ROC Francophone Audiovisual Production is Like Being Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
“The situation for francophone producers outside Quebec has always been precarious and difficult, something COVID-19 has brought to light with a whole new set of challenges.” –Winnipeg-based Manito Média producer Charles Clément
The crisis is far from over. While government agencies have provided emergency funding and the federal government has helped out with wage subsidies, francophone producers outside Quebec still face challenges that could cost them their businesses.
More often than not, projects outside Quebec are shot in multiple provinces or require leading actors to travel to film locations in other cities. “If all the shoots were in Winnipeg, we could possibly get by. We’re working on three series at the moment,” Charles Clément said. “The one shot in Manitoba is easier to move ahead with than the other two where you have to travel outside the province. That’s where production comes to a full stop.”
Manito Média isn’t the only one with that problem. Other Winnipeg studios, including Les Productions Rivard and Wookey Films, had shoots that were put on hold or cancelled due to COVID-19. So did Toronto-based Moi&Dave. Not to mention the different health directives they have to deal with from one jurisdiction to another.
“In December 2019, we decided to take a sabbatical in 2020 to see how we could get through it all. There’s high turnover. We never have enough volume in BC anyway to allow creators to work full-time,” said Vancouver-based Red Letter Films producer Sylvie Peltier.
That wasn’t an option open to everyone. “I would have loved to take a sabbatical, but we have three to four years of accounting and administrative work still to do on previous projects. It’s a vicious cycle because we need current and future projects in the pipeline to pay our people. The pandemic has made it difficult because we don’t have the ongoing series we need to meet our payroll,” said Clément.
Competition, financing, and broadcasters
39 francophone projects outside Quebec received a total of $16,983,846 in financing from the Canada Media Fund in 2020–2021. The Alliance des producteurs francophones du Canada (APFC) currently has 24 production companies among its ranks, all from the ROC. It is estimated that there are about 10 more across the country.
“More and more people across the country want to tell their stories and that’s great except we don’t have an increase in funding or an increase in broadcasters to match,” Clément said.
Not only that, but according to Sylvie Peltier funding is continually decreasing. “My average production budgets are about half of what they were five years ago. But I can’t get the CMF to double my funding because of the excess demand they already have to cope with.”
David Baeta and Simon Madore are co-producers at Moi&Dave in Toronto. “I can understand the frustrations of producers who were in business during the Francophone Minority Fund’s good years, but we did manage to show the Quebec television industry that we could deliver quality productions made outside the province,” said David Baeta. “Canadian Heritage must realize that the industry outside Quebec is flourishing and they should increase the envelope to allow us to flourish even more. It’s like having a child. You have to keep nourishing it properly so it can grow.”
To survive and thrive in today’s competitive environment, you have to diversify your customer base. The problem is that the number of French-language broadcasters is limited. Some producers also maintain that working with producers outside Quebec is only considered when it’s mandatory.
The physical distance to broadcaster offices is also an issue. “All the head offices are on René-Lévesque Boulevard in Montreal. Yes, we do live in the digital age, but a key part of our work is still done in person, in meetings and in pitching ideas. There’s little chance of meeting a broadcaster at a social event or happy hour today where you could run something up the flagpole,” Baeta said.
“Getting through to the Netflixes of this world is a black-box operation even for major Quebec producers. You won’t find a door to knock on. You have to know someone who knows someone and right now that leaves us pretty much in the dark. The francophone offering to Crave is beginning but it still takes a relationship with broadcasters to make anything happen.”
One of the biggest challenges in francophone production outside Quebec is getting qualified workers. For Yukon producer Simon D’Amours it’s a never-ending quest. “I often have to bring people in from outside to get projects off the ground,” he said. But in many provinces, funding and tax credits depend on using local talent and going outside is a no-no.
Jessica L’Heureux is a director in Alberta. While shooting the second season of the Abigaëlle webseries, the team had to take their creativity to the next level. “They were shooting Ghostbusters down south and a lot of our resources were going into big productions. We were hard put to get a crew on set,” she said. So, they decided to offer mentorships to members of the francophone community with an interest in the field and a knack for being resourceful.
“Directing an independent French production in Alberta had never been done before so everything had to be created from scratch. As director my goal was to build teams with experienced people. We wanted to have as many francophones on the set as possible, but since it was the first time, it was a huge challenge,” L’Heureux said. “We made some great discoveries and that was a lot of fun. There were people who spoke French or had learned some but had no opportunity to practice it. They were delighted when we approached them.”
In addition to having to create a French-language set from the ground up, they also had to negotiate with technical teams who’d never worked on a webseries before with budgets a lot smaller than on television or film projects.
Funding requirements are continually evolving to reflect societal developments, including the concern for gender parity within teams. But in a minority language situation, the limited pool of available talent can impose some tough constraints.
“There are not that many francophone directors in Ontario. If you’re looking for a woman francophone director, there are even fewer. And if you’re looking to fill a gender requirement you might be completely out of luck,” said producer and director Simon Madore. Sylvie Peltier couldn’t agree more. “I really don’t have a full range of available directors and screenwriters to choose from,” she said.
All agree that measures designed to give women more visibility in the industry are to be applauded. But a little more flexibility should be the order of the day. “The solution could be to extend parity points to all key creative roles, not just producer, director, and screenwriter, but also to cinematographer, film editor, and so on. The certification office has eight other key positions, and if we could get the office to include them, it would be a big help,” David Baeta said.
Then there’s the question of diversity. But from what Baeta has seen, creators are not at that point in a minority context. “We’re not seeing the necessary level of diversity in film schools yet. That might have something to do with certain groups still being under-represented on screen. We do have to start somewhere, of course, and if there aren’t enough people in the diversity pool to do the work, how can we meet the targets?”
Audience ratings and broadcaster demands
Broadcasters face significant challenges when it comes to engaging viewers. The content tsunami that washes over all digital platforms makes for intensely fierce competition. One of the consequences is an obsession for an overnight sensation. That’s why ROC French-language productions are typically asked to include Quebec stars in their projects.
“It is difficult to attract the wider Quebec audience with content produced in a minority setting. That’s really our biggest challenge. ” said Wookey Films co-producer Jérémie Wookey.
Co-producer Janelle Wookey concurs. “It’s like there are two different worlds. As francophones outside Quebec, we’re asked to produce Canadian francophone content. Trouble is that 90% of Canadian francophones are also Quebecers. Technically we speak the same language, but in reality, it’s two different languages, two different cultures.”
So, how can we tell stories with local flavour while including known Quebec talent in the process? As far as Charles Clément (co-producer of the Edgar series with Montreal’s Zone3) is concerned, it’s a work in progress. “Awareness for the series was greatly enhanced thanks to Quebec star power, which then gave dozens of Manitoba actors the opportunity to work in a series produced in our part of the country,” he said. “I guess we should try to create our own star system. But that’s something that just doesn’t happen overnight.”