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Christa Dickenson is stepping down as executive director after being appointed in 2018.Helen Tansey/Courtesy of Telefilm

Telefilm Canada is not a stranger to tumult. Go through decades of past annual reports and you’ll quickly become overwhelmed with how many times the words “challenges” and “struggles” appear, an air of existential panic permeating myriad executive director and board chair statements.

But it is fair to say that the federal funding agency, which is responsible for distributing more than $100-million annually in support of the country’s film industry, has never experienced quite a challenging struggle as the past four years. Which makes Christa Dickenson, who is stepping down as executive director this week after being appointed in 2018, something of a survivor.

“Of all the EDs at Telefilm, I probably had the most demanding tenure,” Dickenson says with a laugh a few weeks before she departs for the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC), where she will be president and CEO. “But we had the greatest tangible results, too.”

While Dickenson’s time at Telefilm has been marked by the dawn of the streaming war, heated battles between emerging filmmakers and industry veterans, the departure of key Telefilm executives, cultural reckonings both outside and inside the organization, plus the prolonged collapse of the entire theatrical ecosystem, the institution has arguably emerged if not stronger then certainly transformed.

It has relaunched the development, theatrical exhibition and micro-budget programs; secured a $105-million increase in its parliamentary allocation over a three-year period; finally made good on a long-delayed promise to define and measure diversity; helped launch the Black Screen Office; and changed its antiquated policies to fund movies made in all languages, not just English, French or Indigenous dialects.

Telefilm has accomplished all of this while expanding its lines of business from four to six almost overnight. In addition to its traditional duties – financially supporting Canadian films, funding and promoting festivals and markets, identifying projects that can be recognized for co-production treaties, and administering the Canada Media Fund (CMF) – Telefilm has also taken on two key pandemic-era initiatives. It now administers the Short-Term Compensation Fund (which is basically COVID-19 insurance for productions affected by shutdowns), as well as overseeing various COVID emergency, reopening, and recovery funds. (The latest tranche of which, the Theatrical Distribution Compensation Program, will launch in the early fall, sending $9.2-million to exhibitors and film distributors who saw revenues wiped out by theatre shutdowns.)

“We’re covering every single Canadian production, certifying upward of 900-camera ready projects worth $3.2-billion, covering 20,000 jobs,” Dickenson says. “It is a lot.”

Still, Dickenson, who joined Telefilm from the digital industry lobbying world without experience in feature-film production or funding, has continually faced criticism from established members of the filmmaking community – including her controversial discontinuation of the Success Index, the performance measure that determines which projects the organization supports, and her discontinuation of Fast Track, an automatic funding program that allocated $20-million to $25-million a year to producers with favoured track records.

“Everything that was accomplished, which needed to be done, could have been done in a much gentler way,” says producer Niv Fichman (Enemy, Disappearance at Clifton Hill), one of several industry veterans who vocally opposed the elimination of Fast Track in 2020, saying such a move would threaten market predictability and place too much responsibility in the hands of bureaucrats. “They didn’t need to use brutal force as they did, and if I ever wanted to speak to any of them about it, they refused.”

Dickenson says that she carries no regrets about how she restructured the funding programs.

“Often when you come into a senior role like this and you’re told who your trusted advisors should be. But maybe you need to seek knowledge and surround yourself with fresh ideas and perspectives,” she says. “You’ve seen me make some bold moves and some people are uncomfortable with that, and demanded that I resolve their discomfort. At first, I was caught up in that and it took me a little while to resolve that. No, it’s not my role to make you comfortable.”

Francesca Accinelli will become interim executive director and CEO effective Sept. 10.Shoot Studio/Courtesy of Telefilm Canada

One consistent criticism directed at Telefilm, no matter who is at the helm, is its reputation for embracing the worst of bureaucracy clichés: poor communication, lack of transparency, inconsistent decision-making. While Dickenson says that the organization is far less siloed and more accountable than ever, she acknowledges that there is always more work to be done. It is a sentiment echoed by Francesca Accinelli, the Telefilm veteran who will become interim executive director and CEO effective Sept. 10, while the federal government continues its leadership search.

“There was a year when it was harder,” Accinelli admits, noting the period when staff were overwhelmed with competing responsibilities following the departures of long-time executives.. “But since Mehernaz Lentin joined us [as the new national director] all I’ve heard is how consistently her and her team are meeting with people who are applying, and doing follow-up conversations with applicants sharing key takeaways and notes.

“Things can remain bureaucratic because we represent public funds. That said, we’ve made changes in application forms and what we’re asking people to do complete ahead of time,” Accinelli adds. “We’re demystifying the process. And once you complete the process, you are getting money.”

While Accinelli’s immediate focus is on continuity, her big goal for this year is ambitious: to compel all of Telefilm’s stakeholders to engage in an honest conversation about the existential threat facing the Canadian film industry. Namely: how to get Canadians interested in watching Canadian movies, on any size of screen.

“We can’t go on the way we’re going on right now,” she says. “If people aren’t going to see them, then we have to do some serious thinking about how to make that change.”

This involves holding sensible conversations, such as marketing strategies with both theatrical players and streamers, and ones that seem almost impossibly difficult.

“We need to have a conversation about the U.S. studios that are very rigid in terms of their bookings – the Disneys that come in and say if you want to show the our latest film then you can’t show anything else on that screen,” Accinelli says. “It’s not truly Telefilm’s territory but working alongside the government is a perfect place to start bringing in those who want greater access and greater relationships in Canada.”

Accinelli, who says that she is “still thinking” about taking on the leadership on a non-interim basis (“I’m a great candidate, but I also wonder if there’s someone else out there waiting for an opportunity”), says that whoever takes charge next needs to continue Dickenson’s campaign to ensure that Ottawa allocates a recurring extra $50-million once its three-year funding boost comes to an end in the 2023/24 fiscal year.

“We’re on the cusp of getting it as right as we possibly can for a government agency, and the only way to normalize that is to have consistent money over the course of years,” she says. “It’s the predictability, without which we can’t give timely decisions. There is a willingness on the part of the government, they’re listening.”

Meanwhile, the question of merging Telefilm with the CMF to create a super-agency continues to hang in the air, as it has for decades. And now just might be the time to move forward, Dickenson says.

“I think the industry is ready for a new model, because we’ve gone through so much change. It makes it more plausible that it will happen,” Dickenson says. “But it’s bigger than me, bigger than the industry. There needs to be the political will, but also the machinery that it will take to get there. My answer is this: I think that Telefilm has demonstrated that it’s agile and ready to adapt to support our screen-based industries.”

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