Sunday, January 28, 2007


(I hate it when people characterize my industry ramblings as rants, because they're not composed in that frame of mind. I conquered my anger issues when I gave up Golf. So accept what follows as quiet fireside musings by quirky Uncle Jim, as he sits with a glass of Merlot, gazes at the television -- and loads his shotgun.)

A recurring theme at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland was the growing inability of governments, influence groups and multi-national corporations to control their populations, target audiences and customers.

For those of you unfamiliar with Davos, it's an Alpine ski destination that is home to the 11 guys who secretly run the world. The fellas stack their boards one week each January, giving up ollies and fakies in order to have some of the world's best minds up to the chalet to get wasted and guess the future.

My favorite prediction was from a panel on new media: Within the next year a major corporation or political leader will be destroyed by the work of a single blogger.

Who would have believed our major institutions were that vulnerable!

I can see DMC lining up Shaw Cable already...

But apparently these institutions are indeed that frail and they're scared too. For panel after panel at Davos showed that no matter how an agenda is spun or how diligently the powers that be stay "on message", people just can't be expected to do what's expected of them anymore. They're using this new fangled internet thing to consider second or even third opinions and demanding a better deal and more control of their lives.

The Internet tubes exposed some showbiz examples of this in the last few days...

In Toronto, the ACTRA sort-of-a-strike continued as union opponents began a concerted campaign to blame Canada's actors for our decline in production and the industry's overall woes. An article in the Toronto Star headlined "The End" painted a stark picture of artists and technicians facing bankruptcy, losing their homes or having to leave the country to find work. And while all of that is painfully true, it's telling that any blame at all would be placed on the group perhaps least responsible.

A number of producers also copied me an Anti-ACTRA video. I decided not to post it here because it's ill informed, probably libelous and so badly made it proves beyond any doubt most producers don't have a creative bone in their bodies.

The short presentation claims "actor greed" is destroying our industry and the ACTRA membership is being unwittingly manipulated by SAG (The American Screen Actor's Guild). That message is delivered with a tone of entitlement implying the messenger is in charge of greed and manipulation, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, as the two sides failed at mediation and headed off to court, several CFTPA spokesmen decried the loss of the "Big Studio Pictures" which would have come to Toronto if not for the strike.

Now, correct me if your experience is different from mine, but those films traditionally arrive with their stars and the bulk of their supporting players trailing them into the best hotels and restaurants. To be sure, ACTRA members work on these productions, often in significant numbers, but rarely do they comprise more than a fraction of the budget line alloted to onscreen talent.

Even in LA, where a certain strata of actors command enormous fees, the majority of SAG members seldom work above scale, or scale plus 10% if they have a good agent (that extra 10% being the agent's fee).

I've seen reliable figures indicating that the Canadian actor portion of the Big Studio Pictures filmed here amounts to 2% of the budget. Since ACTRA is allowing producers to sign letters of continuance to keep shooting despite the strike by paying a 5% increase in fees and 2% more for insurance and retirement, that means the average Big Studio Picture would see its budget skyrocket by a crippling tenth of a percentage point.

And that's sending everybody to North Carolina and Romania instead?

The CFTPA spokesmen also mentioned the general instability ACTRA has created by putting producers in the position of not knowing if they can keep shooting.

But virtually every producer already up and running or firmly scheduled to shoot in the next few months has signed those letters of continuance, proving stability either isn't an issue or nobody at CFTPA knows the words to "Solidarity Forever".

Both sides claim they offered to set aside the thorny issue of internet rights for a year but the other side turned them down. In CFTPA's version ACTRA demanded a 50% increase in fees to do that, while ACTRA's version said the producers wanted those interim rights for "free". Either way, it's obvious they both don't have either the tools or the desire to tackle that job.

The new media will be the core issue for both SAG and the WGA when their contracts expire in 9 months time. Letting the big dogs fight over that bone makes sense, because we here will eventually have to work to similar rates and conditions to remain competitive.

So what's really causing this anti-actor venom?

I think it's the coming labor unrest in Hollywood. LA studios are already stockpiling material in advance of the anticipated shutdown. In the past, that preparative strategy has included offshore production and ACTRA has put a crimp in those plans.

Production is booming in Vancouver where a seperate Performer union, UBCP, has created a window of unfettered production until April. But there are growing producer concerns that UBCP has been put in the catbird seat for their own negotiations, positioned to almost dictate terms in a few short weeks.

I'll get to the reasons the unions and Guilds are digging in their heels. But back to the venom. It comes from the same source as the angst in Davos -- a sense of entitlement.

Producers and Studios have historically been in charge and are now feeling squeezed both financially and creatively. They're not used to that and don't like it.

The Canadian Television Fund squabble aside, money is getting harder to raise everywhere. In addition, anybody with a creative streak, a camcorder and a credit card now can achieve product of almost studio quality to take to Park City or AFM -- some of them good enough to get distribution and therefore screen time that doesn't go to the big boys, precious shelf space they once commanded at Blockbuster, or simply a few of the dollars the average guy used to spend for entertainment.

Interestingly, a lot of those films also feature actors you wouldn't normally find outside the studio system. But the squeeze is hitting those people too and the easiest way back into that high earner strata is to get a good film (or even "any" film) released.

Like the multi-nationals now at the mercy of a single blogger, the networks and studios we once thought owned the world are having to converge and acquire to hang on to their market share, and since even that may not work they're getting cranky. They want their world back and their sense of entitlement is showing.

This week the MPAA, the communal corporate voice of the studios, threatened to delay new releases for up to a month in Canada to combat the scourge of camcorder piracy apparently running rampant in Montreal and ruining studio bottom lines.

I guess the thought was that this would scare our governments into enacting tough anti-piracy legislation or otherwise choke off the cheap supply of new releases flooding local malls and the internet.

Apparently, the entitlement gene prevented them from thinking this through and perhaps realizing such a strategy would also mean losing the spillover impact of their US marketing campaigns, creating the need to design a second campaign to run a month later, which would have to not only reignite interest but counter negative reviews and spoilers.

I guess this would mean Canadian Pay TV access and DVD releases would also be delayed by a month, or the studios would face further audience shrinkage by lessening the wait times to see a film via one of those options. I suppose you could lobby the Canadian government to enact tough new regulations preventing Canadians from ordering DVDs from instead of, but wouldn't it be easier to put up a sign in theatres saying they'll confiscate any recording devices and pay a couple of high school kids minimum wage to wander through the theatres during each screening to look for anybody filming the film?

Those kids used to be called "ushers" and they also asked people to stop talking, put their feet down or turn off their cellphones thus enhancing the movie-going experience so there wasn't a debate about whether it would be more fun to go out to see a movie instead of staying in.

I have no idea how these marketing geniuses are strategizing their European release patterns today after an Italian high court Judge on Friday ruled that downloading is no longer illegal there.

The high school pirate down the street assures me that only idiots bother with camcorder downloads anyway when quality DVD Screeners are readily available. He showed me his laptop copy of a film that's been in theatres less than a week. Pristine and clear, it included a warning that the number in the corner would identify the user if his copy were shared or distributed. The code number had been pixeled out.

