Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SOMEBODY YOU SHOULD READ

Every now and then, I'll rail on Canadian journalists for their lack of Woodward and Bernstein instincts or their unfathomable desire to cozy up to the very people they're supposed to be keeping an eye on for the public. To my mind those crushes of reporters Canadian politicos describe as a "scrum" are just a giant group hug and what passes for a hard-hitting interview here would be called 'tossing around a softball' anywhere else.

And although I've played a journalist on television and written many into my scripts, my understanding of the trade is far from educated.

But if you're like me and wonder how and why some stories get covered the way they get covered, you need to read a great piece posted by Rick McGinnis, better known by his online moniker "Life With Father".

I don't know Rick, but I'm becoming a big fan of his perspective on the craft and associated industries by which he's plied his trade.

Take some time today to read a better quality of writing than you'll ever find around here. Just click the link above or the listing down the right side of this page.

And Rick -- thanks for the kind words in a couple of your posts and equal props in return.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

LAZY SUNDAY #64: COURAGE

There's this hymn...

I lost my brother a year ago and it was played at his funeral. It was played last Friday at the funerals for four fallen police officers in Oakland, California. It's played at every police funeral, every military funeral and the funerals of many in the Christian faith.

But it's not a funeral hymn.

"Amazing Grace" was written by John Newton, the Captain of a slave transport vessel who underwent a profound conversion and wanted to communicate his revelation to others. The song's power is in its ability to inspire those who have lost hope or feel overwhelmed by life's tragedies to have the courage to move on.

The last year has bordered on tragic for virtually everyone I know. They've lost close friends and family, jobs, homes, secure futures and their careers. A darkness seems to have descended on many that saps their energy and love of life.

A couple of nights ago, I reconnected with an old friend, someone who came up through the business with me but whom I hadn't seen in almost 20 years. We got talking about the current economic Armageddon and the trials and tribulations it and other issues wracking the film and television industries have forced us all to face.

Both he and I have been through tough times, struggled against apparently insurmountable odds and endured long nights without hope. We didn't always win the battles we fought, but in his opinion we hung on to one thing that got us through those losses, a thing that seems in short supply these days -- Courage.

Courage isn't the gallantry normally depicted in its name. It's both much bigger and much smaller than that. Courage is simply the willingness to confront fear, uncertainty and intimidation. It's not something you're born with. It's a skill you learn -- or maybe -- just begin to apply.

Courage is nothing more than "Doing the Right Thing" whatever that right thing is that needs to be done. It's confronting whatever you are facing and doing what will allow you to look at your face in the mirror when you shave the next morning, or what you want other people to say when they're describing you to your grandchildren.

Shit happens. Most often to people who don't deserve it, didn't go looking for it and had no hand in its creation. And when it happens to you, you need a reminder that life goes on and you weren't put on this planet to be defeated by this moment.

Be Inspired.

Find Courage.

And Enjoy your Sunday.



Il Divo - Amazing Grace / RUS from ILDIVORUS on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

GARTH

Theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky and his partner, Myron Gottlieb, were both found guilty this morning of two counts of fraud and one of forgery for activities which occurred during their ownership of Livent Inc.

According to prosecutors, Drabinsky and Gottlieb had used the theatrical production entity to bilk half a Billion dollars from investors, hiding their illegal actions through a complex series of accounting irregularities. Sentencing will take place next month which could see the men receive ten years or more in prison on each charge.

                                                                                             Garth2

Although this whole sad saga has taken almost a decade to wend its way through the notoriously lax on white collar crime Canadian courts, it’s far from over.

There are still charges pending from the Ontario Securities and Exchange Commission as well as fraud and conspiracy charges in New York. And then there are all the civil suits, investors big and small (“Angels” as they’re known in stage parlance) who believed the Livent financial reports and gave Garth and Myron money to mount more shows.

At a time when public anger at corporate criminals like Bernie Madoff and others who’ve cratered our economy and evaporated the life savings and financial futures of thousands is at an all time high, you’d think the Main Stream Media would be quick to cheer one of these predators finally being put out of business.

But not in Canada.

This morning’s Toronto Star posted a video by its theatre critic Richard Ouzounian asking us not to be so consumed by what verdict Garth was going to ‘get’ but to think about all the wonderful things he ‘gave us’. I was stunned when I saw it. Even more stunned that it’s still up there hours after the verdict.

Ouzounian has always been very upfront in disclosing that he used to work for Garth and Livent during some of the company’s headier days. But in this case he’s wearing blinkers that would give any wild-eyed filly tunnel vision.

In case the link above disappears, in his video Ouzounian asks us to remember that “Garth gave us excitement. He gave us professionalism.  He gave us show business.”

Dude – he also gave a lot of people the shaft!

He caused them to lose their homes (as happened to personal friends of mine). He cost them the enjoyment of the fruits of their labors in their retirement years and he made the almost impossible job of convincing people to invest in Canadian theatre, film and television even harder than it already was.

Garth Drabinsky was an exciting, professional, show business -- crook!

Who cares if he wore better suits than John Gotti, threw better parties than Al Capone or had more starlets on his arm than ‘Legs’ Diamond. He was the same kind of criminal.

But like Canadian white collar criminals who have gone before and only been brought to justice heretofore by American courts (Alan Eagleson, Bernie Ebbers, Conrad Black) these people get a pass because they’ve been accepted in polite society. You need look no further than the shared board members, investment bankers and political connections of all these guys to see the protective web that operates for them here. A web few of our so-called journalists seem willing to pull apart.

Ouzounian goes on -- “We were action central. I miss that period, y’know. I miss all the excitement. I miss the fun. I miss the glamor.”

I’m sure Richard would have enjoyed the Roaring 20’s in Chicago too or New York in the 90’s. Back then, he could have written about what a swell guy Ole Scarface was setting up those soup kitchens for the bums down in The Loop. He could have gotten all dewy eyed at the fireworks the Dapper Don was shooting off the roof of the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club to celebrate Columbus Day, while New York cops were scraping Paul Castellano off the sidewalk in front of Sparks Steakhouse or fishing some other rival mobster’s corpse out of the East River.

A criminal is a criminal is a criminal, Mr. Ouzounian.

A lot of people could have been putting on great shows in Toronto if they’d been willing to commit fraud or steal. I’m sure they could have created stars and attracted busloads of tourists too. Somehow that pesky “Honesty” thing just got in the way.

Mr. Drabinsky and his white collar is no different from the thugs popping caps in kids in Malvern or selling eight balls at Jane & Finch. That’s “Action Central” in Toronto these days. Exciting and glamorous for the gangsters. Not so much fun for their victims or the impoverished community they leave behind.

I’m certain Mr. Ouzounian wouldn’t want to perk up our economy by busing in audiences from Cleveland to see that. But when the victims aren’t visible and the parties are stylish, I guess it’s okay.

I’ve met a lot of theatrical ‘Angels’ during countless backers auditions, workshops and open readings where folks with a love of theatre and some extra cash have been asked to drop by, in the hope they’ll want to bankroll a production. They come from all walks of life but they have one thing in common, a gentleness and gentility, a refinement that comes from spending time in the shadow of the footlights.

They know they’re investing in one of the riskiest enterprises there is and yet they do it gladly. They’re happy to simply share in the excitement of opening night, to get to rub shoulders with ‘stars’ or show good reviews to friends over coffee while pointing out the intellectual failings of the critics who wrote bad ones.

Most of these people don’t make a lot of money from their theatrical flights of fancy. And when they do, they often put it right back into another production. Because they love the theatre and art and culture and understand how important they are to making the world a better place.

These are the kind of people that Garth Drabinsky and Myron Gottlieb mugged so Richard Ouzounian could uncork another magnum of champagne.

At today’s reading of the verdict, Judge Mary Lou Benotto described the two men on trial before her as follows, “They were deceitful, they perpetrated a falsehood and reasonable people would consider them dishonest.”

Now that Richard Ouzounian knows that the money he was paid during his time at Livent was stolen, I wonder if he’s going to give it back.

I wonder if he’s going to use his position at the Star to try and repair the damage done to Toronto’s theatre community so people don’t think we’re all as dishonest or calculating as his former employers.

I wonder if he’s going to cease being an apologist for criminals.

Given the way the Toronto Star manages what it feeds the public these days, I won’t hold my breath until any of those things happens.

