March 02, 2007

Playback, Screenwriters, and the Elephant in the Room

Where are our screenwriting stars? asks Marcus Robinson in Canada’s Playback Magazine. Where indeed. The reason there aren’t any should be clear to any who read the Canadian Film Insider and put two and two together. Mr Robinson hasn’t done that, as is obvious in his article and his subsequent list: Playback picks 10 screenwriting stars working in Canada

Please, read the initial article and then go through it with me:

Robinson begins by noting that Scorsese acknowledged the writer first off when accepting his Oscar for THE DEPARTED. Please keep that in mind for later. Then Robinson does something which completely reveals to any person who knows anything about film, that he is answering his own question as to why we have no screenwriting stars -- he quotes from Dennis Heaton who has a film called FIDO (bombing soon at a theatre near you). Now why does this give away Robinson’s cluelessness on this issue? Why, it’s because Heaton wrote Fido as part of a team with a writer-director named Andrew Currie (and a third writer by the name of Chomiak). What’s wrong with that? Well I’ll tell you in a minute -- keep this in mind for later, too. And then Robinson goes on to promote a Sundance-type lab for screenwriters, and later a Fujifilm/Greenberg development deal. Once again, missing the elephant in the room.

So what is this elephant in the room that nobody is talking about? Well, it is the Auteur Writer-Director model which is so deeply ingrained in Canadian film decision makers and, apparently, writers reporting on Canadian film, that they can’t see it. Scorsese didn’t co-write the script for THE DEPARTED and takes no credit for it. He rarely has any writing credits, and functions as a Director, not a writer-director. Then look at Dennis Heaton. He’s just one of the crowd in the FIDO thing. Andrew Currie is the standard Canadian writer-director type. Like most writers in Canada, Heaton is going to have to attach himself lamprey-like to Currie or another writer-director to get another feature film made in this country. That’s the model expected of screenwriters who aren’t writer-directors in Canada. And the Sundance-type lab for screenwriters? Doesn’t Robinson realize that’s an incubation model for writer-directors? Obviously not.

Then Robinson makes the obvious observation that 25% of the WGC makes their living in the US. The solutions to fix this problem is more dramatic TV and more movies made, those interviewed say. So the answer to the lack of star screenwriters is that there isn’t enough work to keep talent in the country? Maybe, but that’s only half the problem -- and it’s the half that would be solved in due course if you fixed the other half of the problem.

The solution is to change the failed philosophy of the Writer-Director Auteur Model built into English Telefilm’s decision-making and their staff. You have to make Canadian film project driven, not director driven. To tell you what’s wrong just consider this: Where’s the spec script market in Canada? Answer: There is none! And what chance do writers writing only have to see their work end up on screen anything like they wrote it, if they must attach themselves to a writer-director who has disproportionate power to make anything they want of the finished film? This is how you pretty much stomp out any spec script industry in Canada. Why do they suppose Telefilm’s Screenwriting Assistance Programme has been such a failure? Between the writer-director auteur promotion by Telefilm over the years, and the indifference by producers who recognized that Telefilm backed directors over projects, while having their own “great ideas”, it had no chance of developing home grown Canadian screenwriting stars.

Now look at Robinson’s list of “Canadian screenwriting stars” and reflect on his choices. How many of his idea of “screenwriting stars” are Writer-Directors? Well, Arcand, Polley, Kwan, Virgo, McGowan -- damn, that’s 5 out of the 10 as pure Writer-Director Auteur. So who’s left? Heaton is a co-writer lackey with a writer-director auteur like many Canadian screenwriters, while Gullucio had his play written into a movie by some writer-director auteur. So we’re left with 3 out of 10 actual Screenwriters -- who are not Writer-Directors or had their work adapted by one, or are functioning as lampreys attached to one, on Robinson’s list: Morais, Zmak, and Scott.

So, here is the problem, brought into focus by examining critically the writing of somebody who appears to be on the side of the Screenwriter with his heart in the right place, and recognizes the importance to increased Canadian films success, but isn’t aware of, or willing to admit to, The Elephant In The Room.