Perhaps our institutions are vulnerable because the guys running them don't have enough sense to know how cheap and easy it is to embed an invisible code to identify the industry insiders who are actually behind the illegal distribution of their material.

Meanwhile, other artists are embracing the sharing of their work and building audience loyalty by serving that market as well as selling their work on easily transferable flash cards and usb sticks.

It's always easier to beat up your audience base, the rubes you feel you are better than and whose money you've grown to feeling entitled to; than it is to figure out how to serve them better. "Serve them? Hey, Buddy we make the rules here not the audience!"

I recall a character in a Hollywood movie of the late 60's saying, "Stop trying to hold back the hands of the clock! They'll tear your arms out!" Maybe they don't even watch their own films...

The same sense of entitlement has them dictating to artists too. Two weeks ago, New Line Co-Chair Bob Shay tossed "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson off "The Hobbit" amid a dispute over profit sharing on the trilogy, saying:

"He's got a quarter of a billion dollars so far. And this guy sues us! I don't want to work with him any more." He then reminded us of his entitlement with..."I don't even expect him to say 'thank you' for having me make it happen."

Jackson's response was simply: "Our legal action is about holding New Line to its contractual obligations."

A source in Variety surmised that Shaye's disparaging remarks were an attempt to put the focus on the millions Jackson had made instead of any book-cooking on the studio's part.

The problems in our business and elsewhere come down to the same thing.

We elect politicians who promise to make our lives better.

They don't.

We buy products from companies who tell us they're reliable.

They aren't.

We make movies for producers who promise to share the profits.

They won't.

And now the growing availability of information and shared experience is revealing just how deep those past deceptions have been. Actors and writers who've been royally screwed on residuals and DVD income for years aren't going to license any new media without a system in place that provides them with a fair share of the profits and accountability for the numbers.

They just won't!

The same new media that is causing this revolution is bridging the gap between artists and their audience, providing new ways to connect without the need for the corporate middle men who now sit between them and control both.

Author Primo Levi once said, "There is only one crime and that is undeserved privilege."

So guys, if you want to maintain your privileged position and stay in charge, it's time to stop feeling entitled and start being part of finding a solution.

Tales From The Crypt

Somewhere in the archives, I have a very nice letter from Walt Disney regretfully declining the opportunity to work with me. Until the age of 12, I wanted to be a cartoonist, maybe have my own strip like “Dennis the Menace” and freelance. But I also wanted to work for Walt’s animation department. Even at that age, I instinctively knew I wasn’t whacked enough to belong in the Chuck Jones bullpen at Warner Brothers.

I sent Walt a nice letter, a number of my best drawings and an estimate of what it would cost to move me and my family to Burbank. I was sure my dad could find a job once we got there, but I did feel obligated to cover some of the costs if we were going to uproot ourselves and become some theatrical Joad family lighting out for the promised land of California.

Walt wrote back, thanked me for the offer and praised my work, but insisted that I shouldn’t come knocking on his door until I’d gotten a high school diploma. To this day, I don’t know if he was thinking about my future or delivering my first letter of rejection. But by the time I finished high school it didn’t matter because Uncle Walt was in the freezer and my #2 pencils had been replaced by electric guitars and a bong.

But I read a lot of books about being a cartoonist and diligently watched “Learn to Draw” with John Gnagy. That was a half hour show where using the simple ability to draw a circle, a cube and a cone, John would turn out a masterpiece in under 20 minutes, spending the next ten shilling for his learn at home kits and giving out art tips.

I had great respect for anybody who could crank out a polished piece of work stopping only for a single commercial break. Although, looking back, I think John cheated a little. Virtually every one of his sketches ended up with a big honking tree in the foreground as “a natural frame” which also obliterated a third or more of the canvas.

The other day I realized that one of the things I’d learned during my cartoon training has stuck with me and continues to play a major role in my writing career. That’s something cartoonists call “The Morgue”.

A cartoonist’s morgue is a filing cabinet filled with doodles, drawings, tear sheets from magazines, photographs and other visual devices that become references or models when the time comes to draw something similar. In other words, you don’t have to have a model come in to pose with a pick-axe if you’ve got a chain gang photo to use instead.

Although having a naked lady hanging around the office is always a good thing – and it does allow the handcuffs to become a tax deduction.

But I digress….

When I wrote my first script, I started keeping a journal, writing down all the ideas I wasn’t using (but thought I might need later) and adding pictures and sketches as visual examples of what I was after. That has evolved over the years to making daily notations of story ideas, character traits, idiosyncrasies I’ve noticed about people with similar occupations or personalities.

I now have 40 or 50 black hardcover notebooks sitting within reach, each bursting with material I’ll probably never use and bent out of shape from all the clippings, photographs and drawings that have been glued into them.

Each time I write a script, I select one at random before I start my first revision and read through it, inevitably coming up with a legal pad page or two of one-liners, character shadings, jokes or visual ideas to incorporate into the pass.

I’ve always been careful to credit any quotes from outside sources, so those aren’t used, but often become a springboard to creating something new. And whenever one of my own entries is used, I cross it off so it doesn’t end up in something else.

Invariably, pulling material from the morgue helps me to focus on what I’m really trying to say with a script. And over time I’ve also noticed recurring themes and personal insights that end up giving the material an identity I can call my own.

No matter where you are in your writing career, it won’t hurt to take a few minutes a day to write down what you’ve been thinking about, reacting to or have heard in passing. It might not seem important now, but the day will come when it just might make something you’re writing better for its being in the morgue.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

John Hart's Long Rifle

I held a piece of Canadian television and my own history today, John Hart's long rifle.


John Hart was television's "Lone Ranger" in the mid-1950's. Before that, he'd been a stuntman and "Captain Africa". But he left Hollywood in 1957 to come to Canada to star in a television series.

Hard as it may be to comprehend, long before we were dependent on government subsidies, CTF funds and regional tax benefits to survive, there was a vibrant production industry in Canada funded by private investors who actually made money.

To be honest, much of this was Hollywood getting around British and Australian quota systems that sharply limited the number of American films and TV series that entered those countries. By producing in Canada, the finished product was considered of Commonwealth manufacture and slid under the barrier.

Hart came here with fellow actor Lon Chaney Jr. ("Of Mice and Men", "The Wolfman") to star in "The Last of the Mohicans" which was loosely, as in very loosely, based on the James Fennimore Cooper novel. 39 half hour episodes were filmed in glorious B&W at an unimaginable cost of $25,000 per episode.

Hart and Chaney moved into the same apartment building in Mimico (West Toronto) which was soon besieged by kids who climbed through windows and slid down laundry chutes to meet their small and big screen idols. Both actors did the “Buffalo shuffle” almost every weekend to escape the fans and find a little culture across the border. Back then, the movie and theatre offerings in the endlessly burning city were far more diverse than they were here.

Exterior shooting was done 4 days a week on a farm just North of Pickering (East Toronto) where a frontier village, Indian encampment and 18th century fort were built. What is now endless tract housing was then virtually untouched wilderness. The Lakeshore Studios (still in use today) serviced the production one day a week for interiors.

