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‘Operation Avalanche’ Director Matt Johnson Takes on Telefilm’s Lack of Diversity

Funding for women in film in Canada is pathetic.
September 13, 2016, 7:25pm

Director Matt Johnson. Photo via Nirvanna the Band the Show.

It's really fucking hard to get a film funded in this country, exponentially so if you're a woman. And it's certainly not for lack of talent or effort—the sheer amount of creativity that comes out of Canada on every level is astounding, despite the many impediments. "It's important to remember that it isn't hard to find filmmakers here who are women, who are POC, who are queer or who belong to any other marginalized group," filmmaker Joele Walinga told VICE.

And yet the funding system that allows writers and directors to get their projects off the ground and take them to market features wild disparities that create a vacuum of diverse voices in the industry. "There has to be diversity in storytelling and filmmaking. It's not just about women need this and women need funding, we need different perspectives in filmmaking. We're missing an opportunity in Canada by not making our storytelling more diverse, rather than just talking about multiculturalism and diversity all the time," echoes filmmaker Eva Michon. Walinga agrees, "If the goal of a funding body is actually to fund artists with merit, it should prove quite easy to fund diversely." So where is the disconnect? Telefilm Canada, our largest funding body has had a historically abysmal track record when it comes to the diversity of their projects. Just how badly does Telefilm exclude female voices? Women in View on Screen is an agency that tracks how much money was given to female-helmed projects in film and television (the Canadian Media Fund for TV is operated through Telefilm). Their research shows that of the over $63 million Telefilm invested in 91 feature films in 2013-2014 female directors represented only 17 percent of that. The numbers were equally as bad for TV. Of course Telefilm is not completely deaf to the calls for a more inclusive playing field. They recently announced that by 2020 they aim to "have a more representative and diversified film portfolio that better reflects gender, diversity and Canada's Indigenous communities." And they once again hosted an annual TIFF awards ceremony with Birks where they honour female filmmakers and actors by giving them diamonds instead of cash for their projects. A girl's best friend, right? Who needs that production capital when you've got ice? In his own response to the ongoing disparity director Matt Johnson of Operation Avalanche (and the creator of upcoming VICELAND scripted comedy series Nirvanna the Band the Show) and his production company Zapruder Films are holding a contest to give away the money they get in automatic funding from Telefilm to a female filmmaker. They've already received over 100 applications. I chatted with Johnson about the contest and the problems with diversity in Canadian filmmaking. VICE: Why are you doing this?
Matt Johnson: There's insane underrepresentation of women creators at any level at Telefilm. It's just happening at the most insanely low percentage if you look at a per-dollar amount that it's mind boggling. And a part of what I was saying way back in December, January in the press, is the system is incredibly broken and I think that we're basically just funding the same creators over and over again and we're not getting anywhere culturally—like we're not actually creating a good groundswell of new Canadian voices. And Telefilm can say, "Oh yeah, we're going to change, and we're going to start funding more female-driven projects and female writers and female directors," but what they won't tell you is that the fund that they're going to allocate to do that is like a two or three million dollar fund. It's like their absolute smallest fund. So on a percentage level, nothing's going to change. How does this work?
Every single one of the production companies for the country, once you've made a movie you start getting development funding automatically. You get automatically approved and development funding is basically money to pay writers. For us, because we're as small as you can get, we get something like $15,000 or less a year. And so I thought, oh why don't we just make an active decision to intentionally give this money to somebody that Telefilm would never in a million years give this money to? Which is a first-time female writer/director. You're basically talking about a forgotten class for Telefilm. They're never going to give that person money. So if we do it, even though it's basically no money and not going to tip the scale at all, hopefully we can set a bit of an example for other production companies who have real money. Like Serendipity or Rhombus, or like any of these major, major companies that are getting hundreds of thousands of dollars, or millions of dollars in development. And as they start saying, "oh yeah we can all take the same initiative," that's going to make a huge difference. And then all of a sudden we're going to see a whole new generation of voices. I know that sounds very doom and gloom, but if something doesn't change at the funding level, these workers are never going to be heard. It just seems so obvious that unless you sort of have the resources on your own to take this risk, how could you? You're going to ask a bunch of first-time filmmakers with no experience, because that's usually how it works, to risk up to $100,000 of their own money trying to make a first feature? Why do you think it still operates that way?
I can only draw my conclusions because of course these are not the types of things that Telefilm are going to openly admit to. I think it's because they maybe have a fear that the members of parliament are going to cut the funding for their program if they aren't doing the same marquee movies every single year. Maybe, I mean it could also be that these guys are the exact same generation as the filmmakers of the companies that they're supporting and they came up together and are friends, but all this stuff is conspiratorial in a certain way, which is why I don't really like talking about it too much. We have to deal with reality here and the reality is women and minorities are not getting funded. Period, the end. So how we got here really doesn't make a difference. I don't care. I personally hate the movies that Telefilm is making and I think they're wasting a ton of money but the path forward seems so clear so why not just make this pivot? How do you choose who gets your funding?
We're going to have people submit very simple one page outlines of what they think their movie is or what they want their movie to be and it's literally just a page talking about their film. They don't talk about themselves or what their experience is or anything like that. We just want to see what their idea of the movie is. And we're going to look at them and literally just decide it's the one. There's nothing too complicated about it. And then we plan on doing this every single year until it does something. Follow Amil on Twitter.