By Peter Robinson and James Thorburn
1995 was another banner year for film and television production in Canada. The Toronto-area alone was the beneficiary of over $300 million in spending on productions, most of which will ultimately be seen exclusively on Canadian television and in Canadian theaters. It’s called Canadian Content – CanCon for short – and over the years it has become as distinctive and unique as the call of the loon.
But how is this entertainment created? As I discovered doing the research for this article, the process is fascinating. Hollywood may have famous young turks like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, but Canada has it’s own rising young stars, such as Kevin Sullivan and Bruce MacDonald, who have established a model for aspiring filmmakers and television producers to emulate. Follow these steps and you too could have a shelf full of Genies and Geminis!
In the beginning, came the word
The first step is locating material that would work well on the screen. It should be reflective and pastoral – a semi-autobiographical memoir of childhood perhaps. Beat the bushes and dig up one of the lesser known W.O. Mitchell short stories that hasn’t been snatched up yet, or perhaps one of Alice Munro’s more cinematic tales. The other option is to commission an original script from Canada’s stable of experienced writers, many of whom can be found in the creative writing faculty at Ryerson, or in the family trees of your friends and colleagues. You could turn to someone inexperienced in writing for Canadian television, but this may result in a script that does not have the distinctive pacing and tone familiar to regular CanCon viewers.
Getting the stars in your sights
Audiences love familiar stars. How else can you explain the success of Liberty Street? Signing a name actor to your project at an early stage will make all subsequent steps easier. Determine which Canadian celebrities are most appropriate for your project. If your protagonist is a young virile stud who tames the wild prairie with his bare hands, think about one of our rising young stars such as Eric Peterson. A sensitive intellectual pre-teen who dreams of revolutionizing the world with the power of his mind? That adorable young man with the hat from Degrassi would be perfect. A bombshell who represents every man’s lustful fantasy come true? Say ‘yes’ to the ravishing young Mary Walsh.
A note of caution: it is a long-respected tradition in the CanCon industry to seek the advice of Louis Del Grande on any project in development. Louis (he finds ‘Mr. Del Grande’ too stuffy) is located at Brampton Carpet World, 15263 Dixie Road. You’ll get the benefit of his experience in show business, as well as up to 10% off on no-wax linoleum.
Fill in the blanks
Now it’s time to begin your grant application process. Remember, the audience you really have to worry about pleasing is the staff of Telefilm Canada, the Ontario Film Development Corporation, the National Film Board, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Council. In meeting with these organizations remember they are not the enemy. If things turn out well, you will be sitting on a committee reviewing their grant applications someday. The revolving door gives you a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with the people to know, and it aids in developing a team spirit and bunker mentality.
And here’s where pre-casting comes into play. When the granting committees see the stars you’ve lined up for your production, dollar signs will appear before their eyes. They know what sells – Jackie Burroughs in a costume drama, for example. But emphasize your strengths – “We’ve got Luba Goy!”, not your weaknesses – “R.H. Thompson still won’t return our calls.” Audience identification is key – if you use someone who has been in “Street Legal” or “Hangin’ In”, they will assume your show to be of a similar calibre. And with a little luck, it will be!
When describing your production philosophy to granting bodies, distinguish yourself from our crass American cousins. Where they would pander to the audience’s desire for entertainment, promise the opposite. Where the Yanks would pick a hot star out of an international field, commit yourself to some of our favourites right here in Toronto, south of St. Clair, east of Bathurst and west of Jarvis. And where the ugly Americans would grab some hotshot cinematographer with “compositional ability” and “basic competence”, promise to put your money on the guy who shot “ENG”.
Courting the Powers that Be
With your initial funding in place it is time to approach television broadcasters and feature film distributors. This will allow you to land additional investors with a guaranteed air date or distribution deal in hand.
Your pitch to the Vice President in charge of dramatic programming at CTV can be a nerve-wracking experience, but you have nothing to worry about. CTV does not produce any dramatic programming, so he is probably just as nervous as you are. Basically the meeting should go like this:
You: We’ve got a two hour tv movie about the Winnipeg General Strike. CTV guy:Does it satisfy CanCon requirements? You: Yes. CTV guy: I’ll take it.
