Monday, February 08, 2010

The $130,000 Banana

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Over the last few weeks, as Creatives in the film and television industry await decisions from Ottawa bureaucrats regarding Federal funding through the new Canadian Media Fund, there have been rumblings from within that tough times lie ahead.

There is a government in power apparently pre-disposed to eliminating support for the industry. The “Hidden Agenda” of this government is to get rid of the CBC, cancel funding to activities that don’t reflect their heinous political agenda or horribly unsophisticated personal taste and otherwise wish to make it impossible for film and TV artists to earn a decent living in this country.

Cause they really hate our guts, y’know!

Well…

All that may be true.

Or there may be another “Hidden Agenda” in play.

Last week, Alex Epstein, over at the eminently well written “Complications Ensue” listed some of the new criteria predicted if you want Federal money for your next TV show.

Since virtually no television gets made in this country without that kind of funding, Alex was publishing the first checklist of the new CMF era.

As those concerned debated whether these new elements would be beneficial or become a further drag on the industry, they were assured by various Guild and Union representatives that the decisions were coming directly from Minister of Heritage James Moore and that the more experienced bureaucrats slaving on our behalf within his department didn’t like all the new changes any more than we did.

In fact, these tireless administrators of Arts funding were working hard and with the assistance and expertise of our own administrative staffs to blunt as much of the negative impact as they possibly could.

Uh-huh.

If you’re buying that, I got a lady at the CMF I can sell you who is “really on your side”. She’s the one who assured members of the Writers Guild of exactly that the day before a conference where we were to have “input” into the new CMF rules and where we arrived to discover the decisions had already been made.

Actually, I can’t really sell you that lady. She’s already sold herself for a regular government pay check and an indexed pension. Because that job she does has nothing whatsoever to do with assisting the Arts or building a viable production industry. She’s there to distribute whatever money the government feels is enough to make us STFU or at least keep our bellyaching confined to the nearest Starbucks patio.

If this was a world of real money, there would be somebody investigating just how come Billions have been poured into an industry that has created little profitable product no matter how often the funding requirements are tweaked, while simultaneously providing immense wealth and comfortable tenured employment to a select few.

If the government were actually trying to invest in an industry, somebody would be stipulating specific goals, progress benchmarks and hard deadlines to be met. Instead, we have initiatives like Telefilm’s Screenwriter program where writers get to write the kind of scripts that exemplify the creative and innovative strength of this country --- and then can’t sell them to anybody because independent producers know there isn’t money in the network envelopes to finance them.

If the government were actually trying to subsidize the Arts in the way that other countries subsidize theirs, somebody would be gauging audience reactions and critical response to determine who gets further support. Instead, we have the CBC renewing series that can’t attract 0.1% of the population and maintaining the salaries of non-productive management who regularly show their younger talent the door when belt-tightening comes around.

That woman at the CMF is not a government deputized Patron of the Arts who cares about you.

She’s a welfare clerk and she knows it.

Why don’t we?

If you want an example of the lack of thinking and complete disregard for reality that permeates the distribution of the government’s meagre Arts largesse, you need to look no further than the $130,000 Banana.

Two years ago, an Argentine artist named Caesar Saëz applied to the Canada Council and le Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec for a grant that would allow him to build a 300-metre long flying banana that would float over Texas protesting the policies of then US President George W. Bush.

Now, anybody with any cognitive faculties or even a tenuous grasp on what might help invigorate the local Arts, might have had a couple of questions about that application.

1. Is this guy a legitimate Canadian artist?

2. How much does it really cost to build a blimp that is not only larger than the Hindenberg but approximately the size of a Nimitz Class aircraft carrier?

3. Since the American President lives under a protective security bubble, could facilitating this work of art be considered an act of terrorism at worst and a violation of another country’s national airspace at best?

4. Would we fund a Dutch artist who wanted to build a flying Gouda ball to float over Caracas and protest the policies of Hugo Chavez?

But they didn’t ask those questions.

Instead, between the two funding bodies they gave the man $130,000.

Over two years.

So they had time to think about it.

And assess his progress.

$130,000…

That’s enough money to fund a half dozen original scripts, a low-budget feature, the production of a new Canadian play, a free Sarah MacLauchlin concert in Timmins, North Bay, Sudbury and maybe Kenora too.