As a kid, I was blissfully unaware of all this. All I knew was that John Hart and the show CBC broadcast every Friday at 8:00 were every bit as good as Hugh O’Brian in “Wyatt Earp”, Steve McQueen in “Wanted: Dead or Alive” or Richard Boone in “Have Gun Will Travel”, some of my other faves. It didn’t look any different, feel any different or tell its stories better or worse. And I never missed an episode.

Nobody complained that it sounded or looked like a Canadian production. Nobody had to go out of their way to make Canadian references or show a flag or mailbox to tell you where it had been shot. It wasn’t trying to sell some bureaucrat’s concept of social engineering or cultural identity. It was just a dopey TV show, burning off 30 minutes that I should’ve been using to perfect my hockey skills so I could’ve led the dog-ass Maple Leafs to a couple of Stanley Cups in the modern era.

Simultaneous to the production of “Last of the Mohicans”, 39 episodes of “Tugboat Annie” were produced here, as were another 39 of a series about truckers for a frieght company called C&A entitled “Cannonball”. Except for one or two foreign stars in each, the entire cast and crew of all three were Canadian.

Think of that! At a time when the production community was 1% of what it is now, 117 episodes of Canadian drama made it to air – perhaps more than three National networks with millions of dollars of subsidies appear capable of producing today. And that number doesn’t include all the other original dramas, comedies and variety shows that aired nightly on the CBC. It makes you wonder how much our industry has really benefited from all the government intervention, supervision and regulation.

“Last of the Mohicans” wasn’t art, but then neither is “Trailer Park Boys” or “Intelligence” or “House” or “Bones’ for that matter. Television series aren’t about art, they’re about entertaining people. One of my acting teachers once told me, “You can never set out to create art. You entertain. If you do it well, somebody else might call it art. It’s the audience’s decision, not yours.”

This afternoon, a friend and I were talking about how bleak the Canadian industry appears right now and how many restrictions there are on just being able to go out and shoot something, let alone see it broadcast. In typical Geezer fashion, we hearkened back to the good old days when everybody was busy and good looking women gave us a second look. I asked him what his first show was and he said “Last of the Mohicans”.

Turns out his father was on the crew and they needed an Indian kid for an episode. They shaved his head into a Mohawk and he did a scene with Lon Chaney Jr. When the series folded, his dad ended up with a few of the props, including John Hart’s Long Rifle.

Holding that gun was a bizarre experience, because it touched some of my earliest memories and yet connected to where I am today, just trying to entertain people but having to fill out reams of government paper and jump through endless regulatory hoops before I get the chance.

I once had a conversation with Australian director Fred Schepisi ("The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith", "Roxanne", "The Russia House") and asked how he thought we could build an industry like Australia had over here. He looked at me dumbfounded and said, "Mate, we used you for the model" and then added, "What happened to you guys?"

I often wonder the same thing.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Truth is the First Casualty

There's a line in an old song by The Eagles -- come to think of it, all the songs by The Eagles are old now -- that goes something like "I know my life would look all right, if I could see it on the silver screen". It might've been the first hint that the tsunami that became movies based on fact and "reality television" was headed our way.

It's odd that everyone accepts reality television as "reality" when its mostly not; and perhaps even odder that we demand our truth based fiction be completely factually accurate.

When I was running "Top Cops", every page of script was vetted by CBS lawyers demanding that it accurately reflect court transcript, sworn police statements and any other document which proved the veracity of the events we were recreating. Still, we got sued almost every episode. Somewhere, somebody, a witness, a victim, an uncredited police officer or the perpetrator himself would come forward to say we got it wrong and had done irreparable damage in the process.

Four full seasons of lawsuits and we never lost one -- mostly because the facts spoke for themselves but the people who experienced the events had a different truth, either one they needed to believe for their own personal peace of mind, or one they needed others to believe for less noble motives.

In the last year, three films were released which dealt with the events of September 11, 2001. Two of those films, "United 93" and "World Trade Center" included massive amounts of material, scenes, dialogue, characters and characteristics of characters for which no supportive documentation exists. They were rendered true solely through the creative talents of the writers and other artists associated with their production. Both received critical acclaim and resulted in few if any calls for them to be removed from distribution for these moments of fiction.

A third film, "The Path to 9/11" suffered a far different fate. It was ridiculed as being filled with inaccuracies, pilloried as a blatant attempt to rewrite history and place blame for the events of that day where it did not belong. A campaign was launched to prevent it from being broadcast and to have scenes re-edited or excised.

I lost six friends in the twin towers on 9/11, New York police officers I had worked with and come to know during the many ride-a-longs I did in producing "Top Cops". One of my neighbors works for United Airlines and flew as a flight attendant with the pilots of United 93 mere days before the events that took their lives. What happened that day reverberates with me in a very personal way.

For that reason and others, I joined in the chorus of derision that was heaped on "The Path to 9/11". Like many of the politicians, media spinners and others who once found reason to sue me, I had come to believe my own truth about that day and the film questioned those beliefs.

Cyrus Nowrasteh, writer of "The Path to 9/11" recently published an article in the Writers Guild of America's magazine "Written By" to give his side of the story. His words moved me greatly, made me realize I was wrong and how much we, as writers, are both at the mercy of, and part of, the same forces that want to bury the truths we tell.

Cyrus has graciously agreed to allow me to re-publish his Written By piece below. I hope you'll read it and take what he has to say to heart.


Written by Cyrus Nowrasteh

From the December 2006 issue of "Written By"

When I took on the assignment to write The Path to 9/11 for ABC, I felt it was the most important and the most sensitive project that I, or any writer, could tackle. For that reason, and because of a deeply felt personal responsibility toward the story and those who died, I knew the research had to be impeccable. The 9/11 Commission Report, of course, was central, but other books were purchased, and many more referenced, along with personal interviews, articles, and an array of consultants. An entire staff of lawyers viewed and reviewed every scene, every bit of dialogue and action, both in the writing process and after it was shot. I would venture to say that no movie or miniseries has ever been so carefully vetted and, hence, as accurate in its presentation of a story that covers 8 1/2 years, numerous continents, and 260 characters.

The one thing I did not do in preparing this project was to get the approval of politicians. Any politicians. I did not do it then, and I would not do it now. Why? Because if there is one batch of sources with a clear agenda, with clear partisanship, it would be politicians. The public deserves better than that. The victims of terrorism before 9/11 and since deserve better than that.

But, somehow, politicians injected themselves into this-in a big way. The spin-machine was out in full force against The Path to 9/11, long before it aired, and the media and others bought the spin. Just like book-burners have always done. The spinners mounted a witch hunt against me that knew no bounds. Far-left bloggers posted my home phone number and address on the Internet with the following message: “The gloves are off. Accidents occur.” As one would expect, the death threats and hate mail followed. The police visited my house twice, and the FBI called to follow up on the reports. An anchor of a major cable network show contacted a high school friend looking for dirt. With a few exceptions, most of the TV and print media launched a libelous campaign to discredit me, led by the Los Angeles Times, which, in an attempt to provoke, ethnically profiled me as an “Iranian-American politically conservative Muslim.” Wrong on all but one count: I am an American.

