Sunday, December 31, 2006

TIME Passes The Torch

Denis McGrath's great year end review and the fact that he and I and virtually everyone reading this post has been elected TIME magazine's "Person of the Year" got me thinking about the blogosphere, what that award actually means and more importantly what we do in the coming year with this newish arrow in our creative quivers.

My first reaction was pretty much like David Letterman's, "We got an award for looking at Porn!?!" But I logged on to TIME (having not bought the magazine in years on the basis of its growing irrelevance to my life and the massive over insertion of subscription cards) and read the article.

For once, I think TIME got it right.

Letterman wasn't the first to make fun of TIME's choice. Most "serious" news sources had already had a field day with it, naming their own far more deserving "Persons". It should be noted that TIME's "Man of the Year" which evolved into their "Person of the Year" has been relied on by most news organizations as substantial filler and fodder for comment during the notoriously dead holiday season.

And no wonder they were upset. These are the same guys who make a point of ridiculing almost any story that breaks first on the internet, or somehow otherwise usurps their perceived position as the media of record and the moral high ground they hold as members of the Fourth Estate (or Fifth Estate if you're a Journalist on the super moral high ground that is the CBC).

They trumpet the discovery of pedophiles on MySpace, after doing a fairly horrendous job for decades of rooting out the same activity in the Church basements of the world. They poo-pooh Wikipedia because it's "notoriously unreliable" and dismiss most of the blog world that competes with their own corporate bloggers because "Any idiot can start a blog".

Well any idiot can start a newspaper or broadcast network too. You just need to be a wealthier one. And it apparently doesn't hurt to have the lack of scruples of Rupert Murdoch (FOXNews, The OJ Book), Conrad Black (Read any Business Page) and Robert Maxwell. Maxwell isn't with us anymore, having taken a nude moonlight swim from his yacht mid-Atlantic shortly before he was to be charged with a War crime.

And let's face it, most news organizations aren't all that reliable either. Many simply regurgitate press releases or follow what everybody else seems to be doing. Funny how people notice that every gas station has the same price, but hardly anybody picks up that the top stories are the same virtually everywhere.

A website called Project Censored Media has for years compiled an annual list of the most under reported stories of any year. Also a great source for story ideas if you're interested. Likewise, the Center for Media and Democracy annually recognizes "polluters of the information environment". This year's winners were ABC for its "Path to 9/11" mini-series which used the 5th anniversary of 9/11 to rewrite history with a script said to be based on the official 9/11 Commission report, but which "included fabrications that are directly contradicted by the report."

Taking runner-up spot was the National Association of Broadcast Communicators for many TV stations' undisclosed use of public relations videos -- or video news releases -- as real news. The version we get in Canada is known as "Canada AM".

In a related story closer to home, Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias noted that the Broadcaster briefs recently submitted to the CRTC received significant coverage in virtually every Canadian media outlet, while contradicting information filed by craft guilds, broadcast watchdogs and others was barely reported, even by her own newspaper.

Gee, that wouldn't have anything to do with most of these media outlets being part of conglomerates that include one of the TV networks seeking redress, would it?

A British playwright who's name escapes me was once asked how he dealt with bad reviews. He answered, "I don't believe what they write on the front page. Why should I care what's in the entertainment section."

He was right. None of these news guys have much use for us and what we do in our online communities -- or our real lives for that matter. Just prior to the arrival of Web 2.0, Seagate CEO Bill Watkins said, "Let's face it. We're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap -- and watch porn."

But Mr. Watkins is wrong. Newspapers are scrambling to stay alive against the onslaught of the web's immediacy and ease of access. TV ratings tell us about 10% of their audience finds something better to do each year. And the rush of Ad revenue to the Internet indicates clearly where more and more people are going for most if not all of their news and information.

It's going to be interesting to see what we who blog will do with this growing audience. Few of us are trained in journalistic ethics and don't have the multiple contacts to fully verify or exhibit a "fair and balanced" view of what we post here. We just write from the heart and from our own experience. I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.

And that's why TIME had it right. They know their time (no pun intended) and the era of all big media is almost up. The current method of relaying information while creating public opinion hasn't got much future. The interconnected corporate world that now owns virtually all traditional media needs to spin any truth they tell. They simply have no choice if the revenue streams they're pushing are going to keep flowing. Whether that spin is to protect or promote the other tentacles of their organism, it can't help but shade the story. As one showbiz exec once explained to me at a sales market, "Nobody lies in this business. They tell you the truth they need you to believe."

We're in a time when we need to fall back on our own intelligence and experience as well as the intelligence and experience of others who have nothing to gain by what they write and everything to gain from a level playing field. (Okay maybe I'm up to $1.70 in my Adsense account but trust me, it takes more than a large double-double to sway my loyalties.)

