No Judgement: A History of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre

Ilinka Mihailescu

Abstract:

The surge of a hippie youth culture in the late 1960s gave rise to unexpected experimentation in arts and culture and helped to grow Toronto’s current cultural scene. Through Rochdale College’s program of a live-in, libertarian education, coupled with students from various  institutions converging to hone their craft, Toronto witnessed new forms of counter-cultural film engagement. And the films born from this new experimentation lead to the establishment of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) in 1967 as a means of film distribution for non-commercial works.

Toronto was awakening to a new mode of filmmaking in the 1960s. An aesthetic informed by experimentation, creativity, and innovation was the symptom of a new cultural ethos that emerged among youth, as well as liberated thinkers and artists. According to Wendy Michener, “Canadians under 30 [considered] the movies their art form,” effecting an underground film scene which informed the creation of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in 1967 (22).  Indeed, Robert Fotherfill, a CFMDC founder, maintains that the films circulating in 1966, such as John Hofsess’s Redpath 25, David Cronenberg’s Transfer, and Robert Fothergill and Sami Gupta’s Oddballs were the products of first experiments of Canadians under 30.  Their inexperience, lack of adequate funding, and the limitations imposed by available technology, contributed to innovations that influenced the creation of this early distribution outlet. Broadly, these films were “marked with amateurism, incompetence and poverty,” and defied “the sedated commercial cinema and the repression of legitimate culture, characteristic of Rochdale’s era, wherein a progressive educational institution became the headquarters of a new film tradition in Toronto” (Wees, 94).

Such was the backdrop behind the creation of the CFMDC – first named the CFDC until the formation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada). A group of young filmmakers met at University of Toronto’s Victoria College to screen various experimental works. This collective morphed into Cinethon, a four-day experimental festival that prompted the centre’s initiation.

This study will begin with an overview of the centre’s formation and examine its subsequent evolution into the 1980s. It will address those variables that shaped its formation. These include: rental and sales procedures, censorship, marketing incentives, parallel exhibition, and collaboration with similar centres in North America. The centre’s foundation was derived from a unified group of young filmmakers producing largely marginal work. Initially promoting local and national artists, the centre would eventually broaden to include international titles. With the original focus on filmmakers, and their desire to disseminate their work beyond the city, the prospect of distribution ignited the production of new work. With increased production came an increased awareness of pedagogy as a method of fostering an alternative film awareness.

Establishment

In the latter half of 1966, at the invitation of John Hofsess, a McMaster student who had recently completed his first film, Redpath 25, a group of students producing their first films, met at Victoria College. Recently returned from New York – and having witnessed the impressive operations of its film co-op directed by John Mekas – Hofsess began planning a similar venture at McMaster. This would serve to help fund his second film as well as kick start the distribution of experimental films, drawing inspiration from the earlier, New York City venture and its collection of “underground” experimental films that were “in their various ways free, inventive, anti-conventional, and very hip” (Fothergill, 82). At the same time, and in anticipation of Expo ’67 in Montreal, Rochdale College, mixing a counter-cultural ‘do-it-yourself-art’ ethos with a progressive educational program, offered a fecund environment for young directors to experiment with the filmic medium (Fothergill, 81). With Rochdale College leading the liberal and artistic youth movement in Toronto at the time, a significant channel for the exposure of non-commercial cinema emerged. In fostering the idea of a film cooperative, Hofsess partnered with Willem Poolman, founder of Film Canada, a commercial distribution company, to bring the successful experimental films of feature artists like Andy Warhol to Toronto’s screens. However, soliciting Mekas for films was not a smooth process, as Mekas proved unwilling to work with a commercial filmmaker whose movies would be equated with European art house cinema. An ideological schism divided the two ventures and, as Rochdale student and eventual CFMDC co-director Keith Locke offered, an “us versus them” mentality emerged.

