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National Film Board Unreels Online Smash Hits

Appeared in the Toronto Star on February 1, 2010 as National Film Board unreels online smash hits

In recent years, Canadians have become increasingly accustomed to hearing about Internet success stories elsewhere with fewer examples of homegrown initiatives. However, an unlikely Canadian online video success has emerged recently that has not received its due – the National Film Board of Canada’s Screening Room. 

The NFB may never replace YouTube in the minds of most when it comes to Internet video, but a series of innovations have highlighted the benefits of an open distribution model and the potential for Canadian content to reach a global audience online.

Last year, just months before the NFB celebrated its 70th anniversary, it launched the NFB Screening Room, an online portal designed to make its films more readily accessible to Canadians and interested viewers around the world.  To meet its objective, it committed to be as open, transparent, and accessible as possible, including making the films freely available and embeddable on third party websites.

In January 2009, the site started with 500 films.  Today, the number of available films has nearly tripled, with almost 1,500 films, clips, and trailers.  The growing selection has been accompanied by a massive increase in audience. There have been 3.7 million online film views over the past year – 2.2 million from Canada and 1.5 million from the rest of the world.  That number is set to continue to grow as daily views have jumped from 3,000 per day in January 2009 to more than 20,000 film views per day in January 2010.

The site also uses mobile technology to increase public access and exposure to Canadian films.  In October 2009, the NFB launched an iPhone application that has been downloaded more than 170,000 times and led to more than 500,000 film views on the ubiquitous mobile device.

Interestingly, the NFB reports the most popular viewing time is in the evening hours, suggesting that watching a film online is an effective substitute for conventional television programming.   

The NFB also rolled out new participative initiatives.  For example, it launched an "open content" project called GDP, an interactive one-year effort to document the economic crisis. The NFB invited Canadians to submit their own videos discussing the effects of the economic downturn, leading to more than 25 videos along with hundreds of photos and text comments.

The NFB success story is noteworthy for two reasons beyond the impressive statistics.  First, the project is instructive from a public policy perspective.  As the NFB’s content manager recently noted, the Screening Room “puts the films back in front of the people who paid for them in the first place – Canadian taxpayers.” 

That philosophy ought to be emulated by other publicly funded cultural bodies. For example, recently began promoting an online licensing system that charges sites as much as $250 per month to embed a single article on a website.  While the desire for additional revenue is understandable, the goal for a publicly funded body surely must be to make public access the priority, rather than to garner small incremental revenues.

Second, the NFB has demonstrated the potential of the Internet and new media to attract new audiences for Canadian content.  The old regulatory models premised on scarcity that led to Canadian content requirements are disappearing quickly, replaced by a world of abundance in which artificial barriers do little to keep content out. 

As the NFB recognized, remaining relevant in that world requires ensuring your work is accessible as possible. While there are unquestionably risks, there are tremendous potential benefits for Canadian creators and the export of Canadian culture.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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