CEO and President Valerie Creighton weighs in on the 2021 CMF’s consultations
This year’s CMF consultations with the industry were unprecedented. After over a year of challenges faced by all sectors of Canada’s screen-based industries due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what would you expect?
In its first ever online format, the 2021 CMF consultations with the industry lasted a whole month, with 17 virtual roundtables and close to a thousand participants. The need for structural change was heard louder than ever.
The CMF has recently released a report covering the 15 key takeaways from the 2021 consultations, which you can access here.
CMF President and CEO Valerie Creighton sits down with Now & Next to talk about how she personally experienced the consultation process, what surprised her, what gave her hope and how she was inspired by the stories filled with resilience and passion, across the country. She also shares what the next steps will be going forward, in order to bring about the important changes that are needed in Canada’s screen-based industries.
You have often mentioned that consulting the industry is in the CMF’s DNA. Could you please elaborate on that?
This industry is very wide, very diverse and incredibly complex. And it encompasses everything from entry-level people to small and medium-sized businesses, to very large companies, the broadcast community, the production community, the digital media community, the gaming community, the government, other stakeholders, our BDU funders… We could not possibly have a program that is relevant to what the industry needs, unless we talk to them on a regular basis. In 2009, part of the official requirement in the contribution agreement with the Department of Canadian Heritage that set up the CMF was to consult. As years have gone by, it has become more and more obvious to me that it is what makes the CMF work. We talk to the people who are on the front lines. And if we didn't do that, I don't think we would be a very successful organization.
This year’s consultations were unprecedented, thanks to the online format and to the very challenging year we just experienced. What were your expectations going in?
You know, we've been on Zoom for so long, it’s been such a long time since the pandemic hit. I thought, 17 round tables digitally, people are going to be bored. This is going to be so hard because I am a huge fan of our on the ground consultations, when we do those 22 cities in 18 days. It's such a privilege to see the magnitude of Canada coast to coast to coast in that condensed timeframe for one thing.
And secondly, when you're on the ground with the people who are living and working where they're doing their work, it's such a rich experience. You get connected to every part of the land in this country in a very different way than when you're sitting in your office in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, or here in Saskatchewan.
So I wasn't sure what was going to happen this year. And to be frank, two things did happen. Because of the pandemic and because of the money we put out through COVID relief funds, during our internal discussions, I said that we should not be talking about the details of the CMF’s current programs this year. The really critical issues are, what are we going to do for the future? COVID had a huge impact. There was some collateral damage, it changed the way everybody worked. So I pushed really hard to get this to be a future-based conversation and I think we were all a bit nervous about that because you get so many concepts and ideas. I think we asked the right questions and that the industry resoundingly responded to that because it's on everybody's mind. So, going in, I was nervous.
But what happened was it sparked something in me, a real optimism for the future. Yes, there are issues, and yes, there are difficulties and yes, there's trouble, but there is a resilience in our industry that is energizing. That sparked something in me that gave me fuel to the fire to figure this out.
Hearing from our legacy players, the broadcasters, the racialized communities, the Indigenous communities, the distributors, was fantastic. There were very powerful statements, very powerful positions. I have to say with the exception of not having the people in front of you or having a glass of wine together at the end of the day, it was probably the most powerful consultation I've experienced at the CMF. It was very, very strong.
What surprised you the most?
What surprised me was the passion and the vigor and the incredibly intelligent discourse we were able to have virtually. But the thing that gave me a lot of comfort, I would say, would be that the thinking in the industry in general, is very aligned to what we have been talking about inside the CMF, in terms of how we grow the industry. What could a new program model look like? What are the right financing tools? To be certain, we don't have all the answers to that but now that we have the report from the consultations, we've got some really solid ground to do some thinking internally and then start testing those ideas with the industry and see if we've got it right or not. That was a very beneficial approach. It gave me a lot of comfort regarding what we want to try to do next.
The online format presented several challenges for sure, but were there some advantages compared to the previous years’ in-person consultations?
Absolutely. Because this process was digital, it allowed for a much higher level of participation for one, and it also allowed people who maybe had no experience with the CMF to come in and participate, for example, we did a session with next gen creators and producers. It also created a safe space, where people could discuss what they wanted to talk about. I think the digital format gives you a bit of distance from the immediacy of in-person talks.
It's not anonymous for sure, but that distance really helped people participate. We had great participation from younger creators, from people that we have not talked with in the past, a lot of it thanks to the work that both of our Equity and Inclusion leads did in the racialized communities. The format helped for sure.
There’s a detailed report that goes into the 15 key takeaways from the consultations but what are some of the conclusions you reached yourself after a month of consultations?
