It’s long been known outside Quebec that Quebec’s film industry is relatively successful while the rest of Canada’s is not. I’ve long been curious about why and, when a friend told me that noted and knowledgeable Quebec film producer Roger Frappier would agree to an interview, I leapt at the chance.
Roger Frappier is one of Canada’s most successful producers. His films include Pouvoir intime, Night Zoo, The Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal, Maelström and La grande séduction. His films have won hundreds of awards, including three Golden Reel Awards, which recognize domestic films with the highest box-office receipts, and four Genie Awards for best film. In 1996, France’s Minister of Culture named him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; in 1998 he was recognized by the Cannes Film Festival in a tribute to film producers; and in 1999 the government of Quebec recognized his contribution to Quebec film with the Prix Albert-Tessier. He was director of National Film Board’s Fiction Studio from 1984 to 1986.
I thought it appropriate to see a Quebec film while in Montreal for the interview, and wondered if one might be in the theatres. As it turned out, there were four Quebec films showing on a total of 54 screens in and about Montreal that weekend. A month later, Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies could be seen at the Cannes Film Festival, but would be hard to find in a Canadian theatre. Nothing demonstrates more clearly the differences between Canadian cinema inside and outside Quebec.
I interviewed Mr. Frappier the afternoon of August 19 in Montreal. That evening I caught Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y., recently selected as Canada’s nomination to the Academy Awards.
— Arthur Milner
Arthur Milner: Our impression outside Quebec is that Quebec film is far more successful than film in English Canada. Do you think that’s true?
Roger Frappier: If you look at the numbers, it’s true. In Quebec last week, we reached 31 per cent of screen time – 31 per cent! A Quebec film, L’horloge biologique, was the highest grossing film over the weekend – of all films, from all countries. There has been a great change in Quebec cinema. Ten years ago, people would stay away from Quebec films. Now, they go to a Quebec film because it’s a Quebec film. We’ve had so many good films in that period that we’ve changed the habits of Quebec filmgoers. Now people are curious to see a Quebec film. They might like it, they might not, but we can count on an audience for the first couple of weeks. That is really an important change.
Arthur Milner: What’s the problem in English Canada?
Roger Frappier: I think the same would happen in English Canada if, when you find a good filmmaker, you would give him or her the opportunity to make five films in a row. If you make only one movie every four years, you cannot create a habit, you cannot create continuity, you cannot establish an audience for your film. Pedro Almodóvar, Lars von Trier and Woody Allen make a feature a year, and they have established themselves as major filmmakers.
Arthur Milner: Did that happen in Quebec? Certain people were picked and given the opportunity of making a film a year?
Roger Frappier: Yes. And now we have major filmmakers and actors and technicians. We also have great screenwriters. That wasn’t true before. Ten years ago, everybody was writing their own scripts. Now we have screenwriters who don’t want to direct. And Quebec also has at least four or five major feature film producers – serious producers with experience and knowledge who take the time to make good films.
Arthur Milner: How many feature films are made in Quebec in a year?
Roger Frappier: At the Jutras, there are 25 to 30 feature films every year. Before we organized the Jutras, we would go to the Genies and, even if we won, it had no influence on the box office in English Canada. You’d win a Genie and you still couldn’t get your film released in English Canada. Twice I’ve won the Golden Reel Award – for the highest Canadian box office receipts – for movies that were never released outside Quebec. You go to Toronto for the ceremony and you win for best box office in Canada for a film that never played in Toronto.
These awards had almost no influence in English Canada, so we established the Jutras, which were based on the Academy Awards. It’s one part of what we’ve put together to make the industry work. Every year Radio-Canada broadcasts the Jutras and at least one million people watch. Winning a Jutra means something. Movies that have been out of distribution and win Jutras are back in the theatres a week later and make money for at least two months. Which is great.
I would say we now have an excellent structure for film in Quebec. I can open the newspaper today in Montreal – La Presse, Le Journal de Montréal, Le Devoir – and there will be pages and pages on Quebec film. At least two or three times a week, there will an article on a Quebec film being shot here or in development there, that’s been selected for a festival or received a prize. We have television programs, like Tout le monde en parle, where every week, for two hours, they interview actors, actresses, singers, writers, sometimes politicians. There are seven million people in Quebec, and every Sunday, two million are watching this show. There are six or seven Quebec magazines that discuss the last time this actress was pregnant or how that actor’s father died of alcoholism. People line up to buy them.
