Arnie Gelbart - Part 3: Financial Support for Filmmakers

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

Fraser. What is your opinion of Telefilm?

Gelbart. Well it has become… what's the right diplomatic word… very rigid and bureaucratic to a large extent, because they have to answer to the government, and to the auditor general. On the other hand the film industry is an industry of prototypes: no two films are like. Every deal is different. Every film is different. And you have to have people who are knowledgeable and sophisticated to understand that difference and make quick decisions. Filmmaking can't fit into a rigid format that satisfies bureaucratic rules all the time. So that's one thing. I also think that Telefilm should be supported with more money, especially if we are going to continue making feature films. There is a huge demand in the world for what we do. But we have to get the initial money to make it.

F. Is it way too late to contemplate regulating screen time?

G. It's not in the air with the people who are in power right now. That isn't their first priority. They look for the free hand of the market and think that this will solve problems. It does and it doesn't. Maybe in the long run it does; but as Keynes says, “in the long run, we’re all dead.” But while we wait for that to happen, we have to do things now.

F. You will probably remember the idea of taxing the profits of American movies as they crossed the border by imposing a withholding tax of 15%, which they could earn back by distributing Canadian films in their own country.

G. It was a good idea then and it is a good idea now. But given the free trade agreement, it would have a lot of pushback. And Canada remains a big cash cow for the Americans. We are one of their major television markets. CTV and Global drop $7-800 million a year on American television programs. We pay something like 50% more than the Australians do for the same programs. It is idiotic but that's the way the system works.

F. We are the authors of our own situation.

G. Yeah.

F. Let me just change gears here for a minute and wrap up by asking you some questions about your own films. Which one surprised you the most?

G. Oh, gee, that's hard. I think that, for the features, The Hanging Garden and The Blue Butterfly are worthwhile movies that continue to appeal to audiences. And in documentaries, it's the more challenging things we did, like The Origins of AIDS, which is the first examination of the history of AIDS. We made The Valour and the Horror, which was looking at Canada in the Second World War. That film was extremely controversial. And I think we've made noble (is that the right word?) histories of Canada. We did a series called The War of 1812, a series called Chiefs, which is about famous native leaders as told by their grandsons and great-grandsons. It looked at history the way Pierre Berton looked at history: refreshing it and looking at it with modern eyes. So I think I'm happy with that kind of thing.

F. Which of these films was something you felt just had to be done, even though other people were telling you not to do it?

G. I never listen to what people say. If I had to pick one it would be The Valour and the Horror. I think it re-launched an interest in Canadian history because it was so controversial over two or three years and got everybody interested in Canadian history again.

F. And the new one is?

G. A number of things… we've just finished a film on the coming of the Irish to Canada in the 1850s, based around a really great story. It is called Famine and Shipwreck. We also do science films and we are doing a 3-D film, so I'm trying to do stuff that nobody else is doing.