Monday, October 27, 2008


My grandfather fought in the WWI Battle of Passchendaele. Mostly, when people asked him about it he just sighed and shook his head. I had the same reaction after seeing the new Paul Gross film based on the same event.

For any of you kids who Google brought here in search of information for an upcoming Remembrance Day essay, please go here or here instead. You'll learn about as much Military History from what follows as you will by wasting your money buying a ticket to "Passchendaele"; money that could certainly be better spent on XBox games and recreational drugs.

Okay, so I obviously didn't like "Passchendaele" a whole lot. Much as it has been touted as important because its the most expensive Canadian film ever made, a labor of love and in several other ways labeled "essential viewing", the truth is that it's just not a very good movie.

But in an odd way, that's what we Canadians do with our movies, isn't it? When they don't turn out well, we pretend their value lies somewhere else.

The harsh reality of "Passchendaele" is that the script is weak. Its direction is pedestrian and like one of those aging theatrical player-managers surrounding himself with low wattage ingénues and character actors so his own flame appears to burn brighter, Paul Gross has hired a lot of actors who simply aren't up to the task.

Yeah, there's a big battle scene at the end, less reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan", as the press releases would have you believe, than moments that are a direct steal from (or homage to) "Braveheart" -- right down to our hero chanting "Hold. Hold. Hold." through gritted teeth as the enemy bears down on him.

After that, the film spins from the ridiculous to a level of absurdity that is simply embarrassing to watch. Several at the screening I attended laughed out loud at the climax. By that point I was closer to tears. Once again I was seeing a Canadian film that was less about entertainment or enlightenment and more concerned with that other "E" -- ego.

For we Canadians seem to have a film industry built less on telling our stories and building a domestic audience than enhancing the reputations and future careers of some of our artistes.

Indeed, a Globe and Mail article entitled "Gross's Passion No Porky's" which quoted the movie's first weekend box-office had barely appeared before a Facebook thread and two fellow bloggers I have great respect for (here and here) were weighing in to decry the media for once again turning on one of our own.

Well, Kids, the press reports were correct. "Passchendaele" ain't no "Porky's" and likely never will be. Because "Porky's" was not only a good movie -- it MADE MONEY. This new one failed at the first test and will no doubt fail at the second.

You see, the basic rule of returns in feature films is 3-1. Because of distribution and exhibitor fees and the like, a film needs to take in $3 for every dollar of its negative cost plus what gets spent on marketing to turn a profit. So for "Passchendaele" to make money at a budget of $20 Million and a promotional budget of $2 Million for this country alone, it'll need to earn $66 Million in box office, TV sales and returns from DVD rentals and sales -- just to break even.

In it's first weekend, "Passchendaele" garnered approximately $940,000 -- not a good start.

By comparison, "Porky's" opening three days accumulated $7,623,988 (despite a budget of only $4 Million) and went on to gross more than $109 Million. (All numbers herein courtesy "The-Numbers" ).

So, like it or not, the Globe lived up to its newspaper of record reputation and delivered the truth. What concerns me is why so many in the Canadian film business don't want that truth to get out.

There's always a lot of carping about why so many Canadians just won't support Canadian films. Well, if you look at the issue a little deeper you'll notice that Canadians aren't the only ones not going to see them.

Don McKeller's "Blindness" has been in release for a few months in some places and a couple of weeks here. Budget $25 Million. Total worldwide gross so far -- $6.7 Million. So it won't ever make any money either.

Atom Egoyan's "Where the Truth Lies" (2005) Budget: $25 Million Total Gross: $1.4 million. Not a chance of making a dime.

Robert Lantos' "Being Julia" (2004) Budget: $18 Million Total Gross: $11 Million.

And believe me the list goes on -- and on -- and on. But what's clear from just these few selected titles is that we've got about $100 Million (most of it public money or tax breaks) tied up in four local icons whose films have never earned a penny, yet who keep getting to return to the vault to collect huge honking piles of public cash to make their next one.

Where else but in Canada is such consistent failure not only rewarded but petitioned for and championed by so many voices in the Arts community and the media? Is there some vested interest here that I don't know about?

Much of the "Passchendaele" pre-release press referred to Paul Gross as the "acclaimed" director of "Men With Brooms" a 2002 film that (in addition to also not making its money back) was generally poorly reviewed. In a remarkable coincidence, the generally poor reviews "Passchendaele" received at its Toronto Film Festival debut were likewise softened in many of the same publications when its release date arrived.

It's amazing what the purchase of a few four page inserts and full color ads will do to some people's critical faculties, isn't it? From here on, how about no more Canadian critics saying that they apply the same criteria in judging our films as they do to the stuff from Hollywood.

