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Dave Forget: Leveling the Playing Field

Dave Forget: Leveling the Playing Field

DGC
Spring 2015

It is said that Canada does not happen by itself. Few could be more aware of this than Dave Forget. As director of business affairs at Telefilm Canada, he was in a position to help design and implement several key mechanisms for public investment  in Canadian screen  productions. When Dave joined the DGC as its director of policy in February 2015, the timing could not have been more auspicious, as the Canadian regulatory environment was on the cusp of a seismic shift. —TIM SOUTHAM

 

For Montage: Tim Southam

Dave: Dave Forget 

 

Montage: Please tell me your name and give me an idea of your journey in film.

Dave: Well, my name is Dave Forget, and my journey in film started when I graduated from McGill and moved to Toronto. I had studied film and was looking to get into the industry. 

I had assumed that I would work in production, and I was looking for an entry-level position.
I ended up working for a distribution company, Astral Films, which led to what I would call my first real job, in theatrical distribution at the Canadian branch of 20th Century Fox in Toronto. I ended up staying there for 10 years, and at Fox I got a bird’s-eye view of how the studios think about marketing and positioning films, how they handle distribution, what the business model is, as well as working with the creative side. At a company like that, there’s an assumption they only distribute one kind of film, but in fact, when I was there, it ranged from Return of the Jedi to Barton Fink. Our job was: figure out who your audience is; become an expert in your own backyard; figure out what’s going to work or not going to work in Canada; and work with exhibitors and other partners to position the film. Then, if you get it right, do it all over again two weeks later. As a kind of boot camp for learning distribution, there’s probably not a better place than a big studio like Fox.

Then, I was approached by Alliance Films. Robert Lantos and Victor Loewy, who at the time were gearing up their company to be the largest Canadian distributor, wanted to try to capture a significant portion of the national market. They had beefed up their company, and they were looking for the kind of expertise I could bring to complement the team already in place there. From my perspective, it was an opportunity to get a lot closer to the key decision makers—there was an entrepreneurial spirit at the company, and there was a sense of working to create strategies for each film that we would acquire, including Canadian films and working with Canadian filmmakers. So I shifted to a relatively smaller company—very big for Canada, but small in the scheme of things—that was in ascendency and had a lot of really interesting ideas. What intrigued me most was getting closer to the folks who are actually making the films.

You know, every chef probably thinks at some point, “What would it be like to have my own restaurant?”, and it was no different for someone like me. Fortunately, I got that opportunity when I went out to Vancouver with my partners to start Red Sky Entertainment, a small distribution company. Once again, the company got smaller, but the scope of what I was responsible for got that much bigger. Fox was one end of the spectrum, where the division of labour was very specialised—we hardly even talked to people who sold home video or television. We were so into our silo, and at some point it becomes kind of limiting. At Alliance, the overview was bigger, and I was part of a team that was not just distributing films but also acquiring and sometimes producing them. Then, with Red Sky, I was involved with running the company—raising venture capital and trying to make it into a going concern. It brought me that much closer to the creative community and I experienced firsthand what it’s like to run a small company.

Montage: How did you segue from the private sector to Telefilm?

Dave: Once I was in Vancouver, Telefilm approached me. What was attractive about Telefilm was that they were involved in what we then called new media, and that there was a whole television side. At that time, Telefilm was still doing equity investments in TV for all genres, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn that side of the business, as well as who was doing what in digital media and feature film. There is a lot of crossover that happens. That led to a series of positions within Telefilm—I ended up staying there altogether about 14 years, in the end working with a team led by Carolle Brabant, managing business affairs, including the CMF programmes and co-production certification.

Montage: Do you see a through-line in your career?

Dave: The common denominator has always been the opportunity to work with Canadian talent—in all of these jobs, as I look back now from the perspective of being at the Directors Guild, what the through-line is in all of this is working with talent in a supportive role, whether it be at Telefilm or in distribution or now, at the Guild.

Montage: When did you become interested in the policy side of the business?