Y’see, there’s another story the Toronto Star hasn’t told you – mostly, I assume, because they’re a part of it.

Over the last weeks, all of Canada’s mainstream media outlets have declaimed on the perilous state of Canadian broadcasting. “The business model is broken.”  “The Ad markets have dried up.” “They’re bleeding money.” etc. etc.

But a journalist who’s actually a journalist named Kelly Toughill has turned up evidence that CTVglobemedia, while laying off hundreds and lobbying the CRTC for breaks on their requirements of license and “carriage fees” , actually had an operating profit for 2008 of $214 Million or 9.7%. You can read her report here, which also includes the source of those numbers – figures buried in the financial reports of the parent company of the Toronto Star.

It looks like some things are beginning to get through that protective web. Maybe today’s verdict is a sign that life here might start favoring the honest among us for a change.

UPDATE:

Further proof of how the Canadian system works courtesy of the New York Times --

“A spokesman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said that the conviction would not change its plans to air a second season of “Triple Sensation,” a reality series in which Mr. Drabinsky and four other panelists look for young stars who can sing, act and dance.”

Maybe some of the 800 people the CBC laid off today or those lobbying the government to find more money for the Corp should start asking some hard questions about why honest, hard-working people are on the street while money is still available to pay a convicted criminal.

Monday, March 23, 2009

FOX NEWS - FAIRLY IMBALANCED

There's something in the 24 hour news cycle that breeds a need to fill the dead space with something, maybe anything. And after a while, there just aren't enough videos of puppies on skateboards or starlets going commando to fill up the time. So the next move is to be outrageous in the hope of stirring up controversy.

Anything to attract attention and keep those numbers up.

Even the most partisan viewer, however, has a rage threshold, especially once it gets late and the eyelids droop. So you try outrageous comedy.

I first became aware of Fox News "Red Eye" somewhere over Omaha on a flight with the same moniker and a satellite TV system with most of the channels on the fritz. Maybe it was the altitude or the pre-flight cocktails, but I thought it was a harmless and sometimes humorous way to pass an hour.

I don't think that anymore.

With Canada preparing to repatriate four more fallen soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan, Fox news, in its ongoing quest for ratings, ran this...



Since there's really no place to start in measuring the ignorance, the insensitivity, the tastelessness or the total lack of comedy acumen here, I'm not even going to bother. Let's just say it's clear that a network that has been utterly shameless in banging the war drum has finally managed to cover itself in what it continually flings at others.

Today, while American war casualties are spirited back into the country under the cover of a media blackout that almost denies they ever existed, Canadians by the thousands will line our Highway of Heroes as Tpr. Jack Bouthillier, Cpl. Tyler Crooks, Tpr. Corey Joseph Hayes and Master-Cpl. Scott Vernelli are carried home with all the respect and honor their sacrifice deserves.

Meanwhile, our government asks for an apology for what was said.



Well, I'm sorry. But an apology (which will no doubt have arrived by the time you read this) isn't good enough.

How about we do something that will hit these ratings whores where it hurts, Mr. McKay -- how about we let those private broadcasters asking you for money and breaks know that there will be none as long as they're rebroadcasting Fox programming.

Nobody's being censored here. Nobody's being denied the ability to watch whatever they want. Fox still has access to the Canadian market. But Canadian money isn't going to purchase their shows anymore.

That might hit these fucktards in the only place where they seem capable of feeling pain -- and hopefully cause somebody at Fox to give their heads a shake and maybe get them on straight for a change.

EDIT: Fox News has now issued one of those classic "non-apology" apologies for the comments and one of the "Red Eye" panel, Doug Benson, had his April 2-5 appearance at the Comic Strip in Edmonton canceled after club ownership concluded they couldn't guarantee his safety. Edmonton, as it happens, is the home turf of Afghan vets the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

LAZY SUNDAY # 63: THE BAAA-STUDS

Like most kids, I loved animation. And I was even more fascinated by the process by which it was created, in awe of people who could sit still long enough to generate the thousands of individual drawings necessary for a single seven minute Bugs Bunny cartoon.

I drew pictures and watched cartoons all the time and dreamed of someday making my own comic books and animated movie characters.

Although I didn't have access to art schools or even textbooks on the craft, I had television. And somewhere in almost every episode of "The Woody Woodpecker Show", Woody's creator, Walter Lantz, would appear on screen to explain one step or another of the animation process.

Lantz had begun his Hollywood career writing gags for silent Mac Sennett comedies and won his first animated character, "Oswald the Rabbit", in a poker game. Eventually, he parlayed Oswald, Andy Panda, Woody and other of his creations into what became the animation division of Universal and later his own studio.

Learning from Lantz's humorous, easy to follow lessons, I was soon creating flip books and fannable pages that allowed my sketched dogs and horses to run and jump -- and get me in serious trouble when I inked their images on the corners of thick school textbooks that offered the opportunity for much longer "flip" adventures.

Nine years old and my love of Art already had me in conflict with Authority.

I gave up on my animation career a couple of years later. My spirit had been broken by too many "textbook graffiti" detentions, by Walt Disney returning my portfolio with a letter instructing me to get back to him AFTER I'd graduated from high school and -- this drawing thousands of almost identical pictures thing was hard.

But I never lost my respect for those who work as tirelessly as animators do to enlighten and entertain us. And whenever my own film and television creations start feeling like they're too much trouble; I always remind myself that I could be going through the agony of drawing each and every frame.

And so, at the end of a week where the Media bastards seem to still keep winning, where supremely bad television wins rave reviews and where dedicated TV people lose their jobs while their incompetent superiors are cushioned from the blows, I found a little piece of film that made me feel better.

This is animation taken to a whole new level. The planning had to have been massive and the execution beyond maddening. But the result is sublime.

So. Keep working hard. Stop being one of the Sheep. And Enjoy your Sunday.


Friday, March 20, 2009

OVECHKIN RULES!

As I've mentioned before, Don Cherry and most of hockey's other dinosaurs *disapprove* of Alex Ovechkin. He's European, worse one of the Godless Commie Europeans. He wears a "sissy" visor. He seldom fights. And perhaps worst of all -- he celebrates a victory.

In the world of the Dinosaurs, hockey is not a sport. It's a gauntlet of honor and pain. There is no room for fun. Although I don't watch Cherry anymore, I'm told that last week he played a clip of Ovechkin NOT celebrating a goal, using it as proof that the kid was finally coming to heel.

Not so fast, Grapes. Last night in Tampa...




On one of last night's sportscasts, I watched one of Cherry's fellow dinosaurs white-knuckle his sportscaster pen and almost foam at the mouth, demanding to know why none of the Tampa players had dished out retribution for such behavior during the remaining 52 minutes of the game.

I sent him an email suggesting they were probably searching the ice for the jockstraps from which they had just been so completely deked.

Like the Poor, the arrogantly self-important will always be with us.

When I was a kid, Bob Dylan was idolized and acknowledged as "The Voice" of my generation. And then he appeared on stage with a bunch of musicians who played (horror of horrors) -- electric guitars. And the deepest thinkers of my generation booed him off the stage.

What a buncha Maroons!

Dylan's response was simple and eloquent, "I'm an entertainer!"

Alex Ovechkin is an entertainer too and unlike some of the tow-the-line, always say the right thing and 'be the face of the game' players I could name, he's breaking records, attracting new fans and has a decidedly non-hockey town already lining up for playoff tickets.

When was the last time any of the dinosaurs did anything worth noting?

And have you noticed how much hockey resembles some other industries in this country?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

FINDING NEW MONKEYS TO WORK FOR MONKEY POINTS

                                                                    monkey type

"Canadians -- they are a docile, Zamboni-driving people who subsist on seal casserole and Molson. Their hobbies include wearing flannel, obsessing over American hegemony, exporting deadly Mad Cow disease and even deadlier Nickelback albums. You can tell a lot about a nation's mediocrity index by learning that they invented synchronized swimming. Even more, by the fact that they're proud of it." -- Matt Labash

Far more intelligent people than me have attempted to discover the reason why Canadians are so damn accommodating. We’re world champions at avoiding confrontation and trying to find compromise. The legendary “Peacekeepers” who’ll say “Sorry” when you step on our toes and even provide indexed government pensions and free financing to political parties who want to destroy our country.

