Film board’s “strategic plan” falls short on strategy, planning

The local film board says that it needs a certain centre of mass here in Toronto, and that only government intervention can provide it.  Apparently governments of other jurisdictions are encouraging the growth of the same media/entertainment industries elsewhere, and are prepared to provide better incentives.  Businesses, like every form of organisation, flora or fauna, will go where the conditions are most favourable.  What a shocker.

Susan Murdoch, co-chair of the Toronto Film Board, told Toronto city council Tuesday that regional production encouraged by the CRTC, the Canadian Television Fund and other instruments of government policy effectively undermine the city’s potential as a world class production center.

“Other levels of governments have promoted regional incentives that encourage production going to other provinces. As an industry, to compete at a high quality level, domestically and internationally, you need to have a certain critical mass to keep our service business and local product at the top of the industry,” Murdoch told councilors.

— Etan Vlessing, “Regional production hurts Toronto, says group“. Playblack, September 4th, 2007.

What’s the solution?  Government intervention, of course!

Murdoch argued the federal and provincial governments, including Ontario’s own, are being short-sighted by insisting that jobs be created by spreading film and TV production coast-to-coast, away from Toronto and Montreal.

Unless we have companies [in Toronto] that can conceive and finance and market the projects, you don’t have an industry. You have a cottage industry that will rise and fall according to outside circumstances,” she warned.

Promoting regional production centers only dilutes Canada’s potential as a film and TV production powerhouse, Murdoch argued.

“It’s best to concentrate an industry in Toronto as a means to making Canada a world leader,” she told city councilors…

“We can’t compete with Mexico and South Africa in terms of hard costs. We want to compete on excellence,” she argued.

[emphasis mine]

Ms. Murdoch hits the nail on the head precisely here, but then fails to make the necessary connections.  The problem with Canadian media industry isn’t that it’s getting diluted by all the talented folks moving out of Toronto and Montreal.  We have had massive media concentration in these two cities for a couple of generations and have yet to turn out anything really outstanding.  You don’t have to aim for the heights of Shakespeare here, I’d be willing to settle for the Canadian version of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

From where I sit, the problems are, as she has stated:

  1. Toronto lacks companies that can “conceive, finance and market” entertainment projects.
  2. Those companies that do exist are, apparently, lacking in excellence.

I’m not sure how government regulation or incentives are going to address points one or two.  Point one requires creative talent and people willing to chuck a lot of speculative or investment dollars into these ventures.  Point two requires a certain amount of dedication and proficiency in the craft by individual practitioners.

The creative folks are only going to last so long in the tiny Canadian market.  Sooner or later Hollywood is going to come knocking and make them an offer they can’t refuse.  And what talented upstart would refuse an offer to play their A-game for better pay in Hollywood?

Investors, on the other hand, generally only do so if there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to make money on that investment.  Name five contemporary Canadian-content media productions that you personally would be willing to throw ten grand of your own savings at.

How about Corner Gas?  And… uhm…

There’s your problem.

Toronto was attractive because it was cheap (in US dollars) to film here, at least compared to places like Los Angeles.  And there was—and is—a relatively large and stable population of production professionals who practice their craft.  Whether they are excellent or not is not for me to say.  But now that they’re no longer cheap, Hollywood’s not interested.

Here’s more—same reporter, different outlet, slightly more detail.

To restore Toronto’s competitiveness, Murdoch also urged that the Ontario and federal government speed up payments to foreign producers of tax credits based on local labor costs. Traditionally, foreign producers have had to wait up to two years before being reimbursed for certain labor costs after filing tax returns.

She also urged the Ontario government to consider providing 85% of the tax credit for indigenous producers up front so producers no longer have to turn to bank financing to cover production costs as they wait to receive their tax credits.

— Etan Vlessing, “Toronto Film Board pleads incentives case“. Hollywood Reporter, September 5th, 2007.

Looks like the major policy prescriptions being advocated are:

  • More rapid payment of tax credits
  • Tax credits up front

That doesn’t sound a whole lot like fostering a culture of excellence.  It sounds a lot like competing with cheaper markets based on hard costs, something Ms. Murdoch indicated the city couldn’t realistically do.  What happened to that whole “compete on excellence” schtick?

Maybe if Canadian media producers cranked out stuff the Canadian public would gladly pay to see, betting on home-grown productions wouldn’t be such an unpalatable risk.  And a little excellence never hurt anyone, either.

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