If you are working on a feature, Robert Lantos at Alliance can open the magic door to your Canadian distribution deal: an exclusive one week engagement at the Carlton. Remember to compliment him on “Heavenly Bodies”. Describe it as “the best mid 1980’s aerobic dancersize marathon film ever.” But brush up on your Dale sisters trivia beforehand! Jennifer was in “Heavenly Bodies”, Cynthia was in “Separate Vacations”. Or was it… Anyway, assure Mr. Lantos that neither film is anything to be embarrassed about. Offering to wash his car wouldn’t hurt either, but use a chamois cloth.
Putting together the team
With your funding and distribution in place it is time to put together your team of creative and technical personnel. Advertising is where we keep most of our creative geniuses in Canada, and it’s where you will find many of the people you will need. With two or three phone calls you can easily have the entire creative team behind the McCain “Superfries” and “Pizza Pockets” ads on board. With a few dollars more you can sign up the folks responsible for all those ingenious ads in which cars drive through cyc paper. Casting actors for supporting roles and bit parts is possibly the easiest task you have. For those with previous experience as receptionists on “Street Legal” or youth counselors on “Degrassi”, auditions are not necessary. Remember, regardless of the role, you want your actors to have good diction, and to be good-natured, earnest and inoffensive. If the guy playing a drunk Bulgarian longshoreman doesn’t enunciate, the audience won’t be able to figure out if he’s saying “I need another beer” or “I knee a mother beer”. You see, they’ll get confused.
As a shortcut to any hiring decisions ask yourself this simple question: “Do I know this person?” If the answer is yes, hire away!
All Quiet on the Set
As a producer, your role on set is to be a presence controlling the process without disrupting it. There are a number of things your must make sure are taken care of:
- 1. Check each exterior window. There should be blinding quantities of pure white light coming in.
- 2. Backlight. There must always be backlight. Lots of it. As the Spanish say, “mucho backlight”.
- 3. By Order in Council all CBC productions after 1980 must feature the teen kid with the mohawk and green army jacket in the background of at least one scene. (That’s why we shoot in the big city, sister.)
- 4. Most of your actors will have cut their teeth in subsidized children’s theatre, so put these talents to work. Remind them to enunciate and play to the back row. If people in their cars, driving by the location cannot make out what the actors are saying, you may have a problem.
If something catches fire, or a light explodes during a scene, something called a “second take” is done. Due to the expense and time required, however, this process is quite rare.
Working on a limited budget (thanks to the tragic cutbacks that are ravaging our arts community) you might not be able to shoot as many episodes as you would like, but in postproduction you can really maximize your returns. With proper editing, you can make each 22 minute episode seem like hours.
When editing, ask yourself: would a semi-retarded or brain damaged person understand this sequence? As a rule of thumb, follow these three steps: Make it clear. Make it absolutely clear. Make it clearer.
Now is also the time to put together your promotional spots. Splice together three 10 second clips of your production at random. Remember, regardless of the quality of your show, this thirty second promo will get more airtime than the average Olympic Games.
You are now at the point where the success or failure of your show will be determined. It is time to scare up uncritical puff pieces in Canadian media outlets. Canada’s entertainment journalists should be only too happy to give you the benefit of the doubt and, even if they have a sneaking suspicion that that your film is sub-par, recommend it heartily. Remind reporters and critics to mention your previous work without subjective bias. Comments such as, “Another turd from ‘Utter Crap Productions, Ltd'” would clearly be unprofessional and unpatriotic, and you should warn journalists explicitly about making such statements.
Once consumers have read or seen a half dozen positive, or at least uncritical, profiles on you, your actors, and your work, they too will begin to utter the magical incantation, “this is an actual show”. At the very least they will support continued funding for your next project. Once you’ve got one project under your belt you’re in! For life!
All you do now is sit back and wait for those award nominations to come in. Incidentally, at the festival or awards ceremony party for your production, select the names of five cast and crew members at random. These names will be passed to the local entertainment press to be put in bold-faced type as “celebrities in attendance”.
And as one of my director friends likes to say at the end of each production, “That’s completely unacceptable dreck – or as we say in Canada, that’s a wrap!”