Last weekend at the downtown Vancouver campus of Simon Fraser University, I took part in a screenwriting fellowship offered by SFU's Praxis Centre for Screenwriters.
Eight screenwriters from across Canada were winners of the centre's annual Feature Film Screenplay Competition. We each sat down with professional mentors to fine tune scripts already in progress. It was great.
I worked with award-winning Canadian writer-director Bruce Sweeney on my 96-page script Bumpershines, and in that short period we edited the crap out of it and made a lot of progress on it together.
I may have been writing and editing professionally for almost three decades, but there is nothing like having an extra pair of eyes belonging to someone who has already made seven movies. It will take Bumpershines to the next level and hopefully closer to getting it filmed. It's a long process.
The Praxis workshops have resulted in over 30 films being made over the years, most recently The Trotsky starring Jay Baruchel got a wide release across North America.
The problem is that budding screenwriters may lose the Praxis competition for good.
The director of Praxis, Patricia Gruben, who founded the centre in 1986, told me that the funding has been cut from the fellowships and they are reviewing whether they could continue to run the competition.
I was shocked to discover that I may be one of the last screenwriters Praxis will help this way.
In terms of the costs of the competition, it is run on a skeletal budget.
We Praxis fellows were treated to a wonderful vegetarian dinner at Gruben's house, made by her and her colleagues. The mentors are covered, as they are invited and paired with the screenwriters according to their own work and experience being beneficial to the competition winners. We met in SFU lecture rooms and the fellows travelling from out of town (one came from Toronto, another from Manitoba) paid their own ways to Vancouver.
Such writing and arts awards, workshops and projects are worth so much to a writer, but there is also a broader impact beyond producing a work that the audiences might love.
In a country like Canada, with filmmakers competing for a dwindling pot of money with which to make movies, concentrating on the essentials of making a good story is, well, essential. Those funders actively seeking feature film scripts want to see the best work of the writers and programs like Praxis do much to develop new talent. This is certainly the reason I entered the competition.
Let's look at why a modest film workshop is important and why it ought to continue through 2014 and beyond.
In terms of the economy, 2007 Statistics Canada figures say that the arts (overall) contributed $43.2 billion to the Canadian economy, representing 3.9 per cent of Canada's workforce and 3.8 per cent of Gross Domestic Product.
A study by the Canada Council for the Arts in 2005 showed that the government spent $402.8 million in support of the arts.
Even allowing for adjustments from year-on-year, this seems like a pretty good return. Couldn't find the long-term numbers for the Harper majority government (since 2006), so this may have changed. I also didn't find numbers on the film industry.
I've heard/read enough attacks on the Canadian arts over the years from people who feel that these are not significant numbers and government support is an anathema.
It's not like it contributes to the wellbeing of this country like the resources sector, after all.
Well, according to the Climate Action Network in 2011, oil and gas subsidies cost taxpayers around $1 billion in special tax breaks and other deals, rendering great profits for the private companies in that sector. Often these profits are taken out of the country.
Whatever side you fall on in terms of the politics of those numbers or support for the oil sands, including the jobs that come from it, surely it should be self-evident that arts play an important a role in Canada, economically.
We lose filmmaking talent to the bigger filmmaking countries all the time, especially the U.S. The Daily Show and The Simpsons, not to mention Saturday Night Live, have long benefitted from having top Canadian writers.
I believe people should work where there are opportunities; I would just like to see more opportunities in this country.
Gruben told me that if the Praxis Feature Film Screenplay Competition can't continue at SFU she hopes to forge a connection with a film festival like the Vancouver International Film Festival or the Whistler Film Festival (WFF).
WFF had a really interesting year for screenwriters in 2012 and it will repeat in 2013, with the China Canada Gateway pairing three Canadian filmmakers with Chinese production companies and with Variety magazine bringing its 10 Screenwriters to Watch program to the resort.
Something lifting new screenwriters might be a nice addition and could lead to the creation of films that could be shown here at the festival in the future.