Producers seek answers as they digest Netflix's $500M pledge to Canadian content
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TORONTO — Canadian producers expressed hope and skepticism as they weighed Netflix's promise Thursday to spend $500 million over five years on homegrown content.
The announcement to support Canadian made film and TV series was enthusiastically unveiled by Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, part of the first major overhaul of cultural funding in a quarter century.
But she left many unanswered questions.
Netflix let Joly do the talking as representatives for the streaming service didn't respond to requests for more details. That left filmmakers to draw their own conclusions.
"There are all kinds of really interesting opportunities, but of course, it's really short on specifics," Annelise Larson, a producer on the web series "Spiral," said after reviewing Netflix's plans.
"I've certainly been in conversations with my producer friends who — some of them — were cautiously optimistic. Others seemed to feel it wasn't the revolutionary shake up they were hoping for."
Larson is struggling to understand more precisely how Canadian writers and directors will benefit. For example, while Netflix plans to open a production house in Canada, there were no details provided on the size, location or number of jobs it would create.
It's also unclear how the injection of $500 million over five years marks an improvement from its recent investments, which Netflix described as "hundreds of millions of dollars" in 2016 alone.
Already the streaming company invests in Canadian programming through co-productions on shows including CBC's "Anne" and "Alias Grace," in exchange for holding the international streaming rights. But what's unknown is whether Netflix will distance itself from those cross-border agreements to favour owning more of its shows outright.
Such a decision could deal a blow to Canadian broadcasters who rely on flashier co-productions with sizable budgets to generate buzz.
Kari Skogland, a Toronto director who worked on Netflix's upcoming series "The Punisher," sees the streaming company's move as an opportunity to talk about Canadian culture.
Some viewers took to social media Thursday to express concerns that Netflix could fall short on telling definitively Canadian stories in favour of more commercial ventures. Others saw an opportunity to chase global audiences since Netflix isn't required to adhere to the same Canadian content points system that applies to TV broadcasters like Bell and Rogers.
"If they do care, it's an important conversation to continue," Skogland suggested of viewers. "And very quickly because the floodgates are opening and it's a tremendous opportunity."
Skogland is currently preparing to shoot episodes for the second season of "The Handmaid's Tale," an Emmy-winning series based on Margaret Atwood's book that's being produced by U.S. streaming service Hulu. The director said in recent years she's noticed more interest in Canadian writers and directors from outside the country.
"It's an open slate," she said. "As a creator, it's hopefully very exciting times."
Montreal-born filmmaker Jonathan Hayes, who directed 2013 indie drama "Algonquin," thinks Canadian artists will reap the benefits of links to the Netflix brand. He said the exchange might also mean telling universal stories without a definitive Canadian backdrop.
It's a reality he encountered when "Algonquin" struggled to draw audiences at cinemas outside Ontario, which Hayes supposes was at least in part due to its regional title, named after a provincial park in the southeastern part of the province. He says the film was more a story about people than a part of Canada.
"You take away the title, it's not like you're drowning in endless Canadiana," he said. "It's not maple syrup and milk bags."
He suggested Netflix's international platform might encourage Canadian filmmakers to think about stories that resonate across borders. He points to TV series "Orphan Black" and the "Baroness von Sketch Show" as two successful examples of domestic series that appeal outside the country.
"Any time a Canadian show travels it's good for that show," he added.
But even Netflix money doesn't hold any guarantees for Canadian series.
Attracting viewers to any show in the era of peak TV content remains a challenge. Netflix will also have to throw a hefty marketing budget behind each series to break through the clutter.
Many critics of the streaming company have pointed out that several of its biggest TV series — and particularly the movies it acquires at film festivals — go practically unnoticed when they debut.
Recent titles like Angelina Jolie's "First They Killed My Father" arrived with much fanfare at the Toronto International Film Festival before a quiet rollout on Netflix a week later. Comedies like Marlon Wayans' "Naked" and "#RealityHigh" landed on the service with very little awareness.
"It doesn't really matter what platform your content is streaming on if no one knows it's there," Larson said.
"The government has to be very careful moving going forward, trying to train this relationship with Netflix, because it's going to be the template for whatever else comes after."
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