Special CMF Funds Are Helping BPOC-Led Organizations Persevere
The CMF’s Black and People of Colour (BPOC) Sector Development Fund and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for BPOC companies helped companies and organizations survive the pandemic, adapt to the new context, and launch specialized initiatives to support racialized creators.
“(The pandemic) knocked us down”, says Sudz Sutherland, writer-director and owner of Toronto-based Hungry Eyes Media. “It's like we were going along, struggling in our merry way, and it knocked the wind out of everybody."
When filming resumed in the summer of 2020, Sutherland worked as a director for hire on shows for American networks, but his company, like many others, was still struggling.
Even before the pandemic, both media companies owned by racialized persons and racialized talents in various areas of the industry were already facing numerous challenges in terms of representation, access to funds in general, networking, among other things.
Informed by consultations with industry members and producers from racialized communities, the CMF announced in November 2020 that it would disburse $6M through two different initiatives:
- a $1M BPOC Sector Development Fund;
- and a $5M COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, Allocation for Companies Owned by BPOC.
The BPOC Sector Development Fund provided funding for 19 industry initiatives supporting racialized creators, producers, and companies while the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund helped 168 companies owned and controlled by racialized persons to face challenges related to the pandemic.
“To be honest, we would have had to shut our doors down, if not for this funding”, says Sutherland.
With no income coming in for months, Sudz Sutherland’s company, Hungry Eyes Media, struggled to pay rent and other bills. The fund allowed him to focus on the company’s upcoming projects instead of trying to be hired by other companies as a director.
While she had to put most of her projects on the back burner due the pandemic, Montreal-based Kathy-Ann Thomas, producer and owner of Cotton Bush Productions was able to pay for legal work and marketing fees for two projects, thanks to the funding she received.
“With this funding, I felt secure approaching writers for one of my projects because I knew I had money in the bank if I needed to pay them, while waiting on answers from grant applications specific to this project or even if I didn't get any grants”, adds Thomas.
Founded in 2018, the Montreal Black on Black Film collective has as its mission to defend, represent, and provide tools to Black creators to facilitate a larger presence for them in the Quebec audiovisual creation process. As producer Mylène Augustin, a member of the collective, explains, this commitment is based on a clear fact, “the absence of scripts written by Afro-descendant creators,” a situation that Black on Black Film is attempting to redress.
To this end, the collective focused its energies in 2019 on creating the “Je me vois à l’écran” (I See Myself on Screen) screenwriters’ residency program, in cooperation with the Montreal Arts Council. Four participants had the benefit of guidance by experienced mentors to develop the script for a short fiction film 10 to 15 minutes in length.
The pandemic disrupted the residency program’s ongoing operations. After a few initial months of downtime, the nonprofit organization introduced an organizational structure that would allow activities to resume in virtual mode, on Zoom. Besides this, “all plans for the second year had to be rethought so as to accommodate the constraints imposed by COVID-19,” says Mylène Augustin, who co-pilots the residency program.
The Vancouver Asian Film Festival (VAFF) also had to adapt its festival format. “The first thing that was difficult was not knowing: because VAFF is in November, we kept hoping that potentially things would get back to normal by the Fall (of 2020)”, says founder Barbara Lee.
In 2021, the Vancouver Asian Film Festival - which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary - will pivot to a hybrid festival, also thanks to the funds received from the CMF.
Alberta-based producer and consultant Shivani Saini founded Creatives Empowered, a collective of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) artists and creatives, in November 2020. Inspired by her own professional experiences, and by the need for this specific kind of professional organization in the province, she created the non-profit with the aim to “create a more equitable cultural sector” and “to eliminate systemic racism within arts and culture”.
The need for this sector development fund transcends the pandemic”, explains Saini. “The timing of the fund has been excellent and necessary, given the events of 2020.
“This is an immense opportunity for Canadian screen-based industries to leverage the time we're in to address the challenges that have been going on”, she adds.
"This fund has given us a huge jumpstart for developing our foundation”, she adds.
For the Black on Black Film collective, CMF funding made it possible to add a second component to the “Je me vois à l’écran” residency program. This additional component, which started in April 2021, provides places for two candidates to work on writing the pitch document for a webseries. Eligibility for this component was open to Black applicants anywhere in Quebec. This was not the case in the first component funded by the Montreal Arts Council.
“We’ve succeeded in bringing some really enthusiastic mentors and instructors on board, and they’re dedicated to this project 100%,” says Mylène Augustin. However, she adds, finding and reaching the Afro-descendant creative artists on various media platforms remains a serious challenge.
As it happens, a field study to gather data on the collective’s target audience is currently underway, and the results will make it possible to “introduce concrete positioning, promotion, and recruitment strategies for our members.”
“We’ve kept the collective going on a volunteer basis. We’d now like to hire a part-time coordinator to help us advance the various facets of our mission. This is essential to ensure growth and sustainability for our organization.”
While funding has a sizable impact, having racialized people in leadership roles is also key, according to Vancouver Asian Film Festival's founder Barbara Lee. “It comes down to funding and decision makers who are the gatekeepers. Who gets to say ‘your story is valuable and worth being funded’ versus ‘you don't know how to jump through the funding hoops and therefore you don't get the funding, and as a consequence you cannot access more funding’", she adds.
According to Lee, Canadian organizations, studios, and production houses need to collaborate with grassroots organizations like VAFF who have been doing this work for decades. “They don't need to reinvent the wheel, they don't need to have their own initiatives. If organizations, studios and production houses want to support BIPOC creators, they should be going through organizations like ours. We want to be equal partners in this".
“Time will tell”, according to Sudz Sutherland. “I’ve been in this industry for a while and there’s been sort of a flavor of the month: the idea of talking about race is interesting for now, but when it comes time to actually really sharing opportunity and sharing power, that’s where the rubber meets the road. So we’ll see. I’m not saying that there is no chance and no possibility, but I’d like to see a change”, he explains.