Tom Perlmutter and Canada’s Venerable NFB
DS: How do you think the NFB is viewed within the Canadian animation community? How do you feel you’re viewed with regards to accessibility for people to make films? Among some groups of people, there is a feeling that the NFB is a fairly exclusive club that they just aren’t a member of.
TP: Yeah. You know it’s something that I’ve been really working hard to try and change. That’s why, for example, the Hothouse program was a way of addressing that. When you’re working with one or two emerging animators for three years on an expensive project it leaves little room for others. But then, when you’re bringing in six new animators in a group, for three months, you’ve opened the door. I truly believe we constantly have to push ourselves to make ourselves accessible in the sense of saying anyone should be able to come in and knock at the door. Not everyone gets to make a film, that’s about talent. We have limited means, we have limited resources and that includes producers. But the effort is there.
DS: So, what is the strategic vision for the next two, three, five years?
TP: Can I take a step back…
TP: I came into this role five years ago. It’s a five-year mandate, a government appointed position. I was head of English language production previously. I applied, and for various reasons I became a dark-horse candidate. Everyone was telling me not to apply because I had no political connections whatsoever. But I had a very clear sense of what to do. I worked out a strategic plan, I sat down for a week and said, “This is what we need to do.” And to me it was fairly clear, there were some fundamental issues that needed to be answered. The first was the Film Board was in danger of vanishing. It was in danger of vanishing because it wasn’t being “seen” or wasn’t being “seen to be seen.” The directive when I first arrived at the Film Board was that things were going to be done for television because that’s how you’re connected with audiences. The trouble with television is even though 90% of the stuff [NFB films] was going on television, we weren’t being distinctive, we were just another product. So what happens in television is, your product, you are one among thousands. So people stumble upon you perhaps, but you are not appointment viewing as such.
So that was one issue. The second issue was how it affects animation. It had to be formatted for television. So suddenly you’ve lost a measure of creative freedom because you’re dealing with the demands of television instead of whatever the demands are of what it is you want to do. It’s also a real issue of why should the public sector do what the private sector could do very well. So, if you are invisible and you don’t exist there’s no reason for you to exist. There’s all this amazing stuff [NFB productions] there and you need to make sure audiences connect with it. Not only see it but engage with it, have a relationship to it. So that was fundamental.
The next thing was that I came from the private sector and I said, “Well, why should taxpayers pay for this?” It was very clear to me that we were there to do things that no one else could do. Because there was no economic model, because the creative risks were too great. So it became fundamental for me, and it took a bit of doing in the various management layers to get people to accept this, to say our ambition is to do what no one else could do. That was it. I said, “That’s it. We may not succeed but unless we set that as the ambition we’ll never get there.” And I said the most irresponsible thing that an organization like ours could do was not take risks. That’s what I mean by setting the strategic vision, setting a sense of here is where we’re going, here’s what we are after and then inspiring, in a sense, the organization to push that through.
When I was head of English programming, I was experimenting with a lot of different things, and I knew that they were interesting things to develop in the digital world, things that were rapidly changing and disrupting our industry fundamentally. In Canada, the visual industry tends to be fairly conservative partly because of the nature of how funding structures work. And I think well, we’re not bound by that. We started to develop what I saw as a screening room. For me, it wasn’t a website. It was really important from the start to think of the screening room as the place where you have an “experience.” And there was a lot of disagreement internally. Why are we doing this? Back four or five years ago, it [video online] wasn’t quite as prevalent. We did have video online, but it didn’t have that kind of role.