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TIFF and the political economy of Canadian film September 28, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in cultural industries, film and global distribution oligopolies.
Tags: , , , ,

To many, the Toronto International Film Festival is now second only to Cannes in terms of importance and star power. It may in fact be gaining ground on its venerable French rival. The dizzying array of Hollywood mega-celebrities on hand each year appears a testament to the fact: from Madonna to George Clooney, Gerard Butler to Francis Ford Coppola, there are enough famous artists for the 2011 edition of the Festival to fill the pages of every paper and magazine.

This is part of the conundrum. A glance at blogs, newspapers, magazines and television crews covering TIFF shows the vast majority of comments and interviews are devoted to Hollywood blockbusters and film stars, none of which really need the publicity given the size of the prints and advertising budgets at their disposal.

Who does need this publicity? Oh, yes: Canadian films (in addition to their independent foreign equivalents). Then again, so does TIFF itself. In attracting the big names and joining the big leagues, the Festival has become more and more financially viable and now has more capacity to make a difference for Canadian filmmakers… but in courting Hollywood bigwigs, it has to give them something back. That “something” is a platform that, in generating its own heat, inevitably crowds out the less stellar participants.

The result is either a vicious cycle or a virtuous circle, depending on where you stand. Hollywood can and will pick up independent product; its stars and directors come from all over the globe, so one cannot speak of being “shut out”. Yet, this very transnationality precludes most localization save for American references. Toronto and Montreal become New York or Chicago. The occasional blockbuster or epic will take place in China or perhaps the Congo. However, the majority are set stateside.

Despite 34 features screening at the Festival this year, Canadian programming itself is still the wallflower at the dance compared to its more glamourous Hollywood counterpart. In addition, the vast majority of films entered as Canadian are coproductions. True, foreign films have a pride of place at the Festival, and rightly so, that they simply can’t garner at other times of the year. There may be French, Jewish and Native film festivals in Toronto; however, the exposure they get is clearly not the same as any film can get at TIFF. The mere fact of being chosen for the festival is a badge of merit for most. This is why the relative obscurity of Canadian features in Canadian media at this time of the year is a shame.

Journos and newspaper publishers alike, along with television managers and their ilk, will argue that they give readers and the audience what they want. It’s a circular argument, and easily belied by the most elementary knowledge of economics and differentiated product neo-marginalist theory. How do you know what people want? They ask for it. Most will shrug their shoulders and end it at that. However, there is a deeper question which we must ask: why do people ask for one kind of entertainment and not another? Answer: because it’s what they know.

It stands to reason that no one can possibly ask for something they know nothing about. In basic economic theory, perfect information is a sine qua non condition of a competitive marketplace. There can be no proper competition without full information. Prints and advertising are information. So is media coverage. Every article and interview is free publicity for the recipient, allowing information about the product to be disseminated to the potential audience.

Therefore, the constant and fulsome media coverage granted to Hollywood superstars does indeed reinforce the impression that their films are the ones to see before all others.

Information as a crucial component of film marketing is shaped by the nature of film as an economic product. By definition, cultural products behave exactly like differentiated products. This means they rely on branding to reach an audience. Films can’t be sold in the same way as wheat or petroleum. To buy a film is to consume it entirely. There are barriers to entry and those barriers have to do with unsubstantial things such as image as much as, or more than, standard economic characteristics such as economies of scale.

Marketing a film is always a shot in the dark, even with generous funds available for prints and advertising. The 1980 Hollywood film Heaven’s Gate is a classic example, losing $40 million even after a recut and rerelease. At the other end of the marketing and distribution/exhibition scale lies the practice of four-walling, whereby a distributor rents out a theatre for a flat weekly fee and retains all resulting earnings. This type of strategy has been used successfully for niche films such as Spike Lee’s early work and My Big Fat Greek Wedding by Nia Vardalos. Another kind of grassroots marketing is targeting the audience by demographic category. This method worked relatively well in the case of the 1990 Canadian film The Company of Strangers, about a group of seniors stranded when their bus broke down. The producers created buzz through organizations and venues frequented by seniors, also offering screenings in targeted locations.

As it happens, TIFF does that type of grassroots marketing. It’s called Film Circuit, and it actually started in Sudbury, Ontario, in a small festival called Cinefest, founded by a guy called Cam Haynes. Film Circuit brings great indie films to people who might not otherwise have a chance to see them, in locations where foreign and Canadian films are usually shut out of local theatres (unless they’re called Porky’s). It’s a terrific initiative and I’ve always felt Haynes was a genius. However, it just doesn’t get enough recognition; i.e., publicity.

So here we are again. Okay, we can’t expect the New York Times to get excited about Canadian cinema. But what about right here? Earth to Canadian media: hello there. Canadian cinema exists. Would you mind, please? I’ve got nothing against George Clooney, but you know Pascale Bussières might have made just as good of a cover on Hello magazine Canada.


1. Matthew Hays - September 28, 2011

Matthew Hays Says:
September 17, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Reply edit

This is a very well written, thoughtful article. As a former programmer at TIFF in the Canadian features section, however, I can say that the fest does its level best to promote and pump up Canadian film and talent. This puts the fest in a tough spot: how to be the festival for everyone? It ultimately works along the lines of Vanity Fair magazine: put the Hollywood starlet on the cover to move copies off stands, while using that star power to fuel thoughtful, smart journalism inside. While Clooney and Madonna do get the lion’s share of attention in the press, the hope is that with everyone flocking to TIFF, that will lead to people buying tickets to other films, including low-budget Canadian ones.
This is an age-old dilemma, and it’s just become even more complicated, what with the collapse of the independent film market in the US and everywhere (due primarily to the Internet, which makes piracy of films dead easy) and the shrinkage of mainstream news organizations, which now, with even less space then they had before, will tend towards a piece about Madonna purportedly dissing TIFF volunteers rather than an interview with a Canadian director premiering their feature debut. Much of that, obviously, is completely out of TIFF’s hands.
And you’re right: Cam Haynes has done great work, and the Film Circuit is a brilliant idea, one TIFF should be commended for running.

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