Peter Smoczynski on independent filmmaking, risk, and the value of a freelancers’ union

DSC01400by Rachel Sanders


Peter Smoczynski says that joining the Canadian Media Guild’s freelance branch was a turning point in the production of his latest film.

“I didn’t feel I was alone anymore,” he says.

Although the Ottawa-based filmmaker has spent the majority of his 40-year career working independently, it was a relief to have the union behind him this time around. When you’re taking on the government, after all, it’s good to have some support.

His new film “Election Day in Canada: When Voter Suppression Comes Calling” explores the 2011 election Robocalls scandal. Smoczynski is pushing to get it finished in time for the 2015 federal election.

“It’s a really tough way to make a living,” Smoczynski says of independent filmmaking. He cites an article that ran in the Globe and Mail last spring that outlines many of the challenges.

Except at CBC, he says, rates for documentary filmmaking haven’t gone up in 25 years. Competition is fierce and independent studios have to squeeze every dollar they can out of their budgets. But although it’s a tough go for all independent filmmakers, a project like Smoczynski’s has an even harder time.

“The deck, financially, is stacked against somebody like me who is making a film like this. Who is outside the box,” he told Story Board during a recent phone interview.

Because he accepts crowdfunding, Smoczynski is disqualified from using the tax and film credit system. And he can’t become a non-profit and write tax receipts for donors because his film is critical of the government.

Smoczynski’s crowdfunding campaigns have raised a little money for his project, but he says very few Canadian documentaries raise a significant amount of funding this way. He advises filmmakers to think of their crowdfunding campaigns as promotional events, explaining that his have been more useful for publicity and outreach than they have been for securing funding.

Nonetheless, Smoczynski describes his film as a “minor miracle” – since he began in 2012, he has always managed to raise just enough cash through private donations and crowdfunding to take the next step.

“This film seems to continuously get what it needs. It just gets enough money to do the next shoot. The next interview. The next piece of equipment,” he says.

“People hear what I’m doing and they say ‘this is really important. This has been completely glossed over by the media and everything else. And this guy is in it alone, we’re going to help him.’”

As tough as it is to make a living independently, Smoczynski has no doubt that that’s the way the documentary film industry is headed.

“I guarantee you, with another five or ten years, if you’re still in this business, you’re going to see more freelancers than staff jobs in this industry, if it’s not already happened. The independent, the freelance journalist, the writer, the filmmaker, they’re doing it all on their own. And at the same time they don’t have any protection.”

And without protection, Smoczynski says, independent filmmakers are at risk.

“People like me are out there with their ass in the wind and we’re very vulnerable. And as long as we remain vulnerable and people know that, it’s going to be very difficult to tell the real hard stories that need to be told in this country,” he says.

He looks to CMG Freelance to offer support to the growing number of freelancers who are labouring solo on important projects.

“The risks involved in telling a real story and doing investigative journalism sometimes run deep. I mean I’ve already gotten threats over the film that I’m making,” he says.

“And I say ‘how do I protect myself against these people?’ And right now there’s no way of doing it. Where do I go? Who do I turn to? Well I hope it’s the Canadian Media Guild.”

He says the CMG’s liability and special risk insurance program for freelancers — currently under development — is desperately needed by freelance investigative journalists. The union, he says, can also help independent workers understand their rights and negotiate for better deals. In addition, he believes that union membership gives independents a measure of professional credibility – he insists that his researchers and other contractors join CMG Freelance for this very reason.

“Imagine if every freelancer out there suddenly is a member and every time somebody tries to take advantage of them, they have the Canadian Media Guild calling them saying ‘you know you really can’t do this,’” he says.

“Imagine if every freelancer out there had a Canadian Media Guild card. Imagine how quickly the industry would change.”

For more information on Peter’s film or to make a donation, you can email


Posted on February 24, 2015 at 10:38 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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  1. Written by Shelley Marcenko Arminio
    on April 25, 2022 at 5:56 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Peter, I’ve been trying to reach you. Hope you are well. My e-mail is

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