Rethinking Canadian Content
Our screen-based sector is at a crossroads—and we need to talk about Canadian content. Over the next several months, the CMF wants to spark a conversation about the redefinition of CanCon: What is at stake? Why does it matter? What do we want the future of the industry to look like? This article is the first of a Now & Next series that will provide a platform for diverse voices to weigh in on Canadian content, authenticity, ownership, business and funding models, and more.
What better place than Content Canada to explore the key questions at stake when rethinking Canadian content? On September 14, Canada Media Fund (CMF) President and CEO Valerie Creighton moderated a panel called “What is Canadian content?” to officially kickoff the CMF’s exploration of CanCon. Co-panelists included Melanie Nepinak Hadley, Executive Director at Warner Bros. Discovery Access Canada, Laura Michalchyshyn, CCO & Co-President at Blue Ant Studios, Richard Jean-Baptiste, Executive Producer, and Vinay Virmani, Chief Content Officer at Uninterrupted.
In case you missed it, we have put together a summary of the introspective and entertaining conversation.
Embracing the diversity of Canadian stories
The discussion started with inclusion, and a general acknowledgment that for a long time the process that defines Canadian content has excluded many communities.
What we call Canadian content is “actually just the tip of the iceberg of what we have to offer,” said Melanie Nepinak Hadley. She explained that while there are similarities with US content, in terms of frame of reference and style, “our values system is different.”
“When I get the opportunity to read a writer from the US versus a writer from Canada, I can feel it. Even if they're both writing some weird Cabin-in-the-Woods-type horror, I can feel that our values are slightly different. So, I think it's super important that we grab onto that. But at the same time, it's also super important that we look domestically for all the things we can do better to show more of that iceberg.”
Montreal-based producer Richard Jean-Baptiste added that Canadian content “should represent our diversity and our complexity.” Mentioning internationally renowned filmmakers Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan, Jean-Baptiste said: “My only concern when trying to define Canadian content is to not forget who makes the decision of what people abroad see from our industry. Again with my perspective from Quebec, when it seems that only one kind of people gets represented, then there's a lot of things that we're missing.”
Diversity is not only a demographic reality in Canada—it’s also a strength and a selling factor, according to Vinay Virmani. “Apart from having some of the best talent in the world, we have some of the best diverse talent in the world. I think that's our strength: our diversity, our experiences, the experiences of the immigrants in this country. As a South Asian producer, it's my truth, it's my experiences, it's the experiences that my parents went through when they came here to this country. I think that we can all relate to those, which makes our content very special, very unique. And not only in Canada; it’s a huge selling factor internationally as well.”
The debate around ownership
When some of the creative talent is Canadian and the story includes Canadian elements, but the production isn’t owned by a Canadian—should it be considered “Canadian content”? As foreign service production in Canada has rapidly expanded over the last several years, while domestic production has waned, it’s a central question.
“For a foreigner, if the result is good, it's this great ambassador product, a Canadian cultural product that we have out there,” said Richard Jean-Baptiste. “So, I'm just wondering where this question of Canadian content will lead us, especially with Bill C-11 and the temptation of revisiting the points system, and all that. I'm very curious because I think it's a very tricky question.”
To Laura Michalchyshyn, a show like The Handmaid’s tale is “definitely Canadian,” even though the producer is American. Based on a book by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, the Hulu series is shot in Canada and uses Canadian crews and some Canadian creative talent. “I think it's revolutionized the world of Canadian literature,” said Michalchyshyn. “Everyone in the U.S. and around the world is looking at our books, looking at our short stories, going ‘Oh, Margaret Atwood. We wouldn't have known her 12 years ago.’ Now, everyone in our business knows who Margaret Atwood is."
Michalchyshyn, who has been based in New York for almost twenty years, also noted that the conversation around ownership is more present in Canada than in the U.S. “Frankly, if you get to a place where you're selling shows anywhere in the world, ownership is important on a piece of paper. It's very important for sales. But if you're a kickass writer, director, producer, you're just going to get gig after gig after gig. I talk to people in the U.S. and they go, ‘You Canadians are obsessed with this ownership issue.’ Frankly, my name is under directed, produced, written by. That's ownership.”