Dave: Focusing all of my energy on the policy side is relatively new. Of course, policy has always been a component, because it underlines everything that we do. We are in a regulated market; we have policies to stimulate activity, to lay the groundwork, to allow the creative side to happen, whether that is from a financial perspective, from an access perspective, from an audience perspective and so on. All through this, whether it has been marketing and distributing an individual film, or being part of the team that evaluated financing opportunities for Telefilm, there’s always been a sense of trying to relate to what the underlying policy is, and I’m one of those people who is always looking to see how something can be improved. Whether it’s a day-to-day operation or a longterm strategy, my natural inclination is to say, “Well, that works fine, but how could we improve it?”

That leads to an experience that I had at Telefilm—as you may know, the organisation recently embarked upon a complete review of its funding programmes, and our mantra was to respond better to the needs of our clients. Of course, that was a bit of a sea change in terms of how Telefilm saw itself. As opposed to the tail wagging the dog, the notion now is that the programme exists for our clients: filmmakers, distributors and all the others who actually create the content.

I had the opportunity in that context to talk to a lot of stakeholders across the country while we thought about making changes. We included people who are in complementary businesses and who are doing interesting things, whether it is venture capital, digital media, broadcasters and so on. We engaged in discussions with other jurisdictions who have organisations that are similar to Telefilm and took a look at what the industry is doing outside Canada in places like Australia, the U.K., France and so on. In those conversations I got pulled deeper and deeper into the policy side of it: how to create a policy and a programme that better serves clients and achieves the policy goal; how to create high-quality content that attracts an audience; [how to] achieve critical and commercial success.

You can see where it isn’t just about money; it’s about finding the right balance. The more I got into that, the more interested I got, and here at the Guild, I have the chance to do that full-time.

Montage: What do you hope to achieve at the DGC?

Dave: Here are my two goals: first, to work closely with the creative community—I don’t know that you could get much closer than being at the DGC—and second, to continue to do work that helps lay the groundwork to allow individual producers, writers, directors and others to achieve their goals of making high-quality content that reaches audiences and allows us as Canadians to distinguish ourselves in a global market.

Montage: Where do you stand on the whole interaction between creation, the business of making that creation available to viewers and the regulatory or policy framework surrounding it?

Dave: We live in a country that is next door to a very prolific producer of high-quality content that happens to be 10 times our size and also speaks the same language as us. So it’s not a level playing field, by its very nature. We begin by saying that it isn’t a free market; it’s never going to be a free market, and if it really [were] a completely free and open market in the way that some people seem to be imagining, our voice would be crushed. It’s not a quality discussion; it’s about the scope and size of what can be produced here. From the beginning, whether it’s been around radio or later broadcasting or film distribution, or music or publishing, there’s been a recognition that in a situation like ours, there need to be measures that actually serve the purpose of keeping our market as open as possible to the world, while creating opportunities for our voice to be heard.

Some would say, “Well, we need to make things simpler and have less of this regulation that’s getting in the way,” and I’m all in favour of that, but there is, when all is said and done, a policy direction that we want to pursue; we aren’t agnostic. You have to ask yourself, “What is it we’re looking to do here?” and then look through that filter to see if there is a process, a mechanism, an incentive or a regulation that is helping the industry to create. Some of the questions around the desire to reduce certain regulations and processes, to make them simpler and more competitive, are actually sensible. But then, you need to consider that while it may be a good idea, we may be in danger of moving too quickly, and some of the remedies are solutions to problems that are exaggerated. For example, with the recent CRTC announcements, the overall diagnostic is good, but where the DGC has intervened is to say that some of the remedies or changes that are being proposed are not the right ones or are moving too fast or, in some cases, are just wrong.

Montage: We are in a regulated market for very good reasons. As a country, we’re next door to an entity that will dictate all the terms to a small economy like ours, if we don’t have certain mechanisms in place.

Dave: That’s right; we’re not a big enough market. But it’s still important to maintain market integrity. We are part of North America, but Canada is a distinct rights market.