The critical question that the media didn't ask, that so many seem to have missed, is why were they so upset? Why mount such an unprecedented campaign against a movie before it airs? Why push so hard to get it pulled off the air? Why?
Maybe the truth had something to do with it.

In Fact…

The fact-checking on The Path to 9/11 was of the highest standards. I would gladly put its veracity up against any docudrama ever made. Over Labor Day weekend, Disney/ABC brought in outside counsel to double-check the factual basis for the script (all 350 pages of annotations and their sources), and they concluded that it was rock-solid. I, and others, maintain that the minor cuts made in the show for broadcast were to mollify the unprecedented political machine out to kill the show. These minor cuts amounted to a little more than three minutes of screen time in a five-hour presentation-and they didn't alter the intent or meaning of the scenes affected.

But the larger issue here-for writers, filmmakers, and artists-is the attack on the First Amendment perpetrated by the spinners. Senator Harry Reid and five other senators sent a letter to Disney/ABC threatening revocation of their station licenses if they did not pull or recut the movie. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter spoke on the House floor, suggesting that they need to “consider the backgrounds of the people behind this.” These outrageous statements, made before the miniseries aired, were uttered by people who freely admitted that they had not seen it but had only heard what was in the movie. In other words, rumor was their basis, censorship their goal.

The tactics of these Washington lawmakers-and their supporters-are no less than the tools of modern McCarthyism, something historians are keen to study as long as it's 50 years ago. sent out e-mails demanding the movie be “yanked” and accusing me of being a “right-wing activist who fabricated key scenes to blame Democrats and defend Republicans.” Anyone who has seen the movie knows this last claim is ridiculous. We are just as hard on the Bush administration failures as we are on those of the Clinton administration. In effect, the movie is an equal-opportunity offender-but if you followed the spin and didn't see it, you might be persuaded like a recent POV columnist who called me a propagandist and fictionalizer. I remember a time when writers stood up for one another's creative rights. In fact, no one stood up for this movie-not the ACLU, the WGA, PEN, the DGA-no organizations devoted to artists' rights spoke up. After all, we'd been characterized as “right-wing fanatics”-who in Hollywood would defend such?

As for characterizing me as a right-winger, I'm the guy who wrote and directed "The Day Reagan Was Shot", which portrayed the Reagan administration in chaos, for which the movie was viciously attacked by conservatives. I also wrote "10,000 Black Men Named George", whose hero, A. Philip Randolph, was a notorious African-American Communist who leads the movie's union struggles. I won the PEN award for both of these films, and PEN is not known for being partial to conservatives. Just for the record, I am not now and never have been, nor will ever be, a member of any political party. The chief reason: to protect my writing from any idealogical censorship either internally or externally imposed.

Hysteria has no oxygen for facts or truth. One of the more illustrative examples of this was CNN's Wolf Blitzer and a panel condemning the movie when none of them had seen it-hence we had former Defense Secretary William Cohen and former Secretary of State Madelaine Albright responding to questions about a scene that did not exist.

In fact, after watching the miniseries the following people came out publicly in support of it:

• Michael Scheuer, former chief of the Osama bin Laden unit at the CIA's counterterrorist center and clearly no fan of either the Bush or Clinton administrations nor the 9/11 Commission, e-mailed ABC News to insist that “the core of the movie is irrefutably true.”

• Gary Schroen, former CIA field agent who was the first American into Afghanistan after 9/11, said publicly that “the movie is remarkably accurate.”

• Lt. Col. Robert Patterson, chief White House military aide to President Clinton, said “in terms of conveying how the Clinton administration handled its opportunities to get bin Laden, it's 100 percent factually correct.” Patterson declared, “I was there with Clinton and [National Security Advisor Sandy] Berger and watched the missed opportunities occur.”

• Steven Emerson, one of the foremost terrorism experts in the world, a man who has testified and briefed Congress dozens of times on terrorism, said that “The Path to 9/11 is 100 percent accurate.”


The individuals above, speaking to the veracity of The Path to 9/11, are not politicians “spinning”-they were there, and some still are, fighting the war on terror. They know what happened. The facts of the matter and the truth they reveal are not just so much political currency, no matter how loud the politicos or media pundits scream otherwise. The Path to 9/11 is just the messenger.

No more, no less.

Sadly, the hysteria distracted from that message, the one and only “agenda.” From the first day to the last, it was a simple one: to enact in historically accurate fashion that 9/11 was merely one more step in an escalating pattern of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism against the U.S. To remind the public of recent history. To place 9/11 in context. To illustrate the trajectory of attacks. To connect the proverbial dots of the past in the hope that we can connect them better in the future.

Not a day goes by even now where I don't run across some reference to it written in ignorance by someone who swallows whole what the election-crazed politicians dish out. Also, not a day goes by where I am not thanked personally by a neighbor, an acquaintance, a colleague, or a stranger. Regardless what the media, the politicos, the perpetually outraged bloggers, or even many in the film community think, this project was a privilege from start to finish. And I stand by every word of it.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Broadway

I’m immersed in a project right now that’s about the love of movies, what people sacrifice to make them and what keeps them working in such an often thankless trade. It got me wondering about where my own love of films came from and how the taste in movies I have was formed.

I grew up in the SW corner of Saskatchewan in a time that wasn’t before television, just before TV had reached that section of the Canadian Outback. There wasn’t a movie house in any of the nearby towns either so movies ran at the Legion Hall every Friday night. There were two showings and two different films, an early one that kids and families could watch and then a late show for adults and teens on dates. The R rating hadn’t been invented yet.

Every month the local grocery store would tuck a glossy card in your shopping bag printed with mini-posters of all the coming attractions. And the offerings were more or less recent releases, arriving where we were a couple of weeks after the theatres down the line in Swift Current had finished their runs.

The films were presented by a guy named Alf Blodgett, who would arrive in the late afternoon, unpack a portable 35mm projector from his car and haul in 4 or 5 heavy metal hexagonal suitcases that carried the reels for the evening’s films. Some of my earliest memories are of hanging around after school to watch him tack up the posters and try to figure out what else was on the bill.

Seeing a movie was always exciting, but at my age, more important were the cartoons and featurettes that preceded the main event. The big metal cans always had hand-written tape on them indicating that there would be a “Looney Tunes” or “Tom & Jerry” cartoon and on a bumper night “The Three Stooges” as well. Often there was a newsreel or sportsreel too, but those only ran before the second show for the adults. Still, the selection showed a dedication to serving the audience.

Alf must’ve been a pretty dedicated guy himself. I remember the projector lamp burning out one night during a torrential thunderstorm. He replaced it and the replacement blew as well. Alf got in his car and drove 3 or 4 towns away to get another. Everybody stayed put and gave him a big round of applause when he returned, soaked to the skin and holding up two brand new bulbs to let everyone know their night was not a loss.

Among the first films I remember were Elvis in “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock”, “Earth vs The Flying Saucers” and “The Bridges of Toko-Ri”. Movies for me weren’t about exploring your own life and experiences but of being taken into worlds that were absolutely unfamiliar.