Or for the people whose tax dollars paid for a flying banana intended to strike fear into the very soul of a heartless right-wing warmonger --- it’s a doctor for a town that doesn’t have one, a ward shift of new nurses, maybe a few miles of new road or an extra sheet of ice so their kids can play hockey.

Yeah, I know, every dollar spent on the Arts expands to create six more dollars in the economy. And the people who manufacture the bamboo and Tyvek with which the masterpiece was to be built would have benefited for sure.

Except Señor Saëz didn’t build his banana.

He skipped with the money.

And the Mounties are now hot on his trail, scouring the trendy Cantinas of Buenos Aires for anybody buying Banana daiquiris for the house…Right?

Wrong.

It seems the funding agencies involved don’t actually have a problem with the fact that this Artist didn’t produce anything to justify his six figure subsidy.

According to an interview with two bureaucrats representing each of the bilked Arts Councils (taped version in French here and English transcript here) Caesar Saëz “fulfilled all the required government criteria”.

They know he didn’t actually make anything. But he did “research” and he “developed theories”.

You know like the way you Google Porn and then discuss how you might convince your girlfriend to do that over drinks with your buddies…

Yeah, there’s a grant for that!

And if you film it and post it on Youtube you can call it Art. And then you can ask for more government money.

Because, according to these two bureaucrats, despite not creating anything and absconding with the cash, if Caesar makes another grant application it will be properly considered --- and perhaps funded.

After all --- he met their requirements the last time around. 

Neither of these highly ranked members of the Arts industry had any problem with the lack of any Art at the end of their funding exercise. After all, “reports” were filed on schedule. Properly double spaced and with a table of contents and color-coded tabs, of course.

Sigh…

You Creative types need to start realizing the real “Hidden Agenda” operating here. These people don’t massage policy, defend your interests or give a good God Damn about anything you do. They’re no different from the clerk who needs three pieces of photo ID before renewing your Health Card or refuses to even touch your Drivers License application because you forgot to check one of the boxes.

They shuffle binders. They tick off checklists. They go home at 4:30 and they don’t know Tolstoy from toilet paper.

And are those who represent your interests to them making up for their failings?

Well, if you go back to that post of Epstein’s, you’ll find an update from the Writers Guild of Canada clarifying that the Independent Production Agreement has Guidelines in place to cover writing done for Digital Production...

“…all fees for digital writing are negotiable. (The other general terms of the IPA still apply, however, i.e. payment on delivery, I&R, copyright, grievance, etc.)”

You got that? You want to be paid for digital work you negotiate with the producer. You’re on your own, Skippy! No dues funded collective bargaining has set a reasonable fee on your behalf. However, all the fees paid to the Guild for their services are locked in.

The bureaucrats are always protected. Their fees are always secure. Yours are --- negotiable.

These people all look after themselves first --- so they can look after your interests, of course.

Because unless you were dependent on them, they wouldn’t have a job.

Like the phone company who won’t cut you a better deal because they know you need the service, they’ve got leverage. You’re not driving the culture. You’re the guy who needs that government check to pay the rent. So get with the program!

Well, what do we do about this?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend who’s dealt with the ridiculous way Canadian television operates almost as long as I have paraphrased Voltaire with his solution:

"We shall only be free when the last network executive is strangled with the entrails of the last bureaucrat!"

So, if I were Heritage Minister James Moore, I might tear myself away from trying to find tickets to the Two-Man Luge and have a little chat with my staff about how they’re supposed to serve the will of the people Canadians elected and not what they think might reduce the number of complaint calls they have to avoid answering.

And then I might stop all the faux “We’re helping the Arts” nonsense in favor of setting some specific goals for the industry. 5% of movie screens showing Canadian films. Audiences of a million for each episode of a federally funded TV series.

How about production guidelines that can’t be weaseled around to make sure Canadians tell Canadian stories to Canadians. Minorities get their share of the work as well as the opportunities to express the culture of their demographic the law says they have a right to expect.

And nobody gets to program work that was made for credits or where PA’s are earning less than the government mandated minimum wage.

Just set some targets and if your staff don’t find a way to meet and properly police them, they’re gone and somebody else gets their job.

Maybe there could be a tax-break for Canadian production too. One that actually gets audited this time and has meaningful penalties, so nobody can scam investors or sneak projects that would never qualify past bored government paper-shufflers.

And maybe the people who are paid to represent the collective interests of artists should start setting hard targets of their own for what their constituency needs instead of getting chummy with people who get paid whether we work or not.

