Why Opferhaus’ attempts at improving Canadian Cinema/TV were misguided.

Project Opferhaus was a well-meaning attempt at improving Canadian cinema and television by offering professional consultation services pro bono.

It included:

  1. An idea bank — a collection of great film ideas that anyone could use. This was entirely free, no cost, no royalties, nothing. Free to take, modify and do whatever with. The only condition was to credit the Opferhaus.
  2. A script bank — full scripts that anyone could use. Again, all free. You could take anything from the name of a film to the whole film, a scene or an individual line.
  3. A music bank — royalty free music to use for soundtracks.
  4. Video editing software — again, all free.
  5. Consultation on technical issues, anything from CGI techniques to microphone placement. Free. (I’m done saying free, I’ll only mention the cases when it’s not.)
  6. Script consultation — to help iron out wrinkles in the script.
  7. Language consultation - for non-native speakers of English or French who need their script to feel natural. The consultation was also whoever wanted to do parts of their film in another language. This also included help with subtitles.
  8. Actors. For free. One condition, that they don’t get cast as extras.
  9. Props lending. Self-explanatory.
  10. A database of proper names, toponyms, fake brands, fictional countries, etc.
  11. A location database of great places to film in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.
  12. Marketing consultation — posters, trailers, etc.
  13. Test audiences. People to watch your film and give you feedback.
  14. Legal consultation.

This whole project was pointless. From a psychological point of view, it’s a lose-lose situation.

If it’s a paid service, most people will simply ignore it. Many directors would rather write their own bad scripts than pay someone to write something well. Native speakers don’t feel the need to hire someone as a script consultant, so the write terrible dialogues with unnatural speech or poor grammar, but refuse to pay someone to do it. Producers are not interested in paying people as a test audience, and would rather use their families and friends instead, who only give them glowing reviews. People simply don’t want to pay for things they think they don’t need.

If it’s a cheap service, many will think it’s cheap because it’s not good. If you price a script consultation at Đ2000 (fictional currency), then people will say it’s expensive and not worth it. Price it at Đ1000 and people will still say it’s expensive “just for someone to read your script… You pay me this much to read your script.” But price it at Đ500 and people will think it’s cheap and that you’re not really doing any work and that if you were any good, you’d be writing scripts yourself rather than reading them for Đ500.

Most filmmakers in Canada are not interested in anyone’s opinion but their own.

If it’s free, people will think it’s worthless. And that’s exactly what happened. Directors tried to use the script consultation as a human spellcheck. They sent in their unpolished first drafts. They wanted someone to edit the film for free, from napkins to production-ready. They wanted to use the “free actors” as extras, even though these are talented professionals. The actors thought they were doing the industry a favor but directors thought that they were doing them a favor by casting them as background decoration. Language consultation “requests” meant “could you do the subtitles for this whole film for free? kthnxbye.” No one was interested in the idea bank, the script bank or the music. The technical consultation was never used, the databases were never accessed. The locations were never used either. The test audiences were used often, but no one was interested in their input. Directors only showed them final cuts when it was too late to make changes and only asked them if they liked it or not. Liked it or not, it was way too late for anything.

The people at Opferhaus had their hearts in the right place, but this is now how you improve the industry.

All this stuff, even if used, would only improve films a tiny bit. If a film scores 4/10 stars, then all this stuff (bar the script bank and the idea bank) would improve it by half a star.

Top notch actors acting for free in a film with a bad script would not improve it by much. A great soundtrack cannot save a film from its own directatór. Great props are like the cherry on a cake, it improves something that’s already good, but cannot save something horrible.

All these services are well-meaning, but they make the false assumption that the problem with Canadian cinema and TV is the lack of budget. This is the whole narrative of Canadian cinema — “We cannot compete with Hollywood on budget.”

But in the case of the Opferhaus experiment, Canadian directors got access to:

  1. Free scripts
  2. Free music
  3. Free actors
  4. Free video editing software
  5. Free locations to film (bars, restaurants, houses, apartments, etc.)
  6. Free props
  7. Script consultation
  8. Technical consultation
  9. Language consultation
  10. Legal consultation
  11. Marketing consultation
  12. Free test audiences

It means that the only thing anyone needed to pay for was the equipment and the crew. Everything else was free. Directors getting huge grants could make a great film if they only paid for the equipment and crew, but almost no one did.

But this is one of the problems in Canadian cinema. Filmmakers do not pay specialists for their services, preferring to do everything themselves. The Opferhaus offered paid professional services, which filmmakers rejected. When the Opferhaus reduced its fees to symbolic rates, filmmakers equated its low price with low quality and were not interested. When the Opferhaus became free, a volunteer service in the disaster area of Canadian cinema, filmmakers attempted to use professionals as slave labor, attempting to career actors as extras, using expert screenwriters as spellcheck for first drafts, using locations for filming to store their equipment or language consultants to create subtitles for their film for free. This abuse of volunteers is not exclusive to Canadian cinema or to cinema in general, but that’s what happens in life.

Directors with failed careers would ask volunteering professionals with actual successes on their belts to be in charge of coffee and donuts, telling them that that’s “good experience” and it’ll “look good on their CV.”

The problems is that Canadian filmmakers are not interested in consultation or in anyone’s opinion but their own.

  1. Free scripts? They’d rather write their own scripts.
  2. Free music? They’d rather write their own music, have no music, use music from their friends, etc. They would rather pay a little to license music from bands, but not pay bands to compose an original soundtrack.
  3. Free actors? They’d rather cast their friends and family and not pay them. In their minds pro bono professionals are crap because they’re “cheap,” but unpaid friends are somehow better.
  4. Free video editing software? Refusing this is not a big deal.
  5. Free locations to film? — they’d rather find their own locations or use their own homes.
  6. Free props? — They’d rather shop on eBay using government money and keep the props as souvenirs.
  7. Script consultation? — Most filmmakers are not interested in anyone else’s opinion.
  8. Technical consultation? — Not interested. “I went to film school. I don’t need to learn more.”
  9. Language consultation? — Not interested. “I’m a native speaker.”
  10. Legal consultation? — “Can you help me with these parking tickets?”
  11. Marketing consultation? — “Can you be the social media manager for our film for free? It’ll look good on your CV.”
  12. Free test audiences? — “I’d rather show it to my friends and family. At least there I’m guaranteed 10/10 and a standing ovation for every film I make.”

A film with a $5m budget could theoretically look like a $10m-budget film with all this free stuff, but unless you use the script bank, your 2.5/10 star film will barely advance half a star. More money and free stuff will not improve the story, which is the biggest weakness in Canadian cinema.

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