Nuanced films don’t sell in theatres, a colleague told me a week ago. He was explaining why a theatre in Toronto has declined to screen my upcoming film, The Rise of Jordan Peterson. This wasn’t the only hurdle we faced trying to get this film, which traces the tumultuous period that placed Peterson on the world stage as a beloved and reviled public intellectual, into theatres. We faced quite a few, from internal debates to ethical concerns about contributing to the cult of personality around Peterson to the statement that continues echoing in my mind: nuanced film don’t sell.
My experience broadcasting a nuanced TV film about Jordan Peterson on the Canadian Broadcasting Channel last year didn’t support my colleague’s claim. The film was popular and generally well received (once people watched it, that is—social media reactions beforehand were another story). After watching the film, audiences told me that it was refreshingly balanced and that it didn’t tell them what to think. And they liked that! But is it true that nuanced films don’t sell in theatres? Do people only want to buy tickets to see films about their heroes or stories that make them feel good? And, if this is true, is this the result of media conditioning, or has the media taken this approach in response to our wants, which are rooted in our human nature?
I’m not a huge fan of the descriptor balanced for my film. If the film is balanced, it’s not because I was trying to be. I was trying to be honest. If the film is balanced, it’s simply a consequence of the fact that I listened to different perspectives and discovered valid points that were worth reflecting back to audiences. The world is complicated, and this film is complicated too. It doesn’t wrap things up into a neat story with a feel-good ending because that’s not what I witnessed and what my experience was like making it. So I don’t think balanced is the most accurate word to describe it, even though I know what people mean when they say that. I think the film is honest. And nuanced.
But nuanced films don’t sell.
Yesterday, the news came out that a week-long theatrical run of my 90-minute feature about Peterson had been cancelled by Carlton cinema in Toronto because one or more of the staff had complained—even though the complainants most likely hadn’t seen it. This placed the cinema in a tough position and they decided to cancel the run. It was disappointing, and they were very apologetic about it.
I consulted with trusted colleagues about whether or not to name the cinema when journalists asked us about the barriers we faced theatrically. We decided to opt for cinema-on-demand platforms to circumvent these troubles. This means that fans can request screenings in their cities and, if enough tickets sell at a screening (40% of the box office), the screening will go ahead. Peterson, of course, has a huge existing fan base, but this film wasn’t just made for Peterson fans. It’s nuanced—but, alas, nuanced films don’t sell.
I decided to name Carlton cinema because I didn’t think it was right to let this slide. Cancel culture is a very tired narrative nowadays, but it’s disappointing to work so hard on a film and to have it cancelled in this way—not because of the content or the treatment, but because of the subject matter.
Some people have been calling Carlton to express their discontent. And, while I appreciate this support and think it’s fair for people to voice their opinions respectfully, I’m apprehensive that many people’s reactions to this story may quickly devolve into outrage, which is rotting our culture. Carlton’s decision, while it wasn’t brave, was ultimately a business decision and, as a business owner, I can understand how complicated such decisions can be.
I’ve spent the last three and a half years embedded in the toxicity of this culture war, as a consequence of making this film. And I’ve learned that it’s very easy to fall into the temptation of fighting for a cause—to be pulled in by the seduction of anger, the tug of outrage, and the comfort of belonging to a tribe.
It doesn’t feel as good (at first) to take a step back and think about the big picture. But it’s better for everyone’s sanity in the long run.
If you want to support this film, then I ask you to share the trailer on social media. Start a conversation about it. Request a screening in your city. Help the screenings scattered across Canada on October 6 tip (i.e. sell 40% of their box offices). Let your friends around the world know that they can request or host screenings in the US, Australia, Ireland, the UK and Germany, with the option of including a panel discussion and creating an event. Nuanced films are major conversation starters and this film falls into that category.
But nuanced films don’t sell.
Or do they? I can’t help but take this as a personal challenge.
Do you only want to see films that celebrate your heroes? Or do you want to see films that also challenge you? That make you think? That genuinely tell different sides of a story—that reflect reality without ideological tunnel vision?
Maybe nuanced films can sell.