For Sylvie Peltier, Every Day is a Red Letter Day… Even in a Minority Setting
In this series, Now & Next collaborates with Femmes du cinéma, de la télévision et des médias numériques (FCTMN, women in film, television, and digital media) to profile inspiring women running their own screen-based companies. For part seven, Now & Next meets British Columbia-based Red Letter Films founder and president Sylvie Peltier and see what’s behind her 25 years of success and her reputation for producing quality factual entertainment and authentic content.
Interview by Laurianne Désormiers
After admiring some photos of the Rocky Mountains one day, 13-year-old Quebec-born Sylvie Peltier decided that British Columbia was the place to be. Even though she did make a detour in the wrong direction to Halifax earning a master’s degree in environmental economics from Dalhousie University, her determination to go west wasn’t dimmed in the least, even if her chosen field of study wasn’t exactly what you’d expect for a television company CEO.
But when one has a burning desire to inform people about research in fields like science or economics, making documentaries may not seem like such an odd choice. On the way there, she left a PhD in economics program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and a research position with a consulting firm to study film and television. And that’s how she ended up in filmmaking and making her mark in the audiovisual world.
From working on her own to having a business of her own
“I’ve always felt somewhat isolated as a filmmaker, a profession I learned on my own. It’s a lonely job and the feedback you get can be brutal at times. While I did not have a mentor, and in spite of a traumatic first experience in Los Angeles, I do feel pretty lucky along the way,” Peltier said. She talks about her experience in the Autopsie d’un film érotique documentary produced by the NFB’s Yves Bissaillon in 1999.
As an economist by training with no fear of numbers, Peltier quickly realized that producing wasn’t that complicated. So, she was able to produce her own films and gradually began producing films for others as well. “That’s how Red Letter Films got started,” she said. “It’s ironic but most of what I know about directing I learned by watching my own crews at work.”
While she was always attracted to the idea of having her own business, she was not at all attracted to being part of the business community. “Back in the 1980s, business for women was all about high heels and beige pantyhose and I honestly had no time for the old-boy nonsense in general,” Peltier said. So, she built her own business model around a specific type of content: factual entertainment.
“I did things gradually, at my own pace. And I’ve never been in debt.”
To sharpen her business skills, Peltier joined the local chapter of GroYourBiz six years ago, followed by the Vancouver Francophone Chamber of Commerce. “I really admire the businesswomen I meet there,” she said. “We have a lot in common when it comes to understanding each other and in our street smarts. They’re tough and ambitious. When you’re running a business you’re really on your own, so it’s motivating to interact with others in the same boat.”
But even running a boutique-type business like hers comes with its own set of major challenges. One of the most perplexing is the project-based funding model the Canadian content industry is based on. It makes getting the kind of funding you need to ensure the sustainability of any business really difficult, and even more so for getting a solo documentary project off the ground. That’s why Red Letter focuses on documentary series since they’re easier to refinance than one-shot deals.
As far as interactive goes, it’s mainly just to satisfy a regulatory request from funding agencies. “Neither the broadcasters nor the public have any interest in interactive documentaries,” Peltier said. Tiguidou Médias, a Red Letter Films subsidiary, covers that base producing high-quality interactive content like the Dehors: que faites-vous dans la rue? (what are you doing outdoor on the street?) interactive comic book.
The challenge of working in a minority language setting
The biggest challenge Red Letter Films faces is its status as a francophone company in a minority setting. And as former president of the Alliance des Producteurs Francophones du Canada (APFC, the Canadian alliance of francophone producers), it’s an issue Peltier knows a thing or two about. “While there has been a lot of progress, francophone communities outside Quebec are still not very well known,” she said. “We’re often sidelined doing only productions with a regional flavour when we can really do so much more.”
A case in point is Peltier’s battle to have her documentary on homelessness – an international subject if ever there was one – accepted for national broadcast. “People just assume that because we’re located out in the regions, we’re not capable of creating real quality, and that the differences in accents will be a problem. While we can’t be compared to the big, well-established Quebec production houses, there are world-class French-speaking producers right across Canada,” she said.
The truth is that quality is not an issue at all compared to access to labour. It’s no easy task to put together the French-speaking crews you need to satisfy the regulatory criteria to get funding. “There are some highly skilled francophone newcomers to British Columbia. But because they’re not permanent residents I can’t hire them, and they end up working in other sectors in order to make a living.”
It’s also because of this labour shortage that Peltier is against some of the Canada Media Fund and Telefilm Canada’s gender parity measures to companies in linguistic minority situations. “We work with small crews, sometimes as few as four people. If my director gets sick and I replace her with a man, the entire project can be put in jeopardy.”
Dare to change…but manage your expectations
Nearly a quarter century after founding Red Letter Films, Peltier says her business model is based on her ability to change. “Do I dare to be a freelancer? Yes, I do. Do I dare to be a producer? Yes, I do. Do I dare to produce for others? Yes, I do. Do I dare to have employees? Yes, I do.” But running a business is still a gamble and the opportunities for change are not always there.
The scarcity of qualified labour, for example, has had a negative impact on the company’s growth. Red Letter has never been able to get into fiction because of the limited local talent pool. Considering the burgeoning online demand for fiction today, this was a missed business opportunity plain and simple.
No matter what, no woman today should ever be discouraged from making a go in this business as long as she bears two things in mind Peltier said. “One. Don’t be like everyone else. Don’t be average. Two. Accept the fact that it doesn’t necessarily get any easier over time.”
Which, in a sense, explains the name of her company and reminds her to make every day a red letter day.