-shot series about a ranch family, Wynonna Earp, a supernatural horror set near the Canadian Rockies that sees the great-great-granddaughter of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp taking out the reanimated demon outlaws originally killed by her famous ancestor, or Cardinal for its shrilling portrayal of life in windswept, snowy Northern Ontario.

Projects like True North Calling, an Iqaluit-based documentary series about young people surviving in the Canadian Arctic, and Indigenous shows like Mohawk Girls, a Sex and the City-type dramedy that follows four friends navigating life and love in Kahnawake, have illuminated fascinating places and people that are integral to the Canadian identity.

There’s quality kids’ programming, too, like the award-winning Dino Dina or Malory Towers, a new Canadian-British co-production that tells the story of a 12-year-old girl who’s off to boarding school. Co-directed by veteran Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald, it’s been described as a Downton Abbey for kids.

On the more experimental side, even videogames and apps fall under the CMF’s purview, like The Long Dark, an award-winning first-person survival game out of Vancouver Island’s Hinterland Studio that gets going when a bush pilot crash-lands in the Canadian wilderness during a geomagnetic storm, and Smala, an app from Montreal-based Tobo Studio that promotes family bonding through mini-challenges and photo-sharing.

Bringing Canada to the world
Interestingly, content created in Canada has more international appeal than that of any other country. A 2019 study by Parrot Analytics in partnership with the CMF found that television produced or co-produced in Canada was number-one in terms of “global travelability,” which Parrot defines as “the ability for local content to attract audience demand outside of the country where it was originally produced and aired.”

Canadian content achieved a 22.4% score, tops in the world, while content created in the United States, perceived as the great generator of global pop culture, came in at only 18.7%. It’s a quality that’s more and more valuable as streaming platforms hungry for content find viewers are open to projects created beyond their own borders.

Part of that worldwide appeal is the result of international co-productions fostered by the Canada Media Fund. The CMF has created more than a dozen direct partnerships with international funding organizations in recent years, including with Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Italy and South Africa to name a few.

But it also owes something to the diversity inherent in Canadian programming, where a show like Kim’s Convenience, about a convenience store run by a Korean Canadian family, can win Most Popular Foreign Drama at the Seoul International Drama Awards.

Diversity of voices
Diversity of gender, sexual orientation, culture, race and geography is crucial to the CMF. In 2017 the CMF challenged itself to have 50% of its projects feature women in lead roles (writer, director, showrunner) by 2020, and they’re well on their way to achieving that goal with almost 50% of projects already in compliance. The CMF also supported the establishment of the Indigenous Screen Office in 2017 with a mandate to encourage the growth of Indigenous production from the inside, fostering narrative sovereignty for this vital sector of the industry.

But the events of 2020 — specifically the racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd in the United States — brought renewed urgency to ensuring all voices are well-represented. So what does that mean for the CMF?

“We know that for our industry to truly succeed we need to make lasting change. Professionals from racialized communities need to be in the rooms where decisions are made. Companies owned and led by Black, Indigenous and people of colour require support for their projects to succeed, reach audiences, and for them to be able to develop talent, says Creighton. “That’s what we have to do. There’s no one simple solution, and the industry needs to work together. (See Q&A with Creighton following this story).

What’s next?
Moving forward, the CMF is committed to investing in cutting-edge and experimental projects. That outside-the-box approach has never been more important, or more likely to be met with an open mind.

Dealing with COVID-19 has created an opportunity for the screen industry to rethink priorities and develop new and nimble ways of working together, whether that means operating remotely, in smaller groups or with novel solutions coming from unexpected places. It has inspired a more supportive environment, and a better grasp of work/life balance that, with hope, will enrich the content created in the future. “It's not going to be the same as it was,” says Creighton. “The industry will be different and it’s our job to ensure that amid the challenges we also take advantage of this time by rewarding success and encouraging innovation.

“So, we will foster growth and resilience as we create new opportunities for exactly those people hit hardest by the pandemic. We will build opportunities for a diverse production community, including those who are Indigenous, Black, racialized, LGBTQ2, people with disabilities and women.”

“We simply won’t let this crisis do permanent damage to our industry. Instead, we’ll find the ways this extraordinary challenge can make us all better.”