On the occasional Saturday we’d travel into Swift Current or Medicine Hat to a real movie theatre and my memories of them are mostly of the lobbies. There was a real ticket booth, just like the ones you saw in movies where people went to the movies and they were filled with posters and lobby cards for all the coming attractions, sometimes five or six of them. I couldn’t imagine how anybody had the time to see that many films. It was a luxury beyond imagining.

Around the age of 11, we moved into the big city, Regina, which at the time had five theatres, all at least three times as big as the ones in Swift Current. For the first time, I encountered the concept of certain theatres catering to a certain crowd and began to realize that what showed at each theatre just wouldn’t play in any of the others.

The Nortown was in the North end of the city and we lived in the South. Although it was probably only a half hour bus ride, I only got there once. It was in the “tough” part of town, meaning I think that they had a drunk and some kid who might steal your bike. So my parents didn’t want me going that far afield – I guess they didn’t think anybody local would join the search party.

The Nortown and another Downtown theatre, the Roxy, had the best Saturday matinees; double feature, several cartoons and not one parent within a mile. The Nortown was legendary, however, for having “A full hour of cartoons” prior to their double features. Those kids on the wrong side of the tracks had it so-o-o good!

What I remember most about the Roxy was the smell. There was this sweet combination of stale popcorn, rancid butter and spilled coke that permeated the place. Years later, while doing a police ride-a-long with a homicide squad, I encountered that smell again. It’s almost identical to the sweet aroma of a freshly decaying body. And that seems fitting because the Roxy was where films that had played Regina went to die.

There was a double feature every night, changing twice a week; lots of westerns, gangster films and war movies. It showed strictly B movie fare augmented by whatever had been playing elsewhere in the city and quickly shunted there because it wasn’t drawing a crowd up at the big house.

In the current era of strictly patterned releases invariably opening on a Friday, it may seem strange that films once opened almost any day of the week. A couple of bad nights and the theatre manager simply called in a replacement.

My memories of the Roxy include “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond” and “The Legend of Tom Dooley”, "Tarzan" during his Gordon Scott incarnation, along with double bills like “The Blue Max” and “Patton” (how many hours must that have been). I saw my first Horror films there starting with “The Vampire and the Ballerinas” paired with Roger Corman’s “The Premature Burial”. I didn’t sleep for a week.

The three classy movie houses were the Capitol, the Metropolitan and the Broadway. The Capitol was extremely classy; velvet curtains and brass railings with a giant wide screen big enough for “Ben-Hur” and “The Sand Pebbles” as well as anything in Cinerama. The Capitol had ushers in tuxedos and they played the National Anthem before every show and you had to stand around after the credits until they’d finished “God Save the Queen.”

Sometimes the Capitol slummed it with classy junk. I remember seeing the legendary 7 minute long trailer for "Psycho" there and sensing this was something very different. When the film ran, there was a big cutout of Hitchcock at the front door holding a red bulb that started flashing a few minutes before the film started. The sign on it warned “No One Will Be Admitted To The Theatre After The Start Of Each Performance Of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho”. Back then, you just bought a ticket whenever you wanted and walked in. But Hitch obviously knew that wasn’t going to work with what he had planned.

The Capitol was where I saw the Roman Empire fall and met James Bond and Bullit and Dr. Strangelove. It was where my first girlfriend dove screaming on top of me when Alan Arkin leapt out of the blackness to try to kill Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark” and where I watched Butch and Sundance gun down a bunch of Bolivian bandits in slow motion and suddenly understood the awesome power of film.

The Metropolitan was a very sedate place that presented all the Disney movies and I had an amazing chat with an usherette one day about the aesthetic failings of “101 Dalmations”. I wanted to be an animator by then, revered Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett and the smooth Warner Brothers and early Disney style. Neither of us liked the ‘scraggly’ look of the Dalmations. I mean, anybody can do rough sketches!

It was the first intelligent discussion of animation and what would later be dubbed “semiotics” by film snobs that I’d ever had with an adult and I just adored her for that and wanted to take her with me when I ran away from home to work with Walt. But I was 13 and she was in her 40’s so it never would’ve worked.

The Metropolitan was where all the Jerry Lewis and Elvis movies played. I didn’t have much use for either one of them by then, but they were the preferred movies for dates. Yet somehow the brilliance of Lewis as a director (no, I’m not kidding here) showed in “The Bellboy” and “The Ladies Man”. And much as “Blue Hawaii” and “Double Trouble” made me want to puke, there was always a moment in each when the King would rise above the material the Colonel and Hal Wallis were making him do and for a couple of minutes remind you of why he was so remarkable. I think he taught me that any actor can be good, if only he’s given something to work with.

But Kitty-Corner to the Metropolitan was the movie house that really made me who I am. The Broadway Theatre. The Broadway was like a punch drunk heavyweight champion. You knew it had been special once and as shabby and past its time as it was during the 1960’s, it just wouldn’t go down. The lobby was small and as I remember always wet. You walked up a few stairs to the theatre which raked down to a permanently un-curtained screen. Gawd, even the Roxy had a curtain!

The interior façade was a detailed replica of a Spanish courtyard with stars painted on the night sky above and little candles glowing in the windows of Castilian porticos that ringed the sides and balcony above tiny adobe tiled roofs. To this day, I swear that Zorro and a sultry dark haired Flamenco dancer would occasionally peek from the shuttered windows on either side of the projection booth to see what was happening onscreen.

And what crossed the Broadway’s screen was impossible to pigeon hole. The manager must have been a deranged drunk. One week he was screening a pseudo-documentary-bio like “Mein Kampf”, the next it was sex films masquerading as educational aids. “Honey, after breakfast, I think I’ll take the kids to the stud farm.” The week after that Jane Fonda in “Cat Ballou”.

Most of the movies at the Broadway, us kids couldn’t get into, but when they were running something you could, you still saw all the previews for the forbidden stuff. I remember my mom phoning the manager in a rage after my brother and I went to “Hercules Unchained” and got a bonus second feature starring a young actress we couldn’t stop talking about named Bridgette Bardot. What we’d seen was the one movie where she’d kept her clothes mostly on, “Babette Goes to War”, so things were soon smoothed over. But still, you have to wonder what kind of mind puts those two films on a double bill.

Because you never knew what to expect at the Broadway, it became my favorite place to see films. And to comprehend that last sentence you need to understand that the world was not always obsessed with celebrity, weekend box office and ain’ More often than not, all you knew about a picture was who was in it and what the poster implied. The lights went down in those movie houses without anyone knowing all the funniest lines from the trailer or what the critics had given away.

I saw “Beach Party” at the Broadway and “Cool Hand Luke”. That theatre introduced me to brilliant British films like “The Knack” and “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush”. It was where I lined up to see “A Hard Day’s Night”, “The Wild Angels” and “The TAMI Show”. I took cheerleaders to see Nicholson and McQueen and my buddies and I discovered Harold Lloyd and "Spartacus". The theatre was rigged with wires for “The Tingler”, ushers handed out special glasses so you could see “The 13 Ghosts”. You got a paddle at the ticket booth to vote thumbs up or down for "The Abominable Doctor Phibes" and 3D glasses glued to your popcorn box for the re-release of “House of Wax”.

