Taking Telefilm’s Temperature

A year into her term, Telefilm Canada’s executive director Christa Dickenson shares how she’s optimizing Canada’s biggest funding agency—and why she believes homegrown feature film will outlast these turbulent times

Before joining Telefilm Canada last summer, you helmed Interactive Ontario. Are there any lessons Canadian independent producers can learn from interactive digital media producers?

I think that across the audiovisual industry—regardless of sector—everyone is facing the same challenges. Whether we’re making films or video games, there’s no shortage of excellent storytelling in Canada. The two biggest challenges are financing and discoverability, particularly in a media world where there are no more borders. What the interactive digital media industry brings to the table is that spirit of entrepreneurship, being willing to do whatever it takes to market their product. With all of the changes in today’s market and to consumers’ habits, this new generation of producers will need to embrace that spirit more than ever.

How can Telefilm Canada help producers cross that bridge?

Maybe we need to emphasize and promote our own services in a way that makes it clear that we’re not just here to finance films, we’re also here to make sure the films have visibility—that they get to the right marketplace. Telefilm organizes 10 Canadian pavilions and has a presence at over 35 festivals and markets around the world every year, which are an incredible opportunity to network, to sell your production, and to find co-production partners. Because, of course, once you’re in a co-production situation, you’ve changed your landscape: you can have bigger budgets and greater talent, and you’re automatically doubling the potential eyeballs on your film. Telefilm can help get producers to that next level.

What are your priorities at Telefilm?

What I’m really looking for is to make sure that Telefilm evolves—evolves with Canadian consumers, Canadian society and Canadian values. I’m looking at what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I’m searching for new collaborative opportunities, and reviewing and enhancing the strategic partnerships that we’ve had for a long time, to make sure that they remain just that: strategic.

We’ll have a mandate out soon for an external auditor to look at our financing programs and processes, to ensure that they’re efficient and mirror best practices across Canada and the world. We’re doing a program optimization exercise, to ensure all of our programs are operating as effectively as possible.

Already from day one, I identified that Telefilm’s Success Index was in need of an update. Before we know it, it’ll be 2021, and we’ll be celebrating the index’s 10th anniversary—by then, we need to have Success Index number two in place. We’ll go into consultation on that in the next year or so. Revising the funding allocation approach is necessary, and I’m being transparent about that. I know that things can be, from a procedural perspective, very slow. That can take a financial toll on producers, and I want to minimize that burden as much as possible for them.

Theatrical release is a substantial component of the Success Index, and necessary to trigger funding in some cases. Given the shifting consumer landscape, do you think theatrical release should continue to be a requirement?

I believe the theatrical release is always going to be a part of a film’s DNA. It’s true that how and where people are consuming the content is shifting drastically, but rather than diminishing the importance of theatrical release in Telefilm’s Success Index, we need to start looking at what is not in the index that probably should be. Theatrical release will continue to have a place, but how it gets weighed in relation to the other elements remains to be seen.

You obviously want to see Canadian feature films thrive well into the future. What’s going to help us achieve that?

We need to recognize that the challenges that we face are not exclusively Canadian, but we do have that giant next to us. We’ve always been under that shadow, and will continue to be. The beautiful thing is that Canada is a mirror of the world. How can we turn that into an advantage, and make sure that we are telling and marketing our unique stories so that those at home and outside Canada want to consume them?

We clearly need more funding in the pipeline. We need to put more dollars behind the production and in the marketing. Because, as rapidly as our habits are changing, I don’t think we’re ever going to stop consuming films. Whether at a movie theatre or on a couch, films are a gathering experience for people. There will always be a place for feature film, and I’m committed to helping carve out room for Canadian feature film within that.