More, more, and more ado about Bill C-10

More, more, and more ado about Bill C-10 March 20, 2008

Today’s Globe and Mail notes that a certain movie with a naughty word in its title has been getting some free publicity here in Canada — and perhaps in the States, too? — thanks to the controversy that flared up a few weeks ago over Bill C-10:

Proponents of Ottawa’s controversial tax bill have pointed to the upcoming Canadian film Young People Fucking as a reason to curtail public funding for movies some deem offensive, while opponents of the bill from all sectors of the arts community are accusing the government of censorship.

All of this free publicity has helped to make distributors and cinemas anticipate a much larger audience for the film, and it will be given a wider release than originally planned. . . .

The Canadian release was set for mid-April. But the film has received a wealth of buzz from press reports that never fail to mention it in the debate over the omnibus tax bill. The bill would give the Heritage Minister the power to pull tax credits from Canadian productions which the Conservative government deems offensive.

The film’s release has now been moved to June or July, and the plan is to bill it as summertime fare for those who don’t want to see the latest Indiana Jones or Narnia sequels. This means that rather than a spring release in select theatres, the filmwill be rolled out in many of the same multiplexes carrying the summer blockbusters. A simultaneous U.S. release is also in the works, strengthened by the strong word of mouth in Canada. The current mock-up of the theatre poster depicts the letters “uck” as having fallen from the title and dropped to the bottom of the poster.

According to Hoban, Maple Pictures, which has a wide presence in English Canada, has teamed up to distribute the film with the original distributor Christal Films, which is stronger in Quebec and has a smaller, specialty market in the rest of the country. The U.S. distributor is Think Film. . . .

All of which reminds me, I’ve been gathering links to news stories and commentaries on the Bill C-10 controversy ever since my last post on this subject a couple weeks ago, but I haven’t posted them here yet. So, here they are, from sources as diverse as Variety, Maclean’s, and the usual Canadian newspapers. There is too much here for me to synthesize and comment on myself, so I’ll just post the headlines and some key paragraphs — though I think the two George Jonas items might come closest to my own take on the issue:

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Eye of the beholder
If Charles McVety has his way, Canadian culture is about to get a lot more boring. Mr. McVety, a well-known evangelical crusader, is taking credit for the fine print in a sneaky new bill that would allow government censors to pull financial aid for any film or television show they deem offensive – even if government agencies have already invested in them. From now on, every federally funded project will be vetted by bureaucrats from the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office and the Department of Justice, who will ensure that we are protected from disgusting displays of sin and filth and other things not in the public interest.

This is rotten news. We may just have to say goodbye to sex, violence, and Viggo Mortensen cavorting with Russian gangsters in the nude. Instead, we’ll have to settle for “films that Canadians can sit down and watch with their families in living rooms across this great country,” as Conservative MP Dave Batters put it. David Cronenberg will be reduced to shooting remakes of Anne of Green Gables. Juno will be recast as the heartwarming tale of a plucky girl who realizes that if she has premarital sex with her boyfriend, she’ll go to Hell. As for Young People Fucking, a new movie coming soon, forget about it. It will have to be reshot as Young People Starting an Abstinence Club.
Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail, March 1

Film industry groups want Ottawa to explain potential tax credit restrictions
Groups representing Canada’s film and television producers are hoping a series of upcoming meetings with Ministry of Heritage officials can explain the rationale behind a planned overhaul of a key federal tax credit program

Sandra Cunningham, chair of the board of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, said Monday’s scheduled meetings will allow ministry officials to explain the motivation behind a plan to deny tax credits to productions deemed to have offensive content.
Canadian Press, March 2

Senate Liberals vow to protect film industry from government bill
Senate Liberals are vowing to ensure that a controversial Conservative government bill doesn’t wind up becoming a tool to censor Canadian films and television programs.
Celine Hervieux-Payette, Senate Liberal leader, said Wednesday that the upper chamber will scrutinize Bill C-10 and won’t hesitate to amend it if necessary to protect artistic freedom.
Canadian Press, March 5

Movie madness
Needless to say, whoever pays the piper feels entitled to call the tune, and bureaucrats are no exception. The front-end of the subsidy-industry in Canada has been dominated from the outset by the appointees of the “progressive” left: Cultural officials of the politically correct variety, with a marked preference for flicks that reflect left-lib attitudes, ideas, and values. This has created relatively little friction as most filmmakers in “Hollywood North” share the world-view of Telefilm-types. No one cried censorship — as indeed there wasn’t any. The bureaucrats simply subsidized what they liked and didn’t what they didn’t.