Even if we didn’t have the competition for the airwaves and theatre screens and so on, we don’t have the economy of scale needed to consistently create the content at the necessary level without some type of intervention. There isn’t a pure market here that can be completely self-sufficient. Other than the U.S. and perhaps India, I can’t think of any other examples of where this would be the case, or, for that matter, very many industries where there is no public support, either financially or through policy initiatives like tax breaks, R&D support and so on. One of the mistakes that we’ve made in the past has been to say, “We’re going to create initiatives to help the industry get on its feet and then one day we’ll take the training wheels off and the industry will be self-supporting.” I think it’s naïve to imagine that in a market the size of Canada, with the type of investment we need, we’re ever going to be able to make films and TV shows without some form of public support. The key is how well we leverage that support. We have a lot of competition and it’s becoming more global, so it’s getting heavier rather than lighter. It’s an interesting challenge: it’s a business, which adds to the economy and provides jobs, and we’re at the point now where our content is being sold and seen around the world, but there is also an important cultural component. There is no such thing as a community that doesn’t seek to tell its own stories and stake out its sense of time and place. I think of public support as a way of providing a base of consistency and predictability that happens to make Canada attractive internationally, leveraging private-sector investment and allowing for a critical mass of activity to continue to happen.

Montage: In your estimation, how has the Telefilm system helped creative communities like the Guild?

Dave: In Canada, we have a tiered approach that has functioned successfully. We have tax credits, both provincially and federally, and while the regimes are different from province to province, the concept is that there is a base of activity that you’re trying to create in your jurisdiction, and the production-service tax credit is an effective tool in encouraging economic activity in Canada. It has helped over the years to build an infrastructure. Many of our Guild members benefit from working on those productions, both in terms of their livelihood and as opportunities to hone their skills. We are at the point now where there is no longer the perception anywhere that there is a gap between what we can produce here compared to other countries.

In this industry, when you come to Canada, you’re getting crews and talent working on your film or TV content that are truly second to none. If the policy goal of tax credits was to build an industry, to build an infrastructure, to encourage investment in post-production and studios and other services, then it has been very successful—in places like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, of course, but also now in some of the regions. In a tiered approach, that’s your first tier, and that’s the base of the pyramid.

Then there is Canadian content, which is riskier to finance in a smaller market and so the decision, from a policy perspective, was: “Let’s make those tax credits worth more to offset the risk.”

And then there’s a third tier, which is the most precious: direct financing in the form of equity. Here we ask, What is the decision-making criteria? In my experience, when it comes to feature films, the director is absolutely the key component. Not the only component, but it’s been the key that unlocks the door for a lot of the financing.

Montage: Do you see downsides to the existing process?

Dave: There is, quite naturally, tension between a creative vision and the means to finance that vision. We’re in a world where it’s hard to raise money, particularly for independent films. Consequently, we focus a lot on the deal side. That tends to not exactly monopolize the conversation, but to become a bigger part of [it] as we go on.

Montage: Everyone knows that film and TV in Canada are perfectible. How can we optimize what’s already in place in Canada, and what can we bring to the table that would allow us to be better at what we do?

Dave: Something that is always lurking in the background is—if you’ll permit me to use a sports metaphor—that we’re a small-market team. There is this notion, from time to time, that if we just get some high-price free agents, it’s going to put us over the top and we’re going to have success. The reality of small-market teams is that what leads to success is building your own talent from within. So I think that, for starters—notwithstanding that from time to time this notion of outsourcing or bringing in talent from other places is attractive and gets some traction—in the long term, what we need to do is develop our own talent and provide opportunities for those talents to keep working here in Canada. Right now, while we are hearing that it might be a good idea to provide companies opportunities to allow in talent that is not Canadian, the reality is that we risk losing many top Canadian directors—precisely the people who are in demand. To me, the challenge is to create an environment that allows Canadian talent to stay here and work on Canadian projects.

Montage: You mentioned that financing creative visions here can be difficult. What are other areas of concern for you?

Dave: Sturla Gunnarsson said to me a while ago, “As a country, we’re very good at making the first film—but not the second and third.” His point is that in an effective system, you need to have opportunities for filmmakers to break in and make that first feature, but then there have to be subsequent opportunities for them to make the second, third and fourth film. In the past, often what’s happened is that someone made their first, low-budget feature, and it got some traction in festivals, and the next thing you know, the second film scales up to be 10 times the size, and the expectations are enormous. I think that, in some ways, we’ve been putting too much pressure on filmmakers to move too fast without having the benefit of that second or third film under their belts and gradually building a career.