February 13, 2007

A Shining Truth at a Shining Genies

What a happy night for Canadian Cinema this one was compared to past Genies award ceremonies. I am happy to see BON COP, BAD COP and THE ROCKET take awards. This is the kind of thing Canada needs. Not dreary, pseudo-auteur failures like old cross-eyes Don McKellar and buddies patting themselves on the back for throwing away millions making boring films Canadians hate, year after year. Nope. We had real winners this night.

What a fantastic quote from producer Patrick Roy:

“The successes that we've had in Quebec in the past were really because we were making films for Quebec people," he said. "The biggest mistake we can make is to try to do what Americans are doing. If we start making movies for Canadians, I think they'll go see them, but it's going to take a few successes in a row. People will realize that Canadian movies can be successful and they'll go see them."

This is exactly what I pound on about here. You’ll notice I’ve emphasized the key lessons. You see how this works? To make successful films, you must make them for an audience -- a substantial audience. In this case, for the people who are paying for them.

No, it's not about creating a fake Canadian star system. We can't compete with the American celebrity machine. No, it's not about pushing existing failed auteur filmmakers on the public with massive advertisement and marketing. No, it's not about endlessly supporting "made men/women" filmmakers regardless of project quality.

Mr. Roy pointed out the obvious tonight. It was a solid gold formula that‘s as plain as the snow that‘s falling tonight. Is Telefilm listening?

January 30, 2007

Telefilm's 1990's Policy and George Bush's Iraq War and Other Modern Disasters

I’ve gotten some email recently, overwhelmingly positive for the most part, but I did receive one that I found particularly flawed in its thinking. However, it demonstrates a very common mode of thinking which is the norm when it comes to the weak arguments put forward in an attempt to defend our Canadian filmmaking failures. “Apologists” is a word that comes to mind. Here is the email in its entirety:

In your latest essay (January 10, 2007), you seem to
be claiming that the Canadian government should only
fund "genre" movies. What kind of culture would we
have if we only fund popcorn movies? A strong culture
makes a balance between popular and artistic culture.
Would you really want movies like "Trailer Park Boys"
to be nominated at the Genie Awards for best film of
the year? Many countries make art movies that are
popular with audiences.

As for your argument that Canadian culture "hates"
Atom Egoyan, Don McKellar, Bruce McDonald etc. etc.,
it should be pointed out that the typical Canadian
"art" film is poorly advertised and distributed. You
should wait until these kind of movies get the
publicity and distribution they need before you can
claim that Canadian culture "hates" them.


In response, it seems that some clear-minded examination is in order. When we “do the work” and really examine the facts and reasoning, we see how this doesn’t make any sense when put in context with film history.

First, it makes the automatic connection that genre films are popcorn movies. In fact, genre films are simply films which have an identifiable audience because they have identifiable traits. However, they are hardly “popcorn movies” by default in some derogatory sense. On the contrary, the finest films ever made are clearly genre films. CITIZEN KANE is a biopic. THE GODFATHER is a crime film. THE SEVEN SAMURAI is a, well, samurai film -- a very popular Japanese genre. If one wanted to, one could go down the list of, say, the American Film Institute’s Top 100 greatest films and, with little trouble at all, identify which genre these genre films came from.

Go ahead, take a look. Which film is from the war genre, or the coming of age genre, or adventure, or horror, or black comedy, or, or… ?

And do something else while you’re at it: consider how each of these films did financially. And ask yourself why they did well financially. The inevitable answer is that they almost all cleaned house at the box office because they were superb films that also had an identifiable audience. And they had an identifiable audience because they were genre films.

Second flaw in this person’s thinking also demonstrates a very common and troubling flaw: that there is some sort of natural separation which must exist between popular and artistic culture. As the AFI list above demonstrates, this is ridiculous when it comes to considering the most expensive art form.