Now, however, it seems that social conservatives want to get in on the act. The front door is occupied, so they set up their hoops for filmmakers to jump through at the back. This means taxpayers paying for two sets of bureaucrats to play film critic, with Telefilm’s liberals funding pictures of frontal nudity that are refused a tax-break by Heritage Ministry’s conservatives.
The concern that tail-end bureaucrats will evaluate eligibility for tax credits from a social conservative point of view has caused the word “censorship” to enter the debate. Publications such as the Hollywood Reporter talk about “censorship measures” in Bill C-10 — not surprisingly, as much of the press hasn’t a clue what censorship means.
Censorship would be for government to ban images below the belt. For government to refuse tax-breaks to images below the belt is just a policy. But policies can be ill-advised without amounting to censorship. Introducing an extra layer of uncertainty in the marginal economics of film financing could finish off the film industry in Canada. Not smart — unless that’s what the government wants.
George Jonas, CanWest Publications, March 6

Man the barricades! Film tax credits are taking fire!

Just so we’re clear: absolutely no one would be forbidden by Bill C-10 from making any kind of movie they liked — violent, sexual, uneducational, whatever. They just might not be able to get public funding to do it. That’s not censorship. It’s judgment. The public has every right, through its representatives, to decide how its money is spent. If artists don’t want to abide by the rules, no one’s forcing them to take the cash. If free speech were really their thing, they’d go after laws that criminalize speech, including the obscenity and hate speech bans. But that kind of censorship they’re okay with. It’s only when their immortal right to reach into someone else’s wallet is imperilled that they mount the barricades.
Andrew Coyne, Maclean’s, March 6

Sex films don’t need subsidies
Sex sells, so why does it need a government subsidy? Amid the balder and dash being served up on the subject of changes to the Income Tax Act, designed to allow the government to “better target” tax incentives for Canadian films, this question has received scant attention. . . .
To corrupt an old joke, the definition of hell is a place where the English are the cooks, the Germans are the police, the Swiss are the lovers and Charles McVety is in charge of television scheduling.

I agree with him but not because I’m offended as a Christian: Rather, I’m outraged as a taxpayer. Telefilm Canada handed out $158-million last year, including to such productions as Sperm and The Masturbators. But while they or the other yet-to-be-released movies and shows may well prove to be the next Away from Her, Barbarian Invasions or Trudeau, all of which were award-winners and received substantial Telefilm funding, they are just as likely to be the next Web-dreams, Kink or G-Spot, titillating late-night fare designed almost exclusively to provoke hand-to-gland combat. . . .
If the makers of Bliss or Webcam Girls want to continue to produce their shows — or if they have a vacancy for a backscrubber — then that’s terrific. But they should do it without our tax dollars. As Pierre Trudeau so rightly said, there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.
John Ivison, National Post, March 6

Canadian film title causes stir

The irony is that the film with the attention-grabbing title is actually a romantic comedy with no explicit sex, and Hoban is touting the film’s first-time director Martin Gero as maybe the next Woody Allen. But it apparently rubbed more than a few politicians the wrong way, particularly when it had its launch on the opening night of the Toronto Film Festival last September, with an apres-film bash at a local swingers club. . . .
What Hoban and others fear is that the legislation will lead to banks refusing to loan producers cash because lenders will be afraid the tax credits could be revoked after filming. Right now, producers borrow money based on the notion they’ll repay the loans once they receive their tax credits.
Variety, March 7

Uproar over ‘contrary to public policy’
When Canada’s government moved to strip tax credits from film and video productions that are “contrary to public policy,” an election was on the horizon, and the public’s reaction was swift and unanimous. No one noticed.
That was in November, 2003, when Paul Martin was about to take over from Jean Chretien as Liberal Prime Minister, and tax reform was low on the public priority list. With little fanfare and even less scandal, and after what they described as a long period of industry consultation, Deputy Prime Minister John Manley and Minster of Heritage Sheila Copps proposed that Canadian film and video productions will receive tax credits provided that “public financial support of the production would not be contrary to public policy.”

Almost five years later, draft legislation with those exact words made it through the House of Commons with barely a whisper of dissent — Liberal John McCallum called it “sensible” –and is now before the Senate for review.
Today, however, Bill C-10, a lengthy omnibus bill of technical changes to tax law, is the national scandal of the week.
National Post, March 8

C-10 isn’t censorship — but it’s still wrong
Good news for my filmmaker buddy David Cronenberg. He was a Young Turk only yesterday, and now he’s officially mainstream. The confirmation comes from the Department of Heritage, which issued a communique this week, saying: “The measure contained in Bill C-10 addresses only the most extreme and gratuitous material, not mainstream films such as ‘Eastern Promises,’ ‘Borderline’ and ‘Ma Fille, Mon Ange.'”
That’s a weight off my shoulder. “Eastern Promises” is a Cronenberg film, produced by my other buddy, Robert Lantos, but I won’t have to leap to the defence of my friends in showbiz. They aren’t targeted; they need no protection. . . .

