Wayne Clarkson talks to Denis Seguin about his tenure at Telefilm Canada and the challenges facing his replacement.

Wayne Clarkson recently completed his five-year term as the executive director of Telefilm Canada, the nation’s principal public sector film and TV financier. A career cultural bureaucrat – he has at one time directed the Toronto International Film Festival, the Ontario Film Development Corporation and the Canadian Film Centre – Clarkson’s tenure at Telefilm coincided with the explosion in digital platforms and the increasing bandwidth that made them possible.  

Do you feel you are leaving Telefilm Canada in better shape than when you took it on five years ago?

First of all it wasn’t in bad shape when I took it on. Quite the opposite. Richard Stursberg managed the place well. I was on the advisory committee, we came down with the policy priority of seeing more Canadians seeing more Canadian films. And Richard came in and in his focused way worked hard on that  and maybe stepped on some toes to do it but that’s what happens when you bring about change. I got to be the good guy who comes into town with the white hat. So Telefilm is not in better or worse shape just a different shape. It’s significantly changed.

The world has changed. We don’t call it new media new media anymore because it’s here, all around us.

In the context of the film business, I was not able to bring that change we all knew and saw to be necessary or to bring it about as quickly as we should have. I had the responsibility for the five year annual plan that Telefilm rolled out five years ago we called From Cinemas to Cell phones. It was somewhat prescient. It recognized the dramatic change of the platforms by which Canadian access their news, information and entertainment, through the Internet and Google and the digitization of everything. I think the film industry hasn’t yet confronted the issues ahead of them. Look at what happened to the music industry: that’s going to hit the film industry. Opportunities and challenges come from it. What impact will it have on distribution? How will that benefit independent film, which Canadian film is by default? What alternative means are there for getting film and TV, let alone new media product, out to Canadian audiences?

You’ve mentioned the tyranny of attaining five per cent of the box office for Canadian Films.

 When the Canadian Feature Film Fund was created nearly ten years ago, the target of five per cent of the box office [for Canadian films] was appropriate at the time. But now it’s almost irrelevant. It’s been circumvented by a half-dozen other platforms. Yes we need Canadian audiences for the Canadian talent that creates Canadian content but on whatever platform they choose. So it’s not a question of box office. All I care about is how many Canadian eyeballs are seeing what Canadian talent makes.. If you want to watch Passchendaele, God forbid, on your cell phone, go right ahead. If that’s your choice, good on you. Score two eyeballs for us.

Are things going to worse before they get better?

It’s not quite my nature to say worse. It’s going to be more challenging and it’s going to create more opportunities. The ubiquity and democratic nature of the internet is an opportunity for Canadian films. If you can pack theatres on a Sunday afternoon to see the Metropolitan Opera how can we take advantage of that kind of programming?

What advice would you give to your successor?

I would encourage them to explore a tax incentive program to bring private sector money into the system. There’s a military axiom that an objective without sufficient resources is a mirage. The government often looks to the tax system to provide incentives for Canadian as opposed to increasing dollars for public agencies. The business model has to change.