TIME has officially passed the torch to us. I intend to use 2007 to light things up.

And Happy New Year! I think the coming one is going to be fun.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Tardo

The responses to my last post reminded me of an anecdote I haven't thought about in a while. It's also one of the first things I ever commited to print. If you know the story, bear with me. If you don't, I hope you make the connection...

During the 1970's, I was an actor performing in a lot of new Canadian plays. Frequently, those plays went on tour, giving me the opportunity to live and work in some of the great cities of the world. In the winter of 1973, I was in London, performing in a theatre that, like all the best British theatres, had a comfortable Pub tucked next to the stage door.

British Pubs at the time closed at 11:00 pm, early by North American standards, but the rules were still civilized enough that while the Publican couldn't serve drinks after last call, the customer was allowed to sit and enjoy whatever was on his table until well after "Time, Gentlemen" had been called.

The show I was doing was a long three act play with a tragic ending that was allowed to linger in the audiences' mind by not tacking on a curtain call at the end. My character was done at the end of Act II and since the curtain fell at 11:00, it was my job to take drink orders from the cast and crew and comandeer a back booth for us to enjoy them after the show.

My huge last call order was always a hit with the Pub regulars, who also introduced me to a game called "Shove Ha'Penny". It was a compact version of shuffleboard that involved shooting pennies for distance and accuracy.

For some reason that I'm sure made sense to the English, the penny was a huge and heavy coin about the size of a fifty cent piece, while their smallest coin (smaller than a dime) was a sixpence -- worth six times as much, and treasured among us actors because you had to plug them into a box in your hotel room to get heat or hot water.

Among the Pub's regulars was a young man who had an obvious mental disability. In that era it was called a "retardation" shortened by the Publican into his nickname, "The Tardo".

The Tardo had a menial job somewhere down the street and would come in every evening for a pint. Invariably, his drink was paid for by one of the regulars after they'd played a little game with him. The regular would hold up a big shiny Penny and a drab little sixpence and ask the Tardo which one was worth more. The young man would hem and haw, straining to decide and pick the penny. The others would laugh, make jokes about what an idiot he was and buy him his pint.

To my eyes, it was kind of cruel and insensitive, but everybody seemed to have fun and the poor guy never paid for a drink so who was I to criticize.

One night, the city was hit by a major downpour. Hardly anybody came to the show and when I took the drink order into the pub, it was completely deserted. As the Publican pulled the pints, the Tardo walked in, soaking wet and looking for his nightcap. He realized I was the only customer and approached, waiting for me to play the game. I couldn't and the Publican told him to either pay for his own drink or leave.

Before I could say I was buying, the young man took out a change purse and carefully counted out the required combination of shillings, sixpences and pennies to cover the exact cost. Pre-decimal system Math, I have to admit, I was still struggling with.

"You know how to count", I said. He nodded. Continuing to state the obvious, I said, "You know what all those coins are worth." He nodded again. I picked up a penny from the game board and asked him why he always chose it from the regulars instead of the much more valuable sixpence.

He studied me for a long moment and said, "If I don't, they'll stop playing the game."

That night, that young man taught me one of the most important things I've learned in life. We all hunger to be accepted, to be part of the world and share in the warmth of being involved in what those around us are doing. Sometimes that means that we hide who we are and the truths we know to be included.

Hiding who you are sometimes has obvious advantages. But as a lifestyle, it prevents you from realizing your talents to the fullest and becoming all you can be to both yourself and others. Those of us with fully functioning minds and bodies always have a choice.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Party Never Ends

Tis the season! We're in the middle of a month long period where not much show business business gets done as everyone concentrates on the holidays. This follows hard on the heels of the two weeks nobody did much because of American Thanksgiving and the American Film Market which preceeded it.

They came a short time after little was accomplished because everybody was at Mipcom in October and the Toronto Film Festival in September. Luckily, the Festival falls after Labor Day when people are just getting back from summer vacations which arrived around the time they returned from Banff or the Upfronts.

And before that was Cannes, NATPE and Sundance as we work in reverse order back to last New Year and Christmas.

An outsider looking at our industry might wonder just when anything actually gets done. We tell them it's a "relationship" business. You have to "network", "do face time" or "schmooze" and we get a lot of that done during our almost continuous party season!

I love parties! I love hangin' with people in the biz, the more often than not free booze, the mystery finger foods and even the almost never cutting edge mix disks.

I'm a fabulous guest too!

