Richard Stursberg, Part 3: English and French Canada

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

Fraser. What's the future role of regulators like the CRTC now, as it’s contemplating regulating Netflix? The CRTC has historically been able to tell broadcasters what they can and cannot produce.

Stursberg. CRTC has to move off quote-based stuff and out of the old Soviet shoe factory. They have to say that, as a regulatory matter, and this is the case for the Media Fund as well, they reward success. “That's all we reward. When it comes to Canadian shows, if you want to have a bigger envelope, you'll get it if you're successful. When it comes to the expenditure requirements, focus on successful shows. Fewer is better. We don't care.” With that change, everything would drive to making shows that Canadians actually want to watch, whether they watch them on TV, on the net, on Catalyst, or Netflix. Everything has to focus on maximizing the amount of money available for success.

F. This raises the question of people who believe in art for art's sake: that it's important, and that there ought to be a place for art on the CBC.

S. Yes. You and I have had disagreements about that. Just because ballet is not on TV, that doesn’t diminish the status of ballet. But putting it on TV, is a bit pointless because that's not actually what TV is about. It's a bit like saying that you wish a novel had a better tune; well novels don't actually have tunes. That's not what novels are about. And if you insist that novels have a tune, you’re not going to do any good for the novel or the tune. We have to be true to the nature of the medium that we’re working in. We have to celebrate it for what it is. Television is the popular entertainment medium of the world. It’s not that ballet isn't great, or that ballet shouldn't be financed; it's just that TV’s probably not the place to put it.

F. Comment about the different context for film in Québec and the rest of Canada.

S. There are a number of things in Québec that all reinforce each other. Unlike English Canada, in French Canada, everybody prefers their own television shows, overwhelmingly. There’s no embarrassment about making popular shows. People are thrilled by it and think that it's very important to make popular shows and popular films. They've had great successes with films like Les Boys (I, II, III). It creates an ecosystem within which you can sometimes make things that are much more demanding. At the same time, it creates a huge star system, just like in the United States. You can watch Tout le monde en parle and everybody that you know is there. You can go down to the little dépanneur and buy magazines that come weekly documenting your favorite star’s new love affair, or new hairdo. Everybody follows it obsessively. All the pieces reinforce each other. This has developed, in part, from a profound commitment to the celebration and exploration of who we are as French Canadians. We've never had that level of confidence in English Canada or that enthusiasm.

F. Is it possible?

S. Absolutely. We demonstrated that you can make Canadian shows that are big hits. The trick now is to see the extent to which we can harness all the pieces to do that collectively.

F. What's the challenge for policymakers to smooth the way, to open possibilities...

S. For feature films?

F. Yes.

S. Part of the difficulty with English Canadian films is the windowing structure. They go into the theatres, then to DVD, then to Pay; and eventually to television. If they don't do well in the theatres to begin with, if they haven't been well promoted because most of the distributors are too feeble, then, by the time they come to television, they’re already two or three years old and people have forgotten what they were.

So the question we asked ourselves at the CBC was whether it was possible to change the window structures. The plan was that it would come to the cinema first, then to home video, then directly to the CBC for one big showing, and finally it could drop into pay. To do this, you have to change the financing structure. If we did, of course, CBC and/or Telefilm would have to put up more money. So, we actually worked out a structure whereby we could finance them as television properties and as feature film properties, simultaneously. You could draw money both from Telefilm and from the Television Fund to create these structures. And, if that happens, CBC, knowing that it's going to get the film when it's still up and it doesn't cost more than a big drama would cost, would be perfectly happy to promote the film theatrically, perfectly happy to take all the stars -- the director, writers, and actors --  and put them on all the talk shows and make a big meal out of it.

F.  So, if that had happened with Barney's Version for example, it would be on TV now.

S.  That's right. Robert [Lantos] and I tried to do that, but couldn't figure out at the time how to deal with financial issues. We figured it out later. And as far as I can tell, only one film has been financed under this structure, when Wayne [Clarkson] was still there [at Telefilm]. Wayne and I had worked this out for Midnight's Children, which is Deepa's [Mehta] new film, which was written by her and Salman Rushdie. For reasons I don't understand, after I left, someone decided to junk the program, whether Telefilm or CBC, I don't know. But until we get into those kinds of arrangements, to change the structure of the industry and have all the pieces supporting each other, we're still going to find ourselves in difficulty.

F.  Underlying a lot of that in English Canada is the fact that many of us probably don't care.

S.  Well, the stuff that comes over the border is beautiful and so why wouldn't you want to watch it? And that's okay. But, if you make great shows that please Canadians, you'll do okay. It's demonstrably true that it can be done. When we tracked attitudes towards the CBC, we found that they were kind of middling. “Does this organization matter?” “Well yes, in principle.” “Does it really matter to you?” “No, not really.” So when we started trying to drive shows out to the audiences and when the numbers started to lift, what happened was that attitudes towards the CBC started to lift, too. You could ask people the same question four years later, if the CBC mattered to them personally, and they would say, “You bet.” Nothing succeeds like success.

F.  So, are you optimistic?

S.  Yeah. Well… both optimistic and pessimistic. The level of sneering about popular television in English Canada is overwhelming. It’s constantly denigrated as being something that is Americanized, as though somehow that was a terrible thing, given the beautiful quality of what the Americans are doing. That it’s commercialized, as though that's a bad thing. There seems to be a conviction among the chattering classes in English Canada that there's a choice to be made between things that are beautiful and things that are popular. What's that about? I don't know if these things are so deeply embedded that it will prove impossible, but everything out there seems designed to tear it down.

F.  It seems to be in our nature; it's been going on since the CBC was formed back in the mid-30s. There's always been a significant minority that says we need this.

S.  I know; it's unfortunate. I don't know… English Canada is so odd that way. You would think that, like everybody else in the world, we would like to produce and celebrate that which is our own in a big, popular way, like Québec, like the Americans, like the English, like everybody! Like every normal culture in the world. It's very puzzling.