Piers Handling, Part 2: Distribution and New Technologies

Fraser. There are two sides to technological issues in the media industry. On the one hand, people talk about the democratization of the means of production; we're doing this interview on a little camera that I can carry in my pocket; it has full 1080 HD, with beautiful stereo sound. And I can put that up on a big-screen television and it looks good. So we have a whole generation of young creators making handmade films with a few thousand dollars of computer and camera equipment. On the flipside, Hollywood is going in an entirely different direction with massive budgets, three-dimensional effects, as in Avatar… big-screen stuff, which seems to be their ticket to getting rich. Where do we fit into all of that?

Handling. Clearly we fit into the “We have no resources; we have to make it up as we go along” category. The democratization of the technology just allows more filmmakers to make films. I'm not sure this has had a huge impact on our own domestic, indigenous industry. Clearly the Avatars are off the table, although it is interesting that it's a Canadian filmmaker who made that film. He decided to go to Los Angeles; the only way that he could make those types of films with those huge budgets was to leave the country. It was impossible to do it here. James Cameron was one of those people, part of the brain drain, that was bled out of this country.

The rest have stayed and I don't think that technology has significantly affected the David Cronenbergs, the Atom Egoyans, the Clement Virgos, to be honest. Those filmmakers are all used to working with very few resources. And when you're trying to penetrate a commercial marketplace, it doesn't matter how cheap the technology is. Nowadays people are looking increasingly for what your edge is into the marketplace. That edge is usually a name actor.

So, for the David Cronenbergs, the Atom Egoyans, the Clement Virgos, the Deepa Mehtas, they're actually working in an international pool of talent. They have risen to the point where they can attract major international stars that are not compromising their visions; there is an international flow of talent now working around the world. Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore are really happy to come to Toronto and worked with Atom Egoyan shooting a Canadian film.

It's not necessarily a Canadian subject, but it doesn’t have to be. So you have Viggo Mortensen working with Cronenberg, and so on. I don't think those filmmakers are tortured anymore about what it means to be a Canadian. I think the scene has changed so much since you and I were involved 30 and 40 years ago. I think we're much more comfortable in terms of working within a very multicultural society, in a very multicultural context, and working increasingly in an international environment. I think Toronto, and even Montréal and Vancouver, are truly the cities of the future because they are such an ethnic mix. It's a total stew and melting pot. As a result, their stories are not necessarily hockey stories, or stories of Canadian history. It's just what's going on in the international melting pot in a major urban centre. The same issues that work there are being confronted in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montréal; these are similar issues to those faced by New Yorkers, people in Los Angeles, Paris, and London.

F.  So, we are really becoming international.

H. I think the world has become so global that national barriers are beginning to crumble, although at the same time there's certainly countries that continue to create their own national cinemas. I think they're at a different historical moment than some of the more advanced industrial countries.

F. Some countries have always had serious government support for their industries with quotas to various tax regimes. Look at how the French, the British, the Germans, and even the Italians and Australians support their indigenous industries. They are way ahead of anything we've been able to accomplish here.

H. Yeah. I think the only two countries in the world that don't protect their own industries are the US and India. The rest of them do. I mean everyone does. So we are not an exception. Canada has taken culture extremely seriously over the years and in terms of major government investment; we are the envy of many independent American filmmakers, for example. They have a very hard time struggling to make their films. And increasingly, as the Avatars are out of their ballpark, they are looking to the Canadian state model and saying, “You guys have it so lucky.” A lot of my American friends are really struggling to make low budget films. And by low budget, I mean $3-15 million.

F. Someone told me that you'd do better trying to make a film in Winnipeg than in Kansas City.

H. Yes. I think that's probably the case. But I think you'll still see films done in Kansas City, with hand-held cameras, with cheap technology. But those directors and filmmakers will not have access to talent. And it's talent that actually gives you the gateway to the marketplace.

F. Do you see the Internet becoming a real marketplace?

H. No. Not yet. I think it's still an experiment; I think the jury is still out. Obviously, it’s a source for dissemination. It is hard to rate it. There is a mass of material out there. And I think that these days, with time constraints, people really want someone else to make a whole series of decisions in terms of whether something is good or not. They're not prepared to wade through it all. It needs to be mediated somehow. I'm not sure they're happy with the traditional gatekeepers; they're looking for gatekeepers that they trust. And maybe those gatekeepers are institutions like TIFF, like Hot Docs, like the Banff Film and Television Festival. NBC, PBS, CBC, Global -- maybe they don't trust those institutions in quite the same way. So they're looking at smaller scale, newer, more nimble organizations.

F. Thank you.

H. You're welcome, Fil.