Budget cuts prompt closing of NFB Mediatheque in Toronto
Granted, at times, I feel uncomfortable discussing Canadian politics. Who am I, transplanted New Yorker that I am, to say, right? But I intend to stay, so there… One of the things that I find fascinating about Canada and Canadians is the on-going and very earnest discussion about what it means to be Canadian, and the importance that cultural product gets in the discussion. So yeah, it seems kind of tragic to see deep budget cuts that go right to heart of the production and distribution of distinctly Canadian content.
I’ll just set aside the time-tested foundation of Keynesian economics that the best way to claw out of a recession is to spend out of it, saving cutbacks and belt tightening for flusher economic times. The NFB is a national treasure right? Right? If you want to know more about my thoughts on the topic, read this piece that I wrote for Toronto Film Scene:
Losing our national arts treasures? Budget cuts prompt closing of NFB Mediatheque
If you happened to stick your head out of your window on the morning of April 4, 2012 in Toronto, you might have heard a faint groaning sound rolling across the city. That would be the sound of Toronto’s significant filmmaking and passionate film-going communities reacting to the National Film Board’s budget cut announcement. It’s one thing to know theoretically that the NFB was mandated to cut 10% of its operating budget, a real number of $6.68 million over 3 years. It’s another thing entirely to learn that Toronto loses 33 full and part-time jobs and the NFB Mediatheque as a result of those cuts.
“Like a lot of other institutions, the NFB was asked to contribute to the effort to reduce the national deficit and we lost 10% of our federal allocation,” says Lily Robert, spokesperson for the NFB. “An amount that large implies impact. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it’s really difficult to make those decisions.”
As difficult as it was to make the specific cuts, Robert stresses that the NFB has a clear mandate and it was that mandate that guided all of the decisions. “Internally we had to ask, ‘What is our core business?’ The job of the NFB is to produce innovative and distinctive films,” say Robert. “Though we made big cuts, we only reduced production budgets by 1%. The NFB will continue to produce interesting and innovative stories of all kinds.”
In the past few years of economic turmoil, a familiar refrain from all fronts has been “it’s bad, but not as bad as it could have been” and such is the case with the NFB. While it’s true that the NFB Mediatheque theatre, along with the screening room housing digital stations, will shutter in September of 2012, the Mediatheque workshops and educational programs will continue. Robert also notes that the NFB remains committed to partnering with community organizations such as libraries and festivals to promote media literacy and bring NFB productions to the public. However those production budgets do remain intact, and that collective groan mentioned earlier may also have been followed by a sigh of relief from filmmakers.
“Our mandate is clear. Our mandate is to lead where there is no clear business model for the private sector and to help filmmakers innovate and make audacious films and products,” says Robert. “Animation can take years to complete, and interactive media is exciting, but those don’t necessarily present a clear business model to the private industry. The NFB fills that funding role.”
It’s probably not possible to truly quantify the importance of the NFB in Canadian cinema, though just three short weeks ago Toronto Film Scene tried with the cover story “The National Film Board of Canada: building a national cinema worth awarding.” While losing a rich distribution channel like the NFB Mediatheque is a blow, the approach of preserving production budgets is sensible. After all, what is the point of running a Mediatheque when you don’t have the films to screen?
It is admirable for the NFB to maintain production budgets and strategize about how to do more with less, but filmgoers and makers are right to feel a growing sense of concern for cuts in stalwart cultural organizations. These recent cuts are the third round of major cuts in less than 20 years for the NFB. Its budget was reduced by five per cent last year, though that cut did not result in job losses. In 1995, the NFB absorbed a $25 million dollar budget cut and lost 180 employees over three years. Filmmaking is crucial to Canada, not only as an economic industry but as a point of national identity, and the time to worry about the “death by 1000 cuts” phenomena is after the 3rd cut, not after the 999th one.
Of course, Toronto Film Scene is a film magazine, not a political one. But it’s difficult to tease apart the value of producing Canadian content versus the political conditions that lead to deep budget cuts in cultural organizations. The NFB is not alone here – Telefilm Canada and the venerable CBC are also struggling with 10% cuts in overall operating budgets. That clearly spells a significant reduction in content made in Canada, by Canadians, that address the issues and topics important to Canadians.
While the NFB may be able to deal with this round of cuts it’s important for film consumers to embrace the NFB, its mission, and exercise their consumer power to avoid future blows. If you care about the NFB, go to screenings of NFB produced films. If you value the role played by the NFB in your community, support those efforts by participating in community events and workshops. If you’re filmmaker, take advantage of the support the NFB offers for your innovative projects. And if you’re anyone, take advantage of the rich film history of the National Film Board by delving into the archives at NFB.ca or downloading the truly amazing iPhone and iPad app for viewing NFB archives.
Original artwork by Bennett O’Brian.
This piece was originally published at www.thetfs.ca.