It just occurred to me that so far in our conversation we have not been talking so much about individual films as about talent, and I think that’s exactly right. The theme is building careers and talent. Individual films get made and have their life—whatever your take is on the so-called ‘long tail’—but it’s the talent that stays, and the talent that moves into different creative choices and risks that lead to more compelling content.

In our system of decision making—we’re talking about the investment side, so it’s the highest end, the most precious dollars. Perhaps sensibly, we’ve had a project-oriented approach. But the creative team is what you are really investing in.

Montage: It’s harder now to build a career that’s recognised by investors as something that they can market, or something that is worthy of further investment, because we find that many of our members’ work, outside of Quebec, is fragmented across the broadest spectrum of platforms like TV or the Web, and so while there is proof of skill and vision, there is no longer this long list of feature films attached to their names.

Dave: The reality going forward is that most creators are going to be working in multiplatform; there are going to be fewer and fewer examples of people who work purely in feature film. We’re seeing it all the time, and I think anyone who is investing public dollars in feature film needs to be mindful of that. At the core, it’s storytelling, and someone who can pull that off on multiple platforms shows that they have a really firm grasp of how to organize storytelling to fit into the framework that they’re working in. As an example, I was talking to a filmmaker one day, about a year ago, and I shared with him some research that showed that up to six per cent of the time, audiences are watching films on devices like iPads. I asked him what he made of that. His reaction was, “Well, I need to be thinking about that when I’m framing my image, because six per cent of the people who watch my film are going to watch it on this format. I don’t need to be preoccupied [with it], but I need to be aware of it.” His reaction was interesting. “I want my image, and my story, to be as compelling as possible, whether it’s in an airplane or on someone’s home screen or in a movie theatre.”

It’s also worth making a distinction here between different types of content. There’s a notion out there—putting aside the balance we’ve already talked about between business, regulatory and creative—that with the proliferation of user-generated content, there has been a blurring between what is professional and what is made at home. I want to be clear that when we talk about the creation of high-quality content, popularity is not the same thing as quality. It’s not the same thing, and one is not a less sophisticated version of the other. They intersect sometimes but we essentially have two parallel lanes here. One is content that people create on relatively new recording tools, which can be popular and innovative and is shared on social media. But that’s not the same thing as what we’re talking about here, which is content—mainly dramas, but also docs—that is made in a more thoughtful way for an audience. When Google says, “Hey, there’s lots of Canadian content on YouTube” because a lot of people put up their cat videos, that’s not what we’re talking about with regard to creative content.

Montage: We have a framework now, based on our discussion, where we understand that we’re in a managed cultural economy, where filmmakers have both the challenge and the opportunity to tell stories, for Canada and for the world, on many platforms. What do you feel, this year, are the practical challenges that the Directors Guild of Canada should take on, on the policy front?

Dave: Let’s start with the feature-film side. Here’s how I would summarize our priorities: our point of view is that feature film is a distinct format and allows for a type of storytelling that is different from what you get with other forms of media. That said, our take on the policy is that feature film shouldn’t be in a silo. We are in a world where most feature films aren’t viewed in a movie theatre, so while the theatrical experience is still the best way to see a film, if we’re talking about content on TV and not about feature film, we’re missing a big part of what is on TV. It’s content on TV, not TV content. With this in mind, we’ve looked at some of the mechanisms that have been put in place to support film on television, and we’ve found that the mechanisms themselves are sensible, but their implementation has not helped to achieve the stated goals. We’re looking at a more holistic view of all of the platforms on which feature films are being watched and asking what we can do to make sure that those players are more integrated into an ecosystem where feature films are more accessible, promoted and viewed. What’s important to us is that all of the players and stops along the way in the value chain, whether it be SVOD, broadcasting or other platforms, are all integrated and working toward the showcasing of feature films that are being made here in Canada. We are in a time of change—I’m sure you’ve heard that before—but change also represents opportunity and in this case it could be an opportunity to imagine new ways to connect.

Montage: Investment, I assume, would be a key part of that showcasing activity that all of these players in the screen industries should be encouraged to consider—particularly in feature films.