I’ve always believed that like our national symbol, the Beaver, who’ll chew off his own testicles in the hope of appeasing a predator, we simply believe that by giving somebody else what they want, we get to keep living in relative peace.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Canadian Publishers trying to screw Canadian Authors out of their eBook rights. Apparently, a lot of them didn’t listen. Because this week, the Writers’ Union of Canada sent out the following to their members…

WARNING!!!

It has come to the attention of the Contracts Committee that a number of publishers have been launching electronic book and print-on-demand initiatives. These publishers are encouraging writers to participate in their projects and are offering royalties for e-book sales at rates as low as 10% of net sale price.
The Contracts Committee thinks that 15% or 25% of net or even of retail is unacceptable. The Committee’s additional concern is that these initiatives may lock up both your electronic and print rights for your book with the publisher more or less forever. We strongly recommend that, right now, you do not sign new agreements, letter agreements or addenda to current publishing agreements that authorize e-books and print-on-demand without first consulting the TWUC office.

Meanwhile, Writers’ unions around the world have begun warning their members about the potential dangers of signing over their eBook rights.

It seems this warning was required because publishers, who normally pay their writers an average of 10% of the sticker price of a book, had been successful in getting their Authors to sign over eBook rights for 10% of net profits from the sale of these electronic texts.

A percentage of Net. Monkey Points.

Look, I know people who write books in this country are the SMART writers, the REAL writers when compared to those of us who toss off the transitory, mostly junk TV and Movie stuff. But you Author types should listen to us, because we know all about “Monkey Points”, not to mention the whole argument you’re being sold that nobody really knows if there’s any money to be made from ePublishing.

You see, that’s what they told us last year when we went on strike for our New Media rights.

                                                                             

In the film industry, “Monkey Points” refers to production companies offering talent a percentage of net profits as opposed to a percentage of a film's gross. It was coined by Eddie Murphy during the “Coming to America” lawsuit launched by Art Buchwald and detailed in “Fatal Subtraction” a book every writer who wants to make a living from writing should read. They’re called “Monkey Points” because you sit there like a Monkey while the production company does its creative accounting, soon discovering that your $400 Million at the Box office feature that was produced for less than $1 Million still hasn’t made a dime.

If you’re lucky, they’ll toss you a banana to keep you quiet. Or Telefilm will tell you Privacy Laws prevent them from sharing the earning statements of your own screenplay.

Now, it seems, Canadian publishers want to use this system with their Authors. And while I understand that Authors have a certain loyalty to their publishers,(The flashy parties, the non-cash bars, the promise of free tickets to the Giller Awards) you SMART writers need to start thinking about what those publishers are doing for you these days and whether that’s worth -- well, basically working for nothing in the years to come.

A couple of Canadian Authors told me some things that really surprised me this week. Did you know that the celebrated “Book Tour” is virtually a thing of the past? Unless you’re in Oprah’s Club, Canadian publishers can barely get their Authors a CBC radio interview, let alone a cross-Canada tour of Public Libraries to help sell the latest opus.

Luckily, they don’t pay the CBC for those interviews, or somebody might think CBC Radio is already running commercials.

However, apparently, some DO have to shell out some cash for bookstore shelf space.

I’m told that Chapters charges Canadian publishers up to $4 for every book that is stacked and featured on one of those little tables at the front door of the store. In radio, this kind of thing used to be called “Payola” and got DJ’s put in jail. But apparently it’s all business-as-usual when it comes to books.

And admit it, some part of you already suspected that Heather didn’t really read all those “Picks”.

Maybe that shelf space rental fee is what’s driving Canadian publishers to get their Authors off the “Sticker Price” gravy train and into the brown banana net points pay schedule. How else are they going to be able to afford future book “promotion”?

And all you book types need to understand that fairly soon eBook revenue will be the only revenue you’ve got.

In the same way that Canadian TV networks are struggling, today’s main stream media conglomerates, the owners of most of those publishing houses, facing a difficult economy and motivated by profit rather than the intrinsic value of the work Authors create -- will begin to de-construct, leaving the people who own your copyright to fend for themselves.

Authors, like screenwriters, need to become their own publishers or producers, foregoing today’s fees and advances for the Lion’s share of the Gross proceeds of their work.

We’ve all got to stop giving away what we create to support the people who can’t really help us anymore, and who are now facing extinction unless they can get their hands on a little more of the cash that has previously gone to the actual Creatives.

In my business, it’s becoming more common for producers, agents and deal-makers to insist they deserve “Created By” credits for merely setting up the meetings that lead to a network sale. These people used to be content with the fees they’d earn simply by being attached to a “Go” project. But now, those fees aren’t as large as they used to be -- but their sense of entitlement has not diminished.

As I’ve said many times, we’re moving toward a time when Content really is King and the Content creators will be the ones holding all the cards. The people who used to eat at your table while making you believe you were sitting at theirs soon won’t have a reason to be in the business -- unless they still control your work.

There will soon only be ONE revenue stream. A digital one.

The music industry is rapidly converting from a CD based model to one where all music is downloaded or burned for customers on demand. The same will be true of film and television. And it’s coming faster than most believe in publishing.

How long before Kids stop lugging massive back-packs of textbooks to school in favor of an iTouch that can hold their entire high school curriculum, along with all the reference texts, weblinks, audio and video their education requires?

That little electronic code Publishers are claiming might not earn any money will soon be the only version of your book or collection of short stories there is. Even if people never lose that tactile desire to curl up with a good book, they’ll get that book from a digital code.

If you haven’t heard of an “Espresso” printer yet, you soon will. I first ran across one a couple of months ago in Las Vegas. Total time from selecting a title to holding a book literally “hot” off the press – about 15 minutes. They’re currently widely used in Australia and soon, they will be in every airport concourse, shopping mall and probably Starbucks here. They work like this…

                                                                        

So don’t sell your eBook rights for even the standard 10% of sticker price – and for God sake, don’t sell them for Monkey Points.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MY FAVORITE IRISH JOKE


It's a Saturday afternoon and an older Irish fella walks into a pub and takes a long look around. The bartender asks if he can be of assistance.

"Oh, yes you can," The man says, "Pull me three pints of Guinness, please. And I'll have them at the big table by the window."

The bartender brings over three pints and the man sets them in a row in front of him, alternately sipping one, then the other, then the third. The bartender watches this strange ritual as he serves his other customers. Then the man waves him over and orders three more.

The bartender smiles, "You know, you don't have to order three at a time. I can keep an eye on you and when you get low I can bring you a fresh one."

The man smiles and shakes his head, "You don't understand. I have two great friends. When we were younger, this is where we used to come to wile away a lovely Saturday afternoon. We'd sit at this table and share a laugh and drink our pints of Guinness. But now my friends have moved away. One's gone to Canada and the other's in Australia. So this is my way of being with them again."

The bartender is quite taken with the man's story and brings him his pints in threes for the rest of the afternoon.

The man comes back the next week and the week after that and the week after that, always ordering three pints of Guinness at a time and slowly sipping first one and then the next and then the next.

But one afternoon he arrives and orders only two pints before moving to take his regular spot at the table by the window. The bartender is troubled by this as he pulls the two pints, delivers them and then watches as the man slowly sips from one glass and then the other. Finally, he can control his concern no longer.

"I'm sorry for your loss," says the bartender "Is it your friend in Australia, or your friend in Canada who's no longer with us?".

"No, they're both fit as fiddles," says the man.

The bartender is confused. "But you've only got two pints!"

"I know," the man says, "I've quit drinking."

Be ye Irish by birth or just for the day, have a Happy St. Patrick's!

Monday, March 16, 2009

MOVIESET.COM


As if there weren't enough distractions.

Cell phones and land lines ringing. Email arriving. Instant messages. Facebook notifications. Twitter alerts. It's almost impossible to sit at your computer writing or budgeting or doing virtually anything productive without this swarm of other things demanding a moment or two of your attention.

Oh, you can ignore them all for an hour or two at a stretch, but in the film business (as in most trades, I would imagine) there is a pressing need to remain current and up to speed on everything going on around you.

Add the instant access to the trades, to Skype, to online video conferences, CRTC hearings and scheduling what you do so you can keep earning a living from it rapidly begins eating into what used to be your personal time.

And now there's Movieset.

In many ways, this just might be the most brilliant concept for building awareness of your movie project that's ever come along.