And maybe those people should just go back to the Department of Natural Resources where all they had to do was count trees, or better yet Agriculture where they might actually experience a real banana from time to time.

Because those may be the only ways we put the culture back in the hands of the people who make it.

At the very least, it might stop things from getting worse.

Because as I was writing this post this morning, Dominic Maurais, the Quebec talk show host who interviewed those Arts Bureaucrats and was told to file an Access to Information application if he wanted the details they wouldn’t tell him, did just that.

You’ll find it here.

Seems the price of bananas keeps going up.

10 comments:

The White Wolf said...

It's like being hogtied and having a key placed in your mouth...

Try and get out of that one!

DMc said...

“…all fees for digital writing are negotiable. (The other general terms of the IPA still apply, however, i.e. payment on delivery, I&R, copyright, grievance, etc.)”

Ok Jim. I think I've got this now... you're saying that insurance and RRSP contributions from an employer, & industrial protections are nothing.

Got it. So, uh, can I have yours please? I mean, it's nothing, right? Oh, and while we're at it, the two digital contracts I worked in 2008 were $2000 (plus I&R) and for $500 (plus I&R.) The one I got paid 2K for me took me about four hours. The one I got paid 500 for took me a week.

Now figure out the scale payments. Go. You have ten minutes.

It's when you're at your most simplistic & populist that you taint all the good stuff you usually write. A plague on all their houses is never the solution.

But I'm really looking forward to your digital minimums.

jimhenshaw said...

DMc,

My reference had nothing to do with the I&R contributions writers earn from their work.

I know you are aware of the following, but for those who aren't:

Under clause A1201 of the Guild Agreement, producer members of CFTPA remit 2-2.5% of our gross writing fees (depending on the type of production) directly to the Guild as an administration fee.

There is a cap on this which is reached by a significant portion of production.

Non-CFTPA producers remit 7% of Gross fees with no cap in place.

These fees are split between the Guild and the CFTPA.

Therefore, while writers must now negotiate additional digital fees on their own, those funds are added to the gross calculation of the Administration fee.

Additionally, a producer deducts 2% of your gross fees, remitting it to the Guild as Dues payments.

Whatever you negotiate privately for digital fees is still subject to that 2% deduction.

Non-Guild Writers must pay 5% of their gross fees as Dues, while the Producer remits 11% of the gross fees paid to non-Guild writers "for such purposes as may be determined in the absolute and unfettered discretion of the Guild".

The good part about that is it helps to discourage a producer from hiring non-Guild writers.

The bad part is that if the producer doesn't want to pay you what is you feel is fair for creating digital content, he can hire somebody far cheaper who isn't a member of the Guild, pay the Dues and Equalization fees and still come out ahead.

You have lost income. The Guild still gets paid. Maybe less than you would have negotiated on their behalf. Maybe more.

As for your second point, I'm not sure I get it...

Are you saying that a writer who can write a series episode in less time than another should be paid more?

Or are you suggesting we set an hourly rate for writing digital content?

Because neither those concepts make any sense to me.

The basis for most of our fees is the value of the completed material in the overall marketplace.

And even then, we don't pay writers depennding on whether or not their show gets higher ratings than some competing show, or how many international sales it garners.

I know determining the value of new media is difficult right now. Perhaps a good reason why some kind of agreed standard should be established in negotiations rather than writer and producer dealing one on one when one or both may have no clue how to fully exploit the finished product.

Isn't that one of the things we pay our staff to do and should expect in return?

Or do they just keep getting paid while somebody else figures it out?

DMc said...

Jim, I gotta feeling that what I want to say is long enough, and I'm exercised about it enough, that it's probably better as a post on my own blog. So that's where I'll leave this for now.

You and I have had many wonderful, friendly, jovial and combative back and forths both in blog-public and mail-private over the last few years, and I can honestly and truly say that through all your points of view, I've never been driven to be angry with you.

But honest to God, having just sat through seven hours today of doing your business, and business on the behalf of all Canadian writers, the cavalier and cynical way you link these things together is a little beyond the pale.

You're shitting on the real efforts I pursue everyday to work through the system, and you're intimating a sleazy moral equivalency that is unconscionable.

Too far, and not fair. I think a long time ago on another subject entirely I said it is very easy to throw bombs; but what would you do instead? A pox on both your houses thinking has poisoned you. And I find that ineffably sad.

jimhenshaw said...

