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Canada: Thumbs-Down Rating on Entertainment Policy

By: Contributor - Mar 24, 2014, 2:37 pm

“Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity,” said Marshall McLuhan, a public intellectual who was noted for his work in communication theory.

This is sadly true. Canada’s identity in the United States, for example, is a strung-together collection of stereotypes about climate, maple syrup, and dialects of English. And unfortunately for the entertainment industry, Canadian works are often overshadowed by the noise of one of the most prolific media producers in the world, the United States, whose national identity is known (for better or for worse) all over the world.

The word “national” leaves the same bad taste in my mouth as “social” and “common,” but there is definitely something to be said for the value of the media your nation produces. Reuters? British. Al Jazeera? Qatari. The quality and popularity of those outlets pushes the United Kingdom and Qatar to a more prominent place in the global media network, suggesting that these are countries that are aware, involved, and worth talking about.

Canada is not exactly a world presence in media production, which is why I could accept that it could use some support. However, the Canadian government is going about creating and maintaining a national identity in all the wrong ways. In its effort to ensure the success of an industry that employs many Canadians, officials have turned to an accumulation of regulations — a dangerous practice, when burgeoning restrictions have been known to smother growing industries.

To address the ins and outs of Canadian entertainment policy, the Fraser Institute — a policy institute based in Vancouver — released a 62-page publication this month.

In the executive summary, Steven Globerman admits that the meddling may be well-intentioned, with the goal of “contributing to the survival of Canada as a sovereign nation.” This is either a really unfortunate choice of words, or indicative of a huge problem — big, scary words like “survival” and “sovereign” (and “nation,” honestly) suggest a sort of last-ditch desperation. But, the extent and depth to which Canadian officials exercise control over entertainment industry is alarming.

The arts, entertainment, and recreation industries together only make up 1 percent of GDP. Does this justify the billions that officials pour into subsidies? Only the stilts and fences of economic intervention could distort a market to a point where inefficient subsidies appear to be a good idea.

As Thoreau once said, “Government never furthered any enterprise but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.” My sympathies are always with anyone who has to dodge and weave through crushing boulders of regulation, and entertainment entrepreneurs are no exception. The requirements in the entertainment industry are extensive, especially for grants administered by two major federal departments, Telefilm Canada and Canadian Heritage.

To gauge the success of films receiving grants, Telefilm Canada has a “Success Index.” Call me a cold-blooded capitalist, but I have heard wonderful things about the accuracy of another success index, called “box office revenue.” There are also many non-financial factors indicating a film’s success. Some “cult classics” and smaller-budget projects have reached legendary status without sweeping the box office on opening weekend. That being said, the Canadian Feature Film Fund’s tendency to fund already successful production companies could mean that the index is skewing production, also having a sterilizing effect on diversity of production.

Government control can have a crippling, crushing effect, but its black thumb is never more obvious than when it so much as brushes the leaves of culture. The Canadian Feature Film Fund has “an announced intent to encourage a ‘diversity of voices’ in feature films.”

All the diversity buzzwords are in the description, so no one can criticize this initiative without appearing biased or sexist. But engineered, carefully crafted “diversity” is not real diversity!

And the results leave me yet to be sold on the idea that the government is the best regulator of culture. Culture is not something that can be chopped up and squeezed into data cells — there are so many variables at play — and it’s arrogant of the government to think that it can produce an accurate picture of Canadian culture.

In fact, it’s rather arrogant of the government to be involved in entertainment at all. If entertainment were the way that Canada would rise to international stardom on its newly minted national identity, it would have happened already. It’s certainly not going to happen as long as the government acts like a paranoid mother monitoring her children’s TV consumption — deciding what is produced, how it will be produced, with whom it will be produced, what the production will be about, if production meets the diversity quota, and if the children are watching enough Canadian programming.

Should a Canadian filmmaker want to have a government-approved play date with a producer in another country, “international co-productions may be eligible for funding when there is an acceptable degree of Canadian ownership and control.” What a headache. Who would want to collaborate with Canadian filmmakers knowing that their government would be breathing down their necks for the duration of filming and production?

Of course, there are a few ways in which the government keeps track of Canadian control, including a points system that awards a film “points” for every Canadian production member.

Canada Entertainment Tax Credit Provisions

If I were a budding filmmaker, or one with enough capital to go elsewhere, I would not want to jump through any of these hoops. Frankly, I would either leave the country or opt out of producing at all, leaving Canada with one less potential (national) chef d’oeuvre.

Canada, let your entertainment industry breathe. Do you want to be known as the country whose government’s excessive restrictions made entertainment boring? If you want diversity, don’t endorse funding that favors larger producers and certain types of films. If you want Canadian media to grow popular in Canada and abroad, don’t enforce content rules in your home country.

There could be a whole renaissance in Canadian media just waiting to emerge by way of small production companies, outlets, and writers. Make it difficult enough for them to surface, and you’ve prohibited entertainment from evolving with culture while exhausting yourself in an effort to engineer culture for international public relations purposes.

Going back to the economics: is it best to coddle an infant industry, or to let it be free and vulnerable? I submit that if an infant already has the cognitive ability to realize that it’s having an identity crisis, it certainly does not need a helicopter parent of government to tell it what it is and what it should be. Current policy is not allowing output of satisfactory quantity and diversity, which in econ speak means that this is a loss. If Canada wants to be a five-star leader in media, it must re-evaluate its one-star policy.