A handful of audience members disagreed with Michalchyshyn’s take on intellectual property. Speaking specifically about producers from underrepresented communities, Ottawa-based producer Hoda Elatawi said: “I could feel my back going up when you said, ‘Oh my God, Canadians think way too much about ownership and owning the rights.’ I think it’s because traditionally, that's all we had to hang onto to actually make money because our budgets were so modest. If we could get a commission, a full commission, like you could get in the U.S. where budgets are so much higher, then, sure, let's give them away.”
LA-based Canadian producer Moira Griffin gave another perspective on IP in the U.S., stating that ownership is a “really big issue because the money is lower, especially for diverse content creators and producers, and so the push right now is for ownership.” She also added that it’s “not just a people-of-colour issue. This is a content issue across the board […] and I push back on this idea that you could just sell your thing because that's what people in the States have been doing. It really hasn't been equitable at all unless you are a big-level person who can command that money—but not everybody is.”
Retaining ownership can be challenging when starting out in Canada. “There are hardly any doors to knock on in this country right now,” explained Valerie Creighton, “which makes it harder to negotiate.”
“The problem, and this is what I mean about our domestic problem, is that ownership in this country for content hasn’t been equitable,” said Hadley. “I think we still have a problem of people getting the deals where the ends are just meeting. They're having a really hard time closing the deals or getting the deal in the first place on some of their earlier work, where they're just maybe getting the ends to touch, where the budgets are very low. That's the reality.”
Michalchyshyn clarified that she doesn’t think IP is not important, but that it should not prevent creatives from getting a show made. Ownership is “a long road to take” and it might be reasonable to take a deal when first starting out, even if it means not fully owning the work, if only to kickstart your career and create leverage that can be used to negotiate better deals later on.
The word “partnership” came up often in the conversation, whether between broadcasters and streamers, between sectors, or between countries.
Laura Michalchyshyn’s suggestion to open the points system to allow for more partnerships was applauded: “If Ava DuVernay wants to come to Toronto or Vancouver or Halifax or Winnipeg and [executive produce] a show, and bring up some Black Canadian writers, producers, directors, and her name is going to not only help get the Canadian sale, but also help get the Amazon, Netflix, Hulu sale in the U.S., and bring that budget up another $2 million an hour—shouldn't we consider that?”
Not everyone agreed. From the audience, Hoda Eletawi reminded Michalchyshyn of the reality of many producers in Canada: “Not all of us are going to have that kind of access.”
Drawing from his background in advertisement, Richard Jean-Baptiste advocated for more business-driven approaches in the screen-based sector. “As a cultural industry, we need to seriously think about getting more revenue dollars,” adding that partnerships with the private sector could bring in a lot of money “if the government would change some laws and tax credit rules.”
The importance of new revenue streams was also addressed when discussing the current project-driven funding system. “I think there should be business grants for production companies that are creating content for underrepresented populations,” said Michalchyshyn. Valerie Creighton pointed out the failures of the project-driven system: “If anything came really clear during COVID, it was about the fragility of our system based on some of these structures we've had. [The CMF is] pushing hard for slate funding and we will keep doing so.”
What got us here won’t get us there
While the protectionist aspects of the current systems helped build a thriving screen industry in Canada, the panelists agreed that it’s time for change.
“I think all the programs and the infrastructure that were put in place protected our culture and we are thankful,” said Richard Jean-Baptiste, but he also argued that the industry needs to move to a less risk-averse and unapologetic approach.
“The dilemma in Canada is that we built an industry on these structures because we live next door to the biggest entertainment giant in the world,” said Valerie Creighton. “And in order to have anything that remotely reflected what Canada was all about, structures were built. They were great structures, and they created an industry. They contributed to the GDP. They gave us an international reputation. But now the world is very different, and that brick thing we built is crumbling and collapsing.”
As the conversation continues, it’s clear that “What is Canadian content?” is a timely and critical question for our industry, with divergent opinions on issues of intellectual property, business opportunities, current structures, and more. And undeniably, the issue of Canadian content is inexorably linked to openness and inclusion. The full potential of CanCon can only be achieved by opening doors and addressing access, creating partnerships, and consciously seeking to hear and showcase all Canadian stories.
As Vinay Virmani said in his concluding remarks, it is important to keep having faith “in our stories and in our truth, and to keep pushing.”
Join the conversation on social media and tell us how you define Canadian content with #CanConDef