What I would do is detailed at the end of the post, DMc.

And while I'm sorry you've been driven to anger, I look forward to your responses.

The White Wolf said...

I agree that there should be some kind of Pay or Play (except there's NO pay) deal in place at the funding agencies.

If you support this script (this writer) don't just throw Grant money at a fifteen page treatment, first draft, second draft, etc...

Push the g'dang thing up the totem pole to a Producer who's willing to support the story.

If not enough productions are greenlit to support the amount of TAXPAYERS MONEY (Telefilm, admin staff, grants) then buh-bye Telefilm. Buh-bye writer's loft reno's...

And for the emerging creators out there, I recommend playing the field for whatever writing gigs you can get: video games (intern at a developer), web content (frequent your favourite online creators - get them to like you), film and tv (watch it! get in touch with the performers and/or creators; prove to them you're reading from the same book). And if comedy is your thing, or even if it's not (visit local comedy clubs - everyone wants to be on TV - and bang something hilarious out, cause c'mon, not all of us think Corner Gas is funny!).

But yeah, the system's broke and those that have gone and broked it, SHOULDN'T still be in the picture.

JA Goneaux said...

Ah, I remember something like this way back at Sheridan (I was a student, Jim a teacher).

For one project (not for Jim's class), I signed out a Polaroid camera and some film and got to work. "Work" was:

a) taking a photo of a blank wall
b) pasting that photo on the wall
c) taking a photo of that wall
d) pasting that photo on the wall
e) you get the picture. Heh.

I called it "Progression", meant to signify the artist as change mechanic. Or something, the pot was good back then and I just made things up as I went along anyway.

Anyway, I didn't get to finish my masterpiece, as the college, the cheap fascistic art hating bastards that they were, made me pay for my own film after the initial pack.

I can only feel that my entire career as an artist was stilted by ugly commerce.

Now, if I had taped a banana up...yeah...I'm feeling the created juices flowing again. Where's the number for Really Dumb Grants again?

deborah Nathan said...

Writers left to negotiating their own fees seems to be the going trend under the IPA. I refer again to the lost "created by" credit and monies, nonexistent in the IPA. Now digital content. And this is all to benefit producers and broadcasters. Not us. I heard too that the CMF will now encompass not only television, but Telefilm and possibly the CBC. One finite pot for the entire industry.

Already networks would rather be involved in co-pros or 6/10 series that cost them only 10-20% of the budget rather than the 27% of the budget they pay for a 10/10 show.

Perhaps the majority of writers need to wake up to what is happening. What is protected under the IPA and what is not. What they want to do about that.

The Guild operates at our behest. It is our money that pays the salaries of the employees of the Guild.

So why shouldn't they undertake to get what we want - and not take the Producers' "no" for an answer.

No one cares about your career but you. And that's the truth.

Ken said...

A system? You're looking for a system, Jim. The trouble with the government committing to a system when it comes to arts funding is they'd have to come up with a plan. Coming up with a plan requires vision. If they adopt a vision they run the risk of making an actual sustained commitment to the arts. By creating sub-ministries and arm's-length funding bodies and then supporting or abandoning them according to prevailing voter mood they never have to fully commit. The CBC is just there. It's twisting in the wind without any long term vision supporting it. The Stursbergian race toward commercialism, while marginally increasing audience share in the short term, feeds right into what I believe may be a hope in some circles: that eventually it will eat itself to death.

A system requires that a politician give in somewhat. Leverage is the currency of career politicians. Without leverage none of them believe they have any purchase come the next election. By holding power and money and vision in abeyance governments can then dispense their collective largesse with maximum voter impact. And that's the only thing that matters: impact come election time.

Vision in this country probably died with Tommy Douglas and to a lesser extent with Pierre Trudeau.

A politician who really wants to leave a legacy must be willing to piss some people off along the way. And in the climate of simultaneous polarization and apathy that is Canada right now nobody's going to risk pissing anybody off.

The only viable alternative for the arts in Canada is to sew the seeds of separation; I mean Canada should separate from Quebec and then let itself be annexed by Quebec. Then we'd get stable arts funding.

Anonymous said...

Oddly, there was never any real feedback from CTF/CMF on this '08 study on how CTF could measure audience success. The CRTC submitted it to the government but that was the last word heard:
http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/publications/reports/cmri080605.htm

Almost like there was a desire to bury talk of real targets. Probably just too complicated.

Barry Kiefl