It’s Saturday night in Newmarket, Ontario and the Famous Players Silver City is the place to be. Thirteen state of the art theatres combined with a massive gaming arcade and a well stocked bar, where patrons lounge on plush leather couches watching playoff hockey on giant flat screens.
Some of these are barely drinking age, fresh from seeing “The Losers”. But a few are older men waiting to ferry away the teenagers they had to drive over here for the new 3D version of “Nightmare on Elm Street”.
The thought crosses my mind that some of those kids may have been conceived in the back seats of cars at the still working local drive-in down the road while one of the original “Nightmares” was onscreen.
Around the lobby, crushes of excited movie-goers line up for popcorn or frozen yogurt while others study the huge displays advertising coming summer blockbusters. Energetic teenagers. Attractive young couples free of the kids. Seniors dressed to the nines. Everybody is ready to enjoy an evening out.
It’s a demographic snapshot of where I live and what passes for cultural options around here.
Me, I’ve got a ticket in my hot little hand to see, er…
I know. I know. The reviews have been less than glowing…
“…painfully forced, unfunny, sometimes cringe-inducingly pretentious…” – Uptown Magazine
“…disappointingly tame...” - cbc
“…a taxpayer funded waste of time” – Suite 101.com
But I’m in Canadian showbiz. I’m a fan of Westerns and comedy. And --- well, somebody has to help get those English movie attendance numbers up.
There are two dozen of us in the theatre (give or take) when the lights go down. The place seems cavernously quiet. Except for a couple of chuckles from a guy down my row during an early slapstick sequence, it stays that way.
People file out before the credits begin, missing the only real laugh of the night – an outtake. The credits are still rolling when the usher kids with the big garbage bag come in to clean up the discarded popcorn and candy wrappers. My lone remaining presence seems to catch them off guard. Obviously people are normally long gone before all the proud government and guild imprints scroll past to certify that the film is Canadian made.
“Gunless” doesn’t deserve the scorn of the above reviews. It’s not a bad film. But it’s not a good one either. It’s just there. And from an entertainment point of view it could just as aptly have been titled “Harmless” or “Pointless”.
Overall, if you’re somebody who cares about sustaining a film industry, the core emotion you depart the theatre feeling, however, is “Hopeless”.
But you can’t blame “Gunless” for that either. It’s just another movie that didn’t need to be made, telling a story that didn’t need to be told. In other countries, it would have come and gone without fanfare, forgotten by all who saw it save for the one or two who may recall the night they finally got to third base with their date or lost a wallet in the parking lot.
But here, where only a handful of home-grown English language films get released each year, there’s huge pressure on each and every one of them to MEAN something, either in content or box office returns. And with new mandates from funding agencies and regulators to emphasize “being popular” that pressure has been turned up several notches.
And yet, achieving any such benchmarks is simply beyond “Gunless”. So we lose one more opportunity to build a viable industry.
Other English Canadian films hoping to achieve popular success have quickly passed through our multiplexes of late. “Defendor”, written and directed by Peter Stebbings. “The High Life”, directed by Gary Yates and written for both the stage and screen by Lee MacDougall and Matthew Bissonnette’s “Passenger Side” are recent examples.
Each had a fresh vision and clear intent to entertain missing from “Gunless”. Each featured truly memorable performances, rare originality in their scripts and were superbly executed by their directors and crews. They were all far more worthy of a wider audience and delivered more “value for service” in return.
Yet none got the full court promotional push accorded “Gunless”.
Maybe Telefilm and the other funding bodies had a few million more wrapped up in it than any of those others.
Maybe it had the participation of those with a longer track record in government sponsored film and more adept at playing the Canadian game of getting all the disparate official funds, regional pay channel dealers and local network acquisition VP's to agree to play ball with each other.
Or maybe it was something else.
Leading up to the film’s release, its star, Paul Gross, hop-scotched the country, doing all he could to hype the arrival. But all of the interviews contained an almost apologetic tone for some of his character’s traits, making a point of signalling that he wasn’t really like that and still safe to invite to official functions.
In one newspaper, he even went so far as comparing “Gunless” to “Local Hero” ever wise to how much we want to compare ourselves to greatness, even if the comparison makes no logical sense whatsoever.
