Filmmaker Heath Tait: Portrait of a Vancouver Vagabond – Part 3
Part 3 and the final installment of the Filmmakers Notebook Q&A with Canadian Filmmaker Heath Tait, who has produced the award winning documentary “Vancouver Vagabond”.
You paint a different picture of what it’s like to be a Canadian Filmmaker from the one Americans are often presented with, so what recommendations would you make to anyone thinking about producing a movie in your country?
Americans hear about the tax dollar social subsidies that are available to Canadian film producers and develop envy, not fully understanding that there is most often a price that goes with that acceptance of funds. The paperwork required is onerous, there is no guarantee you will win the funds, and you need a distributor on board to release the film upon completion. And, IF the movie makes money, the subsidies must be paid back- it is a loan, not a grant. The problem is a systemic one wherein, as a result of the US studios and networks dumping American content into Canada for generations, and our provincial and Federal governments doing nothing to stop them, the only means of distribution is perhaps a very short run in the theatres for the largest films, followed by the standard ghettoized TV market. The returns in the US dominated TV markets are often not nearly enough to cover production costs, let alone a profit margin. The result is that Canadian movies receive little exposure and are most often viewed as a burden by Canadian networks that rely on US content to make their profits.
The subsidies for film therefore, while ensuring employment for the Canadian film industry, are tax dollars wasted in theory of producing product for its very purpose of entertaining, educating and fulfilling the Canadian public with their own endeavors. Distribution is almost impossible when competing with an organization like Hollywood that spends typically half their budget on marketing. Sovereign countries all have a standard of approx. 23% domestic market share. English Canada, which has the longest undefended border with it’s neighbor in the world and which predominantly speaks the same language and adheres to the same culture, has a constant standard of approx. 1.5% domestic market share. This is the stark unfortunate reality that English Canadian filmmakers should acknowledge before jumping into a production thinking (as young people tend to do) that they are going to break the proverbial mould and emerge as an exception. Every Canadian generation produces young people that think this way. I should know as I was just one of them, until I found out these facts (which none of my film teachers at film/ art school ever bothered to share with me). Inevitable, it is discouraging. This is why so many of our Canadian talent end up thriving in the US, while those that remain in Canada end up marginalized and insignificant. Marketing and distribution’s control is essential.
Is there anything you foresee happening that will help independent filmmakers get movies made in Canada or assist the industry in general?
Not really. As explained previously, control of distribution is essential and as long as the so-called sovereign nation of Canada forfeits control of its releasing standards and continues consuming so much “foreign” American content, it will continue to lose enormous tax dollars on fruitless subsidies and never grow a prosperous independent film industry. Canada is a country very much in denial about many things including movies and culture. The more I look at Canada and its policies, the more I see a highly debatable modern experiment that lacks a clearly defined vision of itself. We are very reactionary to the USA.
How has social media helped you in promoting yourself and “Vancouver Vagabond”?
There is a certain disenfranchisement for traditional filmmakers that accompanies this “democracy” of media, one that ironically thwarts recognition of the depth and breadth of their skills and professionalism. Professional media and calling oneself a “professional” filmmaker more than ever becomes a question of monetization; whether an adequate return can be generated from media when so much is constantly being generated by hobbyists and twitter-bug types of every sort and by “professionals” disseminating free content as a promotional tool for something greater. I find myself in this situation whereby so much time is now spent on the internet engaging social media instead of working on building films themselves.
So, while social media can be beneficial in building up one’s persona, ego, brand, film-whatever, it takes a lot of time, work, attention, and is something that is now open to everyone and their dog to do the same. What I find discouraging is that social media has become very much a tool in the hands of the masses to engage a sort of rebellion against professional media and the “star” elites. It’s the revenge of peasants against the castle of old, the eternal class struggle that drives them to typically embrace crappy novice media over slick professional posts. As a professional media worker, overall I have not benefitted by social media nearly as much as any number of non-professionals who have built large networks and deliver a constant dose of cheap garbage content, which seemingly appeals to the lower elements of society. Very sorry to say.
Of all the roles you’ve had in filmmaking: producer, cinematographer, writer, director, etc., which one do you enjoy the most and why?
I really like all roles in the creative process, but if I had to choose onem it would be directing because then I am able to engage all creative aspects and guide and nurture them along in their transformation into their combined brilliance- the film itself.
What does being a successful filmmaker look like to you?
The ideal is to achieve the production of truly enchanted film content, guarantee its proper promotion, distribution and appreciation while getting paid well. All too often in filmmaking and the creation of other intellectual properties, there is stark sacrifice in there somewhere.
What advice would you like to give other filmmakers?
Power of distribution is everything and always will be. This is most evident in the sheer number of disappointing movies out there, which have nonetheless received excellent exposure just because they have a well branded actor in the film that the distributor is able to leverage in the marketplace.
As Hunter S. Thompson wrote: “The movie business is a shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs”.
It’s a hell of a life if you can make it inside, but unless you’re one of the lucky few who can get there happily, and remain happy once having arrived, be prepared for a rocky road. Passion will always drive the genuine ones forward. And some of those people actually reach the top. It is the fairy tale dream of the world, after all.