Dave: Yes—there are three elements to focus on: investment, promotion and access. It starts with investments in Canadian films, from development through to production and marketing; then, we need to make sure that audiences actually have access to them. That’s another key component of our policy: to point out that the pay-per-view and VOD services, which are meant to be programming all Canadian theatrical films, actually do it. We think that’s a gap in the policy, which was intended to create easier access for Canadians to see the films that they’re helping to finance with their tax dollars. The extent to which those films aren’t available now is a problem, and we think that should be corrected. By the way, everything I’ve said about feature films [can be applied to] feature docs too.

On TV policy, there are some places where we just think that the CRTC got it wrong, and we want to engage in a constructive conversation about that. For the Guild, the idea that we are going to strengthen big-budget drama series by removing the requirement that they be made by Canadians—we think that’s a flawed policy. There are plenty of opportunities already in our system for collaboration. However, the underlying policy has always been that Canadian content is content made by Canadians. That’s the starting point, but it doesn’t end there. We recognize the value of collaboration, so under certain circumstances, whether it be for creative or market reasons, there can be some flexibility, which, in a managed way, offers options for broadcasters, producers and others who are working on the deal side. There is already in our system a lot of openness to collaboration.

We have treaties with over 50 countries around the world that provide for access to each other’s markets as a basic principle, including a balance of contribution between the two countries. This presents opportunities to collaborate internationally, to pull from a larger pool of talent and to access a larger market. There’s a notion of reciprocity that makes this interesting—not in every case, but in the right circumstances. It is what allows people, in a relatively small market, to imagine projects that have a much larger scope.

Montage: What’s the difference between the paradigm we’ve known so far and what’s being proposed now by the CRTC?

Dave: What’s different about the CRTC’s new pilot project is that there is no presumption that anybody other than the writer, one performer and the ownership is Canadian. It says that it’s unnecessary, full stop. We’re talking about the most prestigious type of dramatic content—TV episodes of more than $2 million—and I imagine any Canadian director and their creative team would love to work on a show that is resourced that well. [To them], the CRTC appears to be saying, “We don’t really need you,” even though they’ve honed their skills, reached a level of maturity and are likely already working internationally on similar shows. Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad—the list is long. It really makes no sense.

Montage: What the CRTC is saying to them is that as a Canadian director, production designer or editor, you are not needed.

Dave: No, no business case—we don’t even need to give a reason.

Montage: Yeah, we’re not obliged in any way to consider you for employment on productions that are being deemed Canadian and that therefore will qualify for all the public investment, all of the tax-credit treatments available to Canadian production. You, as a Canadian director, production designer or editor, will not be necessary to that production.

Dave: Right. In the past, the Canadian talent, starting with the director, had a privileged position, inasmuch as the default was to say, “We will, to the extent that we can, work with Canadian talent,” which is only normal, given that we’re telling Canadian stories. However, under certain circumstances, there was flexibility on a case-by-case basis. We’re not talking about that anymore; we’re not even talking about a wider scope of flexibility versus a more narrow one. We’re saying that it’s entirely flexible, and that production companies don’t have to make the choice. And we’re wondering how that fits into the policy and the mechanisms that are in place to provide for opportunities to tell Canadian stories and to promote Canadian talent. How is it that this approach to making high-budget drama is going to help realise the policy that we have, which is building a Canadian industry of Canadian storytellers?

Montage: All of this in reference to the CRTC’s new March 2015 policy coming from the Talk TV hearings. I want to make it clear that we’ve had a paradigm up until now that the CRTC is challenging 100 per cent. Going forward, under the CRTC’s new policy, on any kind of productions with a budget over $2 million per hour, it would be possible to have these Canadian productions be directed, designed, edited, shot or even performed in all but one performer’s position by non-Canadians.

Dave: Yes—we’ve done a complete 180-degree turn here. What’s mystifying about it is the extent to which, even from a practical perspective, this approach would need to be reconciled with tax credits and other financial contributors, and I think it would be easier said than done. I think it’s going to create confusion in the industry, and we’re not sure to what end. What great potential is out there that justifies the gutting of Canadian participation in these key roles? This does not lead to better choices for audience, nor to better long-term growth for our industry.

Montage: It does beg the question of what is next. There are a couple of Canadian elements left in the current definition of a Canadian production; one does wonder how long those elements will persist in future policies for Canadian production. Will it be, in the end, just the owner?

