Thursday, May 31, 2007

150 CLICKS

We currently have a series in development with a Canadian network. All you need to know for the purposes of this little rant is that it takes place in a modern urban setting. On my way out of the last meeting we had on the show, one of the Execs asked how I felt about putting the production "outside Toronto".

Not a big deal. Where were they thinking -- Montreal, Vancouver...?

"No. We want you here. But there are some new rules. So it has to be at 150 Kilometers from Toronto."

"Orillia?"

They weren't amused.

I actually wasn't either -- but for different reasons. You see, our various government funding agencies have moved from their historically benign dislike of Canadian artists to actively trying to kill us.

And unfortunately, I mean that literally.

Yes. Those apparently nice, Latte sipping administrative types who explain the nuances of government regulations and make sure all the boxes are ticked on our application forms have turned homicidal.


No film or television project is ever realized without its producers jumping through a lot of hoops, keeping multiple plates spinning simultaneously and juggling any number of elements. To this three ring circus act, the Canadian government, in their infinite lack of wisdom, has added the obstacle course of regional production.

Now, don't get me wrong. If you want to live and work in Edmonton in February, good for you. You have just as much right as anybody else to live and work where they want.

But apparently you don't have that right if you live in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, where the film and television business has become more or less "established".

If you think about any film industry in any other nation, it tends to center in two or three places, for all kinds of logical business reasons.

Not here.

The concept of Regionalizing production may satisfy politicians who want to see their constituents tax dollars spent locally. But you can't build a viable film industry that way. In fact, it's a sure-fire recipe for making sure it never happens.

Imagine asking most of the production companies in Hollywood to relocate to Pismo Beach if they want their project green-lit. Consider what Woody Allen or Spike Lee's films would look like if they had to be shot in Newark. Take your life in your hands and tell Robert Rodriguez he's giving up Austin for Padre Island.

And maybe give some thought to the "suppliers" of the industry. The people who have no say in what gets conceived or made. They rent cameras, build props and costumes, or sustain state of the art post houses. Now imagine how their profit margins (which have always been thin) are impacted by having to serve customers who have no choice but to work in areas where such operations are not resident because they couldn't survive and everything has to be shipped in.

This week a Producer friend said, "They're spreading things so thin, nobody can survive anymore." She's right. And as far as I'm concerned that's the plan. The juicy side effect is that the Bureaucats also get to murder some of us in the process.

Yes, I said "murder" and I'm not trying to be sensationalist.


To keep producers awake amid all their hoop jumping, plate spinning and ball juggling, the bureacrats who use our industry to practise social engineering constantly change the rules whereby you can achieve and receive the tax credits, certifications and incentives you need in Canada to produce.

So, one year there will be gains to be had for using previously unproduced writers or directors, including diversity in your casting or shooting in a gravel pit in Winnipeg. A year later, the new writers are out of luck because we now must use writers of diversity. Actors of Asian or African descent are back waiting tables because there are now extra points for casting Aboriginals and the gravel pit has migrated to a spot just outside Moncton.

Before anybody dubs me the David Duke of Canada, I'll point out I was born on a reservation, have been honored by the NAACP for a series episode I did on Racism and probably hold the Canadian record for the number of artists from minority cultures, non-traditional sexual orientation or physical disability I've broken into the business.

And that doesn't make me special. It merely places me on a par with most of the Canadian producers I know. We make our hiring judgements primarily on talent.

However, if there's one thing I've noted about Canadian film and television, it's that while there's a lot of diversity among the people who make it -- the faces in the government agencies and network offices we deal with remain predominantly of one hue.

All this is to say -- surely the people who make policy for CAVCO, the CRTC, CTF and Telefilm can't be suggesting that without their strict government regulations and cash incentives, those who own our networks, highly respectable corporations like BCE, BellGlobeMedia, CanWest, Rogers, Quebecor and our own federal government through the state owned CBC and Radio-Canada would not AUTOMATICALLY make sure the airwaves reflected the cultural and regional diversity of the country!

That would simply be standard practice because they're good corporate citizens and it's the correct thing to do -- Right?

