November 27, 2006

If I Ran The Zoo (and the CRTC)

(Ottawa) If I ran the zoo, what would I do, Magoo? Why I’d fix the CRTC’s problems in a few quick strokes, and with it the problems of CBC and ACTRA and all of those folks.
Big meetings going on this week. CRTC suddenly woke up and realized that their policies have destroyed English Canadian Television, after bowing down to the corporations and their scary, backstabbing cutthroat executives who stuff their pockets with millions in revenue and subsidies by just picking up and recycling US shows.
Plus there’s the whole HDTV thing, which is a very real issue that hasn’t exactly just landed from space, but it seems like it has to the people at the CRTC, who in press releases seem to view it as breaking news.
Okay, let’s start with CBC:
CBC’s really screwed. They were formed as a Canadian version of BBC. So what’s happened? Well, BBC rocks, and CBC crocks. And now you’ve got that screw job Stursberg in there trying to make it “commercial”. Meanwhile, his Telefilm “commercial” plans tanked big time and weren’t made to function until he quit and left to go to CBC! Wrong guy for that job, eh what? And then poor CBC’s got the HDTV thing to deal with. Wow.
Okay, here’s how you fix CBC’s problems. Refocus on the successful BBC model, dummies! First move: TAX HDTVs. That’s right. Tax every damn HDTV that gets sold in Canada from now on, and put that money into the CBC. I mean, how the hell do you think the BBC is funded? Everybody is soon going to be buying HDTVs, it is a bonanza of money for the CBC to get back on its feet again, isn’t it? Then fire Stursberg and Fred Fuchs. These people have no business being in the public broadcasting business. Replace them, and retire most of the CBC old guard and put some new, cool people in there in their 30’s and 40’s, for gosh sakes. Their mandate: make the CBC as cool and vital as the BBC, or you’re fired! And make it internet friendly and popular and Canadian -- or you’re fired! Here’s a two year contract. Succeed or be, you guessed it, fired.
Okay, okay. CRTC can’t do all that, I guess. But those are the solutions to those issues.
Now the big non-CBC issue. Canadian drama is something the Canadian “commercial” networks don’t produce unless they can get Telefilm money to make it with. And we’re talking about development, the whole works! That’s the unfortunate truth about it. And if Telefilm won’t fund it, it gets dropped tout suite. The only exception is the temporary production they get forced into when they open new stations or buy each other out. One shot deals.
But then, to make it hopeless, the CRTC lets them get away with murder with insanely loose Canadian content rules which are supposed to exist so that Canadian TV gets made, so that Canadian stories get told. It’s at a state where Global came into the CRTC meeting wanting infomercials listed as Canadian Content. It has become that brazen.
Well, ACTRA has an okay proposal based on what I’ve read of it. But it’s extremely conservative. Only 7% of ad revenue to Canadian drama and two hours more of Canadian drama in real prime time. I would guess it must mean two more hours a week for each broadcaster. Which means two one hour dramas, potentially. Small potatoes. Especially considering how some of these weasels at places like CHUM and GLOBAL handle “Canadian drama”. They’ll make 6 episodes if possible and rerun them endlessly, or they’ll make nonsense like TRAIN 48 or whatever the hell that show was, that cost about $50 and episode and looked it and nobody watched.
No, the CRTC needs to go hardball on these people. Don’t worry, they’ll survive. Like cockroaches. Every network should be required to add at least one hour of Canadian made dramatic television in "real prime time" every night of the week. And there must be a regulation that each episode must only be rerun once! And no, Telefilm isn’t going to pay for it. In fact, there must be a regulation that Telefilm cannot increase its television funding activities. No extra subsidies. Imagine what will happen! The Canadian commercial networks will suddenly find themselves -- POW! -- in the commercial network business! Forget about the 7% ad revenue proposal thing. They’re gonna have to spend as much as it takes to function as a commercial network, which means they have to produce shows that people watch, and therefore advertisers will pay for. Simple logic.

Follow these suggestions, powers that be, and the result is INSTANT RENAISSANCE in Canadian TV and related internet and new media run-offs. Both at the CBC and at the other broadcasters. Give it a couple of years to find its feet, and then look out. But nobody’s going to take these bold steps to make Canada a dramatic TV (and related new media) powerhouse. It will remain a zoo, and I’m not running it.