Should Bill C-10 become law, a committee of Heritage Ministry’s smut-, hate- and violence-hunters could deny tax credits to a completed film, even one in which the government had invested up front. From that day, no fiscally responsible institution would feel comfortable offering interim financing to any film. Imagine a charity trying to raise funds with tax receipts that may or may not be valid.
The pot-luck nature of such enterprise can’t be rectified by press releases assuring the industry that the Minister will only throw her weight around in what she considers the most extreme cases, or that she and her officials can distinguish between “gratuitous” and “mainstream” images below the belt. Balderdash. Filmmakers need to be free from bureaucratic interference when they’re on the fringes, before they become mainstream and win the Cronenberg-exemption for frontal nudity. In any event, as we know from recent Human Rights Commission cases, a bureaucracy, once empowered, has no compunction about interfering with institutions as mainstream as Maclean’s magazine.
George Jonas, National Post, March 8

There are some films Ottawa shouldn’t bankroll

In order to understand this uproar, one must first examine the origins of the bill itself.
The Bill originated with former Liberal Heritage minister Sheila Copps — hardly Canada’s leading fundamentalist censor — who aimed to prevent public funds from financing a film about Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. While no one opposed the bill, it meandered around for the last five years and has been reintroduced in two subsequent parliaments.
The bill is well-supported and well-needed.
Pierre Poilievre, National Post, March 8

Here we go again: art, politics and censorship
As with many debates, the truth seems to lie somewhere in between. For even if the government does decide, as artists fear, to withhold tax credits from any production it dislikes, that would not, strictly speaking, amount to censorship. Artists would still be able to create anything they like; they simply wouldn’t receive (indirect) government funding for their creations.

Similarly, the words of the provision seem to belie Verner’s words. Rather than stating that the minister could refuse tax credits for films that might run afoul of the Criminal Code, it uses the phrase “contrary to public policy.” And public policy encompasses a lot more than the criminal law.
Just what it encompasses in this case is a mystery, and will remain a mystery until Canadian Heritage makes its intent explicit. This is probably what has upset arts organizations the most, as the vagueness of the provision opens the door for total government control of the film industry.
Peter McKnight, Vancouver Sun, March 8

The barbarians aren’t quite at the gate
DUBAI -You want to see the latest in Egoyan’s oeuvre, but it’s been banned by the morality police. It’s just after 11 at night. After a few belts from a flask, you duck down an alley in an abandoned warehouse. KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK! A slot opens on an unmarked metal door. Silence. “Pinsent,” you squeak. “Wha?” a voice growls. “Uh, Gordon Pinsent.” The lock snaps. The door opens a crack. You’re in.
Imagine how much better Canadian film will be now that Bill C-10 is law. Even the dreariest downer about an alcoholic, lactose-intolerant, single mother who prefers sex with gay sheep will seem dangerous.

At least that’s how it is in the Persian Gulf, where this short filmmaker who isn’t very tall is currently reporting on the movie scene for a new English-language newspaper. “The underground movie scene in Iran is amazing,” a Dubai distributor told me. “When the cafes close everyone heads to these cinemas.”
Even in the more lenient United Arab Emirates, where I’m living, the Conservatives’ legislation to withhold tax credits from films and TV programs that don’t mesh with “public policy” would be rejected as too liberal.
Movies are often pulled if even one complaint is registered. Grindhouse, last year’s Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double bill, was yanked from theatres after one day because locals thought the print was scratched; never mind that the grainy look was part of an homage to old B-movies. . . .
A little perspective would be nice when it comes to censorship. Many classic Hollywood films were made under production laws, which stated that, “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Yet, under the so-called Hays Code, John Ford managed to make The Searchers, George Stevens directed Shane and Alfred Hitchcock crafted Vertigo. You could also argue Stanley Kubrick’s best work — Spartacus, Paths of Glory — came when he didn’t have absolute creative license.