There was also an official “Opening Night” in Ottawa attended by noted politicians and luminaries in the cultural industries. This, barely a week after most of the same people had attended the Genie Awards in Toronto.
Somebody Twittered from that latter event that they hadn’t encountered a single filmmaker but representatives of all the funding agencies were out in force.
We may not get a lot of the paying public to see our movies. But it appears we account for a significant portion of the average cultural bureaucrat’s social calendar.
And it feels as if, to some of them, that’s a key component of our purpose as artists.
That feeling was augmented by an interview I read in which “Gunless” Producer Niv Fischman described finding the film’s location while on an Okanagan wine tasting tour with former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, author John Raulston Saul.
Fischman stated that he knew if he ever made a Western, he had found the perfect setting. And scant weeks later, the perfect script also serendipitously dropped into his lap.
Since the script for “Gunless” can’t be described as perfect on any level, it leads you to suspect he whipped it into production as an excuse to get back to some of those superb Okanagan Pinot Grigios.
Or was it because his moment of epiphany would make a charming opening anecdote to its pitch and would resonate well with “The Right People” when it came to finding the money?
We’re obsessed with “The Right People” in Canadian show business.
Our CRTC Commissioners talk about gathering them together to map broadcast policy without having any of those pesky Creatives around. Our film festivals purchase miles of velvet rope to sequester them from those with a genuine love of the movies. Our funding agencies continuously ignore their litanies of past box-office failure, seeming ever ready with cheques for the next navel at which they wish to gaze.
In his review of “Gunless”, Globe and Mail Critic Rick Groen wrestles with how you bind these new subsidized film concepts of “popular” and “culturally worthy” together. It’s a great read. But it made me wonder --- if your movies aren’t popular to begin with are they really even reflecting the culture of the people you supposedly made them to reach or represent in the first place?
Back in the primordial beginnings of Canadian film, when those of us who made them still had to be watchful for dinosaurs while on location, there was absolutely no government support for what we did. Yet, Canada annually made as many theatrical features as it does today and some of them actually made money.
My own “Ouvre” in those heady days included soft porn, stories about spoiled rock stars, hitchhikers, homeless kids and guys just trying to get laid. I even did a Western. Some were funny. Some were dramatic. Some challenged the status quo.
But the thought of convincing some respectable government type to come see what we were doing never entered our heads. Maybe it should have. But we were more concerned with reaching the people who bought movie tickets and that approach was working.
Then the government decided to “help”.
That initially led to a tidal wave of mostly crap that became more and more filtered and regulated to ensure its “cultural relevance” even though none of the bureaucrats in charge could ever explain what that meant exactly.
Things then further evolved to a point where government began to pick “winners” and losers from the production community. How scientific that process was is above my pay grade. I just remember a summer when Prime Minister Jean Chretien was able to whistle-stop the country, the hundred dollar a plate party fundraisers at each major production center hosted by the head of one of those “winning” and now well-established production companies.
The impression that the government had found “The Right People” to forge our film industry was hard to shake.
Later, one of these, Cinar, was embroiled in a massive government subsidy fraud. Another, Alliance, was pursued by Creative Guilds waving hundreds of financial grievances. Another, Sullivan, admitted under oath that they kept books showing profits for Telefilm and another set recording losses for others with a vested interest.
No criminal charges have ever arisen from any of those situations. And maybe that means that nothing more than “business as usual” went on.
Or maybe that “The Right People” just get passes when something larger is at stake.
And while all of that is ancient history, you can still see its imprint on what goes on today. And I think it’s why our real problem in establishing a viable film industry all comes back to the subsidy system we established in the first place.
There’s a saying among farmers ---“If you want clean water, the first thing you do is get the hogs out of the creek”.
If you are making the move from funding “Culture” to banking “Popular”, a version of the same thing has to happen.
For starters, the people in charge of 20th Century Fox are much different from those at Fox Searchlight (that corporation’s version of a “cultural” division). Each has an entirely different approach to what they buy, how it is developed, how it is shot and most important, how it is sold.
For example, if 20th Century Fox decides to purchase a terrific romantic comedy and date movie called “Young People Fucking”, the first thing they are going to do is change its title so the dads driving the key teenage demographic to the theatre will let them see it.
