How Canada’s NFB Became One Of The World’s Hippest Digital Content Hubs

How did a 73-year-old government agency operating under an almost laughably boring mandate (“to interpret Canada to Canadians and other nations!”) turn into a hotbed of film innovation? NFB chair Tom Perlmutter says the tech/film link has always been there, but the body has also dedicated itself to exploring new forms of storytelling and backing the next generation of filmmakers.

How Canada’s NFB Became One Of The World’s Hippest Digital Content Hubs

Quick: first thing that pops into your head when you hear “Canadian film.” No, Uncle Buck doesn’t count. The few Canuck nerds among you may think Guy Maddin or Denys Arcand, but odds are the rest of the associations involve two hosers or maybe Porky’s.


But over the last few years, another entity has been attracting the attention of mainstream audiences inside and outside of Canada. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) has gained a reputation among both film and tech fans for its interactive documentary projects and online screening room, collecting awards from around the world for pushing the boundaries of narrative storytelling on the web. In fact, even if you can’t name the Canadian prime minister (come on… no Googling) or locate Moose Jaw on a map, if you’re a fan of film, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some NFB-originated work in the last few years.

Case in point, the Sundance splash made by Bear 71 in recent weeks. That project, which looks at issues of technology and surveillance by following the fate of a grizzly in Alberta’s Banff National Park, continues the NFB’s run of interactive innovation in film. Past standouts include 2010’s Webby and Emmy-winning Out My Window, exploring the lives inside high-rise apartment buildings in 13 international cities, and last year’s Welcome to Pine Point, a Webby-winning look at memory and nostalgia through an erased-from-the-map mining town. The difference between these interactive docs and traditional film is like comparing a museum experience using a floor map on your own instead of following a tour guide. Rather than being led by the hand through the story, you have the freedom to wander and make your way from start to finish at your own pace.

Pine Point

“It’s about new art forms and ways of creating and engaging the world,” says NFB chair Tom Perlmutter. “People seem to forget that the industry we’re in, by its very nature, always had a relationship between creators and technology. It’s so intimately connected.

“Interactive is a spatial experience,” says Perlmutter. “You’re moving around. There’s a linear story at the heart of it, but you can stop and go anywhere within it.”

The impressive run of digital success begs the question: How did a government institution known for arty flicks and heavy documentaries become a world leader in digital media and creativity?

Founded in 1939 to “interpret Canada to Canadians and other nations,” the NFB has long been celebrated as a place for filmmakers to experiment and important stories to be told, without the pressure of revenue recoupment hanging over a project. Cue the jokes about hockey, bacon, and lumberjacks (Check. Check. Annnnd check.) But the NFB’s contributions to film history also include things like director Michel Brault pioneering modern handheld camera techniques in the 1960s. Perlmutter says it’s that track record he has tried to preserve while aiming to make the organization relevant in the 21st century.


“This digital shift is in continuity with tradition,” he says. “You’ve got to look at tradition in terms of its real meaning as opposed to just wrapping yourself in the past.”

Since taking the reins at the NFB in 2007, Perlmutter has led its digital evolution on two fronts–the interactive doc projects and the organization’s own digital presence. Back then, he acknowledges, despite 90% of its films being on TV, the NFB was practically invisible. “There was no distinction,” he says. “It was largely lost in the midst of a mass of TV material.”

So instead of a new website, Perlmutter wanted the NFB to create a unique audience experience, something that would bring its vast library of content directly to audiences around the world. In 2009, the online Screening Room launched with 500 films available to stream for free. Since then the archive has more than tripled in size and expanded beyond a standalone site to include iPhone, iPad, Android, and PlayBook apps, a presence on LG connected TV and Google TV, as well as partnerships with YouTube, Hulu, Vimeo, and Dailymotion.

This year, 20% of the NFB’s English-language programming budget will go toward interactive work, where a typical project costs up to $300,000 compared to a conventional documentary, which takes closer to $1 million. One of the board’s first interactive documentary projects was director Katerina Cizek’s Filmmaker-in-Residence, chronicling life in an inner-city hospital.

Out My Window

Originally planned as a film project, Cizek decided while shooting in 2005 that the material would be better served online. “At that point there wasn’t yet a web-native NFB project,” says Cizek, who went on to direct Out My Window and One Millionth Tower. “Anything on the web was a companion site to a film, so it was a pretty new concept. But they’re risk takers and were wonderfully challenged by the idea. In terms of both the content and the approach to form, there are very few places on earth who would’ve done it so early and so well as the NFB.”

Cizek is an on-staff NFB filmmaker, but the board also collaborates and funds much of its work with outside artists. Welcome to Pine Point creators Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge, the Vancouver-based design duo dubbed The Goggles, typically work in print, creating limited edition books and art directing magazines like Adbusters. They originally approached the NFB to help fund Pine Point as a companion piece to a book project, but were quickly encouraged to consult with the newly created interactive division. “I don’t think many other organizations would’ve been interested in a story like this,” says Shoebridge. “We had no interactive experience, so they were really willing to let us experiment and try things, bounce ideas off of them and see where it would go.”


It was the NFB partners who suggested the Goggles stick to their tactile roots for the distinctive look and feel of Pine Point. “They look for people who have good stories, are good storytellers and they provide space, guidance and financial help to make that possible,” says Shoebridge. “But they also have this beautiful arms-length approach, not getting in the way but really helping you along. It’s like a really tough audience that you’re trying to please.”

Regardless of topic, the NFB’s criteria for potential interactive projects place emphasis on user experience and stories that transcend platform. “Even though it’s a new medium and it’s very data driven, which can make it seem cold, the biggest thing for us is emotion,” says NFB interactive executive producer and creative technologist Loc Dao. “We need to convey emotion through the works, and the ones that do are the most successful.”

The digital docs have attracted a whole new audience to the NFB’s traditional work, bringing in more than 28 million plays in the online screening room, two-thirds of which are from non-Canadian viewers. But Perlmutter is still pushing forward, hinting at another major development set for this September. “To me it’s one of the most exciting things we’re doing,” he says. “We want viewers to have an experience that makes them fulfilled, makes them think, and gasp in wonder, so we’re creating this new context to experience these projects that is a new way of interacting in itself.”

Five Lessons For Making a Digital Shift

In 2005, the National Film Board of Canada’s digital presence could be summed up with a pretty standard website. Board chair Tom Perlmutter started in 2007 with a large vision that would expand the organization’s web presence but also fundamentally change the way it worked in order to truly embrace innovation. Here are five ways the NFB made the shift.

Find the money
The film board has fixed government funding and there were plenty of people who balked at creating the type of digital presence and projects Perlmutter wanted within that same budget. “We re-organized how we did our internal financing and budgeting and set a goal of finding 5% of our total budget each year,” says Perlmutter. “Over the last four and a half years we’ve been able to reallocate $10 million to propel us into global leadership role in the digital sphere.”

Know who you are
“Right from the start we were asking what we were,” says Perlmutter. “Are we doc producers or an organization committed to innovation? Understand your audience and where they were headed. That is a fundamental thing we had to deal with. That was the mindset shift, knowing we’re about creation and innovation, and that isn’t anchored in the traditional idea of simply saying, let’s just keep making docs.”


Learn how to manage continuous change
“There are libraries of textbooks on change management but much of it is coming from the notion of transitioning from one steady state to a different steady state,” says Perlmutter. “We’re in an environment where it’s not about one steady state to another, it’s about continual movement. That’s a very different kind of challenge. It’s about people finding the skills that are essential when thinking about innovation as opposed to saying your skill is anchored in an old technology making you obsolete. But if you reframe it, those skills can be brought to bear in a different kind of way.”

Don’t play it safe
Welcome to Pine Point co-creator Paul Shoebridge was pleasantly surprised at the NFB’s willingness to try something completely new, an approach that helped make Pine Point an international hit. “The thing about the NFB is they’re willing to go out on a limb and work with people on these experimental projects, not really sure if it’s going to work,” says Shoebridge. “But you have to be willing to do that. If you play it safe you’re not going to make great stuff and I think the NFB does it better than most institutions.”

Make the best of the tools you’ve got
The NFB can’t afford mass advertising for its projects so must rely on the quality of the work to be its own ad. “We’re building our audience through a whole set of other techniques and slowly growing until it reaches a tipping point and it will take off,” says Perlmutter. “We can see it in the responses we get to a project like Bear 71 in the blogosphere and in the technology press–the kinds of people in the know–and they’re saying this is where the future is happening. And sooner or later that future becomes more broadly dispersed.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.