Casting Hollywood North

Brian D. Johnson February 17 1986

Casting Hollywood North

Brian D. Johnson February 17 1986

Casting Hollywood North


For the American tourists strolling down the main street of Banff, Alta., the scene looked strangely familiar. The Stars and Stripes hung prominently outside the bank at the corner of Banff and Buffalo Avenues. On the sidewalk, a dark-blue mailbox bore the insignia “U.S. MAIL.” And the words “Beautiful State” covered the name of Alberta on licence plates. Even the snow was from out of town —dug up from whiter pastures, it had been trucked in and then spread around the unseasonably barren streets with a small bulldozer. Transformed by a Hollywood face-lift, Banff was masquerading as a town in the American Rockies for a CBS television movie titled Hoax. Starring Canadian actress Margot Kidder, the American production, which finished shooting last week, typifies the dramatic influx of U.S. film-making in Canada. Kidder herself is a veteran of four films set in

disguised Canadian locations, and the trend leaves her exasperated. “Why don’t we just say it’s Banff,” she asks, “instead of doing it in Nowheresville, U.S.A.?”

Despite Kidder’s frustration, Canada’s Hollywood frenzy is keeping her busy—Hoax is her second U.S. madefor-TV movie in the past year (page 39). And she is also one of the talents at the heart of the country’s other filmmaking boom: co-productions destined for television. Indeed, the industry is experiencing a period of unprecedented activity. The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) reports that its 8,000 members earned $84 million in 1985, an increase of 21 per cent over 1984. And ACTRA’s scriptwriters doubled their earnings last year to $4.5 million. But although Canadians are fast becoming accustomed to the sight of movie cameras on their street corners, the feverish pace is deceiving: domestic feature

film-makers are still suffering from chronic problems in financing and distribution. In fact, most say that it is actually growing more difficult to make Canadian stories for the big screen.

Attractive: Part of the problem lies in the rising competition for resources. Lured by the low international value of the Canadian dollar as well as the growing expertise of local film crews, Hollywood is finding Canada an increasingly attractive place to make movies. But the generous flow of cash from U.S. productions inflates the prices which local crews charge. Said Robert Lantos, a producer with Alliance Entertainment Corp., Canada’s largest feature film company: “It has got to the point where Canadian producers may not be able to afford the top crews in their country.” Last year the British Columbia film industry was able to employ 3,200 people and contribute $70 million to the provincial economy—but only two of the 30 films shot there were Canadian. More typical is the made-for-TV movie Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun, filming in Vancouver this week with the stars of the 1950s television series, Barbara Hale and Canadian Raymond Burr.

The ratio is less lopsided in the East. There, of the $91 million that film and TV producers spent in Ontario during 1985,

$52 million went to Canadian productions, most slated for the small screen. But that surge of TV production, supported by Telefilm Canada’s $60-milliona-year Broadcast Fund, has redirected the industry’s resources away from Canadian features. Lantos, who produced last year’s $ll-million Joshua Then and Now with his partner, Stephen Roth, declared,

“The Canadian feature film is becoming an endangered species.”

His comments were made at a time when such films as My American Cousin and 90 Days have proved

Canadians can make good, inexpensive features that break the Hollywood mould. The $1.2-million My American Cousin, which has grossed $550,000 in Canada, will open in U.S. theatres at the end of this month. Indeed, Canada’s feature film industry is showing remarkable maturity and promise: David Cronenberg, now shooting a remake of the 1958 science fiction classic The Fly in Toronto for 20th Century-Fox, has emerged as one of the world’s masters of artful horror; veteran Hollywood director Norman Jewison returned to his native Canada to film Agnes of God, which last week won an Oscar nomination; and Canada’s traditional skill at animation has blossomed into such full-length features as The Care Bears Movie, the largest-grossing Canadian9 production movie of I 1985. It has already I managed to amass revz enues in North Ameri1 ca of $27 million.