For starters, I'm a cheap date having inherited enough of my mom's DNA to know I can't handle more than a couple of drinks -- or in her words "Two and I'm anybody's, three and I'm everybody's."

Secondly, because good old mom also taught me to be courteous to the host and deferential to their guests, I've ended up with the understated sophistication and charm that has become my trademark.

Finally, I have absolutely no problem talking to anybody about anything and also, for the most part, sounding like I actually know what I'm talking about -- and give a handsome shit about what they think as well!

Being such fun on dates means I'm one of the miniature mirror balls at any soiree and as such -- given the prevailing wisdom of our industry, have wonderful things said about me by virtually everyone and thus get hired for all kinds of jobs...

Unfortunately, I can't recall one single, solitary work situation that came my way through schmoozing, networking or getting somebody completely hammered and taking pictures of them nobody else should ever see.

Likewise, I've only hired one person who was a hoot to party with. This was an accountant who used to tabulate showbiz award ballots. He was a laugh a minute and made accounting actual fun! A year after I hired him, he was in rehab for his Coke habit and I was explaining a lot of things that didn't make much sense to me either to a Tax Auditor.

I've worked with a few people who were hired because they were stars on the social circuit. There was the director who wanted to film a police gunbattle in the style of Andrzej Wajda making a Spaghetti Western. His first dailies were so indecipherable, we rushed him off to do all important establishing shots while a 2nd Unit director, who couldn't party worth a damn and would go on to direct the pilots of three of the seminal series of the 90's, grabbed enough "inserts" to allow an audience to follow the bullets.

I run into the art meets spaghetti director all the time at parties. He always has a new image, a new martini recipe and a new film. The last one I saw didn't have an ending. Honest, it didn't. It stopped just before the big climactic scene the last 20 minutes had built toward. I remember thinking, "Wow, what a dumb place to put a commercial break!" and then instead of a few words from our sponsor the final credits started to roll.

I was also once instructed to assign a script to a writer who's a fixture at parties. I've never been a fan of his work, but he's a wine encyclopedia and one of my execs aspired to own vineyards, so he got a script.

To nobody's surprise, there were a lot of notes on his first draft, and when I called to warn him of that and set a time for the ordeal, he had no problem taking care of the matter right away. About an hour into the notes marathon, I heard a toilet flush on the other end of the line. I was a little flumoxed, asked if he needed a minute. He said, "No" and asked me to repeat the last dialogue note because he'd been...

That's a level of professionalism you just can't discern on the dance floor.

And I probably can't count the number of charming actors, gorgeous actresses and canape servers somebody's hired to play a role. My favorite was a pilot I wrote where the director managed to have his three most favorite Maitre D's burst into a restaurant and dispatch a mob boss. This casting coup almost turned tragic when one of them hit another in the ass with the wad from a blank and the third almost took off his own foot with the blast from a sawed off shotgun.

Still, the director assured me over dailies, this creative choice would guarantee him good tables for years to come once the trio saw themselves onscreen. That was when I pointed out something he didn't appear to have noticed on set -- the three mob hitmen were all wearing balaclavas.

Come to think of it, this guy was pretty good at the schmooze himself.

What I'm getting at here is this. A lot of people get jobs because of who they know and where they show. Many of those people keep getting jobs despite any visible talent or system of logic anyone can explain. But only a few of these party animals do work that's either interesting or lasting.

I realize that paying the rent is important, but if money's what matters to you, please go and sell crack. You'll pocket way more than you will ever earn in this business, meet far more interesting associates and your chances of ending up in jail will be far smaller than your odds of winning any industry statues or plaques.

If I'm looking for a Brain surgeon, I don't call a guy I met over bean dip. And if I'm in trouble, I'm not calling that lawyer who was at that thing at my agent's beach house and knew a lot of cute blondes.

Sorry to be the party pooper here, but most good people hire other good people because they're actually good at what they do.

It seems I'm forever shaking hands over the shrimp trolley with some guy who tells me he's heard a lot about me. My response is usually, "I hope it's as juicy as some of the stuff I've heard." The other line they use is how nice it is to put a face to the name. And inside I'm always thinking, "What's any of this got to do with what I do?" and it reminds me of when I was starting out in the business 30 years ago and women writers used initials instead of their given names so the guys reading their script wouldn't know it was written by a "girl".

We've almost killed that old boy network and it's time we stopped degrading our business by making its face that of some idiot's personal trainer or mistress and the talent behind them not the best we can find but the funny guys we hung out with at some overhyped BBQ...

That's why nobody's watching our shows, folks. Any girl from a trailer park knows the flashy guy at the party is not the one who will come through when it counts.

