Monday, January 15, 2007

The Week That Was

(Warning: What follows is stream of consciousness. So either grab yourself a cup of coffee before you dig in or catch the gist and skip to the Cookie at the end. He does go on sometimes!)

It’s beginning to feel like we all just took up residence in a bad Country song. The Cheatin’ girlfriend went over a cliff in our brand new pick-up truck. The Bank repossessed the farm. All our Buddies quit drinkin’ and somebody torched the last Honky Tonk. Life as we knew it has slid seriously sideways.

The Canadian Showbiz version of that song goes something like this: Alliance Atlantis merged with CanWest. Jim Shaw is through funding production nobody watches. ACTRA’s on strike until some Psychic gets a handle on the future – and for the locals – the city of Toronto began the forced closure of film studios.

I’m not sure if that last item is a benign admission that nobody shoots here anymore or a more malignant move to force Producers to use a Mega Studio that hasn’t been built yet and probably doesn’t need to be.

A confrère of mine just shot a feature with massive sets and multiple international locations – all inside a 1200 square foot Green Screen studio. And I’m hard pressed to see the difference.

In addition to these major events, the CBC had its first ratings spike in living memory that didn’t involve a politician or a puck; and Steve Jobs torpedoed the entire Communications sector with the iPhone, once again reinventing an industry that we were just beginning to get a handle on fitting into our scheme of things.

As Peter Guber so succinctly put it this week, “Our business is not in evolution. It’s in revolution.”

I mean, who’s gonna watch Mobisodes and stream the odd “Hold Steady” tune when they can PVR “Rome” or shuttle through the entire U2 Oeuvre between phone calls, email and updating their blog?

Much as I wasn’t personally impressed by “Little Mosque”, I hope it’s a sign of new life at CBC. But I’m worried it might not be. There’s an old football adage that when you finally get to the end zone you should act like you’ve been there before. It lets the other team know a) It wasn’t a fluke. And b) Expect more of the same.

However, the obviously warranted self-congratulation that followed the show’s debut numbers had a tone of “Thank God that’s over with” and did not include an indication of anything coming down the pipe to shore up this beachhead.

“Dragon Boys”? Sorry, I’ve seen the obligatory Chinatown episode of virtually every 1970’s cop show. Not the worst place to start the new show process but definitely not where you want to finish. I hung in for the full four hours and don’t know one damn thing more about Triads, Vancouver crime or the Asian experience than I did to begin with. There wasn’t anything original on the drama side either, so what was the point? To give Asian actors work? Fabulous! Tell me again, how many of the cast were imports…

Oh – and a question for people who live in Vancouver. Both “Dragon Boys” and the first season of “Intelligence” spent a lot of time in strip joints where nobody actually disrobes. Has the concept behind these establishments just not crossed the Rockies or does the Mother Corp have standards and practice rules that don’t reflect Globe & Mail critic John Doyle’s most recent read of our National open-mindedness?

Back to the CBC’s hit. Should the numbers hold and it stays in such positive territory, the six half hours produced remain the equivalent of a single evening of prime time programming. This show, the Tuesday Night comedy block and Hockey may have been enough to justify the government check at one time, but not anymore.

Our artists and crews are universally recognized as the best there are; and dozens of taxpayer funded Universities and Colleges are churning out hundreds of film grads every year. It would seem incumbent on this other arm of the State to pick up the slack until the private sector gets their shit together. Otherwise what are these kids being trained for?

If the production value of “Mosque” is any indication, a huge chunk of this year’s $1.2 Billion stipend is still available to buy something more. I’m not slagging anybody here. I’m just saying “Congratulations on getting out of the chute! Now let’s see if you can ride!”

Speaking of big numbers – I thought I was the only one keeping track of the $1.4 Billion CTV’s parents Ma Bell and Pa Globemedia spent acquiring CHUM or the $2.3 Billion CanWest and Goldman Sachs scraped together between them for Alliance until the Writers Guild of Canada was heard from on Thursday. What do you think the chances are that the CRTC will call the broadcasters back to ask just how broke they were last month?



But that doesn’t mean the publicly appointed Commissioners don’t have the best interest of all Canadians at heart, does it….

I also found it odd that nobody in the press spent a lot of time on this either. Please assure me that we simply don’t have any Woodwards and Bernsteins in this country and it has nothing to do with the Globe & Mail being a CTV sibling owned by Bell/Globemedia or the National Post owing its silent allegiance to CanWest.

But it’s odd that even though these two mega-media conglomerates are in supposed competition, neither went after the other. Nobody at the Globe seemed to notice that the subscriber fee cash grab championed by CanWest might have been a creative way of getting you and I to pay for the tens of millions the company wrote off in the disastrous Fireworks merger. But then nobody at the National Post called anyone on the other side to account when CHUM, post-merger, abandoned its production commitments (particularly in Western Canada) to the point that it fell below the CRTC benchmark for maintaining its license.

