Thursday, September 02, 2010

Time to Focus

I predict future happiness if we can prevent government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of the people. - Thomas Jefferson

Ancient Priests and mystics used to go to a mountain top at sunrise and open up a pigeon or a goat, maybe a Virgin if they could scrounge one up in the Agora, spread out the guts, examine their color or contents and confidently predict the future.

entrails 1

Most early mornings these days, I just open up a browser, link to a few bloggers and form a more or less educated opinion on what might be coming down the pike.

Same process, less carnage. We really are becoming civilized despite ourselves.

But what these online Priests found this week got me wondering if that trend toward civilization, to being more inclusive and nurturing, is what's behind the continued decline of Canadian Film and Television.

Maybe by trying to please everybody we're not really helping anybody.

Take his eminence, Bill Brioux, examining the 2010 Gemini Nominations. I can't disagree with much of what he sees in this once important and now over-taxed organ.

What began as an Award show to celebrate "The Best Of" what we make for TV, maybe 10 - 15 categories showcased to excite an audience, has devolved into a 107 category (8 more than last year) "something for everybody" exercise that sprawls over three nights and doesn't even hold the attention of those who make TV for a living anymore.

The day after the last Gemini is presented, there will be more Canadians who can tell you which product Don Draper won his fictional 1965 Cleo for than who is Canada's best actor, director or writer.

And while holding up a Gemini used to almost automatically qualify you for a Green Card because it certified that you possessed some unique talent, now you're lucky if it gets a development executive at Super Channel to return your calls.

Don't get me wrong. I've got lifelong friends up for Geminis and I'm happy they're being celebrated for what they do. There are even a handful of nominees who make me burst with pride because I gave them their first job, recognizing a talent that's now being acknowledged by the industry and their peers.

But sadly, winning will not step any of their careers up a notch because the Gemini has been so horribly diluted as both an industry honor and a tool to attract an audience by its insistence that it has to be sensitive to every possible sub-genre and job description.

It's as if, because there is so much government money supporting the Academy running the Geminis, the organization has to make sure nobody is left behind.

Somebody enlighten me on what difference it makes if a biography documentary is judged alongside a History documentary or a documentary documentary. 

Are the Gemini juries picking the best documentaries or just making sure there's something representing all of the available cable bundles?

And why is it impossible to claim that Practical/Lifestyle Information programming is even in the same ball park as Personal/Human Interest programming and none of it is even close to Reality programming?

These awards were designed to build a star system and delineate those skilled at creating shows in the hope that the powers that be and the audience would want them to do more of the same.

Instead, it's now a junior soccer tournament where every network's marketing department goes home with a ribbon it might as well magnet to the fridge in the staff lounge because the gushing press releases they'll fire off as a result won't be read by anybody who might tune in to see what else they have to offer.

Perhaps the entire purpose of the Geminis is only to give our networks something to wave in front of the CRTC to prove they're not really fudging on their commitment to the country.

The best we have in the industry deserve better. And the audience deserves better too.

That's certainly a sentiment shared by High Priest Howard Bernstein who turned his attention from the sorry state of television news to sports this week.

By examining what passes for testicles within the Jock TV genre, Howard asserts what every sports fan in the country instinctively knows -- sportscasts are an anachronism in the digital age.

I'm always struck by how the energetic and hair-gelled guys at Sportsnet come slamming in hard on the last out of a Jays game to tease the outcome as their lead story. Dudes, I just watched the game! I know how it turned out! Anybody who wasn't watching wouldn't know to tune in at 10:17 pm for the top story.

Doesn't matter. They play up the suspense. And then like all good Canadian sportscasts, give me a rundown of everything else that either played earlier on their network or is a franchise to which they own the rights before covering whatever else is going on in the sports world.

And then its a long tour through sports appealing to every discernable advertiser demographic (somehow ignoring the poker and monster truck competitions that actually fill their schedules) while never approaching the depth of online sites like Deadspin or ESPN endlessly repeating scores and stats I can find myself in 30 seconds online, instead of sitting through the same beer commercial eight times in order to get them.