To make these films available for Toronto audiences Poolman funded a Toronto film co-op, offering to donate the experimental prints once they were “judged to be sufficiently established to handle them” (Fothergill, 83). As a trial run, Poolman and Hofsess organized Cinethon, a four day screening of experimental films. Fothergill and Lorne Michaels were brought on to organize the event, each of whom would become founding members of the CFMDC a short time later. Cinethon would spark the first instance of censorship disputes within the new film society that would follow. In its first case, censorship was bypassed by the board’s screening of three films with explicit titles that, after screening, turned out to be fairly innocuous (Fothergill, 84). Though Cinethon was a disaster financially it brought together groups of filmmakers, artists and cinephiles to watch “marginal” films and in the process created new forms of alternative filmgoing that would be solidified by the establishment of the CFMDC.

After Cinethon, following  a meeting at Victoria College,  Fothergill and Michaels along with Jim Paxton and David Cronenberg instated the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in May of 1967 (Fothergill). For them, the non-commercial films currently in production were largely a symptom of the technology available at their disposal, but they also served to introduce them to the cinematic medium. Lack of funds and limited access to synch-sound cameras required that the group find low-cost methods to produce their art. Fothergill mentions that these limitations allowed them to experiment with film form –  by finding alternatives to bypass recording sound directly onto the film (a form of experimentation in itself) these filmmakers were contributing to a new film practice. Cronenberg’s first feature length film Stereo, wherein a commune socializes telepathically, using voice-over in its entirety, is a perfect exemplar of this circumstantially necessary film technique.

This was the impetus of the CFMDC at its inception, to establish a cohesive film collective comprised of young adults intent on testing the boundaries of the medium. This formal mission was an extension of the libertarian curriculum of Rochdale, among numerous other scenes at the time, which promoted a counter-cultural, innovative, experimental, and free-thinking atmosphere.

CFMDC and Rochdale College

Soon after the establishment of the centre, Fothergill states that they moved to a small office at Rochdale College. Banking on the atmosphere at the institution, Rochdale embarked on a liberal arts incentive, inviting various film collectives to rent out space in the building. Though there is no evidence as to whether film was incorporated into its very loose syllabi, Keith Locke states that the “genius of Rochdale” was that it “ harboured various art groups; it might not have taught any courses on film, but it had the CFMDC, Toronto Filmmakers Co-op, among others.” Locke, who spent significant time at Rochdale in the late 60s and early 70s, writes that the first time he visited the space “it was a little tiny room and they had all the films in a medium-sized cardboard box, and they were just sitting there in the box under a table. It was really underground, really exciting to me at the time because I’d never seen anything like that or met people like that … we were quite a fabric of [that organization].” The CFMDC was thus one of the new centres in Toronto that promoted experimental film form, something which “was exciting at the time … people were just waking up to the fact that Canada was in the leading edge of a certain kind of filmmaking.” Added to this excitement was the impending establishment of a Toronto Film Co-op which was to become a counterpart to Mekas’ organization and which worked together with the CFMDC towards its inception. “The idea was to have this co-op that made films and had meetings” attests Locke in an article in the Toronto Daily Star from March 1971. Locke solicits young filmmakers to contact the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre “if interested” in such a venture (Toronto Star, 30). Given that “in those days, the filmmaking industry was so small,” the different film organizations worked within Rochdale to yield a new mode of film practice within the wider scope of a counter youth culture. Moreover, with the surge of “hundreds of kids … coming to Toronto, scrounging to make films,” the CFMDC held the prints of “people that were making some really experimental films and others [who were] making more narratives or documentaries” (Toronto Star, 30). Similar to the situation of the filmmakers behind the creation of the CFMDC, “nobody had any film equipment and nobody had any knowledge of making films, so it was sort of bootstrapping,” claims Locke. Therefore, it was inexperienced but creative youth that propelled the instatement of the film co-op, adding, on one hand, to the growing separation between commercial and non-commercial filmmaking, and on the other, to a new film scene in Toronto. With the influx of young directors making films and the growing collection of the centre, four genres would be established to organize a cohesive catalogue: experimental, documentary, animation, and drama. With the advent of these categories, the increase of films would come to influence rental and sales procedures as well as the CFMDC’s later distribution and exhibition incentives in the 1980s.

Procedure and Funding

The collection of the centre numbered approximately 14 at its inception and quickly grew to hold the largest number of non-commercial films in Canada. What differentiated the CFMDC from other distribution centres in the country was its non-selective and non-exclusive policy, as well as its categorization of the submitted material around the experimental, documentary, animation, and drama genres. According to Barbara Sternberg, who joined the centre as the Experimental Film Officer from 1985 to 1987, “the CFMDC is national, non-juried and non-exclusive, [meaning] that people can distribute with us, with others, and by themselves.” The organization doesn’t “accept films and not accept others – we accept everything,” the only exception constituting films that promote hate crime. Vetoing of this kind was effective from the inception of the Centre and although many “avant-garde films [are] subversive, [and challenge] taboos,” censorship did not have much effect on “getting work out there,” according to Sternberg. In placing notes on films cans stating that they had not been subjected to the Censor Board for screening, the Centre “never had any films refused,” which enabled the widest possible circulation of the entire collection.

The Centre’s policy of inclusivity, and the equal status of the films it received, meant that the public could “decide what they [wanted],” while the CFMDC worked to promote artists and independent film through broadening distribution venues (“CFMDC – Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre”). This functioned according to the do-it-yourself philosophy of the late 60s, as the work of young filmmakers drew together other local directors and helped them to find a niche in the growing alternative market. In terms of censorship, Locke states that in the early 80s, a number of artist groups joined together to rally against the Ontario Censor board’s growing influence.

At the same time, however, the methodology of the Centre was at times problematic, as the growing number of films in the collection meant that the catalogue was, to an extent, the only means by which to present the works. By “not working in the same way a commercial distributor would work,” the Centre, as a base of non-commercial cinema, could not actively publicize each film submitted beyond the catalogue.

In placing a great importance on the individual filmmakers themselves, the CFMDC resembled, to some extent, the New York Film Co-op, though the two centres differed in scope: “In joining together, we want to make it clear that there is one basic difference between our group and organizations such as United Artists. We are not joining together to make money. We are joining together to make films” (Mekas). Though the CFMDC initially functioned as a distribution company that eventually accrued funds, at the beginning it served primarily to promote the filmmaker. This philosophy was partially evinced through the policy division of funds received from sales and rentals: The filmmaker received 70% of commissions and the Centre received 30%, a splitting which has remained relatively constant throughout the history of the CFMDC. Though the CFMDC managed to work on the basis of the shares from rental and sales in the first few years, in tandem with all Toronto arts organizations, the Centre began applying for funding from the Toronto, Ontario, and Canada Arts Councils — all governmental organizations with which the Centre has since worked with.

The CFMDC also provided basis for the study of experimental cinema. Ffilms that had been difficult to screen in the late 60s were now organized and catalogued, with a print of each filmmaker’s work housed at the office. According to Locke, “The one condition of distributing with CFMDC was that you left us a print. We didn’t want to have a title in our catalogue [and to have] somebody call us up and [us have to say] we don’t actually have it,” confirms Barbara Sternberg. This became problematic once the Funnel Experimental Theatre, one of the sole sites of experimental film screenings (also incorporating production and distribution of Super 8 films), closed down in 1989 leaving a large collection of Super 8 films. The CFMDC, states Sternberg, took over the Funnel’s stock; however, with the transfer of the prints to the Centre for distribution, many of the filmmakers were reluctant to leave the original versions of their prints. The next step of bringing the film to the screen was to send it out for previewing, an element of the procedure that differed from Canyon Cinema in San Francisco (a distribution centre akin to the CFMDC formally established in the same year). The fragility of the 16mm prints meant they would have to be repaired on a regular basis, leading to an added cost that the CFMDC undertook to promote their collection. Thus, given that the Centre allowed for previewing, certain curated screenings in the States rented films from Toronto instead of their counterparts across the border.