Arthur Milner: In English Canada they buy People magazine.
Roger Frappier: It’s exactly the same stuff, but about Quebec. There are also Quebec film distributors that are now doing an excellent job of launching films. Ten years ago, advertising budgets were $35,000. Now, a small budget will be half a million and most are $1 or 1.5 million. If you compare that with the United States, Quebec is the size of one state, so it would be like a $75 million advertising budget for one movie. We constantly have full colour, double-page advertisements in the newspapers.
Arthur Milner: It must be wonderful.
Roger Frappier: Absolutely. But the greatest reward is that now people will see a movie because it is from Quebec, where before they would stay away.
Arthur Milner: Why hasn’t this happened in English Canada?
Roger Frappier: I think because in Quebec we are seven million French-speaking people in a sea of 300 million English-speaking people. And English Canada doesn’t have a language barrier with the United States – everything is accessible. Sometimes I try to imagine: what if the United States were French-speaking? It would be very difficult. But Canada has filmmakers. Atom Egoyan is very well known outside the country. David Cronenberg is a great filmmaker. His new movie, A History of Violence, is a fantastic piece of cinematography. Norman Jewison is a great filmmaker – a great Canadian filmmaker.
Arthur Milner: He’s not thought of as a Canadian filmmaker.
Roger Frappier: Hemingway spent his life outside the United States. He was in Cuba for many years, and France and Italy. But he was always an American writer.
Arthur Milner: He wrote American characters.
Roger Frappier: The Old Man and the Sea was set in a Cuban village. There are even words in Spanish, but no one thinks it’s a Cuban novel. It’s American, because the author is American. I think it was a great problem when Sheila Copps wanted everything in the culture to carry a Canadian flag and writers and filmmakers to do Canadian stories. It was a very narrow reflection of our culture. When I look at the news on television, there’s about two minutes on Canada and 10 minutes on the rest of the world. There’s the Iraq war, problems in Africa, terrorism, but as Canadians we’re not supposed to develop stories that deal with all that. Two years ago, one of the great books was Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali, about the war in Rwanda. Right now there is a film being shot in Rwanda and it will be a Quebec film. It is really important to give the filmmaker the freedom of thinking and doing and making a movie in Africa.
Arthur Milner: I agree completely. But many of the Quebec films that speak to an international audience are set in Quebec. If a Canadian filmmaker has to leave Canada to make a film, and the producers and stories and the actors are not Canadian –
Roger Frappier: That’s not what I am saying. That should also be possible. I’m talking about an openness to the world. And I think that Sheila Copps’s approach was too narrow.
Arthur Milner: Did it influence film funding?
Roger Frappier: Absolutely. And now there is more openness. Another problem is that there are not enough films being made. In the last Telefilm Canada budget, in June, there was $44 million in requests and $4 million distributed. And this is an industry that creates jobs. When you spend $10 million on a movie, that $10 million goes back into the society. The Harris government in Ontario cut funding to the Ontario Film Development Corporation. This was the biggest mistake that ever happened for Canadian film. We give $200 million to Bombardier or $500 million to keep GM in Oshawa. Last year we asked the federal government for an extra $9 million for the film industry. Total government investment in the whole Canadian film industry is $100 million. This is the cost of one American film.
Arthur Milner: What’s the split between public and private investment?
Roger Frappier: Usually about 80 per cent is public money and 20 per cent is private.
Arthur Milner: Is it the same in Quebec as in English Canada?
Roger Frappier: Yes.
Arthur Milner: You would think that by now in Quebec some people could make movies without government support.
Roger Frappier: If the movie isn’t distributed outside Quebec, you will never recoup your investment, even if it makes $10 million at the box office. Theatre owners keep 50 per cent of ticket sales. The distributor keeps 35 per cent of what’s left. The advertising costs another million. Let me tell you a story. The day that Les invasions barbares was selected for competition in Cannes, the producer, Denise Robert, and the distributor organized a screening in Ottawa for members of Parliament. They invited the Prime Minister. Jean Chrétien did not have time. The same day in France, Jacques Chirac held a state dinner to honour the French filmmakers whose films were at Cannes. I was reading an article about Rachel McAdams in the New York Times. There was a line that I thought was really beautiful, about how she performed with an intensity that American audiences are not used to. To me, this means that Canadian film could make a difference in international cinema. But first of all, the Canadian government has to believe in it. I don’t think they do.