I remember a man being carried from the theatre, helpless with laughter at a Jack Lemmon movie I still search for called “Good Neighbor Sam” and almost had to be carried out myself watching Peter Sellers in “The Party”. And I saw movies that changed my life like “The Pawnbroker” and “Easy Rider”.

What the Broadway taught me about the movies is something I endlessly try to recreate. That you should always surprise the audience, give them something they weren’t expecting – or expecting but not in the way you deliver it to them. Play with them, make the story and its execution something they’re familiar with and yet have never seen before.

Many times in my career, I’ve been parked in front of a computer at 4 a.m. knowing the crew’s arriving in a couple of hours and something’s still not right. Invariably, I’ll drift back to the Broadway Theatre, think about a film that plowed the same ground I’m now working and find something I wasn’t expecting.

Maybe it’s my way of giving back. Maybe it’s my way of taking what I was given and passing it on.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Happy Birthday Champ

Today is Muhammed Ali's 65th birthday. He's one of the people I've most admired and truly deserves his title as "The Greatest"; not just for his skill at his chosen craft, but for his strength and compassion as a person.

It's almost impossible for those who weren't alive at the time of his refusal to fight in Vietnam to understand how stunning and powerfully influential that decision was and how much it almost destroyed his life. But he triumphed in the end and made things better by standing up for what he believed in. Along with other athletes of his time like Jim Brown, his life examplified the courage of his convictions. If you haven't seen it already, please take a look at a brilliant documentary entitled "When We Were Kings", you won't regret the experience.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Trying to Keep Up

The National Association of Television Programming Executives is holding their annual convention in Las Vegas this week and like last week’s CES, it’s the time when new shows and new television technologies are rolled out.

If what’s been revealed on the first day is any indication, the changes we’ve been experiencing in the industry are mild tremors compared to the coming quake.

So far I haven’t seen anything on the programming front that signifies a trend let alone a sea change. The mashing of formats continues, with a myriad of copycats and tired concepts staffed with fresh new faces. My favorite so far, “Trailer Court Justice” – think Jerry Springer meets Cops meets Judge Judy with former wrestling greats sitting on the bench.

But the real story is delivery systems that continue to free audiences from the structured planning of network programmers or even the need to own a television.

Netflix will now augment mailed DVD’s with a plan to stream DVDs directly to your PC at approximately one dollar per hour of viewing. Given that so many systems exist to relay your computer screen to your television, the need to make two trips to the Blockbuster store, which Netflix replaced with a single return mail trip to the corner mailbox is now a simple click of the mouse.

Quality and DVD extras may be an issue for some. Netflix claims the former won’t be a problem and the latter is to come.

Broadband operators Revver and Brightcove have moved into the convention as a new window for syndicated shows. Within the next year, you will have the choice of watching strip fodder such as “Baywatch” in the slot your local TV station has placed it or whenever the hell you want to watch it.

The Broadband booths have been inundated by the Indy producers who flock to NATPE in their thousands with show reels in hope of landing a syndication deal and D2DVD producers looking for formerly elusive TV sales. Now they have a new group of very motivated buyers and traditional broadcasters have a new elephant in the room.

This competitor made for perhaps an even worse day for those broadcasters who depend on others to produce their programming. Turns out Content really is King and more markets mean higher prices for buyers. Those with libraries to sell are looking at a bright future.

New advertising models are everywhere as well with the dawning realization that people like things better when they don't have to pay for them.

Canadian broadcasters might want to rethink those subscriber fees…

During his keynote address for the NATPE Mobile Conference, Endemol UK's Peter Cowley said, “The most interesting user statistic for us has been that as you move people from a pay to a free, ad-funded model, usage grows dramatically.”

Pay-per-downloads of the 2005 season of "Big Brother", amounted to fewer than 10,000 video clips. But when Endemol converted to a free ad-supported model in the 2006 season, 24 million broadband clips were downloaded.

But perhaps the biggest news was the announcement that Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström, inventors of Skype and Kazaa, will soon launch “Joost”. Joost will offer studios, broadcasters around the world and virtually anyone who wants to distribute high-quality video over the Internet, fast, efficient and cheap distribution.

Joost promises to replicate the TV viewing experience better than any of the other companies currently trying to wed TV to the PC. A menu allows users to switch channels with a click, have PVR control of the content and access to any show offered regardless of the time of day. They can also skip ahead or backward within a show, sampling it before making a choice.

The company will support itself with advertising, specifically Internet ads that behave just like TV commercials.

If I was a Canadian broadcaster depending on a schedule hog-tied by simulcasts, short on original content and waiting for Telefilm and CTF to get into their next budget year so I could access some free production money, I wouldn’t be a very happy guy. If I had tons of original material that was ready to go and cost friendly, I’d be smiling like a sonovabitch! :)

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Week That Was

(Warning: What follows is stream of consciousness. So either grab yourself a cup of coffee before you dig in or catch the gist and skip to the Cookie at the end. He does go on sometimes!)

It’s beginning to feel like we all just took up residence in a bad Country song. The Cheatin’ girlfriend went over a cliff in our brand new pick-up truck. The Bank repossessed the farm. All our Buddies quit drinkin’ and somebody torched the last Honky Tonk. Life as we knew it has slid seriously sideways.

The Canadian Showbiz version of that song goes something like this: Alliance Atlantis merged with CanWest. Jim Shaw is through funding production nobody watches. ACTRA’s on strike until some Psychic gets a handle on the future – and for the locals – the city of Toronto began the forced closure of film studios.

I’m not sure if that last item is a benign admission that nobody shoots here anymore or a more malignant move to force Producers to use a Mega Studio that hasn’t been built yet and probably doesn’t need to be.

A confrère of mine just shot a feature with massive sets and multiple international locations – all inside a 1200 square foot Green Screen studio. And I’m hard pressed to see the difference.

In addition to these major events, the CBC had its first ratings spike in living memory that didn’t involve a politician or a puck; and Steve Jobs torpedoed the entire Communications sector with the iPhone, once again reinventing an industry that we were just beginning to get a handle on fitting into our scheme of things.

As Peter Guber so succinctly put it this week, “Our business is not in evolution. It’s in revolution.”

I mean, who’s gonna watch Mobisodes and stream the odd “Hold Steady” tune when they can PVR “Rome” or shuttle through the entire U2 Oeuvre between phone calls, email and updating their blog?

Much as I wasn’t personally impressed by “Little Mosque”, I hope it’s a sign of new life at CBC. But I’m worried it might not be. There’s an old football adage that when you finally get to the end zone you should act like you’ve been there before. It lets the other team know a) It wasn’t a fluke. And b) Expect more of the same.

However, the obviously warranted self-congratulation that followed the show’s debut numbers had a tone of “Thank God that’s over with” and did not include an indication of anything coming down the pipe to shore up this beachhead.