Dave: Not to be alarmist, but it’s actually further than what’s next. We have completely changed the paradigm here. Anything can happen.

Montage: It seems to me that what they’re saying is that these shows will be better if they’re not directed by Canadians, or that they’ll be more attractive to audiences if they’re directed by high-profile Americans or Brits.

Dave: It comes back to your question about the tension between the deal or business side and the creative. I guess in some cases it might make the deal side a little easier, but we think it’s a bad trade to empower the deal side at the risk of the removal of all of these key creative positions. And there’s no guarantee that any of this will make for better content.

Montage: You’ve just joined an organisation which has been—in recent memory, in any case—steadfastly non-partisan when it comes to Canadian politics, but fiercely vocal on certain issues that matter to our membership, like financing for films, regulations for supporting film on all platforms—anything to do with enhancing the prospects of creative personnel in the Canadian screen industries. In February 2015, the national executive board passed a motion endorsing the DGC’s taking a more partisan position in the upcoming federal elections. I’m wondering if you could comment on that and on strategies that we may consider, coming out of that resolution by the national executive board.

Dave: I think it’s only normal for an organisation like the DGC to review the landscape and consider that, in the context of being in a time of change, there is a connection between public policy and the well-being of our members and also, from a larger perspective, what we think are the components that contribute to a healthy industry. But there is a larger component too, keeping in mind that the Canadian-content proportion of what our members do day to day is a percentage of their overall work. We’re part of a larger industry, so Cancon may not be 100 per cent of what the members are working on, but I can tell you that 100 per cent of the members are nonetheless interested in ensuring that there is a public policy that supports the telling of Canadian stories.

In that context, we’ve looked at the landscape over the last few years and come to the conclusion that a couple of things are necessary. One is that the government do a lot more to both ensure a smooth transition as we move into a new paradigm of the way viewers are accessing content and the way content is created, and that we have a healthy industry. We often hear discussions about knowledge-based industries, and this is clearly one. We think it’s important enough right now that we take a more active role, one that goes beyond disseminating information and actually advocates for policies that we think are more in keeping with where we think the industry is going and what’s beneficial for the Guild and the industry at large.

Montage: Where do you see the Directors Guild of Canada being most effective on the policy front over the next two years?

Dave: It starts with building consensus. I think unless the industry speaks with one voice on key issues, we’re not going to be able to move the needle.

We need to inform our members, helping them to understand, when there is a policy change or when there is a change in the milieu around business models, how it may be directly related to their compensation, which is, in turn, a component of the value that is being created. We need to understand where that value is, what platforms or formats are gaining traction, where the revenues are and what the new business models are. This helps to inform our position at the negotiating table. When we are engaging in collective bargaining, we need to understand where the value is going to be three or five years from now, and how to best ensure a fair share for our members, in exchange for the work that they’re doing.

There’s a lot of follow-up that’s going to have to happen as a result of Let’s Talk TV—there are also copyright and licence renewals for broadcasters and all sorts of things that will affected by the new policy.

The CBC/Radio-Canada is an ongoing issue for all of us in the industry; I think it’s going to be an election issue as well, so we need to be on top of that. When CBC reduces its production activity or its commissioning of content, it has a direct impact upon our members.

Montage: So is it fair to say that one of the best moves the Guild can make right now is to measure and analyse these industrial and policy changes in order to help our members see their way forward?

Dave: Yes, and we don’t need to do all of that from a standing start; there is a lot of that type of measurement happening. Our priority is going to be understanding the research and the analytics that are out there, complementing it with some of our own and helping to connect the dots. There’s a lot of reporting that’s happening, both in Canada and internationally, and, if we ask the right questions, we’ll be better able to keep our members informed.

Everyone is very busy working on the ground every day, and one of the things that DGC National can do for its membership, knowing that every Guild member’s time is precious, is to frame these issues in a way that allows them to complement what they’re seeing out there in the media with our take on things so they get a sense of where we’re coming from.

Montage: So, you’d say, a very strongly co-ordinated effort between policy in its pure form and communications, both internally and externally.

Dave: That’s a good way to put it—what’s our story and how do we tell it. 

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