Sometimes, in Canada, we lose sight of who we are because we’re just so close to the United States. We start to ask ourselves strange and inappropriate questions like, “why doesn’t Canada have any blockbuster films?”
In my opinion, it’s the question that’s flawed, not the state of the industry (although the industry has lots of problems too, but more on that later). Does Ireland have blockbusters? Or New Zealand? Probably not. These are tiny countries that are not only competing with the monolith of Hollywood for the audience’s attention, but also with their own much larger neighbours – England, or Australia. These countries are the scrappy underdogs of English language cinema. They might produce brilliant films, but they are very unlikely to produce gigantic mega-hits, because they’re just too small to compete with their neighbours. It seems obvious, but when you’re inside it – as we are in Canada – you can’t see the forest for the trees, and you end up asking the question anyway.
Of course, there have been some hits, here and there. Meatballs broke box office records in its time. Bon Cop Bad Cop was a surprise crossover hit in both English and French territories. Goon was kind of a hit. It happens once in a while. But it’s not the norm, and it probably never will be.
Hollywood studios frequently spend double, or even more, than the film’s production budget on marketing. Can you imagine a Canadian indie film made for under a million bucks somehow raising another two million to spend on commercials and billboards?
In my mind, there are three main reasons why English-Canada rarely produces Canadian blockbusters.
The first is budget.
It’s a problem of scale. We just don’t have the money – either in terms of what we spend on actually making our films, or in terms of what we spend on marketing and promoting them – to compete with Hollywood. Hollywood studios frequently spend double, or even more, than the film’s production budget on marketing. Can you imagine a Canadian indie film made for under a million bucks somehow raising another two million to spend on commercials and billboards? Can you imagine a big budget Canadian film (say, $20 million, which is huge for Canada), spending another $20 million on promotion? I certainly can’t, and I work in the Canadian film industry.
The second reason that we don’t have blockbusters is cultural.
We all know the story of Quebec, that cinematic Shangri-La where films are made (in French, with Quebecois stars who are virtually unknown in the rest of Canada or the world but are legitimately famous back home) and succeed, sometimes wildly, at the box office. French-language films routinely beat out the Hollywood competition in Quebec. That too, should not be a surprise. Quebec has been fighting to be recognized as a distinct and unique culture for decades, so it’s no wonder that they enthusiastically devour their own cultural product in their own language, without comparing it in size or quality to what comes from elsewhere.
In English Canada, we barely know what our identity is, so the fact that we don’t support homegrown cinematic talent is, well, pretty unsurprising. We’re just too close to the United States. We confuse their culture for ours, their cultural products for our own. Young people don’t get a big dose of Canadian culture in their educational diet, and as a result they’re unlikely to go to a film just because it’s Canadian. They’ll go to a film that they’ve heard of, with actors they recognize from TV or bus shelter ads. In other words, an American one.
Do theatres lose money because all Canadian films are bad and nobody wants to come and see them? Of course not. It would be extremely naïve to believe that.
The third reason has to do with distribution and exhibition.
This is the boring industry stuff that the average moviegoer never thinks about, but it makes a big difference to a film’s ability to succeed. If you live outside of a major urban centre like Toronto, Vancouver or Edmonton, what are the odds that a Canadian film is ever going to play theatrically in your town? They are slim. That’s because Canada has one giant film distributor (eOne), one medium sized one (Mongrel Media) and several scrappy upstarts (Elevation, KinoSmith, Pacific NorthWest and others) – a tiny army of Davids to eOne’s Goliath.
The little guys do a great job but can’t compete with the resources of the big guy. The big guys focus most of their attention on the high-budget American product that they distribute in Canada. If they’ve got a Hunger Games sequel coming out and a couple of small Canadian films, which do you think is going to get the most attention? The one that is chock full of stars and likely to turn a profit. These are business decisions. It’s nothing personal, Canada, you’re just too small to warrant that much attention.
Then there’s the exhibition side. In 2013, Cineplex purchased the Empire theatres chain, giving it 78% of the Canadian movie theatre market. That means that four out of five screens across the country are owned by one company. If Cineplex doesn’t want to show your film, because you’re too small to bring them the kind of profit that they can get from showing the latest Avengers film on all of their screens, then too bad for you.
In English Canada, we barely know what our identity is, so the fact that we don’t support homegrown cinematic talent is, well, pretty unsurprising. We’re just too close to the United States. We confuse their culture for ours, and their cultural products for our own.
You’re left trying to put your film up on indie screens, many of which are rapidly disappearing. I program the Royal in Toronto, and I’m deeply interested in seeing the Canadian film industry flourish, and yet I turn down Canadian films all the time. That’s because I know that what the producers and distributors can afford to spend on promotion will barely get ten people in the door each night. We try to book Canadian content, but the sad reality is that we can’t afford to very often.
Do we lose money because all Canadian films are bad and nobody wants to come and see them? Of course not. It would be extremely naïve to believe that. Good films are made here every year which nobody has heard of, because there’s no money to promote them, which in turn makes exhibitors reluctant to take a chance. It’s a vicious cycle that comes down to the fact that Canada is a huge country with a tiny population and is inconveniently located right next to the biggest fish in the pond.
It’s not all bad news, though. At least one element of the Canadian industry is thriving, and that’s production. Our tax credits (at least in Ontario, for now) and our low dollar makes it very appealing for American productions to do business here. Our crews are well trained and great to work with. Shooting here is so great that Guillermo del Toro practically moved here. A huge number of blockbusters are shot here every year. English Canada can be a fantastic place to make really great films. Unfortunately, they’re just not very likely to be Canadian.
You can’t have it all, Canada!