There is a truism in all modern art forms, and we would all do well to consider it. It occurs everywhere in example. Take painting. Back in the mid 1800’s, the French Salon held dominion, making pretentious works and promoting artists which few recognize today. Meanwhile, the impressionist guys where busy painting every day popular scenes in a fresh exciting way, which would appeal to a large audience. Who won out? And consider the story of Van Gogh. A common genre fanatic in taste himself, he purposely signed his work with his first name so that the average person would feel comfortable with his work.

The third flaw present in the email demonstrates that the author doesn’t understand the irony in his argument. He is unaware that Art House is a genre as well. It began, most would agree, with Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL back in 1957. Some might argue it was the BICYCLE THEIF that kicked it off, but really that belonged to the Social Realist genre. At any rate, a new genre called Art House was born and flourished through the 1960’s. The French New Wave, the Italian New Wave were both sub-genres of the genre.

I’m not going to go through the whole genesis of it all, but simply put, it was where the concept of the Director as Auteur was born. It remains the high point for the Baby Boomer Generation. It’s what they remember seeing in college and studying if they went to film school. For them, the Art House or Auteur Genre is the thing to shoot for. And as Canada has chosen socialized film-making, run of course by Baby Boomers, this is what we’ve gotten.

And this is why Canadian film has been a culture of failure.

You see, back then there was a substantial audience for that then fresh new genre. But in the Canadian case, we see that when you try and pretend you’re something you’re not, the films end up being weak attempts at being like something else. I am reminded of many essays and interviews with Canada’s biggest failed filmmaker, Atom Egoyan. He constantly pointed out how he doesn’t make genre films in those interviews from way back when. He attempted to make a case about how he doesn’t like formula, and genre is weak filmmaking, and on and on. Well, not only does this demonstrate he didn’t understand that the Art House film is a genre, but as we can see in his more recent films like FELICIA’S JOURNEY (serial killer genre), ARARAT (historical drama genre), or WHERE THE TRUTH LIES (mystery genre), he has absolutely no clue about how to handle any genre. Gee, why did the guy who made all these rambling and opaque arguments against genre films (while making films in the Art House genre), turn to make genre films and fail so badly at it? Is it because he’s more a poseur than a filmmaker? And a poseur who can’t see the irony in how hypocritical he has been?

And the fourth and final flaw, getting back to the email, comes in the second paragraph. The writer attempts to make the tired argument that Canadian films have failed primarily because Egoyan, McKellar, and the rest never got the exposure they needed for Canadians to fall in love with them. Or something like that.

Well, we can look at the history of the American Independent film boom in the 1990’s to see where that argument falls apart. Look at all those great movies that came out in the 1990’s from America. Look at all those guys who came out of nowhere with low budget (sometimes micro-budget) cool movies that rocked Hollywood starting around 1990 though to 1999. In fact, most of the top filmmakers in Hollywood all came out of that decade. Raimi, Aronofsky, Tarantino, Smith, Rodriguez -- the list can go on for a couple dozen names. And all of them made their first films with very little money at all, risking it all, and scoring at the newly emerged force of The Film Festival. The Americans were not alone: many English and some German names also come to mind as part of the cool 90's indie film gold rush.

Why did those people all succeed in making culturally relevant and popular money-making films and the Canadian crew fail so badly? After all, the Canadian guys had government backing. A force at places like Sundance. A presence at Cannes. Those American nobody indies had nobody. They made it, and they made it big time, because they were not handcuffed to a fantasy notion that culture and popular culture are separate. Nor did they hate genre films or look down on them and hold up some 1960’s director as auteur model as the thing to emulate.

It is impossible to know how many indie film Canadian superstars might have emerged if they were not shut out of the Telefilm’s pompous “high culture auteur” anti-genre mandate that blindly backed Egoyan and his failed generation of filmmakers back then in the late 80‘s onward. Certainly we know what happened to the best in front of the camera talent in Canada -- they fled south and many became A list stars. Unlike the behind the camera people, actors may struggle, but they don’t have to raise a million bucks to get a role.

What we do know is that the policy failed. Not many big distributors stepped up at the films festivals, enormous cheques in hand, and then promoted Canadian films across the world including Canada. They couldn't. Art House is a difficult genre to promote in recent decades, and the attempts at it coming from Canada were really pretentious and boring and nothing like as interesting and innovative as the European originals.