“Dragon Boys”? Sorry, I’ve seen the obligatory Chinatown episode of virtually every 1970’s cop show. Not the worst place to start the new show process but definitely not where you want to finish. I hung in for the full four hours and don’t know one damn thing more about Triads, Vancouver crime or the Asian experience than I did to begin with. There wasn’t anything original on the drama side either, so what was the point? To give Asian actors work? Fabulous! Tell me again, how many of the cast were imports…

Oh – and a question for people who live in Vancouver. Both “Dragon Boys” and the first season of “Intelligence” spent a lot of time in strip joints where nobody actually disrobes. Has the concept behind these establishments just not crossed the Rockies or does the Mother Corp have standards and practice rules that don’t reflect Globe & Mail critic John Doyle’s most recent read of our National open-mindedness?

Back to the CBC’s hit. Should the numbers hold and it stays in such positive territory, the six half hours produced remain the equivalent of a single evening of prime time programming. This show, the Tuesday Night comedy block and Hockey may have been enough to justify the government check at one time, but not anymore.

Our artists and crews are universally recognized as the best there are; and dozens of taxpayer funded Universities and Colleges are churning out hundreds of film grads every year. It would seem incumbent on this other arm of the State to pick up the slack until the private sector gets their shit together. Otherwise what are these kids being trained for?

If the production value of “Mosque” is any indication, a huge chunk of this year’s $1.2 Billion stipend is still available to buy something more. I’m not slagging anybody here. I’m just saying “Congratulations on getting out of the chute! Now let’s see if you can ride!”

Speaking of big numbers – I thought I was the only one keeping track of the $1.4 Billion CTV’s parents Ma Bell and Pa Globemedia spent acquiring CHUM or the $2.3 Billion CanWest and Goldman Sachs scraped together between them for Alliance until the Writers Guild of Canada was heard from on Thursday. What do you think the chances are that the CRTC will call the broadcasters back to ask just how broke they were last month?



But that doesn’t mean the publicly appointed Commissioners don’t have the best interest of all Canadians at heart, does it….

I also found it odd that nobody in the press spent a lot of time on this either. Please assure me that we simply don’t have any Woodwards and Bernsteins in this country and it has nothing to do with the Globe & Mail being a CTV sibling owned by Bell/Globemedia or the National Post owing its silent allegiance to CanWest.

But it’s odd that even though these two mega-media conglomerates are in supposed competition, neither went after the other. Nobody at the Globe seemed to notice that the subscriber fee cash grab championed by CanWest might have been a creative way of getting you and I to pay for the tens of millions the company wrote off in the disastrous Fireworks merger. But then nobody at the National Post called anyone on the other side to account when CHUM, post-merger, abandoned its production commitments (particularly in Western Canada) to the point that it fell below the CRTC benchmark for maintaining its license.

Of course, none of the above seems to have crossed the collective consciousness of the CRTC Commissioners at all. To be fair, this was a Commission headed by Charles Delfan, who received a standing ovation from several hundred ACTRA members a couple of years ago after a speech on his impassioned dedication to Canadian drama.

Nice job, Chuck! Thanks to all the hard slugging you and your co-workers did in the intervening years, those actors are suffering like never before and looking at a very bleak and uncertain future. And do enjoy that indexed pension for your peerless public service!

Is this how healthy competition works? Everybody just keeps quiet and keeps making money? How come I never learned that in any classroom? Damn Saskatchewan socialist school system! Maybe some economics major can tell me how long this keeps working. I mean, at what point are so many people so broke or so disinterested that the companies go broke because nobody can buy or has any interest in buying their product?

Maybe that’s why nobody’s buying newspapers anymore. If I was the dead tree guys I’d start working on making some noise tout suite.

I think Jim Shaw's feeling somewhat unwanted too. Okay, people want his money but not his attitude. Although if my money was being spent to shore up lack luster production for companies who are using their own (apparently immense) profits for acquisitions instead of the core business, a business whose meager output I have to justify daily to my restive customers, I'd be a little pissed too.

I like to think of Jim Shaw as our very own Al Swearengen, never saying things too politely but always making his point rather effectively and in an endlessly enjoyable fashion. I'd also bet "Deadwood" is the kind of show Jim considers worth producing.

Mr. Shaw and our other cable king, Ted Rogers, shared their mutual disgust of the broadcast nets quite openly at the CRTC hearings. I don't remember hearing too much from Expressvu, but then they're owned by Bell Globemedia too so...

Anyway, Jim offered to buy out any network that couldn't make money here because he knew how to run them at a profit. I believe Ted just called them names. I can't imagine the mood he's in today with all this and the iPhone to boot.

My own first thought regarding CanWest was – how is this a smart business deal?

Alliance's library is antiquated and has pretty much been broadcast to death. C’mon, even if you’re 14 and horny, how many more times can you actually watch "Exotica"?

On the other hand, and this might be a stroke of genius, that film might have a beneficial 2nd life as a learning tool for the aforementioned Vancouver club owners.

But seriously, isn't the History channel already running most of that stuff as an example of how films were made back in the day? “Hi, I’m Anne Medina and this is an actual strip of Super-16 celluloid.”

And given the massive shift in delivery systems, how much are a bunch of television networks really worth -- or more importantly -- going to be worth in 3 years when CanWest and Goldman Sachs have to settle up and I’m living cable free and downloading individual program choices to my iPhone version 4.0?

I'm sensing, as I'm sure Mr. Shaw is, that we're not looking at a surge in new production but far more wringing every nickel out of what's already in the can.

And if CanWest can't maximize its side of the equation before the sell by date, does that mean it all ends up in the hands of non-Canadian Goldman Sachs?


It might be time for us to step up here, folks.

Bottom line is that people still want to watch movies and TV series as entertainment. And they’re always looking for something new. If they're not getting that new entertainment from the established sources on terms they can agree with, they’ll find it somewhere else. And as of not too long ago, controlling what Canadians can access from their homes has ceased to be possible.

So we have to make that point and the fact that none of the current players seem to have our best interests at heart to those who run and regulate our lives.

The last two election campaigns, I put in a good deal of time and energy helping Heritage Minister Bev Oda get elected. Before anybody thinks they've figured out my politics, the simple reason for my doing that: I was fed up with having my life run by crooks and had seen enough of the way my own industry was being serviced in Ottawa to believe the Adscam mentality wasn't an isolated aberration.

Now my past work for Bev gives me absolutely no influence with her. But I know I’ve provided her with a couple of much appreciated belly laughs and she'll eventually return my calls. So add your comments to these ramblings, or email me if you want those comments to go unposted but still recorded, and I'll make sure what you have to say not only lands on her desk but gets consumed and considered.

Our livelihoods are at stake here. And the revolution we’re undergoing won't be slowing down or stop so we can take a breath and figure out exactly what path to take. Today's iPhone is tomorrow's walkie-talkie and those who wait for the planets to align never accomplish anything.

Maybe my little plan won't get us anywhere, but the alternative is to keep living in that bad country song where you finally have no choice but to pull on our boots and hit the trail.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Canadian Actress Charmion King passed away this past weekend at the age of 81. For those of you who never had the pleasure of seeing her onstage, several magnificent performances are available on film from an episode of "Tugboat Annie" filmed in 1957 to such Canadian classics as "Who Has Seen The Wind", "Anne of Green Gables" and "Shadow Dancing".

