Tom Perlmutter and Canada’s Venerable NFB
Perhaps no organization is more synonymous with excellence in animated shorts than the National Film Board of Canada. Since Norman McLaren put the first animation team together in 1942, the NFB has produced some of the world’s most famous and certainly most enjoyable animated shorts, garnering 8 Oscars and literally thousands of international awards.
And yet, this tremendous legacy of success comes against the backdrop of a recent identity crisis, a question of relevance and purpose in the face of shrinking government coffers and just as importantly, seismic shifts in how people find, watch and purchase animated shorts. As both private and institutional sources of funding continue to dry up, the NFB has deftly navigated Canadian political waters, pushing for greater public awareness of their brand while continuing to expand their creative profile through new film development initiatives and an aggressive online presence spearheaded by their 2009 Screening Room launch.
Firmly at the helm as Government Film Commissioner and Chairperson of the NFB stands Tom Perlmutter. Since joining the NFB in 2001 as Director General of the English Program, Tom has been responsible for a number of significant organizational efforts, from sweeping changes in digital distribution and online operations to expanding artistic outreach to young filmmakers and those from cultural minorities. Now entering his second five year term as head of the entire organization, in a job that requires equal parts bureaucrat, production executive, cultural referee and artistic cheerleader, Tom seems well suited to guide the NFB as it faces whatever creative, fiscal or political challenges may lie ahead.
I recently sat down with him to discuss the Film Board’s mission, his role as chairperson and how he plans to continue pushing the NFB forward operationally and artistically.
Dan Sarto: So, what exactly is the role of NFB Chairman? What are your main responsibilities?
Tom Perlmutter: First of all to be clear, it’s an unusual role which is not typically done these days. I’m both Chairman of the board of trustees as well as the equivalent of the CEO. The most critical and important role is providing the strategic vision of what direction we need to head in, where are we going to put our priorities and how are we going to get there. Then, how we take our strategic vision and make it operational. How do you actually make it work? How do you use your resources effectively and efficiently, because they are both limited? Because we are essentially government funded, through a parliamentary appropriation that is not indexed [for inflation], meaning we’re losing purchasing power [over time], we have to be effective in terms of how we use our dollars. But all of that has to be in service of something. It’s not simply that I’m there as an efficient manager. It’s to provide a vision for this odd thing [the NFB] which doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s a production and distribution studio that happens to be publicly owned. And that drives the job.
DS: What is the biggest challenge you face right now?
TP: There is a fiscal challenge, the financial challenge in terms of being able to live up to all the ambitions in terms of what we want to do and be able to do more with different kinds of filmmakers. We’ve got some solutions in mind for that over the next few years. I’d say the other challenge for us is we’re living in a time where the disruptive effects of how people are connecting, watching, seeing, you can’t just say, “Well, we’ll just do what we’ve done in the past, we’ll come to Annecy and the Ottawa Animation Festival, and that’s good.” It’s not good enough,
DS: You can’t just stay in your comfort zone.
TP: No. You can’t. This world is moving. So it both provides opportunity but it’s terrifying because it’s constantly adapting to uncertainty. That’s interesting. It means you have to create structures that are much more supple, much more able to dance that dance. A metaphor I use, it’s like being a surfer. You’ve got to know how to read the waves.