We can only hope that Telefilm has changed and is more prone to back films that Canadians would like to see, rather than crazily supporting filmmakers that Canadians ignore and hate.

We can only hope that we hear less about the crazy idea that Canada should promote a “star system” to help improve things. Or that we should give millions more to our colossal track record failures to make yet another “cultural” film, but this time we need to follow that up with more millions to promote it. As if that’s the big key to success -- more money rather than realistic strategy. Hey, George Bush is on the phone -- he’s got a war he’d like to sell you.

January 10, 2007

New Year, New Genies, New Hope -- and a Common Sense Plea

(Halifax) It’s an interesting dilemma this year at the Genie awards. Think about this impossible scenario: some Canadians have actually seen the films nominated for awards.

W.T.F. ???

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, some of the films up for the major awards were films that Canadians actually went out to see. Canadian tax-payers, the people paying for Telefilm, actually rewarded Telefilm’s policy of promoting viable films. Films which are culturally viable. Meaning films that are a part of culture, because Canadians embrace them as their own.

This is a point that cannot be stressed enough, and contrasted enough, with what came before. So let’s make this really simple and straight forward for everybody so that they understand the point. I’ll put it in capital letters.

CANADIAN CULTURE LOVES = BON COP, BAD COP, THE TRAILER PARK BOYS, THE ROCKET and other genre movies that are distinctly Canadian including many genre films in our history made by guys like DAVID CRONENBERG! This is true over all our history. They vote for them with their box office dollars. They vote for them with their TV ratings. IT IS OBVIOUS WHAT IS CANADIAN CULTURE.

CANADIAN CULTURE HATES = ATOM EGOYAN, DON MCKELLAR, BRUCE MCDONALD, PATRICIA ROZEMA, and all the rest of the poseurs and obscure film festival “darlings“. Canadians hate these bastards. They don’t patronize their films and see them as jokes. They have made Canadian film the laughing stock it is today among Canadians. IT IS OBVIOUS THESE PEOPLE HAVE NO PLACE IN CANADIAN CULTURE AND SHOULD NOT BE SUPPORTED WITH ANOTHER SINGLE PENNY OF CANADIAN TAX-PAYER MONEY.

Is there any mystery then, recognizing these undeniable truths, that the Genies have been viewed as pointless by Canadians? The pinnacle in uselessness being a Genies award show hosted with Atom Egoyan’s pompous unibrow war-pig wife. Who is going to watch that? NOBODY.

I apologize to intelligent readers who already “get” the obvious and don’t need all the capitals of this entry. Canadian film has, and always has had, so much potential. Telefilm the same. It is an institution with a noble mandate: enable the creation of Canadian culture. It is such a tragedy that that has happened so little before 2006. One can only hope that maybe, just maybe, the powers that be will look upon the Genies this year and something will “click” in their minds. Shockingly, there might actually be an audience -- a small one -- for this awards show this year. Will that be enough for the switch to be turned on in the heads of the people who make the decisions with our money?

December 18, 2006

How Telefilm is Missing the Contemporary Multiplatform Mark

(Toronto) While at first left wondering what place Telefilm had in involving itself in the video game arena with the recently announced video game competition it does, on reflection, make some sense on principle.

Yes, video games are typically devoid of any cultural significance except on the most superficial level -- especially in this era when none are really cutting edge phenomenon. It wasn’t always the case. There are no Space Invaders or Donkey Kongs or Pacman games coming out in this era. And this is something to ponder. Those ancient games were unlike anything else in their time period and became icons. It was due to their originality and unique niche they created for themselves. Today, virtually all the computer games are highly derivative knock-offs of rip-offs based on sequels to feature films which were an imitation of something else. We did have Sim Earth and a few others in the relatively recent past, and a handful of others. But the overwhelming majority are not innovative in the least. And are at their weakest at the storytelling level -- which is why they always make such horrible feature film adaptations.