Because if we hewed to those rules Pauly Shore would be a comedian of consummate talent -- instead of a really bad one whose movies still make far more money than anything that comes out of Canada.

I mean, C'mon -- don't any of you guys want to find (and fund) somebody who might actually make a Canadian film that finds an audience and sells tickets?

Where does this incessant need come from to reward proven incompetence? Is it that you hope such a system may overlook your own faults and smile on you one day? Or are you simply committed to the belief that sooner or later one of these guys is bound to throw something at the wall that sticks?

And that faith is based on what evidence, Pookie?

Hollywood, as we know, is generally less generous with failure. There's a rule of three there too. No matter how big your last hit was, three failures and you're pretty much looking at spending your remaining days on the beach.

Likewise, any studio executive with the track record Telefilm has in funding turkeys would have a tough time getting a job selling corndogs at the Galleria Blimpie's.

And Telefilm is who I really blame for this trail of tears. As a government agency, they can dress up their spending in all kinds of worthy outfits, which many of us apparently buy without first trying on.

And protected as a crown corporation that doesn't have to reveal details of its financials (even under access to information requests) they don't have to tell anybody who really earned what through their support or why they thought it was a good idea to hand over our money to the same people again and again.

So if the Big T really is there to benefit Canadian filmmakers, why does it consistently benefit only a select few, who, no matter how much support they're given, can't seem to make a movie a significant number of people want to see?

Is there some kind Adscam kickback thing goin' on? Does somebody have Polaroids from a TIFF party or one of those jaunts to Cannes? At least one of those scenarios would add a touch of logic to the whole thing.

And while I'm on this soap box, who was the idiot at Telefilm who thought "Young People Fucking" was a good title for a movie and went along with funding it? I'm sure it was a lot of laughs in the boardroom. But did anybody actually see the movie, consider it's potential audience and say, "You know, there's a way we could actually get people to see this"?

Instead you allowed a perfectly charming comedy a lot of people would have enjoyed to be saddled with a title that no teenager could risk telling their parents they went to see while encouraging disappointed perverts to sue for false advertising!

How stupid do you have to be to work at Telefilm anyway? Dumber than Fisheries -- or is it the same guys transferring over now that all the Fish have been mismanaged to extinction -- just like us Artists soon will be?

Gawd, is it any wonder there's a growing chorus of dissatisfaction with "Arts Funding"? I know us Creative types see the need for it, but every time a mediocre movie like "Passchendaele" comes along with all the "this is important" and "it's good for you" hype a few more people who just can't take it anymore defect to the other side.

So let's be honest. The Telefilm emperor has no clothes and neither do his favorite courtiers. It's time to change the way we fund our movies. Off the top of my head, here's a first pass at establishing some kind of meritocracy. Feel free to improve on it.

Rule One: Anybody who wants to make a movie gets $100,000 from Telefilm. No track records. No rigid application dates. No binders of support material. You got an idea you get 100 grand and one year to make your movie. Telefilm keeps the same budget so when that many hundred grands are gone, the wicket is closed.

Rule Two: You don't make your movie you have to pay the money back and you never get to apply for anything ever again.

Rule Three: You make your movie but it can't get released or doesn't earn its money back, you get to put your name in the hat for a bonus draw of the final hundred grand envelope next year. Hey, it's showbiz, not everything is going to work, but we're also not here just to keep your doors open anymore.

Rule Four: You make your movie and it makes money. You automatically get $500,000 to make another one. If that one makes money, you get a million the next time around and so on.

All of a sudden we reward success and let those who can't -- I don't know -- teach?

Can you make a decent movie for $100,000? Of course you can. And we won't do anything to stop you from putting more money in it if you want to.

Won't people just make cheapo horror flicks and action movies?

Maybe. But take a look at most of what screens at Sundance, Slamdance or any other Indy festival. A lot of very good filmmakers make films in all genres that they are passionate about -- and with far less assistance.

Isn't it time that film-making in this country was about making good films instead of being so far up Telefilm's ass you can almost see Don McKellar?

Because if we don't change what we're doing I can imagine a very different scenario arriving in the not too distant future.

In this one, Prime Minister Stephen Harper buys TV time so "Passchendaele" can run on CBC, CTV and Global at the same hour on Remembrance Day. He says it's his way of recognizing the film's supposed recognition of our forgotten war heroes.

Then after the final credits roll, he appears on every channel and asks everybody who liked the movie to go online and vote for it. And he also asks everybody who thought it was a really crappy movie to go online and vote that way.

Nothing is said about national identity or telling "our" stories or any of the stuff that makes us Creatives feel all warm and fuzzy. Just was it a good movie or not.

