This is the strongest year we've had since I started programming Canadian films,' says Steve Gravestock, head of Canadian programming at the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff).

  • To see buzz films click here
  • To visit Toronto special site click here

    That was five years ago. 'Not only is there a wider range of films but we're seeing development from film-makers with a few films under their belt.'

    September in Toronto is always a hopeful time for the Canadian industry. The Canada First! programme, a showcase for emerging talent, can legitimately claim to be the cream of the debut crop.

    The single most important forum for local talent, Tiff presents the best opportunity for a Canadian film-maker to gain exposure to a mass audience, or indeed draw the attention of a US talent scout or a European or Asian sales agent.

    The hard truth remains that most locally produced films, especially in English Canada, struggle for patrons. Telefilm Canada's statistics as of July 31, 2008, show an overall share of 2.5% of the box office. Divided by linguistic markets, the totals are 14.6% for local French-language films and a meagre 0.5% for English.

    Veteran director Carl Bessai knows this harsh fact well. He returns to Tiff this year with his eighth feature, Mothers & Daughters, a $300,000 film he bankrolled with the $12,000 he won at the Vancouver festival last year for his previous feature, Normal.

    A well-crafted, $2.5m drama starring Carrie-Anne Moss, Normal debuted at Tiff 2007 - but it earned less than $20,000 on general release on home turf.

    'The reality is we don't do much better when we spend hundreds of thousands (on marketing),' says Vancouver-based Bessai. He absolves the film's distributor, Mongrel Media, of blame. Instead, he cites some harsh reviews from the Canadian media. 'If you get a few bad reviews, you're dead. In Canadian film, it's all about the critics.'

    At such a low budget, Mothers & Daughters - screening in Contemporary World Cinema (CWC) at Tiff and invited to Pusan next month - is certain to recoup its investment. And freed from the expense of marquee actors, Bessai says he rediscovered the artistic pleasure of film-making. He could actually afford rehearsal time.

    Many Canadian film-makers admit they are better off in comparison to film-makers from other countries. Telefilm Canada has streamlined its administration and its investment executives take chances on challenging projects. Lynne Stopkewich is full of praise for Telefilm's Western office. Stopkewich, director of Kissed, which debuted at Tiff in 1996, has taken a step into producing with Control Alt Delete, the debut of another Vancouver-based film-maker, Cameron Labine, screening in Canada First!

    Without a distributor or a television licensee, Stopkewich and her fellow producer Stephanie Symns approached Telefilm anticipating participation in the federal funding agency's low-budget programme. 'Telefilm assumed correctly that we would need more,' says Stopkewich. 'In essence, they financed the film,' adds Symns.

    Exemplars of the cottage industry that is Canadian film-making, the duo tapped friends and family for interim financing rather than paying the borrowing fees of a bank. Stopkewich concentrated on her crew from Kissed, a launch pad for several successful careers ('It was payback time'). In fact, there was no risk as the project was backed by tax credits. The lenders received a superior interest rate and the production, says Symns, paid about one-third of what it would have through a bank.

    As usual, the funding situation in Quebec is much better than elsewhere in Canada as the provincial government stands alone among the other provinces as a serious equity investor in film production. Not only does the provincial arts funder Sodec typically match Telefilm investments, its low-budget film-finance programme provides up to $470,000 per feature against Telefilm's maximum of $188,000.

    Montreal-based Francois Landry, producer of Rodrigue Jean's Lost Song, which also screens in CWC, is the first to admit Quebeckers have it better than their peers elsewhere in Canada.

    But even there, the situation for smaller producers remains hand-to-mouth. 'For a small production company, it's hard to keep in business. It's the gaps between productions that hurt.

    Tax credits were supposed to be a bridge between productions. They were never supposed to be re-invested into the projects... if your film won't get made, but you're company will survive, it's a tricky balance.'

    Dean English, producer of another Canada First! title, stop-motion animation Edison And Leo, remains philosophical. He produced Kissed and has been working on Edison And Leo since 1998. 'It's the same as ever,' he says. 'When all is said and done, Canada has a great system that requires great patience... if you have a good project.'