Martin Allor, Part 2: Role of the NFB in establishing the film industry in Québec
Interviewed by Evelyn Ellerman at Montréal on March, 2012
Ellerman. I would like talk now about another national organization that has its headquarters here in Montréal and that is the National Film Board (NFB). We all know that the NFB has an international reputation for documentary making and it has a solid list of feature films, but what has the presence of the NFB in this city meant for filmmakers?
A. Historically, it was crucial. When you think back to the golden age of the 1960s when francophone feature films began to be made in Québec, many of the directors had their start at the Film Board making documentaries: Denis Arcand and Michel Brault were key among them. At certain points, they felt they want to make things a bit more creatively than in that context, so many of them left the Film Board. For example, Michel Brault set up his own production company, although he still did collaborations after that. So it was the nexus for a formation of a generation of directors and cinematographers (Brault was an award-winning cinematographer). He had that opportunity because the Film Board was involved early on with lightweight 16 mm film cameras and synched-in sound recording, that was part of the birth of Cinema Direct, or Cinema Vérité. That innovation allowed technology to shift over into lower budget feature film making that could be done in 16 mm and a relatively more inexpensive production context. From that period, several generations of fiction filmmakers have moved through the Film Board, starting first in documentary. But even though the Film Board was involved less and less in feature narrative film production, those generations are still around.
E. You had mentioned earlier that the percentage of screen time in Québec is relatively much higher than it is in English Canada, where there is less than 2% of screen time for Canadian films. How does that work in Québec? Audiences here go out to support the movies in theatres. Is it a factor of the star system here?
A. Part of that has to do with Montréal which is the main centre in Canada for francophone production of all kinds. In some ways, it started with television, Radio-Canada, and then with TVA when private broadcasting came into Québec in the early 60s. So the star system developed first in television. Then later, in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, when a locally grown feature film production community had developed, they could draw upon the same actors. There was an acting and directing community that crossed over between televisual and feature film production. The biggest period of television narrative production was in the mid 1990s. The series Les Filles de Caleb and Blanche at their highest ratings were getting over 3 million viewers out of a total population of less than 8 million. That's unheard of anywhere in the world in quite a long time.
There's less high budget television drama being produced now, than there was in the mid-1990s, but those actors move across being in television and the movies, and theatre. There are very big National Theatre productions here. That's the kind of recursive process we have, where the star system can attract people to see feature films, and where local stars can attract people to a film. And all this before theatrical exhibition, opening weekends and getting good reviews. Word-of-mouth is a key component in getting people to leave their homes, with their big-screen TVs, to pay $12 at the cinema.
So it's been established for years and exists in a way that provides not just a linguistic screening but cultural formation that makes popular film possible. Starbuck is a comedy, starring Patrick Huard, who’s a popular comedian on television and on the live circuit. To get $3.5 million in receipts, you need the bigger films; small films have been quite successful for years.
E. In English Canada, we talk about how most English Canadians don't even know their movies. One of the reasons for this is that the marketing budgets of English Canadian films are almost nonexistent; Hollywood, on the other hand, will spend as much on marketing as it spent on the entire movie, or even more. How does that play out in Québec?
A. I don't think that they are necessarily much bigger budgets for printed advertising; it's just that there are so many cultural forums on television, on radio, in daily and weekly newspapers, and cultural weeklies. When a big film is going to open, it’s not unusual for the actor or director of the film to be on the cover of the free cultural weekly -- there is one in English and one in French -- and getting big coverage in La Presse, le Journal de Montréal, and Le Devoir.
E. So there is an infrastructure there.
A. Yes, there is an infrastructure of cultural reporting as well and it's also small territory, right? A really big Québec release will be on 45 or 50 screens in the province. About half of them will be in the Montréal metropolitan area. Local media and local cultural reporting can really work. You're not trying to do something from coast to coast.