Then once we've voted he says he's going to tally up the votes and if more people thought it was a good movie than a bad movie, he'll increase funding to the Arts. And if more people thought the other way he'll cancel Arts funding for good.

Trust me, Boys and Girls, we don't want our futures determined by that vote.

Losing sports teams change their players. Corporations that don't make money clear out the executive offices. It's time for us to clean house too.

And we've also got to stop this continual knee jerk reaction that says if you pick a fight with any one of us you got a fight with me. Because, quite frankly, the only way we make our industry better and start making some good movies that people actually pay to see, is if we're the ones who insist we all stop backing the Losers.


Anonymous said...

I wanted to like Passchendaele, and some parts were truly excellent. Other parts were not so good.

Excellent parts:

1. Awesome cinematography. Really.
2. The best artillary scenes of any war movie I've ever seen. Absolutely terrifying. It is worth seeing the movie just to feel what it must be like to have shell shock.
3. Gritty sex scene right before the final battle.
4. The overall story is very good.

Not-so-good parts:

1. The dialog. Sweet Jesus, for $20 million you should be able to get a decent screenwriter.

2. There is waaaaaaay too much time spent on the love story. And I'm a sucker for a good love story. I may even have teared up a little in Titanic... which tells you how bad the love story in this film must be. And this isn't just man-talk; my wife felt exactly the same way.

3. I really liked Due South. And I even mostly liked Men With Brooms. And maybe Paul Gross can act when he has a good script and a good director. And, to be fair, he has a few good moments in the war scenes of Passchendaele. But, he has absolutely no idea how to generate emotion in the love and relationship section of the movie. That is a real killer when half of the film is about the love story.

4. The Jesus-carrying-the-cross symbolism at the end was so hackneyed, so improbable, so irrelevant to the story, and so cheesy that it nearly ruins the rest of the film all by itself.

5. For a film named after and based on a historical event, I would have expected more context and more information about the battle and its significance, or lack thereof. Also, the lead-up and marketing of the film talked about how important WWI was to the formation of the modern Canadian nation, and yet there is almost nothing about that in the film. Maybe those parts got cut in favour of the love story.

6. All of the parts that take place in Calgary and environs look way too much like Anne of Avonlea. Cheesy, cheesy, cheesy.

Rich Baldwin said...

I didn't see Passchedaele because it looked bad. I think, if anything, Canadian movies should have to live up to *higher* expectations, if we're so concerned with how Canadian film and TV appears in and outside of Canada.

I like your meritocractic system as a basis of a structure for funding commercial films. One of the great faults with the Canadian system is that there is no distinction between funding for art films and funding for commercial films; it's all treated like art films but sometimes gets paid for in numbers that only commercial films need. This is a good alternate to the US commercial funding system (that is, private enterprise).

More would need changing though. Something has to be done about how much cheaper it is to show imported over domestic in many cases. Maybe subsidize distribution and television diffusion of Canadian film and TV in Canada until a film or TV show is reaching a certain size audience?

Trevor B. Cunningham said...

Let me be clear. In no way should anyone endorse a mediocre or bad movie just because it's Canuck. My issue was with the article. My explanation is posted on my blog Secret Lab X. I do like some of the Telefilm proposals, and they bring to mind Jim Harkness' article he wrote in 1995 called 'Three Modest Proposals for the Canadian film Industry'. Especially this part:

3. Federal and Provincial Governments Should Stop Funding Feature-Film Production

The governments, federal and provincial, should stop funding feature-film production. The Canadian government has been pouring money into this financial dry hole for about a quarter of a century now, and exactly what have we gotten for the millions “invested” – a film “industry” that lies continually in intense care, tubes running in and out of its body, dozens of specialists running in and out of the room to monitor its pulse, blood pressure. It’s a Karen Anne Quinlin of a film industry that one one’s willing to pull the plug on.

I once spoke with a producer who had made films on both sides of the border, and he said to me that in the U.S. industry, to be successful as a producer, at some point one must satisfy an audience. It may be an audience plunking down $8 to see the movie in a theatre, it may be an audience renting a video for $3, it may be people turning into you movie when it shows up on television, but an audience must be satisfied or the film is a failure.

In Canada, he said, you never have to satisfy an audience. You have to satisfy Telefilm Canada, the Ontario Film Development Corporation, the CBC, the National Film Board of Canada.

