How Canada is spearheading media revolution Meeting in the middle

Augmented Montreal
© Colourbox / Giovanni

Canada is a world leader in film, games and interactive media. That’s no coincidence, but the result of a visionary media policy that allows the country to assert itself successfully against the superior power of Hollywood. We take a look at Montreal.

What was once a small Gallic village in an English-speaking world is now a bustling metropolis with four million inhabitants and one of the most important media locations in North America. Montreal is home to Ubisoft, the Cirque du Soleil and to leading postproduction service providers. The National Film Board of Canada is also based here. The city and the province of Quebec are working hard to bring the classic content industries into the twenty-first century. In doing so, they have developed a radiance that reaches far beyond the starting point of their media policy – the preservation of francophone culture as exception culturelle in Canada.
 
Four major factors have contributed to this success. The first is the focus on computer- and video games. The Canadian games industry is the third largest in the world after the US and Japan. Unlike in Germany, The Ubisoft building in Montreal The Ubisoft building in Montreal | © Monik Richter which, to this date, still does not have a triple-A studio, this branch of entertainment has been deliberately expanded ever since its beginnings in the 1980s. A tax deduction on labour costs introduced in 1996 promotes the development of game companies and also makes them appealing for foreign productions. Ubisoft produces Assassin’s Creed and Warner Brothers makes the Batman games in Montreal. Nothing is felt here of the rejection by the educated middle class this industry still suffers under in Germany. Seventy percent of Canadians consider games an important economic segment that will continue to secure jobs for them in the future. In the digital age, the emphasis on computer and video games is proving to be a competitive advantage: Web-based entertainment is inherently interactive. Concepts and tools from game design play a major role in the development of new entertainment formats.
 
Another success factor is the funding system, which specifically takes into account changes in media usage habits and consistently promotes the connection of old and new media. In Quebec, three institutions focus on this: SODEC, CMF and NFB. Each enables media innovation in its own way. SODEC (Société de développement des entreprises culturelles) is a state agency promoting the cultural and creative industries. In addition to film and television, it also includes art, theatre, music and the book industry. Supporting games and interactive content since 2016, SODEC has clearly recognised the digital dimension of the arts and media and is challenging the traditional content industries to reinvent themselves. The agency (budget 2018: 100 million CAD, shared with the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ)) promotes companies as well as projects, and coordinates tax credits related to media production.
 
Joint funding for TV productions and interactive media is provided by the Canada Media Fund. The CMF supports experimental media and software development with a budget of 42 million CAD (in 2018). Projects must prove either commercial potential or social relevance. For instance, in 2016 the Virtual Reality adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Insomnia was promoted. The CMF also supports convergent entertainment formats (budget 2018: 280 million CAD), whereby television and digital media must be combined in such a way that they are enabled to maximize their reach. The intersection can either consist of a cross-platform sales strategy (TV plus video on demand, for example) or of a transmedia value-creation model, whereby content is created for each pathway. Major TV shows, national sports events and popular series like Unité 9 are the beneficiaries of this mechanism. Although the CMF’s promotion of media convergence does stimulate innovation, it also has some disadvantages. What if a project includes only one feature, such as a games app? In this case, the funding opportunities can be quite limited, which disadvantages for example the creators of independent games.
 
The source of CMF’s funds is also interesting. Part of the money is generated from repayments and profits from finished productions. In addition, distribution channels such as cable, radio and satellite must contribute to the production of new content. There are plans to extend this obligation to Internet providers and telecommunications companies, but have not yet come to pass.
 
The National Film Board of Canada holds a special status. The NFB (budget 2018: 35 million CAD ) acts as a film fund, production house and laboratory all in one and in its long history has played a major role in the shaping of Cinéma Vérité, IMAX, 3D and computer animation. In 2009, the institution redirected its focus and has since been equally promoting feature films, documentaries, animation and new media. In the digital domain, the NFB adopts a platform-agnostic approach. Some projects, like the game I Love Potatoes about social innovation, are purely web-based. Others such as Unknown Photographer, which turns a photo archive from the First World War into an interactive experience, begin as an e-book and are then adapted to a new medium like Virtual Reality. Another project was made available exclusively on the live streaming video portal Twitch.
 

The question is always how emerging technologies can lead to innovative contents and forms. Due to an interdisciplinary development approach, projects often extend to various media and platforms (Journal of Insomnia, Cancer of Time). An important aim is to initiate a social discourse and to let the media users speak for themselves (Bear 71, Megaphone). The choice of project partners is rather open. Even newspaper publishers can initiate projects and receive funding, as it was the case with the New York Times for the feature Short History of the Highrise.
 
The third success factor is the educational system. Diverse multidisciplinary degree programs and media innovation labs allow students to experiment with new narrative forms early on and to build cross-industry networks. At the INIS film school (Institut national de l’image et du son), a study program for interactive media stands on an equal footing with the traditional courses in film and television. At TAG (Technoculture, Art and Games), a multidisciplinary centre for the study and creation of games and digital art at Concordia University in Montreal, students are working on new digital experiences. For example, the award-winning game Kentucky Route Zero was developed at TAG. Graduates have access to the lab at all times in order to permanently connect education and professional life.
 
A fourth component of success is cultural. Canadians approach technology far more naturally than most Europeans. Also – and media representatives emphasise this again and again – there is a true maker culture in Canada. If you want something, you tackle it. A silo mentality, typical of German professional associations in media matters, is unknown here.
 
The example of Canada demonstrates how the various media industries must be re-categorised culturally, economically and socially in the digital age. The future lies in cross-sector collaboration and in an audience-centered approach. The media scene is organised in such a way that authors, filmmakers, artists, journalists, game designers, producers, programmers and data analysts can meet as equal partners. This expresses the hope that their combined creative potential can help us make the significance of digital technologies tangible.