November 16, 2006

AT TELEFILM, SAY HELLO TO THE NEW BOSS, SAME AS THE OLD BOSS (and say goodbye to any hope for English Canadian Film)

(Toronto) There has been a lot of talk at Telefilm these days about the plan to increase English Canadian films at the Canadian box office. This approach started with the previous Telefilm Executive Director, and resulted in a bunch of misfires that were knock-offs of bad American films. For example FOOLPROOF or GOING THE DISTANCE. Complete crap.

Now they’ve had a New Boss for a couple of years at Telefilm in the form of Wayne Clarkson. The first year and a half under him were hopeless disasters for English Canadian film. For example WHERE THE TRUTH LIES or CHILDSTAR.

However, over the past year, a lot of things have developed that brought some hope. And really, all those awful English Canadian films were probably well in the pipeline before Wayne Clarkson arrived, and their approval was by committee. In the past year, many cross-country tours have occurred, lots of focus group meetings, reports, ideas and input gathering. And Wayne Clarkson even did away with the committee system, putting himself in charge as the Film Czar of Canada, with complete decision-making power over what English films would go ahead with production and what would not. Like an old time movie mogul. The whole thing was highly publicized in uproarious articles in all the major papers and even a cover feature Macleans article.

In an earlier article, my attention having been drawn to these unprecedented events, I kept watch on what he would do like a lot of people. All those millions for English Canadian film, and now one guy decides! Well, now fully 11 months into 2006, we have our first English Canadian feature film production decision of this calendar year. I clicked on the Telefilm news release: Read the release >>
and had a look to see what was going to be produced this year, the year when things seemed to get rolling at least a little with Trailer Park Boys and, though only half in English, Bon Cop, Bad Cop, seeming to shine some hope for Canada. Now what did Wayne Clarkson choose to follow them up?

Somebody hit me with a hammer. Every single one of them a dreary, hopeless Canadian tragi-comedy or a tedious auteur driven snooze-fest. It’s just all so depressingly out of touch with the new stated goals of Telefilm, “to grow English Canadian film popularity“, it’s stunning.

Here’s his picks for English Canadian production money. Virtually nobody is going to go see these films. You could fit them on a list from 1996 instead of 2006. Nothing has changed:

Regional production projects
Atlantic region
Pushing Up Daisies (Producers: Standing 8 Productions - Chaz Thorne, Bill Niven, John Watson, Pen Densham; Writer/Director: Chaz Thorne) is the story of Oliver Zinck and how his life changes when he inherits a Nova Scotian funeral home from his estranged father. Completely in debt, Oliver discovers that by creating corpses in his own way and then providing funeral services, he can make some fast cash. Pushing Up Daisies is a dark comedic exploration of the depths of greed, ambition and desire.
Ontario & Nunavut region
Amal (Producer: Rickshaw Films Ltd. - Executive Producers: Robin Cass, Peter Starr, Producers: David Miller, Steven Bray; Writer: Shaun Mehta and Ritchie Mehta; Director: Ritchie Mehta ) is a based on the short film by Shaun Mehta of the same name and tells the story of an auto rickshaw driver, who attempts to do the right thing following a tragic incident with a young beggar girl.
Breakfast With Scot (Producer: Miracle Pictures Inc. - Paul Brown; Writer: Sean Reycraft; Director: Laurie Lynd) is a contemporary comedy about a 'straight' gay couple whose lives are turned upside down when they become the reluctant, temporary guardians of Scot, a recently orphaned and flamboyant 11-year-old boy.
Young People F*!@king (Producers: Copperheart Entertainment - Steve Hoban; Tracey Boulton; Writer: Martin Gero & Aaron Abrams; Director: Martin Gero) is a wickedly funny sex comedy about five twenty-something couples who, over the course of one night in Toronto, try to have some seemingly straightforward sex but run into problems along the way.
Western region
Normal (Producer: Normal Film Company Inc. - Andrew Boutilier; Writers: Travis McDonald, Carl Bessai; Director: Carl Bessai) An accident in the past causes ripples of tragedy in the lives of the people connected to it, in particular the victim's bereaved mother, his best friend, and the middle aged man responsible for the crash. Normal explores the fragility and humanity of people who are searching for redemption.
Walk All Over Me (Producer: Chaos A Film Company - Carolyn McMaster; Writers: Robert Cuffley, Jason Long; Director: Robert Cuffly) is a darkly comedic thriller laced with love, latex and empowerment. Alberta, a twenty-something cashier, moves to Vancouver into the home of her former babysitter (dominatrix-for-hire Celene) and rescues a handsome "john" accused of stealing a fortune from his crooked boss/ex-best friend.