That is, you have to satisfy a group of well-meaning, highly educated cultural bureaucrats. This means three or four things. It means that a filmmaker would be far likelier to get approval for a move that espouses whatever liberal cause is fashionable at the moment than for anything truly audacious, unsettling or interesting. I suspect that the entire career of the terminally tedious Anne Wheeler is based on the fact that she’s a “two-fer” – a woman director and a regional director in one package, fulfilling a big chunk of whatever unconscious quota system exists in the minds of the culture-crats. (and that system exists. A few years ago, I was talking to one of the principals in Deepa Mehta’s Sam and Me, who told they had a devil of a time getting funding because, someone at Telefilm Canada told them, Telefilm already had an Indian film that year.)

When something daring comes through the English-Canadian offices of Telefilm, like John Greyson’s Zero Patience or Srivinas Krishna’s Masala, one can bet that it is being funded not because it is daring, but because it fulfills some minority quotas.

Why does the government fund films? If the intent was to create a viable, working film industry that creates products that audiences want to see, then almost three decades of government funding has been an abject failure in English Canada. Good films have been made, but I would suggest that most of the best films have been made by people so obsessed with their visions that they would have been made whether the government funded them or not. People who need to make the films will make films, whether they get a grant or not. And people who are successful at making films that they have to make will continue to make them.

The government has never done the one thing essential to create a working film industry. It has never guaranteed Canadian films theatre space. How can we have a working film industry without control of the exhibition? On those occasions in the past three decades when the various federal government have made noises about quotas or box-office levies, Jack Valenti, Hollywood’s lobbyist/enforcer, has shown up and got the government to back down.

If the government really wants to create a viable film industry, they shouldn’t be funding production. They should build a theatre chain that would let people see Canadian films in an environment comparable to that in which they see Hollywood films. Perhaps 60 screens to start, and then match distributors dollar for dollar on promotion and advertising. Then we’d see if there’s any sort of market for Canadian films in Canada, rather than who is committed to getting grants, bridging loans and development money.

Irene Duma said...

Wow. I loved this post. I agree on so many levels and had been haunted wondering why we keep churning out box office duds and keep rewarding the same filmmakers over and over despite poor returns. Thanks for spelling it out.

Did Telefilm really expect to make 66 million on Passchendaele? Come on...

Steve Schnier said...

Wow. Where do I begin?

I agree with every word you've written. So much so, that I've recently completed my first independent feature, budgeted at - guess what? A hundred thousand bucks.

Private money. Not a cent of arts funding. Why? Because the goal of my movie is to make money.

And because I don't want the guys who make those crappy Canadian flicks to screw up my work.

Steve Schnier said...

Me again...

"Passcehndaele" reeks of what's wrong with Canadian films: it's Government Approved. As soon as the nice man in the suit says, "It's good for you, kiddies" - we're not dumb. We know to run for the hills.

Concerning your idea for $100,0000 movies: If Atom Egoyan were to sit out for one year, take a vacation, go read a book... the Twenty Five MILLION that the government blows on one of his movies could finance Two Hundred and Fifty NEW ARTISTIC VISIONS. Atom. Give it a rest.

The arguement can be made that Canadian films haven't found their audience - and likewise, Vincent Van Gogh never sold one canvas in his lifetime... But Van Gogh didn't suck up all the resources so that no one else in France could paint while he was slapping the oils around...

My two cents.

Keith Bailey said...

There are some problems with your argument that we should be funding $100,000 movies. First, how many of those similarly priced movies that play in Sundance and Slamdance get picked up for distribution? Almost none. And those that do get barely released to theaters. I think Canadian distributors would be very relucatant to spend the time and expense to market and distribute ultra-cheap movies, especially when you compare to what they would be up against (big-budget Hollywood movies.) Audiences would be relucatant to see these movies once they find out the budgets. "Why see an ultra-cheap movie when I can see a big-budget movie for the same admission price," they would say.

These cheap movies wouldn't have stars in them (an important marketing tool - even direct-to-video movies understand the importance of stars.) And much of Canada's talent (writers, directors, etc.) would flee to Hollywood because they couldn't make a living out of the portion of the $100,000 budget they would get for these Canadian films. They already struggle to make a living here in Canada. Molly Parker, one of the more popular Canadian actors, has said she has to take roles in Hollywood movies because even though she seems to appear in every other Canadian movies, she can't make a living with what Canadian movies pay her.

I wanted to e-mail you with these and other thoughts, but you don't list your e-mail address on your site. I just hope you read this, and I would like to hear your response.

jimhenshaw said...


First off the glut of good movies that never get distributed at these festivals is still a glut of good movies as opposed to a handful of mediocre ones.

And most don't get distributed simply because there are too many of them to fill the existing distribution system, so only the best of the best get a wide release.

But a lot get smaller releases that still find an audience that appreciates them -- and therefore has an interest in risking their money on something else that's cheap but satisfying.