I first met Charmion in 1973 at one of the lowest points in my life. I was a young actor deeply involved in the production of new Canadian plays and part of a production at Toronto's Factory Theatre entitled "Works". This was a massive explosion of creativity in the form of 20-some plays presented over several nights involving dozens of actors and technicians. It was all designed (if only by sheer force of numbers) to make the point that Canadian Theatre had finally arrived.

All of us were working for something like $100 for the month (and you Newbies thought today's wages were low!) completely in contradiction of the rules of our union, Actors Equity. At that time, the union was run out of New York with contracts designed for Broadway and its traveling road shows. Contracts that had absolutely no relationship to the Canadian scene outside of a few pro companies such as Stratford and which were impossibly unrealistic for productions staffed with unknown writers and performers.

Two weeks into the run of "Works", the NY Equity office called the Toronto branch and ordered the show closed. Equity Reps literally ripped the union plaque from the wall of the theatre and charged the actors in the cast (myself included) with "Unprofessional Conduct" a crime so serious that should we be convicted, it meant the end of our professional careers.

So there I was, a couple of seasons into a profession I'd worked years to embrace, about to see the last of a job I loved and had been getting pretty good at. But I was also a child of the 60's, full of the rebellious, stick up for what you believe in, tenor of the times. So were most of the other actors charged. We fought back, appearing before a panel of our peers who would ultimately determine our fate.

The inquiry was intense, a clash of two very different cultures, young actors who saw the chance for this country to step away from re-staging American and British plays and do something unique and our own; and an older generation that had thrived on that kind of work. I'll never forget walking into the hearing room and seeing a dozen incredibly famous faces, actors I'd admired for years, ready to take me out.

One of them was Charmion King.

Charmion had been a working actress since the 1940's. She was enormously respected as both an actress and director, married to another star, Gordon Pinsent, and legendary for her no nonsense, tenacious nature. I remember her watching me as I testified, almost freezing under her icy stare and knowing I was completely fucking "over".

I left the Hearing room and dug my Equity card from my wallet, figuring I might as well drop it off now and save myself a trip. Charmion walked in as I approached the Receptionist, realized what I was doing, took the card and tucked it in my shirt, saying, "Sorry Buster, we're not losing you."

A few days later we learned that many of those older actors felt the same way we did. The charges against us were dropped and soon after, the newly formed Canadian Actors Equity Association arrived with a contract that not only made sense to our industry, but made the production of new work not only possible but profitable.

I met Charmion many times socially after that. She and Gordon and I often ended up talking and laughing late into the night. But she and I never worked together. Until I finally started producing.

In 1994, Charmion and two other Grand Ladies of the Canadian Theatre, Francis Hyland and Vivian Reese, graciously agreed to take roles in a film I was shooting in Budapest. They arrived, giddy as schoolgirls from the 11 hour flight. Hard as it is to believe in this day and age, for all their talent and experience, none of them had ever been flown to an "exotic" location to shoot a film, let alone by a Canadian producer. They couldn't have been happier.

And they couldn't have been a better addition to any shoot. Their professionalism, discipline and dedication to their craft was infectious, immediately inspiring the rest of the cast and crew. Indeed, the Hungarian unit our Canadian sound man described as taking "Quiet on the set!" to mean "No small arms fire!" would fall completely silent when they came on scene, aware they were in the company of exceptional performers.

One of my fondest memories is the dashing leading man and I taking all three to lunch at a lovely sidewalk cafe. We played the part of their kept gigolos, all of us enjoying the by-play with the staff and clientèle, laughing long into the afternoon. I'll never forget Charmion taking my arm as I walked her back to her hotel along the banks of the Danube, her wishing her husband were there to share the moment, and me understanding what a lucky man he was. I cannot imagine the depth of Gordon's loss and pray he and his family find the strength and comfort they deserve.

Charmion's performance in the film was magical and I was so proud a few months later when both she and Francis were nominated for Gemini awards.

The last time I saw Charm, she and Gordon were having a drink in an elegant hotel bar. She called me over with that husky scotch and cigarette smoke voice she was so proud of, gave me a hug and asked when I was taking her somewhere "exotic" again.

That never happened. But wherever she is tonight, I know it's a place made so much warmer and better by her presence. God bless you, Charm, and thanks for giving me and all those other actors a second chance. We've all tried hard to deserve your trust.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Baltimore Bulldog

I'll be back to showbiz posts in the next few days, having spent the holidays doing way too much research into the CRTC, Canadian television and some of our pending creative and labor issues. On that last subject, if anybody's taking names, I'm a Canadian producer who's completely on ACTRA's side in the current negotiations. Sometimes you have to say "enough with the bullshit" and for Canadian actors that time has come.

But before we get to all the fun that stuff'll be. I wanted to follow up the last post. For those whose lips get tired reading some of my stuff, the premise there was that big media is on the wane, newspapers, networks and the like have lost their credibility and something new is poised to take their place.

Turns out (as usual) I was right. Case in Point: The Baltimore Bulldog.

It's just a newborn puppy of an idea right now, but three Baltimore media pros (an IT geek, a journalist and a talk show host) are launching an online site this spring that will mix professional journalists, media artists and local bloggers to provide "a comprehensive understanding of what's really going on in the city."

The goal is to create "a newspaper that couldn't possibly be done on paper" which will include stories augmented with anecdotal or additional information from readers, instant restaurant reviews, ie: "The soup of the day at 'Mom's' is awesome", raw news video feeds, comics that move, interviews where readers can ask the questions and games more interesting than soduku.

For me, this captures the essence of what the media future can be. Somebody with a steady hand on the ethical reins, an open office concept that lets anybody call somebody on their bias and a forum for creative types to offer their visions.

Think of it! A world where you're required to think and speak for yourself instead of being encouraged or spun as to how you should vote, what you should consume, watch, root for and who you should accept as a credible source.

The news of this comes on the same day the Philadelphia Inquirer followed the downsizing spiral of newspapers on both sides of the border with a 17% cut of news staff -- and Iraqi Police Captain Jamail Hussein, the source of more than 60 Associated Press stories on various brutalities in Baghdad turned out not to exist.

It seems while the phantom Captain was providing screaming headlines to AP papers on various atrocities, no other journalists in Iraq could corroborate a single one of the stories. Enhancing their credibility, an AP spokeswoman insisted "it would be highly unusual for any news organization to provide sources on the demands of critics."

I think it's really the awesome hypocrisy of these people I'm going to be happy to see move on.

During the weekend's media debate of whether or not they should have broadcast or we should have been allowed to see Saddam Hussein's execution -- as well as which version, the official cleaned up one or the unofficial and all too stupefying one, I found these two remarkable quotes.

From CBS, like TIME, acknowledging that it can't control the floor: "Consumers are starting to realize that what television standards may deny them, the Internet readily provides."

And from another news source apparently unaware that porn channels and videos on demand are the profit engine behind his media conglomerate: "Anyone with a mouse can get to pornography too, but we're not going to show that either."

Y'know, I don't have much interest in watching people (no matter how dispicable) being dispatched or get off pretending the people in porn really like their jobs; but I always find it interesting that the powers that be eternally use those things as examples of how they know what's best for me.

Maybe I can handle that myself.

And maybe I should take a hint from them now and go write some fiction.