After simmering for years, the dispute between filmmakers and management at the government-run National Film Board of Canada (NFB) has reached a boiling point. Hundreds of freelance directors affiliated with the organization have been lobbying for a change of leadership, in the face of what they characterize as administrative bloat and plunging production budgets. The re-appointment of Claude Joli-Coeur to a new three-year term as the NFB’s film commissioner, which was announced last week, has prompted an outcry.
The respected public producer-distributor “is in crisis,” states NFB/ONF Creation, a group of over 250 directors working in animation, documentary, and emerging media. The group includes a veritable who’s who of Canadian animation legends, among them most of the NFB’s Oscar winners and nominees over the last four decades, including Chris Landreth (Ryan), Theodore Ushev (Blind Vaysha), Alison Snowden and David Fine (Animal Behaviour), Torill Kove, (The Danish Poet), Richard Condie (The Big Snit), Cordell Barker (The Cat Came Back), Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby (When the Day Breaks), Caroline Leaf (The Street), Patrick Doyon (Sunday), Janet Perlman (The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin), Chris Hinton (Blackfly), and Ishu Patel (Paradise).
“Working conditions for directors have deteriorated to the point where, for many, it is no longer financially viable to create works with the NFB,” say the filmmakers. They are not taking issue with the organization’s budget (currently C$62 million), which fluctuates in line with the political climate, but with the way the money is spent.
According to the group, spending on production — as a proportion of the NFB’s overall net expenses — dropped by 56% between 2002 and 2017. The same period saw a rise in spending on salaries for non-filmmakers, and also on institutional, legal, and human resources services, by 21% and 45% respectively. The group offers a concrete example: the budget of the English animation studio has fallen from $1.5 million to $1.1 million. All in all, it says, less than one-fifth of the NFB’s $62M budget now goes toward actually producing content (C$12 million), as priorities shift toward branding and administration.
Joli-Coeur disputes this picture. Speaking to The Globe and Mail (article paywall) after his reappointment, he said that half the NFB’s money is spent on production, with 34% going toward distribution and 16% toward overhead costs.
The disagreement hinges on how production costs are defined. NFB/ONF Creation notes that Joli-Coeur’s calculations factor in “internal costs” covering administration, executive salaries, etc. “These are costs that are incurred regardless of whether films are made or not and, according to the group, should not be part of the calculation.” Their own figures are based on “external costs”: funding for artists, and the services and supplies they need to do their work. The directors see this as the true measure of the NFB’s support for production.
NFB/ONF Creation’s case is made in a video by filmmaker Chris Landreth (see below). Drawing on data obtained through access to information requests, he meticulously illustrates the group’s calculations in a series of graphs. He explains that they use 2002 as their starting point because that’s when the NFB changed its model and broadly started contracting filmmakers, rather than keeping them on staff. In other words, the years between 2002 and 2017 can be directly compared.
The directors want to see the NFB’s investment in new content return to 2002 levels, when external costs stood at 44% of the organization’s budget (as opposed to 20% in 2017). They presented this demand to the Canadian government, specifically Pablo Rodriguez, minister of Canadian heritage and multiculturalism, in early June, along with three others: greater transparency with regard to expenditures, a separation of the roles of film commissioner and chair of the board of trustees (both of which Joli-Coeur currently holds), and “meaningful, regular consultations” with the creative side of the studio. The petition was submitted in partnership with L’Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec, the Directors Guild of Canada, and the Documentary Organization of Canada.
It followed two years of discussions between the filmmakers and the NFB’s managers, which have hit a dead end. “The number of meetings I’ve had with them is enormous, and my door has always been open,” the commissioner told The Globe and Mail. “Unfortunately… we haven’t been able to convince them that we’re telling the truth. That’s sad, but what can I do?” Joli-Coeur defends his record at the NFB, noting that the number of productions is rising, and adding that the organization is a safer environment for artists than the private sector.
NFB/ONF Creation refutes this, too. “Filmmakers are paid less now at the NFB than they were 20 years ago — far less than most NFB staff employees and with no pension or benefits. This practice is nothing short of exploitative and is particularly shameful in a non-profit federally funded institution,” the group said in a statement. While the number of productions may be on the up, “budgets today are much lower and films often shorter.”
With Joli-Coeur’s mandate renewed for three years, the feud is set to run on. Despite the commissioner’s insistence that he wants to continue the dialogue, the filmmakers feel as though their demands have been stonewalled. “NFB/ONF Creation cares deeply about the NFB, in part because the collective remains fiercely attached to its ideals, but also because this unique institution has nurtured them as artists,” said the group. “If the NFB is to continue to lead the way — to break new ground in animation, documentary, and new media — change must happen. Its very survival is at stake.”
Here is the complete list of filmmakers who are demanding the NFB restructure its budgeting and halt the decline in production funding:
Catherine Van Der
Marie Helene Turcotte
Merit Jensen Carr
Oana Suteu Khintirian
Olivier D. Asselin
Pierre M. Trudeau
Rebecca St. John
Richard D. Lavoie
Sylvie Van Brabant
(Image at top: “The Cat Came Back” by Cordell Barker)