At any rate, this constantly fluctuating agenda is problematic on any number of levels and nearly impossible to service in a country where development takes at least a year, two if you're working in television or sometimes three if your project is at the CBC.

If any of these bureaucrats actually understood the business they regulate, they might realize that our artists and technicians do not operate in a vacuum. Therefore, when you mandate that a production must take place "regionally", you create more problems than whatever ones you are endeavoring to address.

The minute a production goes into prep, there's a rapid deployment of people and resources to create the program as quickly and efficiently as possible. Production offices are set up, studios booked or created, contracts negotiated for the goods and services this movie/TV army needs to get to work. That's everything from hiring actors and grips to finding portable toilets.

On a longterm project like a TV series, you're booking these elements for up to 10 months. And everyone you bring in has to be as accessible as possible for the production to operate smoothly.

In addition to your regular cast, for example, you're hiring up to a small Battalion of performers. And hard as it may be to believe, even actors working regularly on a series need to augment their earnings by working in theatre, doing commercials or voice-overs on the days you're not using them.

That's why major production centers developed in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Work opportunities at the CBC in these cities, combined with a wide array of theatrical venues serving these larger populations, assisted by corporate headquarters that drove the advertising business, led to large numbers of actors making their homes in these cities. In time, the critical mass created by a large community of actors, writers and directors, inevitably sparked greater creative endeavor.

Can you recreate that all across the country? No. Never been done anywhere. Can't be. There simply isn't enough shelf-space for the product that would be created, no matter how many tiers of cable you build.

And especially when the tiers that already exist don't have to do any drama.

That's not to say you can't do stuff in Regina or Sudbury. Of course you can. But while cities of this size might be able to sustain some production, they can seldom fully support the needs of imports thoughtlessly foisted upon them.

Let's say we've got a show with a dozen supporting actors on a particular episode. We might be able to pull some from the local pool. But often there will be artists with more experience, specific skills or greater recognition value elsewhere. If I want to use one of those actors, I have to import them, pay their travel, accommodation and per diems -- which increases my production costs and eats into whatever incentives I've gained by being 150 clicks away from a major production center.

Actors sometimes get sick or otherwise need to be replaced at the last minute. They may be available for the Monday and Tuesday you were going to use them, but they're not now that you've slipped their shoot days to Thursday and Friday. In a major production center, you might be able to replace someone on a couple of hours notice. Working regionally, it'll take two hours just to fly them in. Again, increased costs and an increased potential that you're compromising the aesthetic of your show.

Let's take something as technically simple as rain bars. For the uninitiated, rain bars are a piece of equipment that simulate rain. They're not expensive to book for a day, but a pointless expense to carry around for an entire shoot. You only use them in two instances. To create a rain effect or (most often) to cover for the fact that you started a scene shooting in actual rain and need continuity now that the skies have cleared.

So, let's assume a scene is half shot and the clouds roll away. Unless there is a fully stocked effects house 150 clicks from the major production center I can't shoot in, it'll take those bars 2 hours to get to me. That's two hours the crew is either sitting around eating me out of craft service or shooting something they hadn't planned to shoot. Again an increase in expense and a potential loss of show quality.

But this pales by comparison to the real cost of shooting 150 clicks away from a major production center. The human cost.


Over the past few years, local incentives have driven a lot of production from Toronto to Hamilton. Crews that once had a 20 minute average commute to work and could often catch a bus or subway to get there, now endure a 2 hour commute either way.

Two hours in good weather -- not the kind of weather we get in Canada about half the year -- and not accounting for the normal delays along Canada's most traveled corridor.

In other words -- two hours if you're lucky.

Isn't it interesting that while the government is spending enormous amounts of money to convince people to drive less and consider their carbon footprint, one government department is mandating that people in the film industry consume even greater amounts of fossil fuel.

Film crews work an average 12 hour day. That means these guys drive 2 hours, work 12 and then drive two more to get home. At least 16 of every 24 hours are taken up by their jobs. Sometimes that's six days a week. Add a couple more hours for weather and delays.

Isn't it interesting that while we have a government spending countless amounts to strengthen the family and paying people to stay home and raise their kids, we have CRTC/CAVCO/CTF rules which reduce the time film crews can spend with their families and increase their chances of dying through sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation research isn't exactly a new science. Doctors have known for years that lack of sleep can lead to everything from clinical depression to heart disease and a compromised immune system. It's considered a factor in one out of six traffic accidents, accounting for more than 25,000 highway deaths and 2.7 Million injuries annually in the United States alone.

Isn't it interesting that while government health agencies are working to reduce sleep deprivation, one government department is making it mandatory.

The only conclusion is that they want to get rid of us.

And they are succeeding.

Brent Hershman was a 35-year-old camera assistant on “Pleasantville”. He died in a single car accident on the Century Freeway at 1:30am on March 6, 1997 after working a succession of 18 and 19 hour days.

Brent wasn't the first film crew member to die falling asleep at the wheel. The Directors Guild of America had logged several cases among their own membership. But many in the industry determined he would be the last.

Within days, the DGA, along with the International Photographers Guild; The International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), the WGA and SAG had signatures from more than 10,000 industry professionals calling for more humane working conditions – especially for "below the line" crew.

The resulting BRENT’S RULE is now widely adhered to by LA production companies, but that makes little difference in Canada, where the hunger for runaway production has kept ACTRA minimum turnaround to 12 hours (SAG is ten) and when government rules on regional production add to the commute to get to a film set in the first place.

These rules are destroying the family lives of people working in our industry. They're making us work longer hours to produce a lower quality product. And most importantly, people are being injured and killed.

Part of me wonders how long regional production would remain a requirement if the folks at the CRTC/CAVCO/CTF were made to relocate their offices to wherever they decide they want production taking place next year.

I'm sure those places will all have at least one Starbucks and a trendy bistro where you can get a nice Penne Alfredo. But those establishments won't be right next door -- the cities won't provide easy access to all the industry soirées film bureaucrats like to frequent -- the locations won't make it easy to get home after your civil service union 8 hour day and being there won't get the work done as efficiently.

The next time you meet one of the folks from the CRTC/CAVCO/CTF cabal consider whether that smile they're offering you is friendly or harbors thoughts more vulpine -- and think twice about shaking their hands...

...because there's blood on them.


9 comments:

DMc said...

Oh Jim, you're such a polyanna.

jimhenshaw said...

Thanks, Cassandra. You keep railing at the darkness I'll light the way burning one bridge after another...

Matt said...

that post made me kick my dog.

so what you're saying is: move to hamilton.

ok.

Alex Epstein said...

I can easily imagine the horrible effect it would have on my kids if I had to shoot two hours out of town. Regional shooting seems like a really stupid idea. Who came up with it?

wcdixon said...

Killer post, Jim. Killer.

Now slowly step away from the keyboard...

Anonymous said...

Alex,

People who live in the regions.

Bill Cunningham said...

What a fuckin' mess....

Amateur Hour said...

You do have my sympathy regarding the "constantly fluctuating agenda" that your outstretched hands force you to deal with.

Hamilton, however, is not 2 hours each way, unless you drive like people from ... Hamilton. But you're not, so you can go over 70 and get there in reasonable time. We all commute ... surely you can carpool? Nevertheless, such an exaggeration weakens your argument.

I reiterate that some will bite the bullet and go to Orillia. Others will find that maybe it isn't the industry for them.

jimhenshaw said...

You live up to your moniker, "Amateur Hour" by not only completely missing the point, but illustrating how little understanding you have of how the business of making a TV show or its financing works.

You also reveal your lack of character in slagging Hamiltonians for a cheap laugh and equating the acceptance of abuse as the price of earning a living.

You also don't seem to have the intellectual ability to consider that not all film types live next to a Toronto on-ramp to the QEW -- or that the differentials in department call times make "car-pooling" a virtual impossiblity for most.

Strap the boots on, "Amateur Hour" and walk the miles to Hamilton in their shoes for a couple of weeks and then ask yourself why this policy makes sense.

Then realize that trekking as far as Hamilton wasn't good enough and now you've got to travel twice as far for the same illogical reason -- and less money.