I didn't go to any parties this holiday season. A few years ago, I was quoted as saying I wasn't attending some award ceremony "Because they don't let you bring your shotgun." I was kidding then, but those words have a different resonance for me now.

The recent CRTC hearings have revealed, among those who broadcast our work, a level of dismissal of what we all do that is beyond my comprehension -- and a lack of outrage from our guilds, agents and fellow artists that is soul crushing.

You can't help but meet network execs at industry fetes and I can't comprehend a conversation I'd want to have with any of them that didn't involve a ball gag, metal clamps and a car battery. And I'm done watching actors down to their last tank of gas put on a brave face and I'm through listening to writers with beautiful scripts aging past their relevance spout gallows humor. So I decided to stay away from all of them until I make some sense of this.

What I did instead was gather up my invitations, cable my regrets (okay e-mailed but I was going for that understated sophistication thing) and calculated how much time I'd probably spend at each and what I'd shell out for parking, hostess gifts, cash bars and the like.

The money went into a Salvation Army bucket and bought coffee for several surprised cops. The time was spent taking a disabled neighbor shopping, delivering the books I've realized I'll never read to the old folks home I'll probably end up in, (Hey, I can read 'em then!) an afternoon serving in a Church soup kitchen and a night working for a local program that drives home drunks.

To be honest, I think I had more fun than I would have had at those parties. I gathered a ton of great ideas -- and I talked to a lot of people nobody ever talks to about Canadian television and why none of them bother to watch it.

If you went out to the parties, I hope you had a good time. I truly do. (Confidentially, I don't even own a shotgun) But I also hope that if a call hasn't come from that special someone you schmoozed, you've vowed not to party a little harder next time, but decided to work on your craft instead.

It's all about the work, people. It really is. And very soon the ones who do it well are going to be invaluable.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas

You've probably never heard of Francis Pharcellus Church. He was a writer for the New York Sun, a newspaper he founded with his brother after the American Civil War. While a third brother would become famous for witnessing and filing the first reports of the "Gunfight at the OK Corral", Francis stuck to covering wars, corruption and big city crime. A man noted for his cynicism, he openly admitted that he'd seen too much inhumanity to ever put any faith in mankind.

He never married, never had children and after a long day at his editor's desk in late 1897, his brother asked him to respond to one last letter for the morning edition. What Church wrote in the hours that followed remains, more than a century later, the most reprinted editorial of all time. But Church never took credit for it and its authorship was not revealed until after his death.

Yet in his short 400 word response, he captured the essence of Christmas and the meaning of this season. Church's editorial is reprinted below, followed by a link to the radio archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and an interview conducted 66 years later with the author of the letter he was answering.

May they lighten your heart and inspire you with the best of the season.

Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun: “I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so”. Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon
115 West Ninety-Fifth Street”

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus? Thank God he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Monday, December 11, 2006


I caught "Apocalypto" this weekend. And although I thought it was a pretty good movie, I didn't think it was either "the work of a powerful film-maker at the hieght of his talents" or "another Mad Mel psychotic bloodbath" the spectrum of critics wanted me to believe.

To be honest I think I've seen more blood on a few episodes of "CSI" or in the only other movie about Mayans I can recall, "Kings of the Sun". That one features George Chakiris as a Mayan war chief who takes a stand against human sacrifice while sparring with Yul Bryner for the hand of an Apache maiden. It's a real cheeseball pre-Columbian Western with some spectacular action and sets if you manage to find it.

Back to Mel. I'm a fan of the films he's directed. I had a cup of coffee with him once, about two weeks before he won the Oscar for "Braveheart" and found him very civilized and charming. The fact that he's apparently also a bigot means I'm unlikely to want to have another cup of coffee with him, but it doesn't make me less interested in seeing his films; any less than D.W. Griffith being an unapologetic racist or Leni Reifenstahl a Nazi makes their films unworthy of viewing.

You know that "Trust the Art not the Artist" thing? It's true.

Today I heard that Disney is running a quiet Oscar campaign for "Apocalypto" using the strategy that no matter what Mel's said or done, he's not as bad as Oscar winning child molester Roman Polanski or Oscar winning step-daughter marrier Woody Allen.

And that got me thinking -- "How frickin' nuts are we getting?"

I should make it clear that I've never understood anti-semitism on any level. (Racism and Sexism too but we'll get to those in other posts) Every lawyer, accountant and agent I've ever had has been Jewish. Their religion has never made a bit of difference to me and I'm fairly certain my status as some kind of lapsed Christian-Existential-Buddhist never crosses their minds.

