Arnie Gelbart - Part 2: Both Cultures

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Banff World Media Festival on June, 2011

G. [speaking of his film company] We work in French as well. We’re one of the few companies that produces feature films in both French and English. And we’ve done television programs in French.

F. Working in that cultural environment is particularly rich. You might be in a television studio one day and on the set for a film the next.

G. Well, it is exciting. [In Quebec], there is a real encouragement to creativity, not only among the creative class, but even among bureaucrats, where there is a culture of creativity and risk-taking. They are not trying to copy the latest American fashion. They actually influence the Americans. Just look at the success of current Québec television which is so brilliant, original. Their formats gets sold to the US, such as dramas like "Men of a Certain Age. This little population has created its own format and it sells around the world. If you go to France you'll see that many programs are written by Québeckers or that they are using Québec television formats. This has a 50 year old history! It didn't happen overnight.

F.  You sound a bit cynical. You're sitting in Montréal, able to work in both languages, recognizing the results you get on both sides. Why would you want to do anything in English?

G. It’s because I grew up in English; it's my culture. It's also a bigger audience; we expect our films to be viewed by the world. The downside of the French language is that it isn’t exportable to the same extent. Formats get exported, but documentary films don't get exported because they're in French. English happens to be the lingua franca of the industry internationally.

F.  What can English Canada learn from Québec about setting up that kind of environment?

G. That's something I've thought a lot about. It's got to start with lots of courage, believing in what you're doing, and not trying to copy the Americans, or wondering about what they like. What they do, they do better than we'll ever be able to. So do something else, do something different. Be original and hope you are supported in being original.

F.  You have made some very good films in recent years, Barney's Version and St. Urbain’s Horseman, that have won awards everywhere but couldn't make it at the box office.

G.  That may not be the only gauge; the government has imposed this gauge, that films do well at the box office, but that's not the way people consume films now. Films are on video on demand, on their tablets, and all kinds of other things. The audience is getting away from going to films. I think the big story in this (and I think Telefilm and others have finally awoken to it) is that we are fantastically successful internationally, but nobody in Canada knows because film is never promoted here.  When we win awards everywhere, there's some little thing in the paper: “the short film won first prize at Cannes.” Okay great. But where is that megaphone in Canada that says our television shows sell in 150 countries, that our kids’ programming is in demand everywhere in the world. This is something that we need to work on. Someone once gave me an example: he said that what we really need to do with film and television is the same thing that the Ontario wine growers did with Ontario wine.  You'll remember that Ontario wine used to be a joke, but they managed, by proper positioning and by winning prizes around the world, to make Ontario wine respectable.  We've got to become respectable.

F.  There is a new government in place with a majority mandate. No one is quite sure where they're going to go on the culture side; but, if you were in the position to give serious advice to the Government of Canada, the Minister of Heritage, what would you say?

G.  Speaking for my own parish, of course, I would tell them to continue what they've been doing but to do more. And I would tell them not to feel guilty about supporting the arts. It is not wasted money. The fact that we're so great at producing games is because a great deal of money was invested in research and development for videogames. We're one of the three great designers of video games in the world.  That's a huge industry; it's part of the digital world.  If we had not had the encouragement in film and television, the gaming industry would not have happened in Canada.