In rare instances, Canadian directors are even learning to collaborate with Hollywood on their own terms. After establishing his credentials with his acclaimed 1983 tale of a train robber, The Grey Fox, Canadian director Phillip Borsos was invited by Disney Studios to direct last year’s One Magic Christmas in Ontario. He also learned a lesson in international film-making diplomacy. In a crucial scene where Abbie, a young girl, tries to mail a letter to Santa Claus, Borsos was determined to use a red Canadian mailbox. But the scene included a special effect showing supernatural light beaming from the box opening. A Canadian mailbox was too tall for Abbie to reach, and its opening blocked the light. A blue U.S. mailbox proved ideal on both counts. But lawyers from both Disney and Telefilm, which had helped back the project, had to debate a clause in the contract which stated “No onscreen elements will be inconsistent with a Canadian setting.” Producer Peter O’Brian explained the compromise: “We used an American mailbox and painted it red.”

Trials: Still, those compromises pale in comparison to the early trials of the Canadian film industry. Until the late 1960s Canada produced little else but documentaries and short features. As for Hollywood, it tended to treat Canada as a scenic back lot—and as a market for its own stories. During a flurry of protectionism in 1947, C.D. Howe, Canada’s minister of trade and commerce, considered a forced reinvestment of a portion of box office revenues to fund the creation of a domestic film-making industry. But the powerful U.S. lobby persuaded him to back down by offering to encourage tourism through frequent mentions of Canada in American movies. Hollywood scripts suddenly began using spurious references. In an obscure 1951 film titled This is Dynamite, one character asks, “Did you like Canada?” The reply: “Didn’t go there.”

Faded: The Canadian Cooperation Project, as the policy was named, faded quietly from sight during the 1950s. Over the next decade only a handful of Canadian films were made. Finally, in 1967, Ottawa began to encourage local production by creating the Canadian Film Development Corp. (CFDC). Although a few strong films emerged— including Mon Oncle Antoine, Goin’ Down the Road and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz—most CFDC projects failed to find wide distribution. Then, after Ottawa created a tax shelter for film-making, a wild production boom followed, with investors scrambling to concoct projects to qualify. The result was a crop of disastrous movies, most of which never reached the screen. In 1983 the government replaced the CFDC with Telefilm, which mainly assists projects that have been presold to TV broadcasters.

Producers enjoying the concurrent booms in Canadian film-making can now afford to look back on the taxshelter era with amusement. In fact, O’Brian is planning a film comedy titled Hollywood, the story of a Canadian actor involved in a tax shelter movie. Satirizing the shoddy production values of the period, the film-within-afilm is set in the tropics but is being shot among fake palms during a Toronto winter. Yet Barry Healy, who wrote the script, considers Canada’s current production boom “not all that different” from the one he is mocking. “We are still caught up in trying to make that American product. We have many stories to tell here,” said Healy, “but we are not telling them. And when we do, we are trying to tell them with an American feeling.”

Enslaved: Despite the burst of production activity, some of Canada’s best stories still end up being told the Hollywood way. That happened in 1968 with Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God, which became the film Rachel, Rachel, relocated from Canada to the United States. And now Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a futuristic story about enslaved women, is arousing considerable interest from American film-makers. Atwood’s Los Angeles-based agent, Phoebe Larmore, says that she has received more than 40 calls from interested Hollywood producers. Canadian actresses Kidder and Helen Shaver have both expressed interest in the lead role. But Larmore is also considering such Hollywood actresses as

Meryl Streep for the part. “Both Margaret and I would like a Canadian company involved, because part of the story is planted in Canada,” said Larmore, “but I do not want Margaret’s work produced by people who are not experienced.”

Frustrations: Those doubts, which increase the frustrations of Canadian film-makers, highlight the importance of strengthening domestic moviemaking. That has become a major issue in Ottawa’s debate over Canada’s cultural sovereignty. In fact, Communications Minister Marcel Masse is now consid-

ering proposals designed to strengthen the domestic industry and simultaneously loosen Hollywood’s stranglehold on Canadian cinema. A recent report by the Film Industry Task Force recommended that he set up an annual $60-million fund to support feature films made for theatrical release. The report also urged Masse to overhaul the film distribution system, which it said is controlled by a U.S. “cartel” of studio-dominated companies.

