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Nominations for Canadian Screen Awards reveal power and influence of Toronto and Montreal film industries

Toronto BlackBerry
Glenn Howerton plays Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie in BlackBerry, which captured 17 Canadian Screen Awards nominations.

Once again, B.C. filmmakers have received a few crumbs from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television. All six of this year’s nominations for the Canadian Screen Award for Best Motion Picture went to Toronto or Montreal productions. The same is true for the six nominations for Achievement in Direction. And 11 of the 12 nominations for Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay went to films with strong Ontario and Quebec connections.

The only exception was Edmonton-born Cody Lightning and Vermillion, South Dakota-born Samuel Miller’s nomination for Original Screenplay for the mockumentary Hey, Viktor! It’s about an Indigenous former child actor, Lightning, who tries to revive his career by making a sequel to the 1998 film Smoke Signals. In real life, Lightning played a young Victor Joseph in Smoke Signals; the older Victor Joseph was played by Adam Beach.

B.C. actors and cinematographers were also shut out in the performance and cinematography categories.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver Film Critics Circle choice for best B.C. movie, Seagrass, was only nominated for Achievement in Costume (Athena Theny) and Achievement in Hair (Isabel Paganine). Even though Seagrass director Meredith Hama-Brown won the prestigious FIPRESCI prize at the Toronto International Film Festival and Seagrass was a Top 10 choice at TIFF, Academy nominating committee members snubbed her in the Achievement in Direction category.

The jury in the John Dunning Best First Feature Film Award also overlooked Hama-Brown, notwithstanding her honours at TIFF. The Vancouver Film Critics Circle, on the other hand, awarded Hama-Brown the prize for Best Director of a B.C. Film for Seagrass. Hama-Brown also received the OVAsian Award for Best Director from the Vancouver Asian Film Festival.

Seagrass was filmed on Gabriola Island and in the Tofino and Ucluelet area

Toronto film triumphed last year

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Vancouver director, screenwriter, and actor Anthony Shim’s Riceboy Sleeps won a bucket of awards in different countries last year. They included Best Canadian Film from the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.

But last year, Riceboy Sleeps only picked up one Canadian Screen Award—for Original Screenplay—despite being nominated in six categories. Original Screenplay happened to be the only category in which it wasn’t up against the big winner, Clement Virgo’s Brother. Virgo’s Scarborough-set drama won a record 12 Canadian Screen Awards for motion pictures. Toronto ruled the roost.

While Brother scooped up most of the hardware, Vancouver director Marie Clements’s Bones of Crows was shut out after securing five nominations, including Original Screenplay. According to IMDb, Bones of Crows captured 34 wins in other competitions. That included 2023 Leo Awards for Best Direction, Best Screenwriting, Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score, and Best Production Design.

In the same year, Vancouver director Sophie Jarvis’s environmental stunner, Until Branches Bend, received two Canadian Screen Awards nominations for Original Screenplay and Achievement in Visual Effects. Her film didn’t win in either category. Yet it won the Best B.C. Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival, made the Globe and Mail‘s list of best films of 2023, and received a rave review from Toronto critic Radheyan Simonpillai.

Like with Hama-Brown, the John Dunning Best First Feature Award nominating committee overlooked Jarvis in favour of two directors based in Ontario and three with roots in Quebec.

Grace Dove by Farah Nosh
Grace Dove is one of the actors who plays Aline Spears in Bones of Crows, Photo by Farah Nosh.

Nominating committees select finalists

So why are B.C.’s best filmmakers often excluded from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television’s winner’s circle even though they earn so many awards on the festival circuit?

Let’s start with the Academy’s feature film nominating committees. They select the nominees for Best Motion Picture, Direction, Screenwriting categories, Performance categories, Feature Documentary categories, and Theatrical Shorts categories.

There’s no information on the Academy’s website revealing who’s on these vetting committees. Given the size of the Montreal and Toronto film industries, it’s a safe bet to suggest that a significant proportion of the members are from Quebec and Ontario. In film craft categories, there are peer-based votes in each membership branch, such as cinematography, editing, et cetera.

After nominations are announced, members of the Academy vote online from March 7 to March 25 to pick the winners. Again, it’s safe to assume that a substantial majority of members are based in Ontario and Quebec.

Until Branches Bend
Until Branches Bend was filmed in the Okanagan, but the story is set in a fictitious town called Montague.

B.C. issues don’t always resonate nationally

Here’s where this becomes a problem for B.C. filmmakers. First off, members of a relatively small community, such as the film sector, will be tempted to vote for friends and associates. That hurts the chances of B.C. creators, who work thousands of kilometres away from most members.

Additionally, these members in Ontario and Quebec are probably less attuned to B.C.’s status as an Asian-facing province. It’s worth noting that Seagrass addresses intergenerational trauma rooted in the internment of Japanese Canadians. This was a monumental event in B.C. history.

Riceboy Sleeps deals with anti-Asian racism in schools, another critically important issue in B.C.

Bones of Crows resonates particularly well in B.C., where most of the land is unceded Indigenous traditional territory. Until Branches Bend addresses how colonialism elevates environmental risks, which B.C. residents are coming to understand by living through the annual wildfire crisis.

Seung-Yoon Choi and Ethan Hwang play a mother and son in the immigrant drama Riceboy Sleeps, which captured a half-dozen Canadian Screen Award nominations.

Toronto-centric Academy board

This raises an important question. If there’s not a level playing field for B.C. filmmakers, including those of Asian ancestry, why should they pony up the entry fees?

Winning a Canadian Screen Award offers numerous benefits for filmmakers. It can help them obtain funding for future projects and influence programmers at international film festivals.

Right now, the B.C. film community has good reason to question whether they’re getting a fair shake. Especially when a shockingly high number of Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television board members list Toronto as their place of employment on their Linkedin profiles. Only one of the 17 directors, Jennifer Twiner McCarron, is based in Vancouver.

Systemic discrimination is often viewed through the lenses of race, gender, family status, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnic and national origin. But in the case of the Canadian film industry, there’s also a geographic component.

In light of what happened last year, it’s tempting to refer to the Canadian Screen Awards as the “Toronto Screen Awards”. A Toronto near-sweep could occur again this year after another Toronto film—the comedic and critically acclaimed BlackBerry—captured a record 17 nominations.

A good first step in addressing perceptions of geographic inequity might come from adding a stronger B.C. presence on the Academy’s board of directors.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.