Tom Perlmutter and Canada’s Venerable NFB
DS: It wasn’t as crazy as it is now.
TP: No, it wasn’t. And the second thing I said, which also caused everybody a great deal of concern, was when I said we were going to make all of this free by streaming. Because again, I understood something which is in this online world, what you need most of all in order to build a future economic model was brand equity. You needed to get audiences to understand who you were, connect with you, want you. Then, you could build a whole business basis on that. So we launched NFB.ca and that was driven by this vision of a screening room. It was the world’s first that supported two languages, English and French. There were a couple of surprises from that launch. First of all, it was enormously successful off the bat. It got enormous coverage. For the staff at the Film Board it made an enormous difference. When they told people they met that they worked at the Film Board, the response would be, “Oh, does that still exist?” This was in Canada!
After a couple of months [after launching NFB.ca], people were coming up to them and saying, “Wow! That’s terrific. I’ve seen these films and I’m remembering things from my past and I loved this.” Suddenly people [at the NFB] are going, “Oh yeah, that’s us.” So they took an enormous sense of pride in everything they were doing because it was connecting to ordinary people. Younger audiences were watching. The numbers were going up all the time. So many people understood what we were doing.
The thing that made a big difference, that I wasn’t fully aware of at the time, was that the site became a platform for our traditional content, the library, as well as the new stuff that we were producing. The big difference with television was that you entered its own universe. People were flipping around and stumbling onto this animated short or this documentary, now I’m watching Wheel of Fortune, or Survivor or whatever it might be. Our audiences, they were like voyagers traveling through time, from Norman McLaren’s Neighbours to Chris Landreth’s Ryan, then crossing geographical barriers, going across the country, going across language barriers, discovering Co Hoedeman and Jacques Drouin, and suddenly, it was like, people were discovering a universe. They were sharing it. It was embedded in social networks. So the experience of it was a very engaged one in a very different way from television. A profound difference.
And then the other aspect that came along, again part of this vision, was the sense that it’s not simply a platform for showing traditional content, it’s a technology, it’s a medium of creation. So we started experimenting, becoming one of the leaders in the world, in terms of thinking of it is as a new art form in and of itself. Demanding its own language, its own grammar, its own aesthetics. We we’re developing this whole new interactive work and it happen both in the doc world and also in animation.
DS: This is all so very new.
TP: Yes. We’re in the very early days of this. Lots of people are skeptical. But it’s a new narrative form. We’re driven by notions of narrative here. It’s different. I do presentations where I often start off and show a clip from Edwin Porter’s classic 1903 film The Great Train Robbery. It looks very amateurish. American audiences, at that time, it was the first time they had seen double exposure, tracking shots, panning shots, the way the cutting was done. They had to learn a whole other language of storytelling. They had to be educated. That’s what is happening now. So we’re exploring a whole other world of creation now which is a kind of interesting.
DS: How has this impacted your production planning? How do you determine what mix of projects you’re going to take on?
TP: We’re bringing in creators from all sorts of different artistic disciplines that are excited to work in this kind of way. That’s laid a foundation for thinking about the future, about where we go. Within that context, again in terms of animation, it creates a context for whether you are doing traditional 2D animation, or 3-D stereoscopic, or whether you’re working like Michèle [Lemieux] with the pinscreen. Whatever style you’re working with, the overall context is creative excitement, the possibility that exploration, whether it’s going to be in a traditional form or whether it’s going to be something completely different, will connect you with audiences, that people are going to see it and will go to festivals. It will connect you with traditional animation. It will go beyond that. It’s going to open up worlds and people will have a relationship to that in ways that are yet unimagined.
We have two production units. One is in French and one is in English, and I hire a head of production for each. I believe very strongly that decisions ultimately must be made by one person with a sense passion and commitment. They have to make the decisions about these sorts of things. They can bring together program committees where people sit around, they discuss things, figure it out. But at the end of the day, one person says “Yes” or “No.” Now how it happens is that in both English and French, there are executive producers, René Chénier and Roddy McManus.
DS: I haven’t met René. I’ve met Roddy several times.
TP: Roddy just started here [last year]. René has been here for many years and has long experience in the industry. He has come to the NFB out of the private sector, with a sense of liberation for pushing the boundaries of creation. And so, we’re meeting animators all the time, meeting creators, we’re looking at things to bring them in. You’re just trying to get jazzed by certain things and say “OK, let’s go there.” One of the things that’s been really interesting, and in fact, was something I pushed for when I was head of English programming, was the Hothouse program.