National production projects
Québec region
Emotional Arithmetic (Producers: Production Arithmetic Québec inc. - Suzanne Girard, Arithmetic Ontario Productions inc. - Anna Stratton; Writers: Jefferson Lewis, Paolo Barzman; Director: Paolo Barzman) Melanie Winters returns home from the mental institution to play hostess to two childhood friends who bring with them memories of their internment in concentration camps as teenagers.
Ontario & Nunavut region
All Hat (Producer: New Real Films Inc. - Jennifer Jonas; Writer: Brad Smith; Director: Leonard Farlinger ) is based on Brad Smith's novel of the same name and tells the story of Ray Dokes, a charming ex-ballplayer, who returns home from jail to discover the rural landscape of his childhood transformed. Ray must find a way to stop Sonny, Ray's nemesis and the spoiled heir to a thoroughbred dynasty, from his grand plan to turn the farmland into a subdivision. One false move and Ray will land back in jail, but he comes up with a plan to stop Sonny and right some wrongs.
Western region
Stone Angel (Producers: Liz Jarvis, Kari Skoglund; Writer/Director: Kari Skoglund) is based on the much-loved and critically acclaimed Margaret Lawrence novel of the same name. Hagar Shipley is aged and ailing - but would rather die than go into a nursing home. The witty, irascible and fiercely proud Hagar, faced with the prospect of a nursing home, sets out on a preposterous journey in search of the safe haven of an abandoned ocean side house she remembers from happier times.

November 05, 2006

The Co-production Treaty And How It Has Worked For Canadians

(Toronto) I've been getting a surprizing amount of positive email, regarding a generally "negative" blog. Even I get kind of depressed reading what I wrote sometimes, but it's soon replaced with anger, seeing all those millions that have been funneled into a few key individual's pockets with this odd form of "cultural laundering", at the expense of the positive things which could come of an institution like Telefilm. Telefilm seems on the brink to become viable for English Canadians, thanks to some new leadership -- except that we continue to see horrible set-backs like the TIDELAND disaster. They really, really need to not only embrace new directions and filmmakers, but they also need to abandon the failed filmmakers who have cost so many millions of dollars and made English Canadian film a bad joke with the public, while also taking a hard look at how policies they had employed have not worked, and how they might fix them. I had some email regarding my article on TIDELAND, and received this email from someone who I will call G.W.. It opened up a little investigation for me, this Sunday morning, which led to a typically anger-producing conclusion regarding the state of co-productions:

In one of your essays, you state "Telefilm exists to fund Canadian stories and culture, right? That’s their mandate. Telefilm exists to assist Canadian filmmakers to tell Canadian stories, Canadian writers, Canadian directors. What in hell is going on here? Why did Telefilm fund Tideland?"
The answer is simple. Canada has co-production treaties with many countries, including the UK (Tideland is a Canada-UK co-production). In exchange for getting foreign funding for some Canadian films, Telefilm will fund foreign productions.

Well, of course that is the concept involved behind their co-pro treaties, I’m well aware of that, and how that was implemented to film TIDELAND. It was more of a rhetorical question which, hopefully, would open up a desire for a little closer examination and inquiry by readers as to how exactly that approach is paying off in obtaining the goal of Telefilm’s mandate. In other words, are we succeeding in promoting Canadian culture by paying for much of the budgets of other countries films with the Canadian public’s money? Are we scoring more investment from them for our films, which should be telling Canadian stories by Canadian filmmakers (ie. Canadian culture)?
It’s a complex question, but it’s not that hard to get a general idea by looking at some simple stats and reflecting on the films created which were promoting Canadian culture, and how successful they were with Canadian audiences (the undeniable, inescapable judge of what Canadian films are accepted as Canadian culture, and alternatively what Canadian culture rejects and disowns).
I’ve limited my selection of stats only to UK-Canada official co-productions over the past 3 years:
TIDELAND (British director, American author)
55% Canadian ($7-million Telefilm Investment)
45% UK
PEARL STREET BRIDGE A.K.A CHAOS (American Director, Writer)
59% Canadian (no recorded Telefilm investment)
41% UK
RIVER KING (British director, American author)
48% Canadian ($2.2-million Telefilm Investment)
52% UK
WHERE THE TRUTH LIES (Canadian Director, American author (based on))
73% Canadian ($15.5-million Telefilm investment)
27% UK
WITHIN (American, British, Other)
23% Canadian (no recorded Telefilm investment)
36% UK
41% Other
BUTTERFLY ON A WHEEL (British director, British writer)
45% Canadian (no recorded Telefilm investment)
55% UK
THE FLOOD (British director, Canadian writer with unknown other)
24% Canadian (no recorded Telefilm investment)
37% South African
39% UK
NIAGARA MOTEL (Canadian director, Canadian writers)
75% Canadian ($6.8-million Telefilm Investment)
25% UK
ALMOST HEAVEN (Canadian director, Canadian writer)
59% Canadian (72k Telefilm investment)
41% UK
FUNNY FARM (Irish director, writing credits to be determined)
23% Canadian
77% UK
So, of the films made, 4 of the 10 had significant Canadian filmmaker involvement as director or writer. Of those, WHERE THE TRUTH LIES was the most expensive disaster in Canadian film history and told a fictional American story, created originally by an American. While THE FLOOD is an English story taking place in London, and ALMOST HEAVEN is a story set in Scotland! The only actual Canadian story, which is told by Canadian filmmakers, is NIAGARA MOTEL. That’s one out of ten success stories for Canadian culture produced using the co-production concept. Unfortunately it was a complete bomb.
So, the question still stands: What in hell is going on here? Why did Telefilm fund TIDELAND?
I actually think that smartly promoted and carefully chosen international co-productions is a pretty good path to take simply because features are so expensive to make. However, it is painfully obvious looking at just the past three years worth of Telefilm’s Official Co-Productions with just the UK, that Telefilm’s mandate for creating Canadian culture is being very ill-served by the way it has been handled. To say the least.
And that Atom Egoyan and Robert Lantos got $15.5-million of the $32-million put out by Telefilm to play the co-production game to make WHERE THE TRUTH LIES (50% of the government money over the past three years!!!) to tell an American story from an American writer, on which Canadians lost their tax-payer shirts, is extremely infuriating. Oh, I guess that’s why Telefilm blew over $7-million for the TIDELAND disaster: so Lantos and Egoyan could throw away over $15-million of Telefilm money on WHERE THE TRUTH LIES. Now it makes sense.

November 04, 2006

Examining the Core Reasons Behind the Floundering of the Canadian TV Funding Model on the Eve of the Geminis

(Toronto) In the absence of any significant news to comment on for several days with regards to the English Canadian film industry, I had thought of commenting on the Gemini awards. However mainstream media, both right and left biased ones, are doing a pretty comprehensive job on putting it in perspective. A very negative perspective, it appears. However, to be fair, and going beyond the first glance, it’s hard to gather a real diversity of opinions because, like so much entertainment news, most of the stories are just cut and paste from one or two sources of information, rather than having an actual entertainment reporter or editor based at the paper write up their coverage. Perhaps there is a more diverse group of opinions to be heard and read regarding the state of English Canadian Television and where it stands and where it is going, or appears to be going?

While I have a keen interest to keep on top of most of what’s going on in Canadian Film, I’m probably not the right person to comment on Canadian Television, based on my hours committed to the box. Personally I spend very little time watching TV because the onslaught of the empty Celebrity Culture Machine from the mega-multi-media corps that has developed in the post-Entertainment Tonight era is so overwhelming and irritatingly omnipresent -- even on what are supposed to be Canadian TV stations.

That said, I have made it a point to watch some Canadian TV. And, unfortunately, when I have tuned in to most new Canadian shows in the past two years or so, they were hopeless disasters like What It’s Like Being Alone or some of the terrible Showcase series -- basically anything but Trailer Park Boys on Showcase has proven to be terrible. Which is odd, because one would think they’d learn from their one success and allow the creators of other new series do their own thing without interference like the people behind Trailer Park Boys were able to do (at least that’s what you read in all the interviews), but Showcase doesn’t seem to have caught on to that and their other products all seem as insincere and as unconvincing as TPB is genuine. Perhaps they’re just empowering the wrong people? I caught a few episodes of Corner Gas. It wasn’t for me, but at least I could see how some people might like it. I could be wrong, but it seems to demonstrate the same aura of sincerity as does TPB. Reading interviews with the creator(s) behind that, it seems to reflect a not dissimilar situation as far as creator control.