Based out of Vancouver and created by Canadian producer Colleen Nystedt, MovieSet brings the experience of working on a film set online. Fans (and fellow filmmakers) can follow the creation of movies from development, through production, to release.

This access includes uninterrupted live feeds from set as the films are shot, call sheets, photos, videos, blogs and other information designed to keep fans fully abreast of everything happening from development to distribution. The current site even offers a couple of invitations to debut screenings and their after-parties.

Needing that big and often expensive PR push to let people know about your movie might just have become a thing of the past.

Today, tomorrow and Friday, Movieset is streaming continuous coverage from the set of "Death Warrior", a martial arts pic produced by champion fighter Hector Echavarria, Barry Brooker and Stan Wertlieb. The film is directed by Bill Corcoran, written and starring Echavarria. Also in the cast are Canadian actors Tanya Clark ("Tenderness", "Year Zero") and Nick Mancuso ("Ticket to Heaven", "Stingray").

I watched a few minutes from the set this afternoon as two fighters, one brandishing a bullwhip, went through a well choreographed fight scene. And as I watched, I realized just how confident and frankly "brave" everybody involved in this new enterprise has to be.

Film sets can be incredibly stressful places, as Christian Bale's recent rant and any number of Youtube clips perfectly exemplify. Knowing that there are thousands of potential ticket buyers watching what you do cannot be easy; not to mention the thought that future employers who might be secretly evaluating your work ethic.

I sent Corcoran (who I've had the pleasure of working with several times) a note asking him to speed the work along. Luckily, the crew broke for lunch before he could respond to my "input".

Although still in beta, I have a feeling Movieset will soon become as much a part of your average set as bad coffee and purse-lipped writers.

Check it out for yourself. I gotta get back to what I'm doing.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

LAZY SUNDAY # 62: SLOWING DOWN

Two things a screenwriter needs to learn, two skills that separate and define what we do from what other writers do, are telling a story visually and leaving enough white space for the other crafts involved to do their work.

Studies show that 90% of what an audience takes on board from a film or TV show comes through the eyes. Only 10% of what they retain or remember is as a result of what they hear.

Try this yourself.

Quote your ten favorite movie lines in two minutes. Too hard? Okay. Try to do it in five minutes. Hell, give yourself ten. Only the rarest of Cinephiles can accomplish the task -- and most of them still get the lines wrong.

Bogart never said, "Play it again, Sam!" No Mexican bandit ever taunted, "Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!"

"May the Force be with you." Nope.

"Luke, I am your father." Uh-uh.

"Beam me up, Scotty." Never happened.

"Do you feel lucky, Punk?" Not even close.

"If you build it, they will come." I'm afraid not.

"Life is like a box of chocolates." No.

"Greed is good." Close but no cigar.

Sorry to say, most of those tasty bon mots you're crafting are going to be half heard at best and mangled by even your most ardent fans.

So, I'm saying you should spend your time detailing the wallpaper, emphasizing the parentheticals and indicating what's a wide shot and when we're in close-up?

Not if you want any self-respecting and therefore probably talented production designer, actor or director to help bring your script to life. The first thing each of them is going to do is take a thick Sharpie to those passages.

So what's left...?

What's left is what needs to be in each scene to tell your story.

When an audience first encounters a movie or TV show, they're mostly a blank slate. Of course, the marketing has given them an idea of what's going to be offered -- horror, a mystery, some laughs -- that's why they're there.

Where they go next and how your director, crew and cast get them there is what's in the map we call a screenplay. Everything that comes into their field of vision must be there for a reason. An emotional reason. An intellectual reason. A calculated reason. Every moment you spend with a particular character or in a particular place or looking at a particular object has to be important to the story.

Joseph Conrad got it right long before he ever saw a movie, "My job is to make you see."

I'm a firm believer that a lot of what's wrong with movies -- the sameness and the sequels and the predictability, comes from the people who make them trying too hard to make sure the audience DOESN'T see.

I like "Crank" and "Wanted" as much as the next guy, but they're not art or even good stories and I'd bet their makers would be the first to admit that. They're just the newest thrill rides and examples of all the shock and awe that advances in movie tech can deliver.

And somewhere in the process of developing and using those techniques, a lot of filmmakers realized that you could hide what was less good, less than figured out and less than finished simply by not showing it.

Smash cutting and wavy cam can pump the adrenaline and keep the audience guessing, but you only need to do stuff like that if what you're making has no other way of engaging them.

False impressions and false emotions still feel real in the moment. It's only later that you begin to feel you were cheated.

Whether the camera is careening around the "Flashpoint" squad room or flash frame images are all that's visible in the "CSI" lab, what's really happening is that I'm being fed style over substance. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Same as there's nothing wrong with a Big Mac or Chrysler Minivan.

But it all just makes me wonder if the artists working on those shows are really as good as their network publicists say. And if they are, why does nobody want me to see what they can really do?

How come so much that's out there right now is so obviously made in the cutting room? Does it mean the scripts weren't all that special to begin with, or the people executing them weren't very good -- or both?

Maybe I'm really old fashioned, but when I see a moving master, a seamless tracking shot or a locked off monologue, I know I'm in the hands of people who want me inside the frame with their story, not pushed far enough away that I can't see how the magic's done.

They want me to see the truths they're offering. They're confident that the story works and the characters are believable. They trust that they can hold my attention to the next commercial -- and maybe even beyond it.

Only a true story teller can fill completely viewable frames with meaning. And only when an audience can depart from the experience with some meaning of their own, whatever that may be for them -- only then has the screenwriter done his job.

Here's something slow. Take whatever meaning from these images that you will. Just be aware of how much you're being asked and allowed to see. And enjoy your Sunday.



New York 2008 from Vicente Sahuc on Vimeo.

Friday, March 13, 2009

“SHAMELESSLY ENTERTAINING”

In order to recommend a film I'm sure most of you probably haven't seen, I need to tell you about a film I'm certain you've never seen.

                                                       00canadians2os

The first time I ever visited a movie set was during the making of “The Canadians”. I was around ten at the time and one night my dad brought home an old friend for dinner. His name was Scott Peters, a Regina radio personality who’d gone to Hollywood years earlier to make his fortune as an actor. Scott hadn’t become famous, but he’d worked steadily. His credits included bit parts on “Invasion of the Saucer Men”, “Suicide Battalion” and “Hot Rod Gang”. But he’d also guested on “Gunsmoke” and “Wyatt Earp” which made him a huge star to my Western obsessed brother and I.

Scott was on location in Southern Saskatchewan shooting a feature entitled “The Canadians”, a Western starring Robert Ryan, John Dehner and Opera diva Teresa Stratas. It told the story of a brave Canadian Mountie (Ryan) who has to keep peace with the Sioux Nation who have crossed into Canada to escape the American army after massacring General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. He promises Chief Sitting Bull that his people are welcome to stay in Canada as long as they don’t cause any trouble.

And you thought the Americans disliking our Border and Immigration policies was a recent thing…

Anyway, Sitting Bull agrees until an evil American Rancher (Dehner) crosses the border with some of his henchmen (Peters, Jack Creeley, etc) to retrieve horses he claims the Indians have stolen from him, killing several in a raid and also “rescuing” a white woman (Stratas) who has been living with the Sioux. Dehner and his crew make a run for the border with their stolen horses and Opera star, with a Sioux War Party in hot pursuit. Ryan, backed by only a small handful of Mounties must somehow capture the baddies to prevent a Sioux uprising.

If there’s a 1950’s Western movie cliché the film’s writer/director, Burt Kennedy, left out of his script, let me know.

After dinner, Scott invited us to visit the set the following Saturday and we drove deep into the Cyprus Hills to the remote prairie location. My brother and I brought along our six-shooters just in case.

On the day we attended, the company was shooting a number of riding sequences and “walk-and-talks” on horseback filmed from the back of a pick-up truck driving alongside the actors. Robert Ryan and British Character actor Torin Thatcher (“Great Expectations”) were decked out in NWMP scarlet and fur caps along with ingenue Burt Metcalf. Metcalf, one of the leads in the recently released “Gidget”, had a nearby gaggle of admiring farm kids who’d borrowed their parents’ big-finned Chrysler convertible to visit and look all-Hollywood at the same time.

Scott introduced us to everybody and found us places near the cameras to watch as Kennedy burned through half a dozen pages of script during the sunny cloudless afternoon. I had no idea how a film set worked, but was acutely aware of how all these people seemed to know what they were doing and got along without a lot of yelling for “Quiet”, keeping people out of other people’s eye-lines, or breaking to discuss visual styles and motivation.