Exhibition and Distribution Incentives

Distribution and exhibition incentives in the 1980s would signify a deviation from the Centre’s original goals. The organization was originally based on international film co-ops, with an emphasis on the filmmaker. While not providing equipment and funding for production, the CFMDC  took the finished product and promoted it as a relevant artwork internationally and across Canada.  This artistic aspect was heavily stressed by the Toronto Film Co-op, an organization that was supported and worked hand-in-hand with the CFMDC but was most influenced by its counterpart in New York as “the New York underground movie establishment [owed] its existence to the New York Film-Makers Co-op” (Toronto Daily Star, 30).

In its early years, the Centre held screenings in collaboration with the film societies of different institutions, events that were loosely connected to the subsequent creation of film studies. Renting outlets with a projector and screen, the Centre would present a selection of films, inaugurating one of its first marketing incentives. On occasion, the Centre would hold screenings at Toronto theatres. One example, “A Summer of Films,” was a series of films curated by the CFMDC at the Poor Alex Theatre at Bathurst Street and Brunswick Avenue. With these exhibitions, the collection began to expand and the CFMDC produced a catalogue that held all films that had been submitted for distribution, incorporating film stills and descriptions. Locke states that in the early days of the CFMDC, “the catalogue was the biggest way of selling films,” attesting to the fact that the Centre was extremely “small time” then.

However, as the collection grew with the Centre’s evolution, the primary focus shifted from the filmmaker — in keeping with its similarity to film co-ops — to the more general mandate to showcase alternative films. At the Centre, two officers (experimental and other – documentary, animation, drama) focused on different genres  in order to streamline the distribution of film works.  The “other” officer would create targeted mailing lists when new films were submitted to the CFMDC, as many educational institutions would base their rental units around specific themes. In other words, experimental films required different marketing tactics. The separation of these two sectors reflected their potential renters and buyers: While documentary, animation, and drama had a wider public base, experimental cinema was “widely misunderstood,” as Locke and Sternberg have affirmed. There were, however, several spaces that expressly presented experimental film globally — among them The Funnel in Toronto. The Centre’s catalogue, as well as any new films that the office believed to be of interest, would be sent to these institutions. Sternberg noted that, during her term at the CFMDC, records of distributed films showed that “other” films did better in sales, mostly to educational institutions, whereas the experimental components did better in rentals, given the increase of curated screenings of the genre. Additionally, the CFMDC worked to foster an alternative film scene through periodically curated screenings from the CFMDC collection, such as the “60s Survey, the 70s Survey, and the 80s Premieres,” a three-part program entitled EXPERIMENTAL with the AGO presented during the first edition of Toronto Art Week in 1986.

Parallel with these various distribution efforts, the Centre renewed an incentive to promote the teaching of alternative film, a move that expanded the Centre from supporting and sustaining filmmakers to additionally incorporating the filmmaker into the wider scope of film practice as an important subject of study. Film studies had been instated at colleges and universities as a means to shed light on the theoretical, analytical, and critical discourses surrounding international cinema and filmmaking, and experimental cinema was finding its own niche here, though at this time it was largely through the personal efforts of various individuals and institutions. Barbara Sterberg recalls that as there was no material for teaching. Instead, the CFMDC created artists’ profiles that would continually amass any material surrounding a filmmaker’s work, including film stills and descriptions as well as promotional material found in print from magazines or newspapers. The CFMDC hoped to further publish this information later as an educational anthology of its collection and filmmakers. This was an operation that served a dual purpose: On one hand it would promote the filmmakers themselves, referring back to the idealism of the late 60s, and it would push the alternative medium into viable, albeit undeniably marginal area of academic study. Though the anthology itself never materialized, the profiles provided the basis for the Independent Eye, the CFMDC magazine established in 1988. In addition to the magazine, Sternberg began writing a column for Cinema Canada which ran for a few years, marking an “effort … to see something in print … about experimental film — to see it within a broader context.” This broader context was to posit the genre within the larger scope of cinema studies (at least in Canada) thereby aiming to deem it a legitimate area of study.