So, considering these things, it’s clear that Telefilm should concentrate on its supposed mandate and focus on winners for such a competition based on originality and especially original storytelling. By that meaning a story culturally significant to Canadians, without being overtly pretentious and unconvincing. A tall order.

But here’s the better, obvious plan. And I see no mention of it from Telefilm in their literature. Perhaps its there, but I don’t see it. Telefilm should be concentrating its efforts on multiplatform media releases. The video game version would be part of an overall package, which includes the feature film release and print and internet content. This is where entertainment is now.

However it would never fly with Telefilm, this intelligent contemporary approach to Canadian culture. It will remain hopelessly grounded, based on what we see them pursuing currently. The feature film projects being green lit for English Canadian film are more of the same director driven, and familiar “established” loser production company driven, projects that have bombed so hopelessly for a decade and a half or more. The new lists for films to be financed by Telefilm for 2007 release could easily be switched with a list from 1997. Instead of picking projects based on “the project”, focus remains on rewarding the usual suspects who the Canadian public have rejected so many times in the past, and following the misguided star of 1960’s auteur cinema as the model for current socialist cinema in Canada. Ignoring the fact that those guys back then were able to make film after film because there actually was an audience for what they were doing back then, and their films made a profit -- which is not the case today. Hell, there's even a new generation of groomed "auteur" directors being rewarded for writing their own audience-less material for the tiny "off-shore" film festival crowd. It's sad.

So Telefilm is not misguided in pursuing the video game angle. Nor are they misguided in pursuing the funding of some internet “new media”. Where they are missing the mark, is that they retain the same faulty thinking which has crippled English Canadian Telefilm since its inception when it comes to viable cultural product -- ie. product the culture of the country embraces as its own. Who can say when that will change?

December 13, 2006

Look, Tiny Tim: The Canadian Film 2006 "Top Ten"

(Vancouver) The “Top 10” of Canadian Film for 2006 has been chosen. Courtesy of the TIFF Group. A quick Google search will reveal a list predictable and disheartening, as these list usually are. There’s one dramatic feature which is not too bad and has a little bit of appeal. There’s a couple of very earnest documentaries. And then the bulk of the list is filled out with pretentious art house style junk which certainly isn’t art, nor is it made for any discernible audience outside of the tiny group of faux intellectuals (or perhaps pseudo-intellectuals is a more accurate term?) who huddle around together patting themselves on the back, throwing away millions and millions of tax-payer dollars, year after year. All the while pointing a finger at big bad Hollywood as the reason nobody goes to see their films.

Notable about the list is the lack of “big name” Canadian filmmakers. That’s a big plus for Canadian film’s direction. You know, Egoyan comes to mind. Or Lantos, or a few others. The usual suspects who have sucked so many untold millions out of taxpayers in the name of “Canadian Culture” and produced film after film, year after year, which Canadians hate. Certainly Canadians look at their garbage as anything but Canadian Culture. It’s not embraced by Canadians as their own, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, Lantos has another hopeless bomb in the wings with “Fugitive Pieces” and Egoyan is hiding out at the U of T until the ill-wind blows over and maybe Canadians will never notice the $40 million or so thrown away on his boring pretentious flops. Hey -- when exactly are Lantos and Egoyan going to start paying back all those millions in government loans and public investments? Maybe Egoyan should sell his Land Rover?

But what is disheartening is that some obscure filmmaker once again pulled the old Canadian funding trick and placed old cross-eyes Donnie McKellar in as the star of his film Monkey Warfare. This was done solely to get Telefilm production funding and the “stamp of approval”. This list of really awful Canadian films that have starred the feeble actor is long and sad. All of them complete disasters, with one grating third-rate Peter Sellers on cough syrup “performance” after another. But, he’s one of the Canadian Film Illuminati. A made man. The kicker? He’s going to star in yet another pretentious go-nowhere film he wrote in the not too distant future. And we, my friends, will be throwing millions down the shoot for more faux Canadian Culture staring the faux Canadian star, Don “Old Cross-eyes” McKellar.