Arthur Milner: One of the things we complain about in English Canada is that our films don’t get shown in the theatres.
Roger Frappier: When the multiplex theatres came in, we were told that because they have many screens, there will always be a small theatre for small or difficult films. That was a misconception. The problem is that the theatre owner – and I say this with respect – doesn’t care about cinema. He is a businessman and he cares about which film brings people into his theatre to buy popcorn and Coke. On Monday morning he looks at the weekend numbers and the Canadian film has made $2,000 and the American movie turned people away. What would you do? You don’t care where the movie comes from. You care that you could make $10,000 instead of $2,000 if both theatres were showing the American film. That’s the pressure, and it happens every Monday. So distributors have to keep talking with the theatre owners to keep the films showing. Which they do in Quebec, because there is an excellent relationship between distributors and theatre owners now. I’ve witnessed it. Sometimes the theatre owner will say, “I am taking the movie out,” and the distributor convinces him to keep it for another week and then the audience comes. It happens often. It happened with C.R.A.Z.Y and La grande séduction, that the second weekend was bigger than the first. It’s very rare, but word of mouth can do it.
Arthur Milner: Are the theatre owners in Quebec the same as in Toronto?
Roger Frappier: Absolutely. They are the same companies.
Arthur Milner: Another cliché about Canadian films is that they have to be dull – that funders will fund only art films and only if they’re dark and slow.
Roger Frappier: We have tried very consciously in Quebec to break the opposition of art film and commercial film. You can be an “auteur” and still reach an audience. La grande séduction, Les invasions barbares, C.R.A.Z.Y., L’horloge biologique are all auteur films and all are reaching audiences.
Maybe I am wrong, but from my own experience of watching Canadian film, I would suggest one word describes the difference between Canadian and Quebec film – fun. A lot of Quebec films are comedies. There’s a lot of fun. Of course we produce dark films, but even a dark story can have humour. And you can have a dramatic comedy. Maybe it’s because Canadian filmmakers want to be different from Americans. But they should just feel free – and have fun. We shouldn’t be afraid.
The thing is, filmmaking changes, and this is great. Every time you have a new device in the cinema, people always say it will kill cinema, but it’s not true. It adds to our knowledge of what we are doing. When television came, we said cinema is finished. When we could record movies on video, we said cinema is finished. Now it’s DVDs. I think DVD is the greatest tool for cinema. It’s true: many people will not see movies in theatres, and will wait for them to come out on DVD, because they have a good movie theatre at home. But it’s made also made cinema available to everyone. Now you can go to the library or the DVD section of a music store and if you like Scorsese now you can see all of his films. People have more access to cinema.
Kids see more films than they read books. They’re very demanding when they see a film. I noticed it at Cannes this year. We were trying to sell a very good movie, there were lots of buyers, but we didn’t make any sales. I asked myself why, and it struck me: the movie doesn’t start until the 22nd minute. The first 21 minutes are spent establishing the plot and introducing the characters. But buyers don’t have the time for that. David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence opens with two guys coming out of a motel room, getting into a car, stopping at the office, killing a couple of people and leaving. It’s one shot. A minute and a half, and you can’t leave the theatre. As producers, we like to discuss with filmmakers how films should be made. And we give them complete freedom. But this is not an age in which cinema is the seventh wonder of the world. Kids now spend hours on video games and on the internet. According to recent research, they spend more time on the internet than watching TV, and more time watching TV than reading books. And the internet is never fast enough for them. I don’t want to say that you should always make really fast films, but there is a way of making a film that is in sync with this generation.
We also don’t make enough use of the internet for advertising. My son gets all his information from the internet. Before he goes to see a film, he’s watched a trailer on the internet, he knows exactly when the second trailer is coming out, and he watches it. And when the movie comes out, he’s in the theatre right away. You can’t just stick a half-page ad in the newspaper two weeks before and then complain that nobody went to see your movie. There is a whole way now of getting people talking about your film months and months in advance. In Quebec, if we release a film in the summer, the trailer is in theatres at Christmas. And three months after that, we change the trailer. We have to do this now because we make maybe 25 films a year, and every year something like 400 films are released in Quebec. Moviegoers have a big choice, and if you want them to see your film, you have to be smart. Money helps, of course, but it’s not just money.