Locks: Because U.S. distributors consider Canada part of their domestic market, local film-makers can have trouble getting their work to the screen. Rock Demers is the Montreal producer of the critically and financially successful The Dog Who Stopped the War and the more recent The Peanut Butter Solution. Demers said that the main problem is a bidding system that locks theatres into tight schedules: “Theatre owners are often obliged to throw your film out to show a U.S. film because they have promised dates for it.” The Canadian-based Cineplex Odeon theatre chain has helped provide an outlet for Canadian films, but twice Demers has had to battle Cineplex Odeon to secure screen time for his films.

Late in 1985 Cineplex Odeon acquired a network of U.S. theatres and emerged as the continent’s largest chain, with 1,117 screens. Last month MCA Inc., an American media conglomerate, became its largest single shareholder. But Cineplex Odeon president Garth Drabinsky denies that the move will weaken his company’s commitment to show domestic productions. Drabinsky told Maclean's: “This company has been the leading distributor of Canadian motion pictures. Period. It always has been and always will be.”

Still, the task force urges that Ottawa place all distribution rights under Canadian control. A similar move has already met with a sharp defeat in Quebec. Last fall, in an ambitious attempt to bolster the Quebec film industry, the Parti Québécois government resolved to put all film distribution into the hands of Quebecbased companies. Hollywood studios threatened to pull the season’s blockbuster films out of the province. On the eve of the provincial election, under pressure, the PQ backed down, leaving the U.S.-dominated distributors as entrenched as in the days of C.D.


Strategies: Faced with a proposal to attempt the same reform on the federal level,

Masse has asked his department to develop strategies for making movie screens more accessible to both Canadian films and locally based distributors:

“Only three per cent of our screen time goes to Canadian productions,”

Masse told Maclean's last week. “That is where we are unbalanced if you compare us with other countries like England, France and Australia.’’ Added Masse: “We have a structural problem.”

Aside from the United States, most countries have developed film industries only with government support. In Canada that aid comes primarily from Telefilm—an agency that has come to be regarded as both the salvation and scourge of Canadian film-makers. Telefilm helped finance 19 feature films with budgets totalling $40 million last year and it breathed new life into Canadian prime-time television by supporting such independent productions as the CBC’s acclaimed Anne of Green Gables. But Telefilm’s increasing emphasis on TV series and miniseries has created a vacuum in feature financing. And many producers criticize its bureaucracy, which created havoc for some projects last summer by promising more money than it had available. Lantos, for one, acknowledges Telefilm’s pivotal role but added that it has turned into “a very dangerous empire—it is more difficult to deal

with than a Hollywood studio.”

Rage: Among film-makers less commercial than Lantos, polite criticism of Telefilm sometimes gives way to rage. Among certain members of Vancouver’s film community the agency is known as “Tele Flim Flam.” The resentment stems in part from the fact that only two per cent of Telefilm’s money went to British Columbia last year, while 92 per cent went to Ontario and Quebec. And even film-makers who win Telefilm support are often embittered by the experience. Vancouver’s Sandy Wilson, the writer/director of My American Cousin, completed

it—her first feature—only after an intense battle with the agency. Its officials wanted to hire a professional writer to revise her script and replace her with a more experienced director. Said Wilson: “I had to fight for


So did Elvira Lount, another Vancouver film-maker. In 1983 she first asked Telefilm to help finance Samuel Lount—a $1.8-million retelling of her great-great-granduncle Samuel’s role in the Rebellion of 1837. Officials told her they would not consider the proposition unless she teamed up with a Toronto producer. She complied. But like many independents, Lount is angered by Telefilm’s emphasis on subsidizing export-oriented, international co-productions. Declared Lount: “We did not want to bring in American money, an English scriptwriter and whatever else you have to do with a co-production, because then you get a watered-down, lifeless movie with no roots.” But Tele-

film’s executive director, Peter Pearson, defended the agency’s commercial stance. “What we want is middle-ofthe-road stuff,” he said. “Let’s not educate ourselves. Let’s entertain ourselves—sing, dance, tell stories.” Although Telefilm remains the biggest piper calling the tunes, additional sources of backing are emerging on the regional level to step up the pace. One of them is the newly created Ontario Film Development Corp. (OFDC), which plans to devote $20 million over the next three years to the development and production of lowand medium-budget features. Said OFDC director

Wayne Clarkson: “There is a void in feature film-making. And our primary intent is to expand indigenous production.” Other provinces with modest government film funds are Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba. The largest is Quebec’s Société générale du cinéma, which spent nearly $10 million on developing, producing and promoting film in Quebec last year.

