As Christa Dickenson gets set to step down as executive director and CEO of Telefilm Canada after four years as head of the country’s biggest film financier, she looks back on a four year tenure rocked by a pandemic and protests.

“For me, it meant 2020 was a catalyst for true cultural change at Telefilm,” Dickenson tells The Hollywood Reporter as the COVID-19 crisis and the murder of George Floyd, whose death sparked protests for racial justice, became inflection points for the transformation and modernization of the key Canadian film funder.

Besides investing in the reopening and recovery of Canada’s film production sector amid the pandemic, Dickenson also overcame criticism and opposition to increased financing for a greater diversity of Canadian creative voices, including new talent from the country’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities.

“We’re really conscious of how they’ve been left behind in the production industry in Canada for a long time,” the outgoing Telefilm head said of Black Canadian filmmakers, some of whom will debut their latest movies at TIFF.

Ahead of her departure, Dickenson sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss her tumultuous four years as head of Telefilm Canada, and the legacy she leaves her successor.

The Canadian film industry and the federal government have committed to investing more in diverse homegrown talent, in front and behind the camera. How has that impacted your tenure at Telefilm Canada?  

It’s had a huge impact. For us, being collaborative has been key to the transformational journey at Telefilm. The federal government was behind our priorities, which went beyond diversity. And the industry was really ready.

Telefilm was also impacted by the pandemic, and you introduced a temporary fund to offer key insurance coverage for film, TV and web series whose production schedules were interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis.

The federal government put in an incredible amount of investments during COVID. That was unheard of before. That allowed investments in companies with previous projects, but production and promotion of the films and Canadian creators. So, no surprise, the past two years of my mandate, and almost three, have been unbelievable.

As Telefilm Canada committed itself with your film financing to a more representative industry for Black, Indigenous, people of color creators, your organization faced its own criticism of systemic racism that had pervaded the industry as a whole.

We faced some really harsh criticism and we acknowledged the systemic racism that had existed for decades. For me, it meant 2020 was a catalyst for true cultural change at Telefilm, and two, that we with the government really made a clear commitment. It was the approach to unequivocally live up to our promise and our strategic plan to be a partner of choice.

Telefilm early on made real headway in closing the Canadian industry’s gender gap. But getting over hurdles to advancing and promoting BIPOC talent has taken longer. Why?

You’re correct in saying so. When I arrived at Telefilm, we already had a working group for gender parity and an indigenous working group. The work we’ve done in those areas has been thoughtful and slow and incremental to arrive at clear results. From a gender parity perspective, we have been tracking numbers attached to producer, director and screenwriter. Over the start in 2016, our goal was to reach gender parity at around 60-40 and we have.

But we began to look at the year-over-year data to get more granular because you can find a way to say, “Great, we’ve reached gender parity.” But in what categories and how?  What we realized was that the gender parity was stronger in documentaries or low-budget films, and not in big-budget films. What we’ve seen in recent years is women are accessing greater dollars, and that’s when we know we’re really starting to move the needle. It’s not a simple percentage. It’s looking at the whole picture.

At the same time, some BIPOC talent have been wary to approach Telefilm for funding, not certain they’d qualify for investments, but then felt welcome when they did come forward. Have you made efforts to help diverse talent navigate your application process?

I’m happy you say that, because, as I said earlier, 2020 was like the catalyst for the cultural change and one I started to bring at Telefilm, but it was small steps. What we did is we stopped and did a lot of introspection. The approach was to start from within. How can you change your programs If you haven’t changed your own makeup in the institution? The fact that who we are, what we do, it’s not just our look, it’s also our behavior, how we communicate, the language we use. We transformed and we evolved and that’s reflected in our programs and in our process and in our decision-making process and in our guidelines — and they evolve. So what we did is change the dialogue with the industry.

And that brought more diverse creators to your door for investments?

It had to start with communicating. There were some creators who did not recognize themselves or came to the Telefilm website and felt they didn’t know how to navigate this thing. So we started with a pan-Canadian, coast-to-coast consultation. With that, we introduced greater transparency, greater accountability and consistency. And we eliminated a modus of operating under exceptions. “Oh, we have a problem. Okay, let’s make an exemption.” Well, that’s just not fair. You need to be consistent. A lot of that was overdue. And to be frank, and not naïve, there’s still a lot more work to be done. I feel that Telefilm as an institution, as an executive team, the board, we took on a meaningful role in building and normalizing what I hope is a more representative and sustainable audiovisual industry.

Indie film these days, especially on streaming platforms, includes foreign language fare. Canadian cities are multicultural. Has Telefilm made progress in investing in foreign-language films, if only in part, by homegrown creators?

We’ve really moved the needle on that one. We’ve now started recently to throw into our universe a survey around authentic storytelling. It’s a very hot topic in Canada, and it’s delicate. Who says what? Telefilm is more about how is the story is told. We make sure to ensure there’s sensitivity reads of the scripts, to ensure it’s told in a sensitive manner. Authentic storytelling — it’s a big part of equity and diversity inclusion.  

Telefilm has rethought its film financing amid Canada’s racial reckoning by fixing a two-tiered industry where top producers get generous and automatic funding that smaller filmmakers, including from BIPOC communities, didn’t get. Tell us about that effort.

From the financing perspective, it’s about reducing the barriers. We had the pan-Canadian consultation, where we looked at a development program, the Talent to Watch program and the success index. The overriding conclusion was the success index created automatic funding for a certain few producers and was out of date. We no longer have that. There’s more people that are able to access more dollars in the selective stream, which by default means there’s more voices. And in the Talent to Watch, we’ve doubled the financing per project.

Telefilm has focused on supporting first-time filmmakers. Then there’s the challenge of funding second and third films to launch and sustain careers. How have you addressed those hurdles for BIPOC creators?

It’s something that’s challenging in all countries. Any equity seeking group, it’s even more difficult for them. Black and people of color are even further challenged, even if it’s universally the problem with any first-time filmmaker. So as part of Telefilm’s modernization, we looked at Talent to Watch, for instance. We optimized that to focus more on funding first-time filmmakers. But then there’s the struggle to have them make their second and third film. That‘s an industry-wide issue. We placed an incredible emphasis on promoting. We’re not just going to fund a project and tell filmmakers to go find their place in the world. We put a lot of emphasis on promoting Canadian talent at international festivals, and we’re focused on workshop training and mentorships. We’re looking to bolster the career trajectory of filmmakers.

Where is Telefilm’s diversity and inclusion initiative paying dividends in terms of breakout directors you support?

I think of the very first indigenous co-production, Night Raiders, by Denis Goulet and at Berlin and TIFF last year. In 2019, I remember being at the New Zealand networking meeting where it all began. Those opportunities, from investor to investor or funder to funder with a production team and talent, it’s understanding how we partner together. We may not necessarily be there to finance, but we will be there for the conversation and how to connect people. There’s also Antigone director Sophie Dupuis doing her second feature, Pascal Plante is at work on her third film, Rouge, and Heather Young is now on her second feature. I see it happening. And it’s not going to happen for everybody.

And specifically Black filmmakers in Canada?

We’re really conscious of how they’ve been left behind in the production industry in Canada for a long time. We’ve created a dedicated stream for Black creators. I stepped up when I heard when the Black Screen Office was created. We committed with support. Those steps are very important. We’ve learnt from the indigenous community with their pathways to protocol they put in place. And we’ve responded first by listening, then ensuring the dialogue is happening.

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