Argue all you want that the film was meant for a 20-something, hip, urban crowd with a bent for indy features on the Sundance Channel. That’s not the point.
The truth is, that if you’re a 20-something, who doesn’t work for the government or in Canadian show business, you’ve already figured out your sex life. But teenagers haven’t and that film could’ve been sold as a smarter version of “American Pie” and made far more money than it did.
But by retaining its title, the film lost at the box office while assuring “The Right People” that although government money was talking dirty, no horny teens would be getting any ideas – nor the message that there’s more to sex than their young minds have, so far, considered.
That basic bureaucratic misunderstanding of who the audience is rests at the core of the creative failure of “Gunless” as well.
Almost every scene sends the message that it knows its not what “The Right People” will like but this is what passes for fun and frolic for those plebes at the multiplex.
However, if Fox Searchlight decided to make a 20th Century Fox film, the people running the place would be replaced before they started.
But you can’t replace government bureaucrats. So you end up with people who may have had some skill at the job they were originally hired to do but don’t have a first clue about this new one.
How else do you explain funding a script by the same guy who wrote and directed “Foolproof” (acknowledged as the biggest failure in Canadian Cinema history) seven years ago and hasn’t done a damn thing since?
This guy doesn’t get a car loan without co-signers.
But Telefilm handed $4 Million to him and fellow bureaucrats kicked in enough to get to a reported $10 Million budget. All on the basis of the Creative package presented – which doesn’t include anybody involved with a financially successful film.
Because these too were either “The Right People” or those approved of by them.
Our other recent Box office disappointments came with far more talent attached but still got far less support in letting the audience know they were out there.
“Defendor” is about a mentally challenged man who takes on the role of a comic book vigilante. “High Life” is the tale of four low-lifes robbing a bank. “Passenger Side” follows two Canadian brothers driving around LA. And if you have to ask what “Young People Fucking” is about somebody needs to explain the concept of an on-the-nose title to you.
None of these films were pushed and supported in the same way “Gunless” has been, and therefore none altered (or in the case of “Passenger Side”, is in a position to alter) the sad reality that, right now, English Canadian films take up less than 5% of our movie screens and take in well under a million dollars apiece at the box office.
The situation has gotten so bad that there is a move among Quebec filmmakers to have more of the subsidy money allotted by Telefilm go to the French language portion of our industry, which historically attracts a larger audience and brings in far higher box-office totals.
On one level, that makes sense. Why not reward success?
But in making their argument, Quebec filmmakers unwittingly reveal their own Telefilm assisted failure.
After decades of producing popular films and building their audience, usually on much lower budgets than their English counterparts, they still haven’t created a self-sustaining industry. Therefore, what sense does it make to pour even more money into it?
But then, those subsidies were really about supporting the “Culture”, weren’t they?
If we want “popular” success, maybe the answer to doing it does not reside in any pre-determined funding envelope.
Perhaps we need to completely change how we decide what films get made in this country.
Back to “Gunless” one last time…
(A Picture of what Paul Gross would like to do to me)
For the life of me, I can’t figure out how it cost anywhere near $10 Million, most of it from Government sources; and not a dime of which they or any private investors will ever see again.
A huge amount must have gone out to cover financing costs or that number includes soft costs that have to be reported but aren’t actually spent --- because that level of production is not visible on screen.
Or maybe, directors and stars without a successful track record cost more in Canada than they do in other places.
Nor do I believe Alliance pumped another million into promoting the film, unless they had a lot of money they desperately needed to quickly flush. Because the few hundred dollars earned per screening (and that’s all any marketing plan could have confidently predicted) doesn’t come anywhere close to justifying that sort of outlay.
But then, of course, there’s a government subsidy for distribution activities as well.
Perhaps that number is simply as concocted as the Press release stating that the film is the “first ever” Canadian Western.
I guess nobody at Alliance saw “The Grey Fox” which won dozens of national and international awards while attracting large audiences. They probably missed “Gunfighters” as well, or “The Englishman’s Boy” or “Six Reasons Why” released only 18 months ago.
And I guess there’s nobody around Alliance who remembers “Bordertown” produced (oddly enough) by the very company they work for and covering almost the exact same story ground.