I remember my mom and dad sitting on the hood of our car having coffee from a Thermos with Ryan and my mother helping the make-up lady remove something that had blown in Teresa Stratas’ eye. John Dehner took my brother and I aside with his own six-shooter to teach us a funny quick draw routine I can still do to this day. Meanwhile, Metcalf and Thatcher graciously signed 8x10 glossies for the teens in the Chrysler.

We stayed until nightfall to watch a campfire scene and then my brother and I were trooped around to shake hands and thank everybody before we left. I watched the crew wrapping cable under a single work light burning in the prairie night as we drove away, not imagining for a moment that I would spend much of my future life on film sets, nor even wanting to. It had been a fun day with some really nice people and that was that.

The movie came out a year or so later and wasn’t a hit but turned up at drive-ins and on TV with some regularity. I couple of years ago, I found a copy on eBay, stunned at how forgettable it was, but still enjoying its simple “not trying to be anything more than entertaining” approach.

Everybody involved went on to better things. Kennedy wrote and directed some fine Westerns like “Support Your Local Sheriff!”, “Dirty Dingus Magee”, John Wayne’s “The Train Robbers” and Clint Eastwood’s epic “White Hunter, Black Heart”. Robert Ryan made an even greater name for himself in “The Professionals”, “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Wild Bunch”, dying in 1973 just prior to the release of his stunning, award winning performance in “The Iceman Cometh”.

For trivia buffs, after his death, his apartment in New York’s The Dakota was sold to John Lennon.

Dehner and Thatcher never stopped working, their talents as actors and familiar faces keeping them continually in demand. Teresa Stratas went on to sing at the Met, La Scala and opera houses around the world. Most of her movie work was in filmed operas, although she returned to Canada for one final film role in Stefan Scaini’s beautiful “Under the Piano” before retiring.

Scott Peters? Well, he went back to Hollywood to find work in “Panic in Year Zero”, “The Girl Hunters” and “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”.

Okay, so I told you that story so I could tell you this one…

                                                                    australia still3

Last week I picked up a DVD copy of Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia”. Meant to catch it in a theatre but didn’t get the chance. Most of the local reviews were middlin’ although it’s been a huge hit Down Under, pulling more than $44 Million at the local Box office, putting it just ahead of “Babe” and Just behind “Crocodile Dundee” as the country’s All-time Box Office Champion.

Like “The Canadians”, “Australia” isn’t a great movie. But, my God, is it ever fun to watch! I had been intrigued by a print ad I’d seen on its release, wherein the critic for TIME Magazine was quoted as finding it “Shamelessly Entertaining” or “Damnably Entertaining” as the review reads online. And I remember thinking, ‘When did entertaining someone become shameful?’.

Still the moniker is aptly earned. “Australia” stars two home-grown and internationally certifiable movie stars in Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. The story, a Harlequin Romance novel of a plot, is an Australian Western that also includes Aboriginal Magic realism and World War II. Everything in it is larger than life, from the characters and sets and epic sequences to almost every line of dialogue. And it’s shot in that incredibly enthusiastic and inimitably sprawling, Baz Luhrmann, “No, he’s not really trying to get away with this” style.

What’s most visible on the screen in “Australia” is a sheer love of what’s transpiring at any given moment. I don’t know if that’s love of country or love of movie-making or the simple joy of being alive in a certain place and time. But it is an infectious, thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours.

Please, please, please go and rent or buy “Australia” at your earliest opportunity. It will restore your faith in Mankind, film-making and just how much fun you can have watching flickering lights on a screen. If “Australia” ever turns up in an Imax theatre, I’ll be the guy who has taken up permanent residence in the front row.

It’s shamelessly entertaining on every imaginable level and I’m fairly confident you will never see another film like it.

                                                             australia still4

And I told you both those stories to ask you this – can you conceive of anyone making a film called “Canada” that told our country’s story with the same love and epic sweep?

Unfortunately, I don’t. And it’s not just the financing and political complications. Do you leave out the Battle of the Plains of Abraham because it might be too dangerous to restage? Do you not bring in our own Aboriginal peoples because somebody needs you to remind the audience of their overdue redresses? Can you even shoot it in one part of the country without putting some other province’s nose out of joint?

I was talking about this and the general state of the Canadian film and television business over dinner with a writer friend last night. She agreed that a film called “Canada” was a remote possibility at best and had a fairly acute explanation for most of our current film and TV ills and even why we don’t make much that people find remotely entertaining.

“The people in our business are snobs.”

I think she’s right.

Can you imagine a Canadian film earning $44 Million in its own country, even though our population is about double that of Australia? How many films do we make that don’t feel “required” on some level to be dour, address social issues or otherwise be “important”? How much of what we do is made by people whose work is on a level that will never see it get much wider release than film festivals? How many of our artists are “pre-vetted” as another writer friend puts it, and therefore “pre-approved" merely by the film school they went to?

And how come entertainments we do realize like “Pontypool” can only find a limited release on just about the worst weekend to release a sci-fi film so it has to compete with the most anticipated sci-fi film in memory?

About 20 years after I visited the set of “The Canadians”, I wrote a film about the NWMP that was more or less a shoot ‘em up. I’d just done my first feature, which had been partly financed by the then fledgling CRTC, who seemed to like me,  and had starred in a couple of other films they’d supported so I took it over there first. The guy in charge read it and liked it a lot.

But there was a problem.

“It’s a Western,” he said, “Americans make Westerns”.

I pointed out that everybody in it was a Mountie or a member of an Indian tribe. He was adamant.

“We can’t make the same kind of films the Americans do.”

I pointed out that the Italians had just made some of the most profitable Westerns of all time. Mexico and Spain made hundreds of them. Even South Africa had found international success with “The Hellions”, another Western.

Didn’t matter. It wasn’t what we did. Anymore. I guess.

What I didn’t have the brains to realize was what we weren’t making were films that (like most American films) actually entertained people; or that the long Canadian slide away from filming anything that might be even remotely entertaining had begun. It wouldn’t matter that making a film like “The Canadians” would keep Robert Ryan and Burt Kennedy working in the business until their talents could be better realized in “The Professionals” or “Dirty Dingus Magee”. It wouldn’t matter that audiences in Red Deer, Sherbrooke or St. John’s might go see a Western before spending a couple of hours enduring the Armenian genocide or raising their consciousness about homeless refugee Lesbians.

Nope. Our films had to be about something “important” and made by people who were either “reliably serious” or academically “pre-vetted”.

And I told you all of those stories to tell you this one, which I’m certain I’ve told you before.

I once had a conversation with Australian director Fred Schepisi ("The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith", "Roxanne", "The Russia House") and asked how he thought we could build an industry like Australia had. He looked at me dumbfounded and said, "Mate, we used you for the model" and then added, "What happened to you guys?"

I finally figured it out, Fred. We started to think we were important. We became snobs.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

AND YOU THOUGHT "TWITTER" HAD POSSIBILITIES

Over the last couple of days, I've been bouncing between what I'm supposed to be doing and catching the ISP presentations on New Media to the CRTC unfold over at CPAC. Their goals and arguments are diametrically opposed to most of the Arts groups who had their turn before the Commission a couple of weeks ago. And you start wondering if what we've really got here is some kind of Artist Left Brain / Commerce Right Brain disconnect that even the most brilliant neurosurgeon in the world wouldn't be able to re-circuit.

Meanwhile, I get emails from tech sites detailing the wonders of Apple TV, Roku, Vudu, Hulu and Clearleap -- all of which tell me that none of those people making presentations in Gatineau has even the slightest clue at how quickly this Tsunami of digital change is about to swamp us.

If the ISPs make good on their threat to take any Commission decision to regulate them to court, the world of television we now know will seem as arcane as a B&W kinescope of "The Howdy Doody Show" by the time a verdict is rendered.

And being able to watch movies and broadcast TV via the Internet (and in better quality than either CTV or Global seem capable of delivering it) is just the start.

Today, the two guys next to me at lunch were complaining about missing last night's Raptors Game on the tube. Seems it was only available on TSN-2 which isn't carried by Rogers Cable, because Rogers is still "negotiating" its carriage -- which translates as "doing all they can to protect their own sports channel: Sportsnet from the competition".

One of these guys was really upset. He owned the full sports package Rogers offered him, including Raptors TV. "How many channels do I have to buy to follow ONE team, for Fuck sake!" I leaned over and gave him his answer, "None".


Remember how I said I was through watching "Hockey Night in Canada" a while back and had this HDMI link to my HD TV? Look on the back of yours, they've all got one or two. I haven't had the chance to try out a hockey game yet. But the other night, I linked to perhaps the most elaborately formated sports portal on the web www.mlb.com and sampled a baseball game, linking my laptop via an HDMI cable to the TV.

It all worked beautifully. And in addition to a crisp picture and great sound, I could access all kinds of things I can't get from a TV broadcast. Stats when I want to look at them, player profiles of somebody I was noticing versus what some TV talking head had previously prepared. I could even zap to multiple screens to catch other spring training action.

I could also send email between innings or scan my Twitter updates without getting off the couch.

If I subscribe for the coming season, the cost is on a par with my sports options on cable, while giving me the opportunity to see every single game played during the season and not one moment of having to put up with pseudo sports like Monster truck rallies and Poker or the endless panels of babbling ex-jocks that seem to be what passes as Sports programming these days.

Imagine what this means for the Sports cash cow that has been so endlessly milked by our broadcasters. The basketball fan I met today doesn't have to buy several channels to watch his favorite team. He can get everything he wants from the net.

Given that I can't see the CRTC being able to mandate that he can't access the games of the League of his choice unless a Canadian team or a set percentage of Canadian players are involved, suddenly one of the profitable Specialty genres begins to look as financially precarious as our current Free to Air networks.

Somebody should let the CRTC know that their time is over and all those years and reams of regulation designed to protect and defend our "culture" were absolutely the wrong strategy. We should have been funding an aggressive policy of getting ourselves and our culture out into the world, creating content instead of shoring up outmoded infrastructure and making sure that those who served the agendas of their political masters received favor.

And if the thought of not needing either TSN or Sportsnet to watch a game on TV, not needing History of Showcase to see a re-run of "CSI" or the scheduled fare of ANY Movie network, when tens of thousands of titles are waiting to stream directly to you at the exact instant the popcorn's ready and you're tucked in your Snuggie -- if none of that tells you we're stepping into a world with unimaginable options -- then take a look at this...

$350 worth of store bought hardware and three months of research. Imagine where these guys will be in a year...



Gawd, and I'm still trying to figure out Facebook.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

LAZY SUNDAY # 61: WORLD BUILDER

It's been a week of showbiz doom and gloom in Canada. Media job losses. TV stations closing. Development slates have been frozen, downsized or outright canceled. To make matters worse, the only Canadian film being released this week has to fly right into the mass-marketing sharpened teeth of "The Watchmen".

Good luck "Pontypool" and hang onto the address of that church basement you shot in. Pretty soon we might all need a warm place to sleep.

Please understand, given what's happening to other parts of the economy, I'm not looking for any sympathy here. I just want all you folks who used to have steady jobs or predictable incomes and are finding the current situation a little precarious to know this is kinda how we movie and TV folk live all the time.

That makes some of us feel scared and lost and share all the misgivings you're feeling right now. But we mostly shrug off as much as we can and sit back down at our sketch pads, work benches and keyboards in the hope of finding a way to make things right again.

You see, we're used to the media telling us we're powerless and helpless. And we also know that if we keep breathing on that creative spark and maintain the flame, we'll find our way through the darkness.

Nobody listened when we railed against the corporate convergence that has mediocritized most film and television and turned journalists from being our social, moral and cultural consciences into shills for whatever might shore up the newsroom bottom line.

That rigid corporate-think is the real reason nobody's buying newspapers or watching the noon news anymore. We all know the stories are being spun to sell us something, be it a new car, a different lifestyle or how to vote.

Likewise, "More of the Same" has never been a slogan that had people lining up to buy tickets -- or cable subscriptions.

Nobody paid any attention when we insisted Canadian TV networks weren't giving people what they wanted, what was best for the country or what might finally break the endless chain of dependence on public handouts.

That kind of intransigence sent people even further afield to find something that would entertain them. And putting the same tired shows on multiple channels and a myriad of platforms will not bring them back any more than helping GM churn out more cars will make people want to buy them.

The world needs to come up with something new.

And that's what fanning that creative flame is all about.


10 years ago, a little 3 minute film called "405" hit the Internet. It was probably the first video to ever go "viral" and its makers, Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt, a couple of FX guys working on "Star Trek: Voyager" and "The 'X' Files", ignited a revolution in Internet video and made graphic novels such as "The Watchmen" suddenly viable as filmed entertainment.

At the time, Branit said, "What 405 means to me, is that it is now possible to create almost anything you can imagine. It's no longer just big studio films that can create blockbuster images. Today anyone can."

And there's your answer to our immediate dilemma. Stop hoping the big guys will stabilize and have a job for you. Make one for yourself. Don't hope the world you want to live in might eventually come around -- start building it now.

Bruce Branit just had another video go viral and it might give you some ideas.

The future is in your own hands. Enjoy your Sunday.


Friday, March 06, 2009

SCORCHED EARTH


On January 18, 2002, a Canadian Pacific freight train loaded with toxic chemicals derailed near Minot, North Dakota, releasing 835,000 litres of ammonia. One man was killed and hundreds were injured by exposure to the spill.

The impact of the accident would have been much less severe, but police were unable to reach anyone at the designated emergency broadcaster, local radio station KCJB because the station had been swallowed up by American mega-broadcaster Clear Channel and was staffed only by "cyberjocks".

A cyberjock is one of the ways big broadcasters save money, eliminating hundreds of local jobs by having one DJ or newscaster serve dozens of affiliated stations across the country while sounding like he's just down the block.

CTV and CanWest Global want to bring this kind of broadcasting to Canada.

On April 29, 2007, a tornado struck the Texas border town of Eagle Pass, killing seven, injuring 80 and leaving hundreds homeless. A National Weather Service warning of the approaching danger had not been broadcast to the people of Eagle Pass.

Eagle Pass residents get their TV news from San Antonio, 142 miles away, where the forecast was for extreme weather but detected no tornadoes in the immediate vicinity.

CTV and CanWest Global want to bring this kind of broadcasting to Canada.

This week, our financially troubled broadcasters, CTV and CanWest Global, filed license renewal applications with the CRTC. Both requested "relief" from their obligations, seeking to eliminate local news, reduce Canadian content in Prime Time and pretty much everything else we've come to expect from their current slate of channels.

Except the imported American series.

They're safe because they're locked into iron-clad distribution contracts which run through 2012.

Oh, and they'd really like the CRTC to take another look at those "carriage fees".

For, contrary to what they told the Commission six months ago -- that such fees would allow them to vastly expand and enhance their Canadian programming, it now appears that without a buck a month from each and every TV viewer in the country, they can't even stay on the air.

As I've posted so many times I'm becoming bored by my own writing, and most recently here and here, the problems of the Canadian networks are the result of myopic mis-management. And with these new applications, both CTV's Ivan Fecan and CanWest Global's Lenny Asper are making it crystal clear that they and their enablers mistook a Bull market for brains.

Still, CTV backed up its case by firing 108 more people and dialing down local news on their "A" Channel circuit. This included a brush back pitch aimed right at the Commission's chin by reducing newscasts in the heart of the Nation's Capitol.

I'm sure this would have had more impact if members of the Commission actually watched television. But, during last week's hearings on New Media, already aware that Commissioner Michel Arpin prefers curling up with a good book to Cancon, we were treated to Chair Konrad von Finckenstein asking a Writers Guild of Canada panel "This "ZOS", that's a Canadian production?" revealing he's never heard of The Movie Network's most heavily promoted recent mini-series.

The next day the Commissioners fell all over themselves telling an attractive intervenor from Sirius Radio that they were big fans of what she was offering. Howard Stern must have been laughing his smut lacquered ass off.

These are the people who run our lives, folks. The blind leading the blind.

A writer friend looked at their prediction for the future landscape of the industry and muttered, "It's a scorched earth policy. I want no part of it". And I agree with him on both counts.

The recent moves of both CanWest and CTV are a desperate, panic-inducing strategy designed to convince everybody that the broadcast television model is broken and only by throwing more money at their particular coterie of failed executives can things be returned to normal. It's a card often played by an entitled few willing to destroy thousands of lives and careers in order to keep their own cold, dead fingers wrapped around the levers of media power.