John August's "The Nines", for example, played hardly anywhere theatrically and might have trouble breaking even, but is still a rewarding experience for those who purchase or rent the DVD.

Remember, this is a process that's supposed to entertain people not consistently disappoint them.

And to be honest, I don't think audiences care that much about the size of budgets. They just want the film to be good and to not show its seams.

Some "good" movies made for less than $100,000 (and don't forget, I just said this would be the total you could get from public funding) might be:

El Mariachi - $7,000 Gross $2M
Slacker - $23,000 Gross $1.2M
In the Company of Men - $25,000 Gross $2.8M
The Brothers McMullen - $25,000
Gross - $10.4M
Clerks - $27,000 Gross $3M
The Blair Witch Project - $35,000 Gross $140M
Pi - $68,000 - $3.2M
Hollywood Shuffle - $100,000 Gross$5.2M
Eraserhead - $100,000 Gross $7M

Compare those to hundreds of millions invested in the same Canadian players for a return of exactly nothing.

And with the royalties that accrue to actors and other artists when a film actually makes money -- they're doing far better than they are today appearing in films that cost the public millions and Gross $0.

Anonymous said...

I was really perplexed by the way you sought to tie Passchendaele to the issue of public funding. Paul Gross worked pretty tirelessly to find alternative sources of funding: he sought help from corporations, from philanthropists, from historians, from the military, and spent a portion of his own savings to get the film made. Part of the movie was funded by public money, yes, but there simply aren’t enough grants and tax credits within the public system to fund a movie with a Passchendaele-sized budget.

So you want film producers to find other ways to finance their movies, and Paul Gross did so. And yet you still think Passchendaele is emblematic of a corrupt system that takes taxpayers’ money and produces films no one wants to see? You really can’t have it both ways.

Nos4a2no9 said...

I'm going to do something radical here. I'm going to suggest that the value of a cultural product cannot be measured by financial success. Shocking idea, that. A book or a film or a piece of music can matter, and still not make a dime. And maybe that's okay.

Maybe in a world increasingly driven by materialism, by American cultural domination and by ever-shrinking and increasingly fractured audiences, it's not necessary to demand that a film or a television series enrich the public coffers with huge box office receipts. Telefilm's mandate (as well as the mandate of other publicly-funded creative programs in Canada) is to provide an alternative to American media. That's it. We use public money to fund our films so that Canadian culture (in all its heterogeneous glory) continues to exist.

Does Passchendaele offer an alternative to American films about war? Does it give us a portrait of what issues Canadians were concerned with in 1916? Does it reflect something of our culture and our history? Then the portion of the budget funded by Telefilm satisfied its mandate. The mandate behind programs like Telefilm, or other government funding and tax credits, is not to back box office champions. If you expect Canadian films or television series to make enormous amounts of cash, draw high ratings or smash attendance records, you're going to be disappointed.

I hate to break it to you, but Canadian filmmakers are never going to produce domestic films that appeal to the same mass audiences American films do, and therefore break box office records. It’s simply not possible. We're a nation of 30 million. For a domestic film with a modest-by-American-standards budget (say, $30 million) to make huge profits and recoup its advertising and production costs, every single Canadian would need to see that film. Several times. That's not a realistic option, due to factors like regional distribution issues (most domestic films never screen anywhere outside major metropolitan centres like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal) shrinking audience sizes, competition from Hollywood, and people who buy into the damaging mentality like the one you so recklessly perpetuate here: that Canadian films are dour, poorly-produced vehicles presented to benefit the same core group of egomanical actors/directors/producers you seem to despise so much. (I don’t suppose it’s worth pointing out that our artists often turn down lucrative deals in the south in order to help keep our struggling domestic cultural industry afloat. But they’re just in it for the prestige and the paycheck anyway, right?)

Finally, and most importantly, the Canadian film industry contributes $40 billion a year to the GDP. It’s not exactly an industry that sucks the public dry. Even if a film doesn’t recoup its production costs (which, again, is tough to do in a very small country faced with tremendous competition from America and Europe) a movie or a TV show can still benefit the economy. Film and TV productions create jobs, both in industry-specific sense (the cast and crew, catering, wardrobe and prop/set production, and special effects/post-production) but also in secondary or tertiary contexts. An entire community benefits when a film production comes knocking. Why do you think communities fight so hard to attract production crews? Cultural capital is also something that brings huge financial benefits to our country’s tourism industry, and to Canada’s reputation abroad.

So, why should we bankroll Canadian films? If you don’t buy the argument that a nation doesn’t survive without a culture, and you truly feel that we should offer no alternatives to American programming, you certainly can’t argue that an industry which contributes so significantly to our domestic economy should be drummed out of business. And it will be, without public support for the arts in Canada.

jimhenshaw said...


Let me call you "No" for short.

No, I don't see anything wrong with any piece of music, movie, book or anything else to be of cultural value for it's own sake. But have you ever noticed how much of that actually exists without begging for a penny of public money?

I'm sure when it comes from Nickleback or Hank Snow or carries a title like "Porky's" it doesn't fit your idea of culture, but they all deliver the value you're describing and none of them cost the public a dime -- while still making loads of money on their own.

And No, there's not a problem with using Telefilm as a bulwark against the invasion of what you seem to believe are American barbarian hordes. Except Telefilm's strategy is not working and the centurions they've dispatched to do battle for us aren't winning.

And No, I don't despise any of these artists. I just know they never gain favor in the hearts of our countrymen let alone encourage them to part with a little of the cash in their wallets.

Wrap yourself in the belief that Telefilm is doing God's work if you must and let your missionary zeal for the benefits of public funding blind you as it so clearly has.

But you can't deny that the product as currently designed is not gaining acceptance and manufacturing something nobody wants is what got our auto industry where it is today -- and maybe we don't need a similar film industry.

Nos4a2no9 said...

I'm pleased that, condescending as your response is, you didn't engage with a single one of my main points. And I do hate to disappoint you, but artists like Nickleback and films like Porkey's did indeed benefit from public funding programs. Nickleback, as well as hundreds of other Canadian musicians, benefi from the Canadian Content laws that require radio stations to play a set ratio of domestic content. Porkey's was produced with some assistance from the government of Ontario, and from TeleComm Pioneers. Much as you love the private-sector myth of media productions pulling their own weight without any public assistance, it just isn't factual.

I don't despise any of these artists. I just know they never gain favor in the hearts of our countrymen let alone encourage them to part with a little of the cash in their wallets.

Could have fooled me. You stop just short of calling Canadian producers, directors, writers (and anyone else who relies on a government grant to fund an arts project) charlatans who steal from the public. And I'm still not clear what you're basing your opinion on, when you suggest that are artists haven't found any domestic popularity. Apparently it's true because you say so? Filmmakers like Atom Egoyan and Don McKeller, TV stars like Paul Gross, and thousands of other Canadian writers and artists have created a lot of beloved cultural products, and they've helped advanced Canada's reputation as a nation that produces quality media. The measures you're using for success (your own opinion, as far as I can tell, with some box office figures thrown in) doesn't acknowledge the way they have helped shape Canada's culture and continue to contribute to our country.

But I'll stop prostelitizing. I suspect you strongly approve of the Tory cuts to arts funding, and the recent budgetary cuts at the CBC probably thrilled out. Soon we'll have no arts industry and no national news broadcaster. Which is fine. There's always CNN and Hollywood.

Kosmo said...


I think th epint is unpopular films that really don't get the public behind them, or involve, even Canadians.

WHy can small films form many countries gain INternational viewership due to their filmic merits, while CDN films seem destined to cost money, and not interest enough viewers (generally) to merit the waste of celluloid.

Personally I think films that people want to see is a good concept and they don't have to be formulaic hollywood fluff.

Middle ground.

Is Paschendaele a worthwhile investment in any regards in your opinion?



Anonymous said...

Hi Omosk,

I think [the point] is unpopular films that really don't get the public behind them, or involve, even Canadians.

I'm not sure what films we're talking about here. What do you mean by "unpopular"? If a film is a huge critical success but doesn't draw a big audience outside of, say, Toronto or Vancouver because of issues like distribution (which is the main barrier Canadian films face) does that mean it was "unpopular"? Or just not widely seen in Canada. I think a distinction needs to be made, because a film like Breakfast with Scot, which is a funny and very entertaining Canadian family film, was a big success at the Toronto Film Festival among both audiences and critics, but failed to secure a widescale distribution deal in Canadian cinemas because of competition with US films.

WHy can small films form many countries gain INternational viewership due to their filmic merits, while CDN films seem destined to cost money, and not interest enough viewers (generally) to merit the waste of celluloid.

As far as I know, Canadian films HAVE gained international viewership. Our National Film Board has won more Academy Awards than any other institution, including American studios. Canadian films, like The Sweet Hereafter, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), The Saddest Music in the World, Hard Core Logo, Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions)) have opened prestigious festivals, won multiple awards, and have drawn significant cinema and DVD audiences from all around the world. Canadian directors, actors and writers have gained international and critical acclaim. The highest-grossing film of all time (Titanic) was directed by a Canadian.

What we forget, when discussing Canadian film, is that questions of quality or merit are largely overshadowed by other issues like distribution (as I mentioned before) as well as competition from the United States, and a reluctance on the part of Canadians to seek out their own domestic cinema. Because our filmmakers compete directly with American films for production crews (rather than, say, Australian films, which must compete directly with...Australian films for production crews) and so it costs roughly the same to produce a film in Canada as it does in the US. As a result, the subject matter of Canuck films is more limited, because we have to be able to do more with less. A film that could be easily produced in the US for $30 million must be made in Canada for a maximum of $8 million, because after that domestic funding sources taps out. And when you're stuck with a small budget but have to pay the same production costs as an American film, you're limited to quirky character comedies, or dramas. And those genres definitely have their place, but don't hold the same mass appeal as American films.

Personally I think films that people want to see is a good concept and they don't have to be formulaic hollywood fluff.

Sure, but even American films that stray beyond the "formulaic Hollywood fluff" tend not to do well, unless they have a major star or director attached. If your only basis for determining quality is in box office receipts (which is the only quality measure you've suggested) then Canadian films are always going to be "unpopular." We have to find other ways of evaluating our domestic cultural industry, because our domestic industry is just never going to be able to compete, box-office wise, with the lion to the south.

So, I'll ask you a question: what do you think is the purpose of the Canadian film industry? And don’t say, “produce good movies,” unless you’re willing to explain what you think a “good movie” entails, and how Canada doesn’t produce quality cinema.

If our films aren't making the kind of money you would deem appropriate (and they never, ever will be able to meet American box-office standards), or drawing in massive audiences from east coast to west, from northern Canada to southern Ontario, then why have are we making Canadian films at all? Let's just give up right now. Close up shop. Because unless you have an alternative suggestion, or a magic bullet to offer that would “fix” the problem of poor distribution channels, US competition, and limited funding (and therefore, limited script) options, I’m afraid you’re never going to see a Canadian film break $100million at the box office. And as I suggested in my original comment, maybe that’s okay.

The thing is, if you do want the Canadian film industry to close down because we can’t seem to produce films that draw huge audiences, I think you'll have a hard time floating that argument in French Canada. Quebec's films are hugely popular domestically, because they fulfill a clear mandate: they provide an alternative for non-Anglo programming, and in doing so they help protect Quebecois language and cultural identity.

English Canadian films (which is, I suspect, what you're talking about, although you seem to make no distinction between French and English-produced media in Canada) have to compete with US, Britain and European films, so they're harder to market and distribute. English Canadian films still have the same mandate, though: they get provincial/federal funding because they provide an alternative to Hollywood films, and give Canadians a voice. And it's hard to find a mass market for what is, essentially, an act of ideological representation of the individual voices in our country. A film like Bon Cop, Bad Cop might not find an audience outside of Ontario and Quebec. A film about pre-Contact Inuit history (like Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)) might not be hugely popular in, oh, Nova Scotia. We make regional films about specific identities, and I, for one, am really glad we make those flicks. It helps us remember that not everyone on the planet talks with a Midwestern American accent, or hails from New York or Chicago or LA.

Is Paschendaele a worthwhile investment in any regards in your opinion?

I didn't offer my opinion on Passchendaele because, unlike the original poster, I didn't think my personal like (or dislike) of a film merited a statement like, "This movie is crap, and therefore never should have been made!" I really liked the film. I liked what it had to say about war, and about Canada's role in WWI history. I liked its take on gender issues, and I thought it was very moving. I wept at the end. I know the script had some problems, and it is by no means a perfect film. But it reflected back a portrait of Canada (and of Western Canada, which is rare in our national film industry) that I won’t get from an American film. It meant a lot to me to see a part of myself and my nation reflected up there on the screen.

But again, that’s just my opinion of the film. I try not to use my opinion as a barometer of what is good and bad, what is worthy of funding and what is a "waste of celluloid,” because those answers will change depending on who you ask and what stake they have in the film being analyzed. Instead I ask, "does this serve a purpose in the mandate of giving Canadians a cultural alternative to external programming?" and "does this film have something to say?" Passchendaele fulfilled both requirements, in my opinion, and I'm very glad that it was made.

Cayle Chernin said...