Fertile: Traditionally, Quebec has been Canada’s most fertile ground for original film-making. That province’s Claude Jutra and Gilles Carles were among the first Canadian directors to achieve international recognition. Quebec also serves as headquarters for the National Film Board, which recently adopted a new five-year plan to skim $12 million off its operating costs and pour the money into increased production and distribution. As well, the Montreal-based Radio Canada, CBC’s French-language service, produced a record number of 11 features last year with Telefilm support. Montreal boasts a unique film production house, the ACPAV (Association coopérative de production audio-visuelle)—founded in 1972 with a $50,000 grant from Ottawa. The only co-operative to receive Telefilm money, the ACPAV produced six features last year.

One was director Paul Tana’s Caffé Italia, a tale of immigrant life which two weeks ago won the L.E. Ouimet prize for best Quebec-made film.

Pumped: While Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are the centres of Canada’s film industry, the lights, cameras, action of both domestic and American productions can be found everywhere. Children of a Lesser God, a Paramount film starring William Hurt, pumped about $6 million into the economy of southern New Brunswick last year. Based on a play set in a school for the deaf, the film employed as extras and actors 110 students and 20 staff from the Atlantic Provinces Resource Center for the Hearing

Handicapped in Amherst, N.S. Scheduled for release this fall, Children was shot primarily on the campus of Rothesay Collegiate School-Netherwood, a 109-year-old private school in Rothesay, N.B., which was incidentally in need of repair. Said headmaster Ian

Rowe: “Refurbishing old buildings is expensive. The money from the film allowed us to do more sooner.”

Halifax boasts its own small but successful production company, Salter Street Films, located in a cluttered second-storey office above a restaurant. The walls are decorated with gaudy posters from its two B-movie

successes: Siege, an urban thriller, and DefCon J+, a post-nuclear-holocaust drama. Shot in 1983 for $1 million, DefCon k has already grossed $5.5 million in theatres and videocassette sales. Salter is now planning another commercially oriented action thriller— Tom, the story of a fading tennis star who has a cat’s brain implanted in his skull to improve his reflexes.

Mutant: But the Canadian director who has crafted an art form with such mutant themes is David Cronenberg. The sardonic, visceral imagery of his horror films—Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and The Dead Zone—has earned him a stature that frees him from many Canadian industry constraints. Currently directing The Fly, budgeted between $10 million and $15 million, Cronenberg was interviewed two weeks ago by Maclean’s. He had just finished filming close-ups of black fly-hairs sprouting from scratches on star Jeff Goldblum’s back—grotesque mutations that afflict a scientist who crosses his genes with those of a fly.

Cronenberg is using the same Canadian crew that worked on five of his previous features, including director of photography Mark Irwin, who helps create the distinctive look of his films. “Mark’s lighting has a crispness that is quite Canadian,” said Cronenberg. Although The Fly’s stars are all Americans, extras include several hundred tiny Canadians—flies specially bred for the film by a biologist at Ontario’s University of Guelph. Producer Stuart Cornfeld had rejected the idea of importing them from a warmer climate: “You don’t want to show up at customs,” he said, “with hundreds of flies in your baggage.”

Craft: But national borders have never been a barrier for Cronenberg. He is more interested in pursuing his craft than in preserving symbolic loyalties to Canadian content. The Fly features one scene in which the scientist makes a bet in a bar and holds a $100 bill in the air. The director had to decide what currency to use. “Finally,” he admitted, “I decided it should be an American bill. A Canadian one didn’t seem right to me.”

For all its bustle, Canada’s film industry is still green: its Technicolor dreams continue to reflect the color of the money that comes from Hollywood. But while the bottom line remains the American dollar, Canadian film-makers keep struggling to create their own currency in celluloid.

-BRIAN D. JOHNSON with JANE O’HARA in Vancouver, ROY SHIELDS and ANN WALMSLEY in Toronto, DAVID SHERMAN in Montreal, HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa, KATHRYN HARLEY in Fredricton and CHRIS WOOD in Halifax