Arthur Milner: What about the process of getting film development money – is the bureaucracy a problem?
Roger Frappier: It’s a very big problem. They provide money, so they think of themselves as producers, and they all read your script and give you notes and want you to change this and change that. Kubrick said that in a script, the cinema is the description of the action, and the story is in the dialogue. Most of those people read only the dialogue. Every time I have one of those discussions with someone at Telefilm, I’m told to clarify – clarify the situation, the character, the action. In the end, everything is so clear that it looks like a TV movie. This is exactly why Canadian film is not doing well. There is not enough confidence in producers and filmmakers.
It’s the same in Quebec. When I produced The Decline of the American Empire 20 years ago, Telefilm said, “It won’t work. It’s just a bunch of people talking in a kitchen.” But we weren’t asking for a lot of money, so they gave it to us. A woman told me recently that Telefilm had wanted many changes and she didn’t like them but she wanted to make the film and felt she had no choice. It’s humiliating. If you asked for a loan on your house and the bank manager said, “The living room should be shorter and the kitchen should be –,“ you’d say, “It’s not your business.” This is a big problem. When you go to Telefilm and SODEC , and now Radio-Québec, you have to discuss everything. For Decline of the American Empire, it took two weeks to confirm funding and the contract was four pages long. Now it takes at least four months and contracts are 45 pages long, and 10 people give me notes on every draft.
Arthur Milner: I want go back to the question of film in English Canada. We’ve been very successful in literature, in music, in theatre. One could argue about whose music or theatre is more impressive, but it would be an argument. It’s only in film that the gulf is so wide. So how do we get there in English Canada? If you were the minister of cinema in English Canada –
Roger Frappier: The system is not working because films are not coming out of English Canada and they are not succeeding inside. But there’s more talent in Canada than in the films you see. The system has failed because there is not enough confidence in the people making the films – the producers, directors and writers. If there were greater confidence, I’m sure that over a period of three or four years the situation could change dramatically.
In Britain, when they decided to use lottery money for films, they selected certain companies to get money and others did not. I think there is a way to identify, in the Atlantic provinces, in Ontario, in the west and in Vancouver, five or six major production houses. First, I would give them the opportunity to capitalize their company. Second, I would give them development funds. Then, I would give them production funds for a period of five years. And over that period, those companies will make perhaps 50 films, and of those 20 will be fantastic and five will go around the world, which is proportionately more than the United States.
I’ve always liked the comparison between sports and creativity. There are 2,000 boys in Quebec who want to play for the Montreal Canadiens; 200 make it to the minor leagues and 20 are looked at and five invited to camp and one makes it to the club. And he’d better be good or he’ll be replaced. When you identify someone who has talent, if you don’t give him the opportunity to develop that talent, that talent won’t develop. Why can’t we do that in cinema?
It’s not in the Canadian constitution that each person has the right to make a feature film, but sometimes it seems that’s what Telefilm believes. It is too easy to make a film in Canada. It’s easy to make one film, the second one is difficult, and the third is nearly impossible. This, I think, is the real problem. It’s as if success works against you. I had exactly this problem about 10 years ago. I had three successes and then two projects were rejected. I went to Telefilm and I said, “I had three successes in a row and now I can’t get money. What’s going on?” The answer was, “If it’s more difficult for you, then it’s equal for everybody.” Because I won the race three times, I had to start at the back of the pack. I think this mentality is totally Canadian. It was the Quebec mentality for a long time but we got rid of it.
To me, the only answer is that when you find someone who has talent, give him or her the opportunity to make at least three or four films. A great filmmaker might make one masterpiece in his life and will also make five or six great films. Among the rest will be mostly good movies and a few flops. But to be able to achieve that he has to make 25 or 30 films. If you find someone who has talent, but you don’t give him or her the opportunity to work in continuity, how do expect this person to develop and to reach and audience? If Margaret Atwood had written only one book every four years, she would not be the writer that she is today. This is very, very important. But in Canada we don’t like success very much, so each time we find someone with talent, he has to go back in the queue and wait.
Arthur Milner: When you say that we have to give someone the opportunity to make three of four films, it’s the producer who gives a director or screenwriter the opportunity, not the funding agency. So is that what you’re saying – that if the producer has had success, funders have to give the producer the chance to do more?
Roger Frappier: Reward excellence. That is the change of mentality that is needed.