NFB postpones release of strategic plan amid dispute with creators

TORONTO — The National Film Board of Canada has postponed the release of its next strategic plan amid an ongoing dispute between its commissioner, Claude Joli-Coeur, and a group of directors about the institution's spending priorities.

The NFB tells The Canadian Press the strategic plan, which typically outlines its goals for a period of five years, was originally scheduled to be released July 15 but will now likely come out in the fall so the institution "can consult further with stakeholders."

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A group of more than 250 freelance directors known as ONF/NFB Creation say they hope this means Joli-Coeur will address the concerns they've raised for over two years about the film board's budget expenditures and workplace culture.

"Out of that we hope will come proper representation, a proper exchange and a process of rebuilding the film board, which severely needs it," Montreal-based filmmaker Philippe Baylaucq, an ONF/NFB Creation spokesman, said in a phone interview.

The Canadian Press requested an interview with Joli-Coeur this week but an NFB representative said he "won't be doing any further interviews at this stage," noting "his priority for the moment is to re-engage stakeholders in a constructive dialogue."

Last month, when Joli-Coeur was reappointed government film commissioner and chair of the NFB for another three years, ONF/NFB Creation expressed dismay, noting "the National film Board is in crisis."

In a statement, the ONF/NFB Creation alleged the film board's production funding has decreased since 2002, and that spending on non-filmmaker salaries and institutional, legal and human resources services has increased.

The group acknowledges the NFB has faced steep budget cuts from the federal government since the 1990s but argues there's too much administrative bloat and not enough money being put into filmmaking.

ONF/NFB Creation also wants the film board to provide more transparency regarding its expenditures and take more input from creators in its decision-making.

The group is also calling for the NFB roles of film commissioner and chair of the board of trustees to be separated so there can be "proper oversight of NFB management."

Joli-Coeur denied the expenditure claims in a recent interview with The Canadian Press, noting the NFB's number of productions is increasing and insisting he has "a lot of consideration for the creators."

He pointed to its annual report of 2017-2018, which shows that 50 per cent of the approximately $72-million budget went to production last year.

Joli-Coeur also said the NFB's next annual report shows that this year, out of a budget of $67 million, roughly 50 per cent went to production.

ONF/NFB Creation claims the NFB numbers Joli-Coeur refers to are enlarged because they include in-house spending.

Using documents they say were acquired through an Access to Information request as well as input from producers, the group says "external production" spending — that is, money put toward NFB creators who are freelanced — has actually gone down.

ONF/NFB Creation also says the number of productions appears large because it includes many projects that are short in length and don't require a lot of time to make.

The group would like to see more money put into projects that are more in-depth and have a longer production time to allow creators to develop special techniques.

"When I see what's happening, it really hurts me, because I'm passionate about that place," said Vancouver filmmaker David Fine, a longtime film board collaborator whose 2018 NFB animated short "Animal Behaviour," made with Alison Snowden, got an Oscar nomination.

"It's not like us filmmakers want to undermine the NFB. We feel a deep passion about what it should be and how it should support filmmaking and artists and how it's become somewhat top-heavy, and in a lot of ways, run by managers that have little relation to filmmaking experience."

In an interview after his reappointment was announced in late June, Joli-Coeur said he disagrees with the way the ONF/NFB Creation has culled its financial information, noting "at the end of the day we should just use the audited financial reports."

The two sides appeared to have reached an impasse until Tuesday, when Joli-Coeur and upper management held three meetings with NFB staff in Montreal to talk about the dispute, said Baylaucq.

"The meeting on Tuesday was an historic meeting," said Baylaucq, who was at the first two gatherings.

"I've never heard NFB staff speak so openly and courageously to the people that can terminate their contracts. I was really impressed. Essentially people were saying the workload and the administer bloat has to stop and we need to be more efficient and we need to have creators by our side."

Meanwhile, an inauguration of the NFB's new Montreal building originally scheduled for November has been pushed to February 2020. The NFB says it's because the theatre and public space for screenings, activities and special events will not be ready in 2019. However, NFB staff and creators will move to the new building in September as planned.

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