But the levels of bureaucratic incompetence here and the frat-boy-howler-monkey approach to marketing clearly illuminate the mess we’re in.
Everything about this new “popular” concept is still being perceived by those in charge of the industry through the “desire to promote culture” lens.
In an industry that elsewhere thrives on youth and new ideas, for example, young writers in Canada tell me they rarely consider spending time on an original feature script instead of a television spec based on a currently running series that might land them a staff job.
Canadian agents don’t shop feature scripts with regularity anymore. There is simply no significant market because everything produced must still fall into categories of regional need, priority funding and what some would consider the affirming of social agendas.
And those options are further limited if you’re a writer living in Ontario, Quebec or BC, where the local majors reside and thus suck up most of the funding envelopes for their own needs, leaving the independents scrambling to find some distant regional initiative or tax credit to realize their project.
On top of all that, rather than acknowledging (as the rest of the world does) that the genus of any film industry is “The Word”, Telefilm just killed the only screenwriter driven program it had.
There’s proof positive their mandate is not to tell Canadian stories but to make sure there’s enough money to look after the people who keep failing miserably at finding an audience.
I’m sure many, like those campaigning to make sure “Our Telefilm Money” doesn’t go to Quebec, would use those realities to demand governments provide even more regional subsidies and support programs for first time writers or maybe even one to break the sophomore jinx after nobody goes to see your first film.
But the honest answer to solving all of this is so much simpler.
Stop all the funding and merely impose a minimum allocation of movie screen time to Canadian films.
If such a restriction was set at a miniscule 10%, it would mean that each of those screens at my local multiplex would only be showing a Canadian film a mere 4 weeks of the year. Alternately, just one of them would have Canadian content all year long. The other 12 could run the same stuff they do right now.
By eliminating subsidies, it would mean that the exhibitors would have to make sure they had product to fill their theatres which their customers would purchase tickets to see.
Suddenly, our movie business would become a real business, operating with a profit motive and a prime directive to find and satisfy the customer.
We’d have to appeal to the people who actually go to movie theatres instead of those who are invited to screenings.
Distributors would need to make sure audiences knew about the films and make sure they played where the audience lived instead of relying on a few art houses near college campuses to meet their contractual obligations.
If a similar percentage allocation was required of pay channels and television networks (again without the carrot of support envelopes) the funding of film projects would suddenly be driven by their profits and ratings needs as well.
Doesn’t 10% of what cable and broadcast entities earn now more than offset what the government currently pumps into film and television?
And if that’s still not enough to prime the pump, there’s nothing wrong with the surcharge on imported films that exists in much of the rest of the world.
For Creatives, the concept is no doubt unsettling. Because we’d have to operate differently too. No more looking for a grant to tide you over while you think of something you might want to create. Maybe we’d get more serious about what we do as well.
The savings to the taxpayer would be enormous, not only staunching the one-way outflow from the treasury for films they have no interest in seeing, but eliminating an entire strata of government employees who administer those funds and programs.
All of sudden artists in new media wouldn’t have to negotiate support from bureaucrats newly arrived to the whole concept.
Scripts would get put into development on their merit, not because of where they were written or what social challenges afflicted their writer.
But most important, we’d finally get away from a patronage system where “The Right People” have to be looked after, or catered to, or not see movies made which might offend them or disagree with their politics.
All of that would be in our past and we’d be doing what we all set out to do in the first place; to entertain those at the multiplex, to send them out the door feeling they’d gotten their money’s worth, eager to tell friends to try the experience and in the mood to come back next week to see what else we’ve got.
Maybe, in that world, somebody would have made “Gunless” in the hope it would succeed.
First Weekend Box Office for “Gunless” totals $258,865 --- an average of just under $1700 per screen.
That’s an extremely poor opening by anyone’s standard. And given that Friday marks the beginning of the Summer blockbuster season with the release of “Ironman 2” it’s unlikely to either increase its take next week or continue its theatrical run much longer; meaning it’s well on its way to being a significant financial failure.
Will any of the executives who green-lit it suffer the consequences they’d face if they were employed by a real studio? Of course not. They’re government employees and the only money they lost --- was yours.