Let's just think about this reduction of local news for a second.

In the places they aren't outright closing the stations, the broadcasters intend to replace local newscasts with "regional" ones or just reduce the number of broadcasts. The 6:00 p.m. newscast thus repeats at 11:00 p.m. or the 11:00 p.m. repeats at 8:00 a.m. the next morning.

I realize that to a lot of the Toronto network executives making these decisions, cities like Barrie, Red Deer, Victoria or Ottawa seem like bucolic backwaters where nothing much happens anyway.

But they're not.

I get most of my news coverage from one of those expendable stations and can give you a ton of examples of those local newscasts coming in handy.

For starters -- how many "Snow days" have you had in your part of the country this winter?

We had 3 or 4 pretty big storms blow through in the middle of the night. Most of the kids around here walk to the nearest rural road where a school bus picks them up for school. Is that pre-storm 11:00 p.m. news repeat gonna tell their parents if that bus is even coming this morning?

What's the traffic like? Are any roads blocked? Is there more snow on the way?

I can find any number of Toronto stations (less than 40 clicks away) with live newscasts, but you know what -- sometimes we get a whole lot more snow than they do and sometimes the streets are buried there while we have sunny skies and Hummingbirds on the balcony.

So, if their news isn't relevant and my local "A" Channel is only serving yesterday's leftovers, where do I turn?

Wherever it is, you know it won't involve a television.

As some wag commented the last time this version of cyberjocking was floated, "Gee, the next time there's a flood in Winnipeg, I can turn on my TV and find out how much fun people are having at the street festival in Toronto".

Or how they're dying because they didn't know a tornado was coming or a train load of toxic chemicals had derailed.

What neither our broadcasters nor the Commissioners willing to give them relief seem to accept is that local broadcasting is the heart of the system and culling it will put even more of their assets on life support.

If I want to watch a major sporting event, a nearly new movie or a documentary on Antarctic seabirds, chances are I'm not watching it on CTV or Global. I'm getting that from a specialty channel or niche operation much further up the dial. Maybe I'm watching their simulcast of "House" or "CSI: Miami" but more likely I'm DVRing those to access the American broadcaster's better quality HD version.

What pulls me to my local Global or CTV outlet is either a local newscast which is informative and engaging enough to get me to linger on that channel, or Canadian programming I can't see anywhere else. Unfortunately, the CRTC has allowed both networks to wangle their way out of doing that sort of stuff.

So I found it somewhere else. And they have lower numbers that begin attracting fewer ad dollars.

No local news equals not only less local ad revenue but also less reason for people to watch. It's a self fulfilling suicide mission.

And providing CTV and Global with "Relief" only prolongs their inevitable demise. It also ill serves the public the Commission is mandated to serve and prevents those who might better run the media in these local markets to take over those licenses.

Would it be difficult for a new owner to make money? Of course it would. But it's tough making money anywhere these days and in order to make it, you'd need to figure out who your neighbors were, what was important to them and how to give them programming they couldn't get anywhere else.

It really doesn't have to be this hard.

When I first moved to Regina as a kid, the city only had one TV station. The next year, a second one opened in Moose jaw, serving the same region. One of the things the new guys did to find an audience was to put on a late movie on Friday and Saturday nights.

Late movies were something we kids had heard about on "Leave it to Beaver", but we'd never actually seen one. And now they were right here in Butt-kick.

The movies were always pretty crappy. A Horror film on Friday and a Western on Saturday. But we watched and in the process were introduced to our first local media sensation -- Roman Vimy.

Just before the movie started and at every single commercial break throughout, this slight little man with a pencil thin mustache and coke-bottle glasses would stare into the camera and say, "Men's underwear shorts -- three for a dollar!" in a thick Yiddish accent. Then standing next to a single, badly dressed mannequin, he'd point to socks, ties, T-shirts and suits with two pairs of pants and a belt available at Vimy's Men's Wear.

The "Shorts" line always cracked us up. It was a time when you never saw a pair of jockey shorts on TV let alone mentioned them by name. And elsewhere in our lives, be it a classroom, hockey locker room or bus loaded with kids from schools you didn't go to, any pause interrupted by "Men's underwear shorts -- three for a dollar!" always got a huge laugh.

At some point in early high school, a couple of buddies and I needed to get dressed up for something and decided to visit "Vimy's". It was a tiny store near the railroad tracks with the famed TV dummy standing in the window. One of those places so small you could touch both walls by spreading your arms out -- even at the age of fourteen. And true to his word, Vimy was able to outfit each of us to respectability at a cost that never got far into double digits.

It wasn't until much later in life that I thought about those continuous commercials and that store and wondered how Vimy afforded advertising on television and how all those ads endeared me to movies like "Werewolves in a Girl's Dormitory" or any Audie Murphy duster.

The answer was simple. It didn't cost him much and the station didn't need much because nobody wanted those movies. But as a result of serving a local need, they both did okay.

That's because the TV business was about getting people to watch what they put on.

Nobody had to fund convergence acquisitions or copy trendy celebrity magazine shows. Nobody needed advertisers targeting their core demographic or their brand image. Nobody was trying to make as much money as possible for the least amount of risk.

But local is television's future. Just as it has always been its successful past. And in this context, local can mean one small urban market or one underpopulated country.

We already have a vast array of options for the big stuff, the sports, the movies, the series with the big stars. They're available from their original broadcasters, through time-shifting, online and on a mobile phone. We don't need CTV and Global if all they are going to do is simulcast and repeat that product on endless platforms. Their only hope is in being better at something the big guys aren't already doing. Give me "Trailer Park Boys" and "Corner Gas" and "Mayerthorpe" because I won't ever get that from FOX, ABC or CBS -- and tell me what happened down the street before I go to bed.

And if you can't do that, give your licenses to people who will. Because somewhere, there's a guy with a fistful of underwear who'll advertise them so I can watch something I can't see anywhere else.

Monday, March 02, 2009

DON CHERRY JUMPS THE SHARK

Saturday night, I watched my last hockey game on CBC television. 

It wasn’t that the game was dull or badly produced. Indeed, my beloved but eternally woeful Leafs came through to win their sixth in a row, suddenly on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time in three years. It won’t happen, of course. But even if that miracle does come to pass, I’ll be watching the rest of this season and the playoffs elsewhere. Because I just can’t take any more of the garbage that spews from CBC’s resident bigot and bully, Don Cherry.

                                                                                              cherry1

I used to be a big fan of Don and always looked forward to his “Coach’s Corner” observations. He was plain spoken, politically incorrect and passionate about the game we both love to death. He always championed the guys with heart, recognized the contributions of players who seldom got noticed and otherwise educated his audience in the invisible nuances of what happened on the ice. Don Cherry has forgotten more about Hockey than I’ll ever know and taught me things that have enriched my experience of the game.

But somewhere along the way, Don got ugly.

Maybe he always was and I was late noticing. But quite honestly, I think his fame and larger-than-life TV persona finally got to him.

He used to spar with his on screen partner, Ron MacLean, but more and more often his arguments have become petulant and insulting, refusing to brook any opinion but his own and brow-beating anyone who dares question him. More than once, I wondered how badly MacLean must need his job to put up with the abuse he endures. Or, maybe he just secretly enjoys being Cherry’s Bitch.

Or it could be that’s all part of the act CBC demands. But what happened on Saturday night was a new low.

On a “Coach’s Corner” appearance you can watch for yourself here, Cherry began with one of his recurring bits wherein he insults a couple of non-Canadian players by mispronouncing their names. Don has always voiced a dislike for NHLers who aren’t “Good Canadian Boys”, often bemoaning the jobs they take from the locals, their preference for visors and their general lack of interest in dropping the gloves and pummeling somebody. Most of us have come to just let that part of his repertoire slide,  ignoring it in the same way we ignore old farts who still use the “N” word because they just don’t know any better.

But then Don took on Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, a guy widely acknowledged as the most skilled and exciting player currently playing in the NHL and whose enjoyment of what he can accomplish often leads to exuberant celebrations after scoring a goal. To Don this goes against “The Code” of hockey, a Code which requires players to suffer brain damage to redress perceived insults, to lose eyes rather than wear protective visors and to place settling personal scores above doing what’s best for their team.

