Thanks to WIFT-T, and TIFF’s Share Her Journey initiative, I had the opportunity to attend Breakfast at TIFF: Your Chance to Make Your First Feature Film (April 20, 2018). The topic of the day: Telefilm Canada’s new Talent to Watch program. The panel consisted of Stephanie Azam (Telefilm Canada), Matt Johnson (director, Operation Avalanche), Ashley McKenzie (director, Werewolf), Matthew Miller (producer, Operation Avalanche), Frances-Anne Solomon (director, A Winter Tale); and was moderated by Radheyan Simonpillai (film critic, NOW Magazine).
In 2016, after the release of Operation Avalanche, director Matt Johnson was brazenly vocal about the inaccessibility of funding for emerging filmmakers in Canada. The concern was this: in order to access funding, one must first have made a feature, but no one was funding first features. This meant that the national filmmaking landscape was comprised of a privileged few who were willing and able to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt in order to make that first feature. Matt wondered, “How many voices are we not capturing if it’s this hard to make your first feature?”
So Telefilm Canada invited Johnson and his producer Matthew Miller to help turn that reality around, and the Talent to Watch program is the result of that process. Fifty first features or web projects will be given up to $125,000 each—and that money will go directly into the hands of the filmmaker, not the producer, or other governing body. Filmmakers are invited to work with the program’s designated partners, consisting of film schools, festivals, and co-ops across the country, to put forward projects that are then selected by a jury of filmmakers. Though the identities of the jurors for this inaugural year have not been made public, Johnson said that they are all within their first 10 years of professional experience, and moderator Radheyan Simonpillai added that there was “only one white male among them”.
That latter point launched a conversation about representation and diversity within Canada’s filmmaking landscape as a whole. Frances-Anne Solomon (founder and CEO, Caribbean Tales) spoke directly to Stephanie Azam—who was representing Telefilm—encouraging her to use percentages and numbers as markers for ethnic and cultural diversity in the same way many organizations have done to create targets around gender parity, with an emphasis on transparency. There were many points back and forth, from audience members as well, indicating both the challenges and necessity of getting a more diverse representation of filmmakers working in Canada, as well as the possibility of a town hall to continue the discussion.
The key takeaway, for me at least, was that Telefilm is open to having these conversations. Johnson encouraged people to pick up the phone and make contact with Telefilm if they know a talented filmmaker who doesn’t quite qualify under the current parameters, emphasizing that the program is continuing to develop, and they are working to increase its accessibility and outreach. He encouraged filmmakers to reach out to the current partners and begin a conversation, and for organizations who want to become partners to pick up the phone as well.
I left the event inspired, not only because of the exciting Talent to Watch program, but because issues of accessibility and representation are being discussed in an ongoing dialogue between filmmakers and funding bodies, with both sides working to create a more inclusive Canada.