There were four for me. The biggest one was related to the fact that we are in a domestic structure and a domestic framework and our industry is in a global business. It is the issue of how the industry can better trigger the CMF. I know there is a lot of fear in that because it's like, "Oh, we're not giving Netflix and Amazon and Disney money." Of course not. They don't need our money, but they're in the country, they're working with our creators. There are big benefits to that in terms of not just service production, but people working, people sharing ideas, people pitching. But the downward pressure on our Canadian broadcast system means the competition is really tough for our broadcasters both financially and with talent attraction. The system's out of balance and it's a structural issue.
The second thing was the importance of intellectual property, not just its retention, because retaining it is useless unless you can value it. We learned some interesting things about the retention and the value of IP. There was an example where one of the foreign streamers would come in and make a big offer, and yet the production company turned that offer down and went to the market internationally and got five or six times the value of that content. So it's about valuing the IP and knowing those international markets and how we work within the Canadian system to do that.
The third thing was, of course, the issues around equity and inclusion. We need permanent change and more support for communities that experience barriers to access and that are full of creative energy, creative ideas. We know audiences are looking for material from diverse points of view, authentically told, and different types of storytelling. That was a huge piece within the consultation.
The other thing that came through loud and clear, was that our structure of financing project by project is not helpful. Actually, it detracts companies from being able to retain their capital and build their companies. Because every time they want to do one thing they have to apply.
So there was a lot of conversation about things like company support. How do we lift up the industry? The UK is a good model on how they've done that. And they've been able to position their producers, I think in a stronger way to be able to negotiate with all the international market players.
Change is needed across the industry, and this has been made very clear during the consultations. As we know, change is hard. What are the main obstacles ahead?
Fear. I think fear is a big obstacle, because all of us, no matter who we are, when change is in front of us, we want to hold on to what we know. We want to hold on to what has worked. And that's a normal human reaction. But I fully believe that we're at a huge crossroads right now. You can't change overnight a system that's been around in our case for over 30 years. These things need to happen in a logical, rational fashion. There's been so much disruption and so much change in this industry since the digital revolution, in the last 10 years. And the country just has not kept pace with a lot of it.
So fear, I think, is the biggest obstacle. Fear of loss and a mentality of retraction. I think what we really should do is to think about expansion. Cultural positioning is very important, for sure, along with Canada's reputation internationally, job creation and sales around the world. We really have to expand the storytellers from Indigenous communities, from Black people and People of Colour. The wealth of what that will do for the country in both a cultural sense, but in a business sense is phenomenal.
So if we think expansion and we work together, I think we'll have a good shot at getting increased resources because we can demonstrate the benefit to that investment by whoever the funding sources are.
The equity and inclusion strategy has been at the centre of the CMF’s strategy in the past year – as a leader and key funder, how do we make sure that change is happening at a systemic level?
I think we have a big part to play in that and I don't think, again, that we can do it alone. The barriers are there, the systemic racism is there. We have heard it. And I think making sure people at a decision-making level from those communities are at the CMF is particularly important. Our executive management team are all white women. What we will do is make sure that there are people who are in decision-making roles in the future from those communities. I think the work we have been doing with the Indigenous Screen Office over the past five years to support their goals of narrative sovereignty is a testament to our seriousness on this front.
It's also a shift in your mind that has to happen. Not just on paper and not just on strategy. It must happen for all of us. We have so many unconscious biases that we don't even recognize a lot of the time. That change on an individual level needs to happen as well.
The fact, with our Canadian media industry, is that for many years, the decision-makers have been usually white, and of a very elegant age, shall we say? That doesn't really reflect the nature of the country or the world. Our cultural institutions are colonial institutions and we need to examine and dismantle the biases that are built into them.
Keeping this top of mind and moving towards the mental, systemic change is, I think, what will lead to long term change and opportunities for the entire industry.
Given the uncertainties regarding the current political context, in particular when it comes to Bill C-10, how can the CMF implement sooner than later some of the most pressing changes that are needed in the industry? What are the next steps the CMF will be taking in the next 6-12 months?
At the CMF, we started having conversations about what we can start to work towards regardless of how fast or slowly the legislation and regulation change. There is a lot that we can do now.
The first step is we are taking everything we heard in the consultation and analyzing it internally. Then we will have conversations with the Department of Canadian Heritage along the way because the contribution agreement we have with Heritage sets out the program model and authorities we have at the CMF. A more flexible contribution agreement will be a key piece of how much change we can affect and how quickly. Then we will take some key concepts back out to the industry for further discussion. It will not be an open, big process like we just concluded. But we will make sure people can always contact us to provide their views. That will happen towards the fall. We're optimistic and hopeful that some of those changes will happen in 2022.
This change will be iterative and it will likely take a few years to fully get there. We are hopeful that we'll get a process for some significant change in 2022, and have a pretty clear sense of the lay of the land by 2023.