Riceboy Sleeps and Brother are Canada’s buzziest new movies. Will it mean anything at the box office?

Anthony Shim is riding high. The Vancouver-based actor turned-director is sitting on an awards-goldmine: in the year since his film Riceboy Sleeps hit the circuit, it has already won top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Windsor International Film Festival, the Directors Guild of Canada’s Discovery award and the Toronto Film Critics Association’s $100,000 award — not to mention a few others. 

He’s not alone. As his movie hit theatres on Friday, so too did Clement Virgo’s Brother — a retelling of David Chariandy’s Scarborough-set novel — which is currently the leading nominee at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards. And after a limited release last week, Chandler Levack’s I Like Movies brought the story of a narcissistic Burlington teenager’s Hollywood aspirations to more audiences across Canada on Friday as well.

Two young men sit side by side on a picnic table at sunset.
Lamar Johnson, left, and Aaron Pierre appear in this still from Brother. The film is critically acclaimed, and the leading nominee at the Canadian Screen Awards. Will that be enough to ensure an audience at the box office? (TIFF)

With so much to celebrate, it may be a bit strange to hear how all three directors speak about both the future of their films and this country’s film industry. Because, even as the cachet of Canadian productions continues to improve, a uniquely unrewarding system raises the question: What does success here even mean?

Tár and The Fablemans — these by some of the great filmmakers of the world, the biggest movie stars of the world — are struggling in the box office,” Shim told CBC News. “So I try and set my expectations accordingly to the realities of the current day.”

WATCH | Riceboy Sleeps director Anthony Shim on the wider impact of his film: 

Director Anthony Shim relieved his highly personal film about Korean immigrants is resonating with wider audiences

With his movie Riceboy Sleeps opening across Canada, the Vancouver-based director speaks about the emotional journey he went on to tell the story.

The long-term survival of movies and the theatrical experience became an international question even before pandemic lockdowns. But the problem is especially prominent in Canada, where even with a wheelbarrow of festival prizes or an awards-show sweep, the glass ceiling for the most lauded of Canadian movies is still, to filmmakers, frighteningly low. 

“It is a really dire time. You look at the box office of any Canadian movie and they’re all huge flops, right?” I Like Movies director Chandler Levack told CBC. “A lot of these titles make $12,000 … it just doesn’t seem to have that appetite, [that] staying power.”

What makes a movie Canadian?

That Canada continues to struggle with a viable film industry might be surprising given that it’s one of the busiest film locations on Earth, and the individual success of so many Canadians. 

Just looking at the recent Academy Awards ceremony, Canadians seem to dominate film, from Brendan Fraser’s best actor win for The Whale, to Sarah Polley’s best original screenplay trophy for Women Talking. There was best documentary winner Navalny, directed by Toronto’s Daniel Roher; Pixar’s Toronto-centric Turning Red was nominated for best animated feature, written and directed by Domee Shi; and even The Sea Best from Kitchener’s Chris Williams, also nominated in the same category.

But technically, none of those movies are Canadian. As Globe and Mail entertainment reporter Barry Hertz wrote in a recent column, what makes a film officially of this country comes down to guidelines written by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office (CAVCO). Among other things, that takes into account the creative team, but also the studio funding the film and who actually owns the intellectual property rights. 

A composite image is shown. On the left is a mother bending over a young boy in bed. On the right she sits with a slightly older boy in a car.
Dohyun Noel Hwang, far left, and Ethan Hwang, far right, portray the same character at different ages in Anthony Shim’s Riceboy Sleeps. The film has won numerous awards at film festivals across the country. (TIFF)

So in judging the health of the Canadian film industry, considering the individual successes of films that only borrow from the country isn’t accurate. Looking at Shi’s work under Disney, or Roher’s under CNN, doesn’t demonstrate how well Canada is fostering its talent. 

“It simply isn’t fair or accurate to call those movies Canadian,” Hertz wrote. “Just as no one would consider Avatar: The Way of Water a Canadian film, despite it being helmed by James Cameron, the favourite son of Kapuskasing, Ont.”

Focusing instead on in-country performance, achievements are more limited.

According to a report by Telefilm, Canadian-made films accounted for roughly 19 per cent of all films released in Canada in 2021. And according to a concurrent report by the Canadian Media Producers Association, those films earned about five per cent of total box office at theatres across the country in the same window — the highest proportion of the past decade. 

Of those, the top earner was Paw Patrol: The Movie, which earned $5.66 million in the English-language market — over five times more than the rest of the top ten earners combined. 

No. 3 on the list is Night Raiders, which made $120,000, and at No. 4 was Beans, with $70,000. In 2022, Night Raiders won five trophies at the Canadian Screen Awards, tying for the most awarded movie of the night. In 2021, Beans won both best first feature film and best motion picture

Lack of star power

Tonya Williams, a Canadian actress and founder of Reelworld Film Festival (now Reelworld Film Institute), says there are a few reasons for the relatively poor performance of the country’s most lauded movies. 

The first is that, due to how Canadian films are funded, even the country’s biggest movies follow the independent film model of allowing a single creator almost complete control over the finished product. That’s in stark contrast to how other markets produce films and can end up developing products with more universal interest. 

“The difference is there’s more of a concept of the auteur filmmaker creator in Canada. In Hollywood it’s a team sport,” Williams said. “Nobody gets to get what they want. Everybody gets a little something and everybody gets a lot of not what they want, because they’re working towards one goal.”

The second reason, she says, is a lack of star power.

Marketing teams in Hollywood, the U.K., and even Australia and Nigeria operate within a system that purposefully and methodically develops stars through magazines and late-night talk shows to supplement interest — something that hasn’t been focused on in Canada.

Williams says that system draws far more interest than any amount of awards, which she argues audiences are largely indifferent to. 

“These are things that audiences love because then they’ll want to see that content,” she said. “I won’t name names, but I know there are movies out there that are not even very good movies, but it’s got names of actors and people run to see them just because those actors are in it.”

Williams says the current system in Canada instead creates works that are deeply personal and can sometimes do more to alienate audiences than serve their actual interests because there’s more incentive to be distinctive rather than commercial.

A man with grey hair and a striped dress shirt slouches and hugs his body while holding a Blackberry phone, in a crowded room.
A still from the upcoming film BlackBerry starring Jay Baruchel. (Elevation Pictures)

These are not the only problems, and are far from the only attempted solutions. 

For example, Matthew Miller and Matt Johnson, co-writers of the upcoming Blackberry biopic, helped bolster Telefilm Canada’s microbudget Talent to Watch program to get more Canadian filmmakers monetary support.

And Canadian production company MDFF has focused more on theatrical distribution to prove Canadian art-house movies (like their Concrete Valley, The Maiden and Queens of the Qing Dynasty) can hold their own on the international stage.

But until any one of those strategies start to show results, Canadian filmmakers will still have to look to awards — not box-office results — as the ultimate evidence of their success.

By