Try to guess which of these movies is Canadian: Disney’s turn redwhich tells the story of a Chinese-Canadian teenager in Toronto and stars Ottawa-born Sandra Oh, or the Oscar-winning sci-fi epic Dunes by Montreal director Denis Villeneuve and a team of Canadian collaborators.
Under Canadian broadcasting laws, neither is considered a local film.
Policy makers and experts in Canada’s creative industries are now grappling with the thorny question of precisely what makes a film or television show Canadian.
The definition is at the heart of new legislation before Parliament that would require streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ to feature a certain amount of Canadian content, similar to obligations long imposed on traditional broadcasters.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez says he plans to ask the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to clarify what counts as Canadian content after Bill C-11 passes through Parliament. The legislation would increase investment in Canada’s creative industries, he says, allowing Canadians to tell their own stories more widely.
Interested parties will have the opportunity to share their views in public proceedings after Rodriguez releases his policy direction, the broadcasting regulator said.
If passed, Bill C-11 would “create a fairer playing field for Canadian creators and businesses, while ensuring audiences benefit from increased visibility of Canadian content,” said Christa Dickenson, Executive Director and CEO of Telefilm Canada.
Is Cancon’s definition too narrow?
But some experts warn that the current definition of Canadian content needs to be expanded and modernized to reflect how TV shows and movies are made today.
Otherwise, they warn, it could deter studios from investing in Canadian talent if their work is not officially labeled as Canadian.
This could lead to less investment in co-productions or big-budget Canadian-led films, and more time spent on smaller, cheaper Canadian productions that tick the regulator’s right boxes, warns Michael Geist, Chair of Research Canada in Internet and Electronic Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa.
He argues that there should be more flexibility in defining what makes a film Canadian.
“It’s one of the most restrictive and narrowly defined systems in the world, excluding even Canadian authors,” he said, noting The Handmaid’s Talea hit television adaptation of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s novel, which did not count as a Canadian production.
“Government policy is already successful in attracting productions to Canada,” Geist said. “That’s where we should start – from an economic point of view.”
Major streaming companies are already investing huge sums in the creative work of Canadians, he said, and their algorithms are encouraging Canadians and people around the world to watch it. Canadian movies or TV shows that may not tick all the official boxes may still show up in a Netflix search.
But the Canadian Media Producers Association said the bill would prevent “the shift to a branch industry that is dependent on companies headquartered outside our borders.”
“It is important that Canadian producers own the rights to their stories,” the association said in a written statement.
“When they own their intellectual property, they own their stories and can reinvest that revenue into our industry.”
Some curious anomalies
The current definition of Canadian content, while popular with many players in the Canadian film industry, has given rise to some curious anomalies.
Some of the most high-profile films starring and directed by Canadians in recent years are not officially considered Canadian.
marvel’s dead Pool, starring Canadian star Ryan Reynolds, is based on a Canadian comic book character and was filmed in Vancouver. Canadian Paul Wernick co-wrote the screenplay. Still dead Pool did not qualify as Canadian under the rules of the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Board.
These rules require a Canadian producer and a Canadian director or screenwriter. Points are awarded for the number of Canadians in leading roles or other key creative positions. Canadians must also figure prominently in production and post-production.
This has some in the film industry and in government wondering if the points system could use an update. They question whether points should be given to Canadian production roles that closely reflect how movies are made today, not three decades ago, such as recognition of key jobs in broadcasting and animators.
Not just a Canadian problem
Canada is not alone in tackling this issue.
In the UK, the definition of what constitutes a British film is broader, incorporating films made by a foreign production company on a recognizable British subject, such as the life of Shakespeare or the 1940 Battle of Britain.
Many Hollywood productions — thanks to generous tax breaks, the availability of Canadian talent, including actors, extras, technical expertise and post-production facilities, not to mention various locations — are made in Canada.
Reynolds Mastin, president and CEO of the Canadian Media Producers Association, says modernizing broadcasting law “can ensure that Canadians are in control of our culture and our stories, and can support the production of that reflect the people and places of Canada.
“The updated legislation will support the growth of a strong and self-sufficient Canadian production sector and require foreign streaming services that bring billions to Canadian subscribers to invest in Canadian productions,” he said.
Peter Grant, a former member of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Committee, said it was crucial to ensure that Canadian production companies remained at the heart of the definition.
He says the current definition supports Canadian creators while giving them the flexibility to pursue themes that are clearly not Canadian.
Prioritizing Canadian talent won’t stop them from succeeding in Hollywood, he said.
“The Canadian content rules that the CRTC currently uses are all based on the premise that the production company must be Canadian-owned, or how much money is spent on Canadian talent,” he said.
“In the definition of Canadian content, the ownership rights have to be owned by a Canadian. But it doesn’t have to look Canadian or be about a Canadian story.”