Angry at Ovechkin’s “hot-dogging” after scoring a goal and comparing it to the celebrations of detestable European Soccer players, Don suggested that it was time some big defenseman “hiding in the weeds” take the opportunity to “Cut  him (Ovechkin) in half”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The most popular hockey commentator in the world, a man literally worshipped by every grinder and wannabe who plays the game, had not only advocated injuring the best player in the league, but encouraged somebody to do it because -- celebrating a goal just wasn’t “The Canadian way”.

                                                                                ovetchkin

Perhaps, in his dotage, Don has forgotten “good Canadian boy” Tiger Williams riding his stick around Maple Leaf Gardens or Theo Fleury joyously sliding the length of the Calgary Saddledome after scoring a goal that would win the Stanley Cup – a moment “Hockey Night in Canada” features in its opening montage of historic highlights.

I waited for Don’s wrap up of the game to see if he might take a step back, realizing he’d overstepped the bounds of civilized sport and simple decency. But he used his time to reiterate his call for Ovechkin’s head and then spewed some more Xenophobia, indicting the League leading Detroit Red Wings for having so many Europeans on their team and railing against all those who don’t share his love for fighting in hockey, looking more every moment like that old guy at the end of the bar who rants about the righteousness of his bigotry long after everybody has stopped listening.

It’s interesting that the week preceding had been marked by CBC begging for more money to cover a budget shortfall and its supporters suggesting that not meeting their need would signify that the Canadian government wanted to silence the only true voice of the nation. Since when is slagging the ancestry of millions of us and suggesting a bounty be placed on somebody’s head been part of what this country represents?

Although part of me surmises that if Peter Mansbridge were to suggest knee-capping Stephen Harper on “The National” he’d strike the same sympathetic chord with his viewers that Cherry seems to illicit from his crowd.

Sometimes I think Passive-Aggression is our real National Pastime.

And isn’t it interesting that a network that for years has equated America with racial intolerance and international ignorance keeps showcasing a guy who trashes anybody from outside our own borders. Have you ever heard any American sportscaster suggest Hideki Matsui didn’t deserve to play for the Yankees, Yao Ming was taking an American’s job on the Houston Rockets or that all those Samoans were ruining the NFL?

Can you imagine what the CBC would say about that if they did?

Is it those clich̩d low self-esteem Canadians who have a problem with foreigners Рor is it really somebody in CBC management?

What Cherry (and maybe the CBC) seems to forget is that this country is no longer representative of what he expounds on such a regular basis. A lot of us appreciate the skill, speed and dexterity that European players have brought to the game. Most of those “kids out there”, who Cherry presumes to teach, think nothing of correctly pronouncing the names of classmates from all over the world. And on weekends, those same kids play “Timbits” hockey with teams that are half-Asian, half-South Asian or (in my neighborhood) predominantly Russian. Most of those kids also don't mind having a girl or two on their team.

Like most Bullies, Cherry is also both ignorant and a coward. His claim on Saturday that nobody goes to games in Detroit because of their Europeans and what brings fans in are the fights are both completely false arguments. Detroit’s gate is 98% this season, in a city with one of America’s worst economies. And the team involved in the most fights, New Jersey, is 25th in attendance.

Today, Canada’s foremost Sports Journalist, Bob McCown of TheFan590, repeated a call for Cherry to come on his show and debate the merits of fighting in Hockey. Like many of us have long noticed, Cherry never gets anywhere near scraps with anybody his own size. As McCown rightly described it, Don Cherry “turtles” rather than having the courage to face somebody who’s willing to go toe-to-toe with him.

At any rate, Don and I are done. And one of the few remaining shows I watched on the CBC is done too. They may get some more of my tax dollars but my eyes are going elsewhere. I just discovered the big screen LCD has a direct link to play anything on my laptop, so NHL.com here I come.

It’s great to have options and to not have to be subjected to tired old acts that no longer reflect reality. CBC should take note.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

LAZY SUNDAY # 60: WELL, THAT DIDN'T TAKE LONG


During one of my residences in LA, an actor buddy and I used to visit the South Asian Barrios on some of our aimless Saturday afternoons to search out Bollywood movies. It was a shared affection we'd discovered by accident. He'd grown up in a predominantly Indian neighborhood and I'd stumbled across one during my first summer in Toronto, after taking a streetcar in the wrong direction.

I ended up in a down-at-its-heels part of the city's East end that was dotted with Tandoori restaurants, stores selling saris or curry and a tiny movie theatre. I'd been on my way to see some Charles Bronson film and, when the trolley driver explained I had about a half hour ride back the way I'd come, I realized I wasn't going to make the next show.

So I got off to explore and noticed the huge, garrulous crowd outside the theatre. There were entire families from elderly grandparents through women in Saris and men in turbans to kids with bags of exotic candies, all mingling together amid that pre-show sense of excitement that's the same in every culture.

The poster for the double feature on offer showed a couple of square jawed men brandishing pistols as they stared each other down, while all the lobby cards depicted lavish musical numbers. Just how those two genres fit together intrigued me, so I bought a ticket -- and discovered Bollywood.


The cinematic experience was exhilarating and I would later learn that Bollywood churned out far more movies than Hollywood, had stars much more popular than any I admired and that some of its most popular films ran in the same theatre in India for up to ten years of sold out performances.

There have been tons of social and cultural essays on the appeal of Bollywood, examining its reasons for doing the things it does and what all that ultimately means. And I'm not going to go into any of it, because frankly, I don't care -- anymore than I care about putting Canadian film or French Cinema on the couch.

As far as I'm concerned there's way too much cultural meaning being read into or divined from movies and not enough just enjoying them for what they are. Yes, I'm sure Sean Penn's win for "Milk" symbolizes a new dawn for American homosexuals, much in the same way that "Forrest Gump" elevated our acceptance of borderline retards and "Braveheart" brought about Scottish Independence, allowing Sean Connery to become my ancestral homeland's first head of state.

Look, a movie's a movie and winning the rights gay men and women deserve will come at the hands of people who live and work like Harvey Milk, not pretend to be him.

The pure celebration of cinema's power within the confines of a movie theatre has always been what attracted me to Bollywood. That world is one in which you are transported, taken where a Western trained mind like mine is constantly surprised, ambushed and forced to deal with juxtapositions and concepts foreign to it.


My friend and I would walk out of those (far dumpier than the ones back in Toronto) LA theatres feeling fully entertained. We often wondered how and when what we were watching would infiltrate the Hollywood machine. Oh, we'd seen bits and pieces move into the culture. The Beatles and others had sampled the music. Michael Jackson had copied the dance styles. But there was so much more still waiting to be mined.

Apparently, even those who green-lit and financed "Slumdog Millionaire" didn't think the time had come and had relegated this year's winner of 8 Academy Awards to a direct to DVD release until an audience at Toronto's International Film Festival changed their minds.

There are debates on both sides of the Pacific as to whether "Slumdog" is really a Bollywood movie and wondering if it signals the ascension of the Indian culture or its co-option by the White man and the Hollywood machine.


That debate exploded full force with the release of the "Slumdog" theme and best song Oscar winner "Jai Ho" this week by none other than the ultimate music industry manufactured girl band "The Pussycat Dolls". Everywhere you looked, pundits were pontificating on the "cheapening' of the song by allowing these surgically altered tarts to sing it and reminding everybody that this is just like what Elvis did to Black people in the 1950's.

I was reminded of this when a writer friend and I got talking about Elvis this week. Because most of Elvis' Black artist contemporaries will tell you he got a bad rap. Yeah, Elvis inherited many of his moves from Black musicians he rubbed shoulders with in Memphis like Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, B.B. King and Fats Domino. But they and several others will tell you they owe their fame and fortunes to that redneck cracker from Tupelo.

According to Jackie Wilson, "A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man's music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer I knew copied him." And Little Richard once noted, "Elvis was a blessing. He opened the door for black music."

So maybe Hollywood isn't being so dumb here or so grasping or so malevolent. They know what America likes (hot girls and an infectious tune) and are simply using that to make swallowing the next big thing a little easier for some.

Apparently, the "Dolls" are still putting the finishing touches on the video for the song, rumored to be their hottest yet. I imagine it will come out just in time to be in all the Clubs for March break.

Bollywood meet Hollywood. I think you've finally arrived.

Baila! Baila! Enjoy your Sunday.