Friday, June 24, 2011

Knowing Where The Bodies Aren't Buried

mass grave

Television networks have an uncanny ability to make us believe things which aren't true.

At least twice in my own lifetime, powerful media conglomerates have whipped up patriotic frenzies surrounding non-existent threats like the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, assisting both Democratic and Republic Presidents in getting the United States into a war.

Closer to home, entire broadcast entities owe their existence to spreading the belief that the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup -- THIS YEAR!

While truth is always the first casualty in war and spinning it helps die-hard fans drink the Kool-Aid, building on the flimsiest veracity is what keeps broadcasters in the black.

Just recently, news helicopters and satellite trucks descended on the sleepy town of Hardin, Texas, drawn by the report of a mass grave and bloodstained house containing dozens of mutilated corpses, including those of children.

As the anchors excitedly ad-libbed around the sketchy facts they'd gleaned from "sources close to the scene", you sensed that newsroom graphics designers were already hastily reconfiguring posters from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to augment the visuals.

This was going to drive ad revenues and ratings through the roof!

texas chain

Unfortunately (for the networks) it turned out there weren't any bodies, neither mutilated nor whole. No blood. No tiny corpses under gurney blankets. Not even a crazed psycho on the loose.

To make matters worse, it seems the original tip came from a self-described "Psychic" who had just had -- a feeling.

The pursuit of a juicy story that viewers won't be able to resist has often conspired to embarrass TV journalists. But even when broadcasters miss a story, they can make you believe they were all over it.

A couple of summers ago, a cluster of deadly tornados descended on several suburbs of Toronto. Despite having recently won $150 Million in new funding for local news, not one of Toronto's major television outlets provided spot coverage, let alone the kind of second by second tracking and warning anyone familiar with storm coverage in the United States is used to seeing.

Despite the reality of what they were actually broadcasting (detailed and confirmed by several viewers here) within a few weeks, the local CTV affiliate was running ads that included clips of the storms as it proudly (yet with humility) announced its receipt of a "prestigious" Edward R. Murrow Award for its coverage of the event.


Now, I don't know if the Edward R. Murrow Award is an actual journalistic prize judged by the rigorous standards of its namesake or just one of the many media trophies that get handed out because you paid an entry fee or promised to turn up for the ceremony.

But I do know what CTV was broadcasting while people were running for their lives -- and it wasn't the news.

In a business that operates as much on perception as reality perhaps none of that should surprise us. And yet -- not being able to separate perception from reality can lead to expectations far removed from what actually comes to pass.

This week, BellMedia took the unprecedented step of purchasing the television rights to the works of three fairly well known Canadian mystery writers.

Normally, independent producers or studios will option the rights to a literary work, be it a novel, magazine article, comic book or whatever and then convince a network to help develop or produce it.

But in its press release, BellMedia made the point that, while the works would be parceled off to independent producers, these purchases showed its commitment to bringing more Canadian content onto Canadian television, computer and mobile screens.

And while the optimist in me thought that was a good thing and was pleased to see a few Canadian novelists and their eventual screenwriting counterparts get paid for their creative endeavors; my pragmatic side was wondering why this was being treated as some kind of big deal and the cynic permanently ensconced on my shoulder saw darker forces at work.

For starters, let me make it clear that I think William Deverell, Giles Blunt and Robert Rotenberg are all terrific writers deserving of far larger audiences than their current sales numbers might indicate they have. I've read at least one book by each of them and they're all masterful story tellers.

Yet in the hard-nosed world of optioning book rights, their aggregate numbers would not be considered a safe basis for an already risky investment.

Because in the world of making television and film, a good book doesn't necessarily result in a good final product, nor guarantee even a modicum of success. Sometimes great books turn into utterly unwatchable movies.

all the king's men

In the last year I can find numbers for, 2009, Hollywood studios and producers purchased the rights to 45,181 new works of fiction. Yet the number of major releases based on literary material numbered 125, the equivalent of one day's publishing.

Some of the books that made it to the screen in 2009 had been making their way there for years, in some cases decades. In fact, only 1% of books optioned ever get to Principle Photography and some of those never find a distributor. Many more don't attract an audience and never earn a dime.

If that mathematical formula applies North of the border, what's 1% of 3? Or even 1% of the 8-10 books that fall within this deal?

You begin to ask why such a deal is even newsworthy. Twenty years ago, Alliance or Atlantis were buying book rights every day.

And in the film business, having a good story ranks far behind execution and marketing, two skill sets Canadian networks are not known for owning.

There are any number of extremely talented Canadian screenwriters who'd give their right arm for the opportunity to adapt one of these novels. There are lots of talented directors and actors and technicians who can realize those scripts. But given the track record of BellMedia's networks, you have to wonder how committed the company will be to the investment required to give these novels a fighting chance, let alone their due.

As much as I want to believe that there are new winds blowing across the Canadian television landscape and that new owners are determined to increase their commitment to Cancon, that's not what I see.

BellMedia's flagship network does not have a single new Canadian drama on its fall schedule and spent as much or more as it had in the past on buying new American product. What's more, their executives continue to harass regulators to lower levels of Canadian programming or allow them more leeway to disguise it.


If William Deverell or his Publishers have visions of hefty paydays dancing in their heads, perhaps they need to ask their assigned screenwriter, Andrew Wreggitt, how much effort CTV put into promoting his recent award winning work "Mayerthorpe". Or they could call the Writers Guild of Canada to learn how much money Canadian screenwriters are earning in royalties from BellMedia product.

So, as much as I'd like to be optimistic, I can't shake the feeling that BellMedia's press release was primarily designed to curry favor as they entered yet another round of regulatory hearings with the aim of elevating their corporate status through the perception that they actually had a commitment to Canadian content.

In the end, I think we'll discover that BellMedia purchased their book options with the help of a development fund that's either government supported or to which they are merely one of many contributors. Their development of the project will be similarly financed, as will the production.

In the real world, good films and TV shows are not made from press releases and perception, but from passion and commitment and taking real financial risks.

One of my favorite books of the last decade, for example, will finally make it to the screen this fall.

When I first read Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" I could instantly see the movie. It was smart. It was funny. It had an incredible feel good ending. Despite its appeal to a narrow niche of baseball statistic nerds, it made that world enormously entertaining for everybody else.

The book became an instant best seller and ignited a studio bidding war. Yet it has taken eight years to get onto the screen.

A-list directors came and went. Shoot dates constantly shifted. Financing got shaky. The screenplay went through numerous drafts and bears the final credits of two of the highest paid and most admired writers in Hollywood, Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin.

In the end, there are some who believe it only got made because Brad Pitt and a stellar supporting cast hung in because of their own love of the original material.

But despite all that -- most people don't think "Moneyball" will be a hit. Its backers are resigned to waiting quite some time to make their money back -- let alone maybe make a few bucks.

But the studio is still pulling out all the stops to promote the film. Everybody involved remains passionate and committed and willing to continue the risk.

And those attributes are not the first that come to mind when I watch BellMedia executives like Mirko Bibic and Kevin Crull lay out their corporate master plan for the CRTC. Plans that really have nothing to do with championing Canadian artists or film-worthy literature or even understand that for some things to succeed what once worked needs to be done differently.

No comments: