Saturday, May 19, 2007

You Blinked!

I need one of you guys in Gatineau to get this to your boss.

Don't try to hide! I know you're there. Every time I use four letter words like CRTC or reference Konrad von Finckenstein, my hits from your side of the river spike like gas prices on a summer long weekend.

Maybe the boss is even reading them before you can prep the synopsis. You think?

If so -- vF, can I have a moment? And I hope you don't mind me calling you vF. I'd love to stick to the formalities rightly due you and your office but I'm going to get carpel tunnel if I have to type Konrad von Finckenstein over and over.

Okay. The reason we need to talk is this. You've been snookered, pal. Had. As in Fooled -- Tricked -- or more contemporarily...

You remember when you were a Judge and lawyers in your courtroom used to signal somebody was fibbing by tugging their wigs lower -- literally "pulling the wool over their eyes"? Well, apparently nobody signaled you during the recent hearings with Canada's more significant Broadcasters and Re-Broadcasters. So I guess you missed what was really going on.

I think you might have suspected something was up since you dropped your recent ruling on a Friday while everybody was packing for the cottage. But us folks who actually work in showbiz, we noticed. And I thought somebody should tell you what's really going on so you could maybe change your mind on Tuesday.

But first, let's talk about how I was able to recognize your situation...

On a warm spring day almost exactly 19 years ago, I winged my way to LA for a meeting about becoming head writer for "Friday the 13th: The Series". Things were busy TV wise in the Great White North, but the film biz was faltering. The Ottawa brain trust that ran Telefilm and mapped "Cultural Policy" had been wrestling with ways to get Canadian film to the next level for more than two years as the business they were intent on saving withered and died around them.

Telefilm's goal back then was to have Canadian films be truly Canadian, as opposed to the not even "B" movie stuff we'd produced through the early 80's. They also wanted home grown product to account for 15% of available screen time.

The Mulroney government, leery of doing anything that might parallel the Liberal "tax credit" scams that produced most of those "not even B" movies, intended to fund and promote this great leap forward with what was called the "Film Importation Bill"; an Act which (instead of fleecing taxpayers) would take a few pennies from each film ticket sold for a non-Canadian feature and direct it toward indigenous fare.

These types of levies had been quite common at various times around the world. Hollywood, the prime target, had always survived them, and some programs similar to the one the Canadian government was devising had helped infant industries bootstrap themselves to a competitive level while also finally getting their own stories onto local screens.

If you happen to be a history buff or Canadian film masochist, here's a CBC clip that provides the background. Remember to click the video link so you can see Peter Mansbridge with hair.

Anyway -- US president Ronald Reagan and Hollywood Hit Man, Jack Valenti, were fighting hard against this possibility. The former insisted it contradicted the newly signed Free Trade pact while the latter held that Canada was inextricably tied to the American market. According to both the Movie Star turned President and the Presidential Aide turned Hollywood Ninja, if Canada made this move, ticket prices would skyrocket, audiences would be denied the chance to see many far more popular American films, distribution chains would collapse, and the movies and artists that came out of such a program could be denied American distribution in retaliation.

On the day I boarded my plane, Heritage Minister Flora MacDonald finally killed the bill and Telefilm changed course to concentrate on "industrializing". That meant making sure even more American productions came up here, so those out of work feature crews could keep paying their income taxes.

Although I work a lot on television, I started in Indy films and that's where my heart will always be. And much as I was looking forward to the possibility of working on this new series, I had a couple of feature scripts out there that I knew were now as good as dead.

In one of those anomalies of East to West travel, where you get off a plane around the same time you got on it, I arrived in LA to discover what was headline news in our morning papers was also the top story in "Variety" and "The Hollywood Reporter".

My meeting was with Frank Mancuso Jr. at Paramount. We'd never spoken, but I had been well-briefed by a few insiders. He was the son of Paramount CEO Frank Mancuso Sr. and the force behind the hugely successful "Friday the 13th" slasher franchise. Those who didn't like Frank or his movies characterized him as a spoiled rich kid or only on the lot because of daddy. Those who liked him or the films called him "lucky".

In reality, he was one of the brightest producers I've ever worked with. He had his own assessment of the Jason phenomenon but was enough of a showman to keep giving that audience what they wanted. He would go on to do some truly egregious movies like "Back to the Beach" and "He Said, She Said" but also produced good films like "Permanent Record", "Internal Affairs", "Ronin" and more recently, Andy Garcia's achingly poetic "The Lost City".

Far from a dilitante, Frank taught me an enormous amount about being true to your creative convictions, never giving in to corporate duplicity and especially -- how Hollywood thinks.

I arrived on the Paramount lot and was escorted into his well-appointed office, where he was reading the Hollywood Reporter. He smiled at me, pointed to the headline and said, "You blinked!"

"Excuse me?"

"Your government. They blinked."

He went on to explain that virtually every studio in LA had assumed the Film Importation Bill was a done deal. A few good movies had come out of Canada lately. Much of the talent was already making names for themselves in LA. It only made sense that such potential should be exploited.

Oh, sure, they'd sicked Valenti on us. That made sense too. Maybe they could reduce the size of the levy, find ways to qualify American controlled films as Canadian much as they had in Germany, Italy or the UK.

And then we blinked, rolled over, showed our tummy and slunk away to let our artists wither and a film industry remain stillborn.

I was astonished at how simple it all was. To be honest, I think that's why Frank hired me. He sensed I was easily impressed.

A couple of years later, I ran into Frank's dad at my first NATPE convention. Frank Sr. asked what I thought of the TV marketing madhouse that is NATPE. I told him I was confused. Everybody I talked to contradicted each other. It was hard to separate the truth from the lies.

He shook his head. "Nobody Lies", he said. "They tell you the truth they need you to believe."

That's what happened at your hearings, vF. Canada's Broadcasters and Re-Broadcasters spun tales of doom and gloom, collapsing networks, no money for Canadian drama and only "Carriage fees" would save them -- and the culture.

They told you the truth they needed you to believe. And you blinked.

These guys never wanted "Carriage Fees". They knew no right thinking cable or satellite subscriber was going to pay to see the same programming they were already paying to see from the US stations in their package. They knew no profit minded cable/satellite provider was going to put up with the outcry and canceled subscriptions that would follow such a move.

Nope, they just wanted another "no strings attached" hand-out -- and you handed it out.

Our Broadcasters and Re-Broadcasters are now in a position to earn as much as $300,000 more per hour of primetime programming. This after a year in which their profits were so high that two of them had enough cash just lying around to buy up some of the competition.

What will the Canadians who own the airwaves these guys use receive in return for such a financial windfall? Nothing but more commercials. What will the Canadians who make Canadian television programming receive? Nothing that helps us make better programming, or perhaps any programming -- and we'll also get fewer promotional spots, meaning far fewer Canadians will even know our programs exist.

You stated that you made your decision to "give broadcasters additional revenue to deal with increasing competition from cable channels, new media and other digital platforms". For the life of me, I've never been able to understand why you feel the need to keep these people viable when they can't seem to remain competitive on their own.

I guess you also don't know that they own most of those cable channels, tie up new media rights in any programs they license and through the ISP's they also already own, control a significant portion of emerging digital platforms.

It was somewhat telling that the first comment from the CBC about your decision stated: "Over the longer term, the net result will be fewer opportunities for Canadian stories to be told."

This from the network who counts among its jewels for the coming season, "The Tudors", a mini-series about a 400 year old British King, which had already reduced the opportunities for Canadian stories to be told prior to your ruling.

I hope you'll be reading the Entertainment pages as you prepare for Banff, vF, so you can see how our Re-Broadcasters use their newfound wealth to buy foreign programming. I hope you'll be able to face the people who struggle to make programming here without any assistance from you to help them "deal with increasing competition, new media and other digital platforms."

There's still time to fix this mistake. I'm not the only one who's already noticing. There are great posts by my industry confrères Will and DMC and Caroline, offering their insights and ideas.

Hey, maybe you could use Banff to drop the other shoe! By adding two minutes of hourly ads to the current twelve, your ruling has increased Broadcaster ad revenue by 15% -- maybe you could announce a mandatory spend of 15% of ad revenue for Canadian drama.

Seems only fair.

I know we've only asked for 7%, which the nets insisted they couldn't afford. Seems that argument's out the window now. Tell you what -- we'll ask 15 and you give us 10. Then everybody's ahead. And we'll all blink back, but only using one eye.

But understand this, vF, if you don't drop that other shoe -- then you really will have blinked when you could have made a real difference. And you'll also prove the truth in that old joke that lawyers used to tell behind your back...

Q: What do you call the dumbest lawyer in the room?
A: Your Honor.