Jim Henshaw, you nailed it. From Calgary to Cavalry and to the crosses row on row, the P's of Passchendaele include predictable and in the final glory sequence, preposterous. Styled somewhere between old Hollywood, due South of Calgary, in Movie Land, though perhaps coming from fine intention, "P" bogged down in manipulative contrivances and way more suspension of credibility than is acceptable. We're told that the movie is a success because it brought in 4 mill. How can that be true of a 20 million-dollar movie. But it’s a movie Harper can see and so might endorse funding and various Canadians across Canada will cry and self congratulate and die rather than see Young People Fucking which is a terrific film, Yes, it may have seemed a stupid 'cutting off the nose to spite the face' but the choice of title is an unabashed slap in the face of hypocrisy - and in the end it was brave and caused an uproar and a rally to arms. Jim, you have beautifully described the mentality and the ‘religion of the sacred cow’ that controls our culture. We champion the 'chosen' and perpetuate our failure to communicate or create. We’ve seen the success of the Quebec model when it worked, the Australian film industry that funded but kept its nose out of content, and yet we pursue our copycat version of the American dream creating our very own nightmare goverment funding with private sector criteria - however, Actra's TIP and CIPIC programs, the critical success of those $100,000 films that are being made by brave and 'resourceful' film makers to use the word Rosemary Dunsmore elegantly posed in her Actra Award Acceptance speech for her role in the indie 'The Baby Formula'. Jim, your idea for funding is brilliant. It harkens back to the model that followed the success of Easy Rider when BBS gave one million to 10 film makers and got one Last Picture Show which made up for the investment. The 9 other films may not have made money but they made filmmakers who went on to do more good work. Let’s not worry about a ‘star system’ or box office as such. Let's keep our 'nut' low and encourage and champion 'good work'. Hugh Jackman to Barbra Walters: “put the show back in show business”. We can take good inspiration from the entertainment & universality of last night’s Academy Awards that in the age of Obama, were less about competition and more about the solidarity, love, honour and respect that the acting community feels for each other and for ‘the work’. Take heart, there is a new day dawning. We will make our movies like Nurse.Fighter.Boy. I refer you to wonderful work of The First Weekend Club and to Cam Haynes Film Circuit, an alternative distribution exhibition model which brings Canadian films to communities across Canada and cities throughout the world. Our Canadian movies are better than ever. Anne Tait and Barry Pearson's Iron Road could have opened TIFF not Passchendale and we would have been truly amazed at the ability of our filmmakers to make a multi-million dollar movie. Given accomplished, wise and movie-loving intellects like Dan Lyon and Paul Gratton, fabulous producing teams like Jennifer Jonas and Leonard Farlinger, Reginald Harkema of New Real Films, WE WILL OVERCOME!
Cayle Chernin

Anonymous said...

The main problem-- besides corruption and/or elitism in funding bodies-- I see with Canadian film and media is a lack of imagination-especially a desire to do serious fantasy(this includes action, mystery, as well as sci-fi and horror). Anne of Green Gables is very different from Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland.
This problem permeates not just film but English Canadian literature and radio (although Nazi Eyes on Canada is an interesting WW2 propaganda sci-fi effort). We have no figures that compare to Edgar Allen Poe, or Washington Irving or Herman Melville in our early history.
When we do fantasy-it is usually a quirky comedy of some sort(Last Night, Fido, Pontypool, Ginger Snaps). You do not find this in New Zealand, Australia or the UK. The best examples of Canadian fantasy are co-productions, and often the Canadian identity becomes anywhere USA.
Ultimately, it seems Canadians feel they are close enough to the US in culture that they can consume massive amounts of US and foreign media products, and so they don't really care about making their own versions, or being passionate about doing it.
One anecdote I had heard about Canadian tv was that the government thought it would be a fad, and they only paid attention to it when Canadians were buying tvs to watch US programs. They frantically tossed money at someone to start the CBC and the first broadcast had the titles upside down. The same is true for the cable movie channels in the 80s. The US had HBO and MTV so we had to do our own to compensate, instead of initiating our own. In the case of music-we seem to have more of an identity.

There was a list of "cool Canadian movies" published recently.
I do not see how anyone could say that a movie about Alzheimer's or a busload of school children drowning is "cool." There is a detachment from reality and basic human emotions here.

I don't know how this can change. I have talked to independent filmmakers in Vancouver and to my surprise, many of them either want to do romantic comedies, dramas or quirky comedies themselves.
I find this strange since somebody is clearly watching all the non-Canadian movies being shown here-if Canadian DNA was opposed to it-they would be flopping at the Box Office and video stores I would think.
Passchendaele sounds like a Canadian attempt at Gallipoli.
The one area of fantasy Canada does seem to excel at is one where basic human emotions are suppressed. Thus we rarely see Canadian movies or fiction on homegrown murders(the Mark LePine case took 20 years). Or RCMP corruption.
The US and other countries don't have such problem turning the gaze on their own problems.
Such things are the stuff of sincere drama.

Gray Moon Gallery said...

Here a painting and a poem about Passchendaele 1917 ànd Shell Shock by contemporary artist Jan Theuninck :

Anonymous said...

Great post! Well said.