Once again, in a desire to provide content to everybody, Canadian TV sportscasts don't serve anybody, maybe least of all their sponsors.

And you begin to wonder if the long hours these nets spent around a sports desk are only to qualify the required Canadian content percentages, since little of the day's live sports content involves Canadian teams or even takes place in this country.

Howard asks a lot of great questions, like does a nation of 30 Million people really need 8 different sports networks. Well, not if they're all the same we don't.

But being the same allows each of our broadcast conglomerates to wring another couple of bucks from fans who can't follow their favorite team without subscribing to several channels operated by different owners.

Those who follow sports which are less popular here remain underserved or completely ignored. And as illustrated by Rogers new Sports offering which will suddenly deny 15 Blue Jay games this season to those who subscribe to the wrong Cable provider, it's clear that the avowed policy of those who regulate the industry is not meeting the needs of the public but of ensuring that a chosen few can enjoy corporate pissing contests.

In a remote part of the temple, prairie medicine man Trevor Cunningham reads much the same in the entrails of the UK Film Council, noting the similarities between this rightfully pitch-forked bureaucracy and our own Telefilm.

Expanding on a wonderful video dissection of the corpse by longtime UKFC beneficiary Chris (not the guy from "Blue Lagoon") Atkins, Trevor delves into the bloated bureaucracy and cult of institutional favorites which have been dealt with ad nauseum here at the Legion.

Everybody knows that one of the biggest problems facing Canadian films is distribution and the inability of English features to crack the 5% threshold of screen time at the local multiplex.

Despite setting that goal as a priority in 2001, 2004 and 2008, Telefilm has failed dismally at achieving even that small benchmark. Yet they continue to fund studios and local cinema icons who have never returned a penny of the millions they've been gifted for their work because nobody goes to see their movies here or anywhere else.

Meanwhile, there are a myriad of Telefilm programs to support filmmakers representing a certain ethnicity, regional minority or social disparity usually in order to create a film that can appear at some tiny film festival that celebrates the same issue.

While all those may be laudable initiatives, they do nothing to grow an industry, ignoring that a rising tide lifts all boats and a couple of commercial successes will create both ongoing work and the ability for the artists being paid for that work to initiate projects close to their heart and/or addressing their ethnic, regional or social issues.

And when Telefilm axes the only program they had to support original work from writers who have a proven track record, you know their real agenda has nothing to do with developing better material within the industry.

We've got to get away from self help programs for people who seldom make a second film, let alone establish a career. And we've got to get away from Federal and local funding agencies who fund foreign projects or certify them as Canadian content because it at least keeps some grips or Post production houses working. If the emphasis was not on finding a niche where we can find odd jobs, but delivering what an audience will pay to see, we'd be a lot further ahead.

It's time for all of us to get a little more selfish and little more focused. A Gemini Awards with 20 categories will be far more effective in raising public awareness of what's being done in the industry than five times as many categories containing so many titles our audience can't begin to remember them all.

Maybe the people who fund the Geminis could then use the money they spend on those hundreds of extra trophies to do something else to tell Canadians how great some of the other stuff we do really is.

With the mass availability of digital information, our sports networks no longer need to spend money on hair gel, fancy sets and guys who once had a hockey career. That money could go to acquiring more sports programming or a digital sub channel where I can catch a game I missed or didn't DVR and watch it for myself. Or it could go to actual sports journalists with the experience to give me the whole story and not just the quippable catch phrases.

Maybe the CRTC Commissioners who license those sports channels could stop thinking that more of the same thing is an alternative for the public. Maybe they need to finally license an amateur sports channel or one that specializes in the games or in-depth reporting that the others do not.

And maybe Telefilm could just stop being so damn precious and dare I say "elitist". There's something about those sub-programs for underprivileged filmmakers that smacks of condescension as much as continuing to fund art house wannabes typifies upper class arrogance.

Nurturing on the basis of originality and talent while supporting based on achievement would go a long way to turning things around here.

No comments: