September 15, 2007

Topic: A New Strategic Plan for Toronto’s Screen-based Industry

Toronto’s acting film commissioner, Peter Finestone, says the industry is facing a crisis. Reasons include changing market realities and global competition. According to the recently drafted strategic plan for the city’s screen based industry - which means everything from the production of films to commercials and music videos - spending on major feature films is down 35 percent and commercial production has slipped 65 percent. There is, however, consensus that the Toronto Film Board, established three years ago, to give stronger voice to the industry, is out of tune with the flavour of the times.

But while the plan calls for innovative thinking and integration, very little in its 18 recommendations demonstrates a step away from the old assumption that what is good for the screen-based industry is automatically good for every one else. Indeed, the word environment, either natural or cultural doesn’t even surface in the plan.

An average annual contribution to the economy of $1 billion has to be weighed against the costs of tax credits and subsidies and public services such as police supervision during production, inconvenience to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians trying to get around the city, air pollution from exhaust fumes and noise pollution from simulated gun shots. Equally important is the continuing erosion of safety in our communities, schools, universities and night clubs from the fall-out of violent entertainment known to exacerbate social problems. These include youth gang violence, murders, assault against women, abduction and sexual exploitation of children, accelerated criminality in the 8 block section of Toronto’s entertainment district, the rising incidence of reckless car racing, theft and the relentless commercial exploitation of children. The latter are not only victims of aggressive marketing of violent entertainment but junk food as well, which contributes to a growing host of physical as well as mental health problems. It is time the Board stopped avoiding the elephant in the room.

On June 9th it was reported in the LA Times that the screen body count is piling up in Hollywood South as well. It seems that audience fatigue is setting in from an entertainment deluge of crazed killers, wanton vampires and jiggling coeds. Surely re-inventing and re-investing in these tired old genres is hardly the best way to rejuvenate Toronto’s sagging industry? Propping up and subsidizing bloody action films, television programs and video games is a shaky justification for more tax based support.

Earlier this year it was reported by the Vanier Institute that we ‘ve had a dramatic increase in children and teenagers with behavior problems in the past 30 years. A lack of role models is cited as the major reason for an erosion in civility.

The Toronto Film Board should take a hint from Leonardo DiCaprio’s film, “The 11th Hour”which opened a couple of weeks ago to sold out audiences across North America. Following on the heels of Al Gore’s enormously popular film, “An Inconvenient Truth”, Di Caprio’s film also underscores the increasing urgency for action on environmental issues if we are to survive as a species.

What is especially noteworthy about Di Caprio’s film is the emphasis on climate change and the coming energy crisis as symptoms of a much larger problem. He and others point to our consumer driven, materialistic lifestyles with appetites for non-renewable, polluting fossil fuels that know no bounds. He concludes his credits with a line that his film was produced with the least amount of energy use possible.

That is where our Film Board should start. Not only should they be concerning themselves with the environmental foot print with each production granted a permit but also with the nature of the content - how violent and/or pornographic is it? Reducing the amount of glamorized violence as entertainment would be an enormously cost effective approach to community safety and result in better education in our schools as well. Fear is always an impediment to effective learning.

Leaning on cash strapped City Hall to pour more money into bonuses and other financial incentives to compete with other North American jurisdictions to attract any kind of production at all, regardless of its nature and the consequences is only to add to the problem. It’s time the Board started applying itself to 21st century realities of full cost accounting. Toronto may indeed have the most fully articulated industry in Canada and be perfectly positioned to lead in the digital age but the criteria on how best to proceed has yet to be defined. The screen-based industry is too important not to rise to the greatest challenges of our time.

********************************************************************** Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D.
Chair: C-CAVE and the Media Working Group - Science for Peace (University of Toronto)
Editor- The Learning Edge
Author of MIND ABUSE: Media Violence In An Information Age
Co-author of MEDIA, SEX, VIOLENCE and DRUGS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE and Terrorism, Globalization & Mass Communication