I grew up in Redneck Central and can remember the fellas down at the Mason's Hall going on about the "International Jewish Conspiracy". I couldn't get my head around that. I knew two Jewish kids at school and I figured if they were really in on some all-powerful conspiracy it would have included keeping them from getting their asses kicked every other recess by the Catholic kids. So that dog didn't hunt for me.

Around age 11, I wanted to become a Freemason -- actually what I really wanted was to be a Shriner so I could wear a fez and get to drive one of those little cars. I still had enough of that in me at 14 to join the Masonic teen version "The Order of DeMolay". But I quit after a year when I discovered I couldn't get one of my pals in because he was Catholic.

All that said, I fully understood the trepidation many Jews and good Christians had about the pending release of Mel's "The Passion of the Christ" but I certainly didn't get the rabid media frenzy. And having seen the film twice, once in the theatre and again on DVD, I still feel you have to stretch some to read any anti-semitism in it. And the true villains of the piece are the same ones you find in the Bible -- Roman soldiers.

Yet the furor over that film has never died and the day before "Apocalypto" opened, there was an item on IMDB's Studio Briefing page saying that now the Mayans hated Mel too! According to a Mayan spokesman, by making a film which revolved around the historically documented Mayan practice of human sacrifice, Mr. Gibson had made his people appear to be "savages".

Like I said, how nuts are we getting -- and who's making us this way?

Around the same day the above "news" item appeared, the Los Angeles Times reported that Damon Wayans had been banned from the Laugh Factory, the site of Michael (Kramer) Richards' racial tirade, after he opened his routine by remarking, "Give yourselves a big round of applause for coming down and supporting N****r Night."

I'm sorry. That may not be politically correct, but a Black man uttering those words in that place does more to put the people trying to defend Kramer in their place than anything else I’ve heard on the subject. And it's funny too!

I believe what we're really seeing in this endless rhubarb is another one of those media/marketing frenzies designed not to address an issue or even approach the truth of a film but to simply sell tickets. Last summer, it was revealed that most of the websites railing against "The Da Vinci Code" were in fact owned and operated by Sony Pictures, who had given a forum to the film's nay-sayers in the hope of increasing public awareness.

A friend who used to write for the National Enquirer once told me they don't actually make most of that stuff up. In his words, "You wouldn't believe what you can get some people to say once you get them going!"

So whether it's Mad Mel or Crazy Christians, what's happening here is actually all about the money. In the process, however, real life issues are trivialized and the real life zealots and idiots who would deny the Holocaust, affirm Vatican conspiracies or spout any random bat-shit lunacy are given the ammunition to continue their insanities.

Watch for some beheading or dis-embowelment in the coming weeks to be attributed to Mel's movie.

I know somebody has to cut through the clutter and find an audience, but do we have to do it this way?

I also remember the sheer joy of seeing "The Sting" and "ET" without knowing a single thing about them. I get that same thrill every time I discover a film either the world or just me hasn't heard a damn thing about. That's too much to hope for, but the quiet might do everybody a lot of good.

As John Prine so deftly put it in his song about TV commercials, would you please just "Stop Hollerin' At Me"?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


A few weeks ago, I ran across a website offering free television over the internet. TVU networks is a service that enables Broadcasters to reach global audiences. Using a technology similar to peer-to-peer file sharing, it provides free channels from around the world as well as pay channels and pay-per-view events. Contrary to what you might expect, it's completely legal, authorized and supported by the Broadcasters who are contributing their programming.

You can download the player here:

The player has three screen sizes;

4 inch so it can run in a corner window while you write, email or blog;
8 inch and full screen

The channels change from time to time, but usually I have the option of up to three different NHL games most nights, many from cities not offered locally. Same with the NBA, Premier League Soccer, even full coverage of "The Ashes" if you're into Cricket. CBC put up the Grey Cup game a couple of Sundays ago and I caught all the blame game fun on FoxNews during the US mid-term elections; something I couldn't have done in Canada without paying extra for the channel.

That's another thing that's unique about this -- there's everything from Cable Access Manila to HBO movies or a single evening broadcast of "X-Men 3".

Tonight, among my options are:

Local channels from France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Taiwan.
A handful of music channels
Comedy Central (US)
A couple of movie channels
A half dozen Asian channels
NHL 1, 2, 3.
YES (NY Sports Net)
USA Network
Channel 10 Australia

and my favorite...

Traffic in Shanghai

I'm sure the quality depends on your ISP and local bitrate, but even full screen it's watchable.

This is just another example of the way the Broadcast world is changing and the evolving options the audience has to meet its own needs. It's also proof that local broadcast regulators will have their hands full controlling what people see and hear from now on.

Give it a try. If the CRTC does decide to bump cable rates, maybe this can offset whatever you dump to save money.