If that’s the case with those two shows, this represents a difficult lesson to learn from, or rather something which is difficult to implement for future successes. Looking at the limited commonality of the two shows, and comparing them to the many failed Canadian series that surround them, here’s a model for a successful English Canadian TV series: It has a large populous base for subject matter and setting; it has a genre, but is not a rip-off of an existing identifiable American director or filmmaker or TV series; it doesn’t shove an artificial multi-cultural agenda down peoples throats, but rather it may use a diverse cast/creators mix organically; and the main creators of the show call the shots with minimal input by the broadcaster’s development team to keep it from becoming too safely predictable and manufactured in fabric, thereby preserving a distinctive voice.

The difficulty in implementation emerges because not only does such a model negate much of the input and usefulness of the bureaucracy of both a public broadcaster such as CBC (and Telefilm itself), but it also swings the other way and negates the development team and executives at a broadcaster like CTV, who uses an American-style bureaucracy for its dramatic TV development, which is even compromised further, because they base big decisions in this area on Telefilm’s decisions. Because broadcasters like CTV and Alliance and Global have been enabled by the government to rely so heavily on American programming for their bulk content, because they are also enabled by the government to spend as little as possible out of their big profits on Canadian dramatic television and rely on Telefilm and other tax-payer funded sources instead of themselves and corporate investment, and because they have been enabled not to depend on ratings for those shows for further government hand-outs for new shows developed the same way, the status quo of ineffectively providing Canadian television content is largely preserved.

So how did we get success stories like Trailer Park Boys and Corner Gas in the first place? Seemingly sustainable series that appear to run on their own power of public popularity? Why did they give those creators the chance? Unfortunately, while I think we can pretty effectively draw up a basic model for Canadian TV series success if we’re honest about things, the enabling of effective TV series creators is not so cut and dry and there are many paths to that and examples to reject it as a model, truth be told. For example, Ken Finkelman has had tonnes of chances on CBC, with real empowerment as a creator but his shows, which were okay, had little public acceptance.

Looking at TPB, and seeing how Alliance/Showcase operates, and reading all the articles/interviews that have come my way on it, the filmmakers got the power largely because of two reasons: a) The cast and crew were all there in place and acting as a pretty much uniform force, being mostly long-time friends, and having done a forgettable short film together that got into the Atlantic Film Festival and set up the whole concept before hand. b) The show is made in Nova Scotia and was cheap to make. Therefore, Alliance/Showcase didn’t have to dig very deep into their own pockets at all and could rely on a strongly supportive provincial funding agency and Telefilm to flip the bill for most of it.

Unfortunately therein lies the major, unsavoury truth of the English Canadian Television equation, and points to why things are as they are, overall. These shows only appear to run on their power of public popularity. The truth of why they were made initially and continue on in production, is not so wholesome.

I don’t know exact figures, but I would guess that Alliance/Showcase are still paying only a small fraction for the production of the TPB series, though it is a “success“ that has lasted some five seasons now. And I’d bet anything that if Telefilm and Nova Scotia had decided at, say, the third season to stop funding Trailer Park Boys, then a “success”, Alliance/Showcase would have stopped making it. If Telefilm and Nova Scotia were to withdraw funding for the show right now (perhaps arguing progressively that it is time to look at new potential success stories to fund to join TPB in the Showcase line-up), and point out that Alliance is going to have to operate like any other successful business and fund their own successful product, TPB would be dropped. Count on it. From what anybody can see from their track record, they aren’t any more willing to back Canadian dramatic series than, say, CHUM has been. Though the dramatic development team at CHUM, from the top down, must be the most inept in the world, based on their track record.

And that’s the glass heel that can be broken out from under even the most lauded Canadian TV show success stories: You cut the public funding to produce Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys and require commercial Canadian Broadcasters to pay to continue to produce their own successful series from their profits, and watch them get cancelled. They don’t have to pay much for success or failure from the ridiculously minimal level of original Canadian dramatic content they must produce because it’s mostly all subsidized, while they enjoy big profits from American TV with zero Canadian culture content. Meanwhile at CBC, they appear to act largely with impunity it seems, and are able to put out show after show with miniscule ratings, answering to themselves. Or so it appears. At least in their favour, until the recent embarrassing talent show thing, they can make some claim towards attempting Canadian culture. However, it appears the pressure is on there these days.

So here’s the English Canadian Television welfare quandary: Culture is only truly created when the culture it’s created for embraces it and accepts it as its own, and continues to be created when the creators embrace it themselves. But when the creators of culture do not truly embrace it, are not required to significantly risk financially for what they create, and rely on the public taxation funding mechanism of the culture in order for it to be created (without which, they willingly let it perish), then there is no naturally sustainable authentic culture being produced.
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