Rudy Buttignol - Part 2: Early Career

Fraser. I would like to take you back to a time before Knowledge Network when you got into the business and eventually worked with TVO.

Buttignol. Well this is a great time to talk about that because today is the bifurcation of my career. I will have been a broadcaster for exactly as long as I was an independent producer. This is the 18th year since I was hired by Peter Herrndorf at TVO. And I spent 18 years as a professional producer, starting when I was 14 years old making my own crazy, Super 8 films. This is something that I became quite passionate about early on when I did my first school project. The teacher liked it so much that we had an assembly for the entire school; mine was one of the presentations the entire school applauded. I loved connecting with the audience in a way that I had never done before.

I went to York University when they were starting their first film program, the first degree-granting program in Canada; that was very formative. I started as a producer setting up my own studio, rattled around doing sponsored films, anything just to keep working. I made films for the NFB Sponsored Division and some corporate films. While I was eking out a living doing that, I started working on my own projects. Then there was the magical moment when I decided only to do my own projects, which I did for 18 years.

Part of it was that I was following the space program a lot, spending time in Houston and Moscow. In Houston, I worked with KUHD, the oldest public television station in the system. I was there for five years off and on. There, I saw how public television worked and how it connected with its community. And I thought that was something I wanted to do. Back in Canada, TVO, under Peter Herrndorf, had decided to change the business model from in-house production to independent production.

F. What kind of film policy environment did you run into as an independent producer at that time?

B. At that time I was passionate about kids’ programming and documentary. As far as documentary was concerned, nothing had to be done about policy, because we had the National Film Board. And I was one of a small group of people that said, “Yeah, I do work with the Film Board, but I am an independent producer.” There was one big piece of federal legislation that was really important to us, which was when the Canadian Film Development Corporation became Telefilm. The decision was that the federal government would be the agent for cultural policy.

Their focus, in creating Telefilm Canada, was to support dramatic production. But, there were people who said, “Just wait a second. You should be supporting kids’ programming and independent documentaries.” A group of us called ourselves the Canadian Kids Caucus, which subsequently became the Documentary Organization of Canada. We got together in my office and decided to try to get independent documentary production Included in the new Telefilm Canada. It grew from seven people in my office into 40; we organized ourselves and submitted a report. So, when Telefilm Canada was announced, they said they were going to include kids’ programming and documentary. That was the beginning of an independent industry. A lot of things happened at that time. Not just the production, but the film festivals to showcase films to the public, the Academy to honor excellence in the industry. And I was there right at the beginning of the creation of an independent documentary industry.

F. Did you make the opportunities up as you went along? There was clearly a gap in the industry.

B. Yeah. I didn't know it at the time; I think we did it intuitively. Cable television was on the rise, fragmenting the system for the first time. And what happened with that fragmentation was a belief that if you built it, they would come: if you offered documentary programming to the audiences, the audiences will come. The national broadcaster and the commercial broadcasters argued that nobody watched documentaries. Our argument was that nobody watched documentaries because you never put them on. So cable proved our point. With the big changes in technology, cable gave us that opportunity. The independent industry and documentary producers in particular, along with children's programming, were given a chance by cable.

At that time, I got involved with the Academy as well and told them that, if you model against the Oscars, they have more documentary categories than Canada does. Andra Sheffer was the director at the time. She said, “Make something up and bring it into the rules and regulations committee.” I said, “Really? Is that all it takes?” I talked to my colleagues, wrote a very short position paper; motions were passed and we expanded the documentary awards. Eventually I got onto the Board, where I agitated for the expansion of the documentary categories in the Geminis. And now documentaries are an important part of the Academy.

It was just recognition that there was a need we were fulfilling and that we should have an industry that served documentary. In terms of federal policy, because it hadn't existed before, there were many in government who said, “Okay just write it up. Make the case, present the facts, prove to us that there is a need.” That's where my connection with the Documentary Organization of Canada, the Academy, and the community really came in handy. Over the weekend, I could phone 100 people and say, “Will you put your name to this?” And they would say yes. So I could come back and say, “Look this is the position; I have talked to 100 producers and the industry wants this, needs this.” And they said okay.