Thursday, 7 February 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On... #44: Woe Canada Part 1.

Did you know my native country of Canada has a film industry?


It goes back a long ways too. In fact many consider Canada and its National Film Board the birthplace of the documentary, and that very same National Film Board is probably the most honoured organization when it comes to Academy Award wins.

But I'm not here to talk about documentaries and animated shorts that end up getting used
to fill dead air on the CBC, I'm talking about regular dramatic movies.

A conversation over at Libertas reminded me that Canada still has a film industry, at one time known as Hollywood North, and it bears some lessons for Hollywood South.

Some of the earliest narrative films shot in Canada were called "Commonwealth Quickies." These were low-budget B-films shot in the British Commonwealth, usually around Vancouver, BC, or sometimes Montreal. They were done by the big Hollywood studios to get past rules regulating foreign (American) movies shown in the UK. Pretty much all of these films have been forgotten or lost, and for the most part it's not
that terrible a loss to anyone but the most thorough historian.

Once those rules were relaxed, the Commonwealth Quickie market dried up, and even stories set in Canada were usually shot in and around California.

And more than a few of
these had extremely little to with Canada. A good example was Warner Bros. Oscar winner Johnny Belinda which was set on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. Except it wasn't actually set in Cape Breton, but in some never-never land version conceived by someone in California that was a cross between the uber-quaint Ireland of The Quiet Man with the ultra nasty Appalachia of Deliverance.

There were occasional blips of activity, but Canada's film
industry regressed into making TV shows for the CBC, and documentaries for the NFB.

Then along came the 1970s.

New laws were passed creating massive tax shelters if people invested small amounts of money in films made in Canada.

Soon everyone was getting into the movie business and Hollywood North was born.

Naturally, 99% of these films were crap and most never saw the inside of a theatre, the tax shelter was for production, not distribution, but there were a few diamonds found among the fertilizer.

Some films, especially the over-the-top sci-fi-horror of director David Cronenberg became rare events: profitable Canadian movies. And they were getting picked up by independent American distributors like Avco/Embassy.

Eventually the tax shelters were rescinded, and the industry collapsed.

But two things did survive.

One was a company called Alliance Entertainment, which was a collection of independent producers turned into a production-distribution company headed by founder Robert Lantos.

The second was the idea of government funding for film production.

Now this is where my rough little history lesson, complete with large gaps, turns into a parable.

The government funding through agencies like Telefilm, and the Canadian Film Development Corporation created a notion that English language Canadian cinema had to be somehow anti-commercial to be truly "Canadian."*

So you end up with too many overly sombre melodramas about necrophilia, paedophilia, incest, and just how crappy it is to grow up a social outcast in a stereotypical fishing / mining / cattle / lumber town.

Ironically, this is also the same time that Alliance
enjoys massive growth, due to some moderate success in domestic TV, international TV co-productions for foreign and cable markets, as well as the profitable Canadian distribution deals for the American companies New Line Cinema and Miramax.

Then Alliance Entertainment merged with TV producer Atlantis, to become Alliance-Atlantis, the single biggest production and distribution company in the country. In fact, it was pretty much the entire industry during the 1990s.

after hitting the big time, Alliance-Atlantis hit the really big time.

American producer Jerry Bruckheimer took a project to them that Disney had rejected. It was a new fangled, super-slick, yet gruesome type of cop show called C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation.

Before you could say maple syrup Alliance Atlantis had the number 1 show on American TV as well as two successful spin-offs, including CSI: Miami, which is the most popular show on the planet.

Now most companies would view this success, and the ensuing profits as a great opportunity to aggressively sell their other shows, like the gritty crime drama Da Vinci's Inquest, whose reruns are particularly popular in the USA as well as overseas. And they could have used their cachet as a TV mega-star to promote more commercial domestic theatrical films, and get them more screen time.

These are Canadians we're talking about.

Instead, Alliance-Atlantis bought a bunch of specialty cable channels, and declared that they had now become a broadcaster instead of a producer. So it cancelled or sold off many still profitable productions, except the CSI trio, and then began to gradually implode.

The Alliance-Atlantis empire was then sliced up by various investors, and its component parts scattered to the four winds. Ironically leaving their many cable channels drastically short of content, forcing them to constantly air CSI reruns.

Meanwhile the Canadian feature film industry continued to crawl along. Becoming almost entirely wrapped up in a handful of festivals that played in Canada's major cities. Commercial theatrical exhibition opportunities in Canada also dried up due to the continued unpopularity of Canadian films, and their self-serious-self-indulgent style and subject matter.

Over the years there have been attempts to "get commercial" but without a major distributor with the clout to get theatres to pay attention, even films with wide appeal only play in a few screens in a few major cities. Even the cinematic spin-off of the wildly popular Canuck TV institution The Red Green Show played better as a roadshow in the American Midwest than in Canada, mostly because it was easier to see in the USA than Canada.

Even Hollywood success story producer Ivan Reitman couldn't get a decent release for The Trailer Park Boys movie, because of pre-existing prejudices in the industry against homegrown film.

So what is the moral of this little parable.

Well, when it comes to things like free tax shelter money, government money, or immense international success, Canadian filmmakers never miss an opportunity, to miss an opportunity.

But that's not the only problem.

There's also the inbreeding.

But that's for another post.....

*The French language cinema of Quebec is a model of both efficiency and commercial appeal that any industry can learn from, but I'm not talking about them right now.


  1. Hey Furious:
    I've accidentally become a fan of yours via your insightful comments on Upon reading your comments about canadian tv and noting the mention of my favorite show, DaVinci's Inquest, could you explain why "DaVinci's City Hall" got cancelled? I was just as fascinated by the spinoff as the original. It's crescendo tone and intricate interweaving of the respective departments (mayor, police, coroner) had me on the edge of my seat. Thanks to your comments, while I've had dealings w/ Canuck Production Co's (I worked for the late, great Robin Spry @ Cinegroupe), I'm starting to understanding how things work up there. Thanks.

  2. DaVinci's City Hall died because of lack of life support, especially from the CBC that seems to be allergic to productions outside Toronto.

    I just hope Intelligence survives. That's the best damn show on TV.

  3. Bastard CBC. Shame on them. DVCH is why I went to Vancouver on vacation.
    Thanks for the info.
    Haven't seen "Intelligence", hope somehow it comes to the states. Ian Tracey is all that. What's Nicholas Campbell up to? Will there be more Davinci movies (really looking forward to "The Quality of Life")?

  4. Intelligence is made by the same people who made the DaVinci shows, and has a lot of the same cast. It's got gangsters, spies, politicians, and twisty-twisty plots.

    I'm as out of the loop as Michael Eisner, but I believe Campbell has wrapped a big miniseries called The Englishman's Boy, and I don't know about any DaVinci TV movies yet.

    Keep visiting, and tell your friends. I could use the visits.