Of all Canadian cultural industries, English-Canadian cinema has the hardest time escaping the shadow of its American counterpart. Between the marketing budgets of mainstream films, and the largely US-controlled film distribution networks, it has been nearly impossible for most distinctively Canadian films to break through to a wide audience. Although Canadian films have often received critical praise, and the National Film Board
has won more Academy Awards than almost any other institution (for both their animation and documentary work), in many Canadian cities moviegoers do not even have the option of seeing such films, as they have poor distribution and are not shown at any theatres. One This Hour Has 22 Minutes sketch parodied an Atom Egoyan-like director whose films had won numerous international awards, but had never actually been released or exhibited.
Almost all Canadian films fail to make back their production costs at the box office. For example, Men With Brooms made CA$1,000,000 in its general domestic release, which by Canadian standards is fairly high. However, it was made on a budget of over CA$7,000,000. French-Canadian films, on the other hand, are often more successful—as with French-language television, the language difference makes Quebec audiences much more receptive to Canadian-produced films. In most years, the top-grossing Canadian film is a French-language film from Quebec. (See also Cinema of Quebec.) By comparison, Australian films, made in a country with a smaller population than Canada's, more frequently make their money back from the domestic market. Many do comparatively better; the best known example is Mad Max, made with the then unknown Mel Gibson, and with a budget of A$350,000, and which made A$5.6 million in its domestic release alone.
Although many Canadians have made their names in Hollywood, they have often started their careers in Los Angeles, despite Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal being thriving filmmaking centres in their own right. Some actors or directors who have started their early careers in Canada include: David Cronenberg, John Candy, Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd, Michael J. Fox, Mike Myers, Ivan Reitman, Derek Harvie, Seth Rogen, Eugene Levy, Tom Green, Scott Mosier, and Paul Haggis. However, despite these successes, several actors have favoured moving to Los Angeles to further pursue their careers.
Canada's difficulties in the film industry are often difficult to explain. The following explanations have been proposed for why Canadian films and television have often failed completely to find an export market: Films labelled as American films could often be better described as collaborations between Canada and the US. In addition, films which are sometimes designated as "American" productions often involve a higher-percentage of Canadian participation but the "American" designation is favoured for tax purposes. Also, unlike other countries who tend to have citizens with discernible accents, the American media too rarely highlights or identifies actors, actresses, directors or producers as Canadian in origin, leaving the false perception that few Canadians work in the industry.
Canada's film industry competes directly with that of the United States. Production costs between the two countries are similar (they are lower in Australia) meaning that Canadian films often need a budget equal to that of an American film of similar quality. Canadian film studios rarely, if ever, have the budgets to make films that can directly compete with the most popular Hollywood fare. Instead, the vast majority of Canadian films are character-driven dramas or quirky comedies of the type that often appeal to critics and art house film audiences more than to mass audiences.
During the 1970s, Canada's tax policy encouraged making films merely to obtain a significant tax credit. As such, many films were produced merely for tax purposes, and quality became unimportant. For example, producers of Canadian films were allowed to take a fee out of the production costs, something that is not allowed in the United States, where producers may only take a fee once the film earns back its production costs (the exact situation that drove the plot line in The Producers). While British, Australian and American filmmakers embrace their cultural heritage in film, Canadian films often have no discernible connection to Canada. It often comes as a surprise to many people that movies like Porky's, Children of a Lesser God and The Art of War were partially produced in Canada, as they are indistinguishable from films made entirely in the United States.
When there are major Canadian productions, the lead roles often go to American or British actors. For example, in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, both the role of Duddy and his father went to American-born actors (the then unknown Richard Dreyfuss and the established character actor Jack Warden respectively). Joseph Wiseman, who played Duddy's uncle, was born in Montreal, but had not lived or worked in Canada in over forty years. Although this phenomenon is not as common today as it was in the 1970s, Canadian films do still sometimes cast famous foreign actors: Michael Caine starred in the 2003 film The Statement, Helena Bonham Carter played the lead role in 1996's Margaret's Museum and Olivia Newton-John has a starring role in the forthcoming Score: A Hockey Musical.
Unlike radio and television, which both have strict Canadian content regulations, there is no protection for Canadian content in movie theatres. The distribution networks for Canadian movie theatres are largely controlled by the American studio system, and Canada is in fact the only non-U.S. country that is considered part of the domestic market by Hollywood studios. As a result, the marketing budgets and screening opportunities for Canadian films are limited. In many cities outside of Canada's largest metropolitan markets, the local movie theatres almost never book a Canadian film, and even in many of the major markets Canadian films are usually only available in repertory theatres or on the film festival circuit. Once again, the exception is Quebec, which has many French-Canadian produced films running on multiple screens all over the province alongside both French-produced films and dubbed or subtitled American films. In a phenomenon which can be likened to the theory of cultural cringe, a considerable number of Canadians reflexively dismiss all Canadian films as inherently inferior to Hollywood studio fare. This is not necessarily connected to reality, as many critically acclaimed films have been made in Canada, but the idea nevertheless presents a significant hurdle to Canadian filmmakers seeking to build an audience for their work.
The Department of Canadian Heritage gave Telefilm Canada more funds in 2001 to help develop the Canadian film industry, with the goal of having Canadian feature films obtain 5% of the domestic box office by 2005. Telefilm divided this between English films then capturing 4% of the market and French films at 12%. At first, the new initiative did not seem to be making much progress: at the end of 2003, English films represented only 1% of the domestic box office, while French films made up 20%. The overall goal of the Canada Feature Film Fund now is to have Canadian feature films capture 5% of the domestic box office by 2006, one year behind schedule. It is now 2014 and they have not met their goal. According to Telefilm Canada, From Script to Screen, the two-year-old feature film policy created to improve the success rate of Canadian films, is seeing results. Before the initiative, the market share for Canadian films was 1.4% and is now 3.6%. Furthermore, the French-language cinema accounts for 20% of the market.
In recent years, there has been a cultural resurgence in Canada's aforementioned documentary stream. Films exploring Canada's identity and role on the world stage have become popular. Due to a political and social split between their American counterparts, Canadian independent documentaries have begun garnering a cult status. Current examples are Mark Achbar's award winning and top grossing Canadian feature documentary The Corporation, and Albert Nerenberg's underground hit Escape to Canada. These films not only nurture homegrown talent, inspiring local industry but also creating a unique voice for Canada itself.
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