Other low points include the lack of inclusion of Bon Cop, Bad Cop on the list. Sorry to burst your bubbles, but Trailer Park Boys hasn’t come close to breaking even and is not a runaway hit. Although it is a decided move in the right direction. Bon Cop, Bad Cop did a lot more original things and was far more interesting. And it was a genuine hit film. That’s reality.

And where’s this stupid pet zombie movie, Fido? It’s not on the list? Canadians dropped $11 million on this also-ran Shaun of the Dead. Not good enough to be on this list? Geez, that really doesn’t signal good things for this film. Or maybe it does? The group of people who have been given credit for this list have a track record of being completely clueless with regard to Canadian film decision-making. Everyone of them with a really dark past of public fund waste. So maybe that means it’s worth checking out? You wouldn’t think so reading about it. It sounds like an awful riff in Dead Alive/Shaun/ a thousand other tired zombie comedies sub-genre.

And lastly, there is the wet stain of Sarah Polley. Super-activist. So super left wing hardcore she was ex-communicated from the NDP (seriously). Child star who never had to get a real job and knows very little about every day Canadians. Her “actor’s film” is on the list, of course. It’s oh so “Canadian” in its dreariness and lack of audience. What makes it all so distressing, is that once we get rid of a hackauteur like Egoyan, he’s replaced by a future repeat siphon for Canadian taxpayer dollars like Polley. There seems no escape. No doubt, she already at work at her next project. Her funding for next year squirreled away by Wayne Clarkson before Telefilm even gets any allotment from the government. Likely while she jets around to film festivals, paid for by Telefilm, for her film which was ruthlessly and expensively promoted by Telefilm to be in those festivals. The film a few hundred Canadians might go see in the theatre and rent. A few hundred, tops.

Merry Christmas, English Canadian Film. May God, if there is one, help the sad orphan that is English Canadian Film.

December 03, 2006

CRTC, Please Observe Reality

(Ottawa) CRTC meetings over the past week fell off the national media radar quickly, but the questions linger for anybody who cares about this multi-billion dollar industry which has been so badly mismanaged in terms of federal subsidies and investment. And, very likely, the situation will become more hopeless when the CRTC makes its changes in the next year.

Why? It’s both simple and not so simple. Simple because it is obvious that changes must be made. Not so simple because the CRTC appears to be driven by a confused mode of thinking. Somehow, through convoluted logic, they appear to believe that the key to a thriving Canadian TV industry is to empower broadcasters to do whatever they propose that they need to do to be “competitive”.

Now, it’s not so hard to see that the CRTC has been assuming that Canadian broadcasters are functioning in a free market economy and that assuring strong competitive rules enabling profits for such a market ensures a strong industry. Oh boy, oh boy, this is where the big mistake is made.

Canadian broadcasters have not been operating in a free market economy for decades. They are beneficiaries of non-stop subsidies and government-funded production money for all that time. They don’t have to deal with the real world like US broadcasters do -- operating in a real free market economy. Canadian broadcasters leach off of the Americans, getting their best shows for relatively little money and, when forced into providing the miniscule amount of Canadian TV content they are obligated to provide (an insanely miniscule amount, beyond any good sense), they lean on the Canadian tax-payer for the major portion of financing. Hell, they won’t even develop a show without Telefilm money for the most part! It’s a complete joke, welfare system that has developed. And it’s a welfare system for billionaire corporations buying each other out like rich piranhas! Only in Canada, you say? Yes, only in Canada.

I outlined the obvious solutions to enable a Renaissance in Canadian TV in my last entry: IF I RAN THE ZOO (AND THE CRTC). I’m certain none of my suggestions will be enacted. Even though the Canadian taxpayer would come out kings and queens with an empire of quality Canadian TV on par with the best in Britain after a year or two shakedown, as pressure comes properly on the Canadian broadcasters to earn their keep.

Oh well, it will be interesting and likely depressing to observe the CRTC’s decisions. One can only hope they are able to see the big realistic picture, rather than some idealized fantasy which does not exist. I doubt it.
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