Thus, with the promulgation of film studies in universities, as well as and the introduction units that were taught by the English department in high schools, the Toronto District School Board organized annual fairs at Geneva Park where commercial and non-commercial distributors would present a selection of films to teachers and educational film bookers. In Sternberg’s words, “our booth [mainly] had documentary and some animation that we thought schools might buy and I would sneak in a couple of experimental films in there” (Sternberg). Subsequently, media literacy was enacted as a course in secondary schools. “Their idea was that students should become aware of how media is created, [so] that they won’t be manipulated by it,” Sternberg offers. In tandem with this program, Sternberg lobbied for a rubric on experimental film given that de-constructing the mainstream could not be achieved via presenting solely mainstream material: “you have to show them something else and that in itself opens their eyes” (Sternberg). The Centre presented a section on alternative films that was to be incorporated into the media literacy manual, but was rejected. Nevertheless, the CFMDC created such a manual, written by Sternberg (experimental), Ellen Besen (animation), and Keith Locke (documentary and drama), which would be presented at media literacy conferences. This initiative, in promoting experimental cinema, recalls the mission statement of the Centre in the 60s to create an outlet for alternative film practices.

The Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre began as, and continues to promote, an alternative film culture in Toronto. The institution does so by providing films to organizations like the Toronto International Film Festival. Though still overlooked in the cinematic gamut, experimental film, often through the vigilance of dedicated instructors (many of whom are experimental filmmakers themselves) has become somewhat naturalized in cinema studies at universities. Its inclusion in university curriculums, and the increased accessibility of these films in general, has fostered interest in experimental cinema. In these ways, the CFMDC, as the first national distributor of alternative films, has helped create a space in Toronto to learn about this medium. In effect, the small group of filmmakers who frequented the Centre created a cinematic atmosphere and experience that was particular to their time: There were few rules and creativity was a necessity. In interviewing Robert Fothergill, Barbara Sternberg, and Keith Locke, I found that they all used the term “do-it yourself”: Fothergill and Locke utilized the phrase to describe filmmaking and the establishment of a scene and Sternberg spoke of it in terms of the CFMDC distribution method. Regardless of context, however, this phrase bespeaks an aesthetic behind the promulgation of experimental film in Toronto and the establishment of an alternative film scene extending from the late 60s and into the late 80s. The necessity for the persistent and consistent promotion of alternative cinema is, according to Sternberg, because “you’re free to play around with image relations, each film [makes] its own set of rules and its own reality.” The CFMDC has been, and continues to exist as, an outlet through which filmmakers have been allowed to do just that.


Works Cited

I would like to sincerely thank Robert Fothergill, Keith Locke, and Barbara Sternberg for taking the time to provide accounts of the history of the CFMDC.  Without them, this essay wouldn’t have been possible.

Fothergill, Robert. “Canadian Film-Makers’ Distribution Centre: A Founding Memoir.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies/Revue canadienne d’études cinématographiques 1994: p. 82-85. Print.

Mekas, Jonas. “The Film-maker’s Cooperative: A Brief History.” The New American Cinema Group – the Film-maker’s Coop. Web. 7 Dec 2011. <http://film-makerscoop.com/about/history&gt;.

Michener, Wendy. “Scene One, take one for the Canadian Film Development Corporation.” Globe and Mail 16 March 1968: 22. Print.

Wees, William C. “WHATEVER HAPPENED TO UNDERGROUND FILM?.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 2009: 94-103.  Print.

“Who we are and what we do.” CFMDC – Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre. Web. 7 Dec 2011. <http://www.cfmdc.org/about&gt;.

“Young film-makers wanted for co-op.” Toronto Star 9 March 1971: 30. Print.

Interview with Barbara Sternberg

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