Craig Courtice, National Post, March 8

A quantum of sex-ed proposals
And how about Young People F—ing? (There were letters there when I typed it. You’ll have to imagine them.) Was ever a Canadian movie so lucky with its title?
Much of the free publicity — the movie opens next month — is courtesy of Christian evangelist Charles McVety, pictured. McVety exerts influence on the current government, backbench to front. He has lobbied all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. Now an item of legislation would cancel tax credits for Canadian movies depicting sexual acts that have no educational purpose. Such a law would encourage filmmakers to enhance the tutorial utility of their sex scenes. . . .
McVety is all over the news about Young People F—ing. He objects to the title– you can’t say it on TV or read it unbleeped in this newspaper. Being an evangelist and president of the Canada Family Action Coalition, his job is to get the word out. Being a grown man, he looks silly if he has to spell it out. “Eff-yoo-see-kay….”
“Family action” could mean various things. It could mean an action that produces a family — a family-starting, family-increasing action. “Coalition” could be another word, again not a sexy-rude one, for this action. Here is what I am thinking. Release the movie under two titles. In art houses, Young People F—ing. In multiplexes and church basements, Young People in Family Action Coalition. This way, word of the movie can be spread to all Canadians who may wish to learn by watching its examples.

Kevin Baker, National Post, March 8

Culture, condescension and Bill C-10: a response to Andrew Coyne
I presume you were just being rhetorical, so I’ll grant you some artistic license, though it irks me to see journalists crapping on artists from a great height. But let’s look at the crux of your argument—that the government has every right to judge the films that it finances with our tax dollars, and that it already does exactly that through funding agencies like Telefilm. That’s irrefutably true. But you overlook what filmmakers find most distressing about Bill C-10: this legislation would give Ottawa the right to retroactively deny tax credits already granted to films that have been approved for public funding.
Aside from subjecting filmmakers to double jeopardy, that would have the effect of spooking private investors who might otherwise be interested in risky projects. Canadian film budgets are a mix of public and private financing. No one would invest in potentially controversial films under such an absurd condition—i.e. with the federal co-investor saying, “If we don’t like the way the movie turns out, we’ll yank our support.” So even before it’s enforced, Bill C-10 would impose a chill on artistic expression, and serve as an act of de facto censorship.

Brian D. Johnson, Maclean’s, March 10

Censoring Canada’s film-makers by stealth
This is a government that is supportive of entrepreneurship. So where are the Ministers of Industry, of Finance, of Foreign Affairs, of Human Resources and External Commerce — people who, in the face of C-10, might have a concern about the economic health and survival of this industry?
Arnie Gelbart, National Post, March 11

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MAR 22 UPDATE: And now Mark Steyn chips in with his two bits:

– – –

Pitch this
As it happens, Young People F—ing doesn’t exactly live up to its name, and the photograph that appeared in the National Post was oddly reminiscent of old-time sex comedies like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, where the swingers arrange themselves in bed with Elliott Gould’s hairy chest spreading across the screen like Eurasian milfoil choking an Ontario lake, but with Natalie Wood sitting demurely with the sheet tucked up around her embonpoint. So, given that its only inappropriate content is the title, presumably Young People F—ing could change its title to Young People Petting or Young People Spooning and still keep its funding. But what my “Will Steyn Stand By Young People F—ing?” reader was demanding to know was whether I, as a self-declared crusader for free speech in Maclean’s battle against Canada’s “human rights” commissions, would have the consistency and integrity to defend these filmmakers against the attempts of Bill C-10 to suppress their free speech.

Answer: no. These two things are not the same. As Andrew Coyne argued trenchantly last week, it’s not censorship to deny someone public funding. I’m not a great fan of government arts subsidy, and it seems pretty clear from that four per cent market share that it’s done nothing to promote any kind of “Canadian cultural identity,” even if you accept that the sin of Onan is a uniquely Canadian cultural component. But free money is not the same as free speech. Nobody is stopping any of these filmmakers from making their films; they’re simply stopping the cheque. It would not seem unreasonable that any truly “bold” “courageous” “radical” “transgressive” content should have to work a little to find a publisher, producer or distributor. (Ask me in a couple of years’ time, after Mohamed Elmasry has succeeded in getting me banned from Canadian media.) It speaks volumes for the complacency of our movie industry that the presumption of government subsidy is so universal that Canada’s artists now see it as analogous to freedom itself. It is, says David Cronenberg, “a direct assault on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” not to mention “like something they’d do in Beijing.”
Actually, it’s the Maclean’s case that’s “like something they’d do in Beijing”: Canadian government investigators charge publishers and writers with thought crimes and drag them before tribunals in which normal rules of due process are suspended.
There is no presumption of innocence, and (in federal Section 13 cases) a 100 per cent conviction rate. I’m not one to bandy Chinese comparisons idly, but I think I’d put Maclean’s ahead of The Masturbators in that department.
Mark Steyn, Maclean’s, March 22

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