Of course, none of the above seems to have crossed the collective consciousness of the CRTC Commissioners at all. To be fair, this was a Commission headed by Charles Delfan, who received a standing ovation from several hundred ACTRA members a couple of years ago after a speech on his impassioned dedication to Canadian drama.

Nice job, Chuck! Thanks to all the hard slugging you and your co-workers did in the intervening years, those actors are suffering like never before and looking at a very bleak and uncertain future. And do enjoy that indexed pension for your peerless public service!

Is this how healthy competition works? Everybody just keeps quiet and keeps making money? How come I never learned that in any classroom? Damn Saskatchewan socialist school system! Maybe some economics major can tell me how long this keeps working. I mean, at what point are so many people so broke or so disinterested that the companies go broke because nobody can buy or has any interest in buying their product?

Maybe that’s why nobody’s buying newspapers anymore. If I was the dead tree guys I’d start working on making some noise tout suite.

I think Jim Shaw's feeling somewhat unwanted too. Okay, people want his money but not his attitude. Although if my money was being spent to shore up lack luster production for companies who are using their own (apparently immense) profits for acquisitions instead of the core business, a business whose meager output I have to justify daily to my restive customers, I'd be a little pissed too.

I like to think of Jim Shaw as our very own Al Swearengen, never saying things too politely but always making his point rather effectively and in an endlessly enjoyable fashion. I'd also bet "Deadwood" is the kind of show Jim considers worth producing.

Mr. Shaw and our other cable king, Ted Rogers, shared their mutual disgust of the broadcast nets quite openly at the CRTC hearings. I don't remember hearing too much from Expressvu, but then they're owned by Bell Globemedia too so...

Anyway, Jim offered to buy out any network that couldn't make money here because he knew how to run them at a profit. I believe Ted just called them names. I can't imagine the mood he's in today with all this and the iPhone to boot.

My own first thought regarding CanWest was – how is this a smart business deal?

Alliance's library is antiquated and has pretty much been broadcast to death. C’mon, even if you’re 14 and horny, how many more times can you actually watch "Exotica"?

On the other hand, and this might be a stroke of genius, that film might have a beneficial 2nd life as a learning tool for the aforementioned Vancouver club owners.

But seriously, isn't the History channel already running most of that stuff as an example of how films were made back in the day? “Hi, I’m Anne Medina and this is an actual strip of Super-16 celluloid.”

And given the massive shift in delivery systems, how much are a bunch of television networks really worth -- or more importantly -- going to be worth in 3 years when CanWest and Goldman Sachs have to settle up and I’m living cable free and downloading individual program choices to my iPhone version 4.0?

I'm sensing, as I'm sure Mr. Shaw is, that we're not looking at a surge in new production but far more wringing every nickel out of what's already in the can.

And if CanWest can't maximize its side of the equation before the sell by date, does that mean it all ends up in the hands of non-Canadian Goldman Sachs?


It might be time for us to step up here, folks.

Bottom line is that people still want to watch movies and TV series as entertainment. And they’re always looking for something new. If they're not getting that new entertainment from the established sources on terms they can agree with, they’ll find it somewhere else. And as of not too long ago, controlling what Canadians can access from their homes has ceased to be possible.

So we have to make that point and the fact that none of the current players seem to have our best interests at heart to those who run and regulate our lives.

The last two election campaigns, I put in a good deal of time and energy helping Heritage Minister Bev Oda get elected. Before anybody thinks they've figured out my politics, the simple reason for my doing that: I was fed up with having my life run by crooks and had seen enough of the way my own industry was being serviced in Ottawa to believe the Adscam mentality wasn't an isolated aberration.

Now my past work for Bev gives me absolutely no influence with her. But I know I’ve provided her with a couple of much appreciated belly laughs and she'll eventually return my calls. So add your comments to these ramblings, or email me if you want those comments to go unposted but still recorded, and I'll make sure what you have to say not only lands on her desk but gets consumed and considered.

Our livelihoods are at stake here. And the revolution we’re undergoing won't be slowing down or stop so we can take a breath and figure out exactly what path to take. Today's iPhone is tomorrow's walkie-talkie and those who wait for the planets to align never accomplish anything.

Maybe my little plan won't get us anywhere, but the alternative is to keep living in that bad country song where you finally have no choice but to pull on our boots and hit the trail.

1 comment:

synge said...

Hooray! Man,if that's your free form rant, do more. And I totally support you for talking to Bev Oda.

Their current platform doesn't seem to really exist but you never know. Miracles could happen.

Oh, and here's something: did you know that the culture minister who came closest to actually legislating protection of our feature film industry was Marcel Masse, way way back when? He was making extremem rumblings because at that time 97 % of Canadian screens were showing American distributed (read Hollywood) films.

He got quickly silence by his own cabinet because NAFTA was being negotioted and the U.S. would not stand for legislation that limited of their biggest and cheapest "foreign" markets.

But hey, he tried harder than any other minister I can think of.