Martin Allor, Part 3: Technology, Regulation and Change

Interviewed by Evelyn Ellerman at Montréal on March, 2012

Ellerman. One of the ways that filmmakers make money is in the aftermarket on television, video-on-demand, and so on. But another aspect is international sales. In fact, for English language films most of the money seems to be made on television and in other ways rather than exhibition anywhere. How does that work with the francophone films produced here?

Allor. Paradoxically, it works better for the more artistic or aesthetic films than it does for the movie with broader appeal. For example, in France there is a little bit of resistance to Québécois accents; sometimes they claim not to understand it. Comedy tends to translate less well. But, for example, the film Incendies that won in the category of best foreign film in Hollywood, has sold in over 150 countries. That, in part, is because the screening is at international festivals. So, the festival circuit and the festival market, not at TIFF typically, but at Cannes, or in Venice, or in Berlin can grow a momentum when a film is critically successful. Also Incendies didn't have a huge budget, so it didn't need a lot of money from any given territory especially since it sold 250 territories.

E. Let's look at the whole issue of technology and how that's changing in cultural industries and, in this case, media production. What challenges does that pose for regulation? The CRTC, for example, now has to consider what to do with a company like Netflix that essentially pays no dues to Canada. What role do you see for regulators in the future where there is a different ballgame for production and consumption of movies?

A. I think it's a huge challenge for policymakers both at the CRTC and more generally with federal and provincial governments. There have been different circumstances over the years. For example, several European countries have initiated taxes on tickets for cinema sales that go directly to support national production. Québec floated that idea several times, in the 80s and 90s; but the Motion Picture Association (MPA) in Hollywood blew the doors down and made all kinds of threats -- from withdrawing distribution of their films, to not doing any dubbing here. So both PQ and Liberal governments have backed away from those kinds of models. I think that things like Netflix raise similar kinds of tension. Are there ways to find a regime of having a cultural industry regulation model that could bring some income from organizations like Netflix? Could that be through a system of taxation or some legislative model that would have them to contribute to the Canadian media fund? They have a very different business model and technological distribution model than the cable companies.

E. Related to that question of technology and the ways that the film business is changing, how is the digital universe affecting what we call a film and how films are made? Young filmmakers now have a very wide array of choices. Talk a little bit about filmmaking today from the point of the technology.

A. One of the most recent technological innovations was adding high definition video to the LSR cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II which is increasingly being used to shoot feature films around the world. It’s a camera that costs $3000, depending on the lenses you buy for it (you can spend a lot of money on lenses). They're not perfect cameras, not so great for documentary shooting because of their technological limits. But they work very well with a scripted, traditional, fiction filmmaking model where you are storyboarded, and in controlled situations, typically with a tripod. And so the barrier to entry is now extremely low technologically. You have a very good-looking image that can be blown up to 35mm film for theatrical distribution quite easily. My students here shoot with that camera or they're going to buy one as soon as they graduate. They can make things and put them up online simply, on YouTube for high-definition, or on their own dedicated server.

There's a whole series of local competitions here and around the world, having 24-hour film blitzes, getting young people who maybe work as a production assistant in a company, entering the competition where they have 24 hours to make a film on a randomly chosen theme, iPhone movies as well. There are all sorts of short film competitions. TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) had one for one-minute films of the Toronto subway system. Online film festivals… all those things are creating a virtual circulation of shorter filmworks and there has always been a relationship between people starting out and making shorter films. Then some of them make the transition to longer form work.

E. We talked about earlier revenue models and how the Internet in all its manifestations is changing that. What I'm hearing from you is that these digital technologies allow people to get into the business for less money, get a reasonably good quality product together, and put it online. Is it mostly a marketing thing at this stage or do you see other kinds of shifts in how we produce and consume movies?

A. There have been a few cases, not in Canada, where people have made relatively low-budget films in ways that we've been talking about, shooting with the camera that cost $3000 and everyone working without wages and, just through iTunes alone, have made six-figure returns. Not every film, because you have to get the word out. But social media is an increasingly easy way to build an audience. And smart young filmmakers are doing that from very early on in the pre-production process, often doing crowd financing, getting production financing by reaching out through social media, particularly if they've already done a film through the film festival circuit or online and if they already have that kind of profile.

A number of people have raised significant budgets for a small independent film through crowd financing… you can keep everyone informed along the way and do a video blog of production and keep that going while you're at post-production. And you almost don't need theatrical exhibition to make money if you have enough people willing to work off a platform like iTunes.

E. What can the older generation of people who are in charge of organizations like CRTC, (CMF) Canadian Media Fund, the people who have 30 or 40 years of experience with an older model of filmmaking, exhibition and distribution, what can they learn from these young filmmakers?

A. There's obviously a place for larger budget films for theatrical exhibition. I think that North American theatrical exhibition numbers were up 4% last year. So it's not as if it's dying or withering away. Now, some of that may be due to a limited number of blockbuster 3-D films. But there are certainly a large number of theatrical films that are exhibited every year in North America. One of the things that the older generation can learn is that you don't necessarily need a huge budget. You don't need $10 million to make a really interesting, narrative fiction film. Think of a film that was nominated for an Academy award last year like Winter's Bone, which was independently produced and made with a relatively small budget; it was nominated for three Academy Awards in addition to making money for its distributor, because in part it was such a low-budget film about pickup costs for distribution rights in North America were relatively small.

So there may be a re-emergence of the independent circuit that was in struggle a few years ago, especially in the States, around re-thinking production costs in relation to distribution costs. Certainly the number of pickups have gone up at Sundance quite a bit in the last couple of years for North American theatrical distribution. Storytelling doesn't need to be worked into the same old models of production and there are ways of doing it with a smaller budget.

E. Thank you very much, Martin.