Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I spend a lot of my life on airplanes. After a while it becomes second nature and like most of the jets I travel on, I'm on auto-pilot.

Packing takes 10 minutes. I know what part of the parkade is closest to which airline, where not to buy coffee, the security or customs line that moves quickest.

I also know some travel dates, like those around Christmas, can be fraught with unexpected complications and delays. Eventually even those are partitioned into "been there, done that, not really anything special" categories.

So this Christmas I decided to complicate the travel experience for a change and take the cat with me.


Okay, technically, the decision wasn't mine. The usual pet care suspects suddenly had their own plans for the holidays. They were also flying off to places tropical or to visit family. The neighbors were all hosting crowds of in-laws, having babies or finally getting the kids a new puppy; environments less than conducive to cat sitting -- especially if the cat in question is as temperamental and demanding as the one I own.

In the end, I even called a couple of those pet motel outfits and cringed at both the prices and the "we know this is really your child and we'll treat her that way" attitude. Much as I thought it would be fun to see their reaction to checking in the feline version of Keith Moon, I passed on them too.

Frankly, this is the pussy from hell. She hates me and doesn't make any bones about letting everybody know. I get bitched at for everything from breakfast being ten minutes late to not providing sunshine in her favorite window. She plots new ways of getting at me, like some cranky drill sergeant just waiting to spot a weakness.

Whoever coined the adage that "cats were once worshipped as Gods and have never forgotten it" definitely had this animal in mind. It's her world, I just live here.

Putting her in the car for her annual trip to the Vet is a cue for biting, scratching and a massive  nuclear Armageddon spit-fit. She howls all the way there and back and long ago convinced the Vet to don body armor for the examination.

He was the first to tell me I was nuts to take her along. Pretty much everybody else said the same.

"Jim, she'll be uncontrollable. It'll be humiliating. You're crazy!"

But crazy's a certification I earned a long time ago, so I went ahead and called the nice people at Westjet.

They were my only choice because Air Canada doesn't fly animals anymore. Given the dismal Air Canada record this Christmas, it would appear they've given up on the concept of getting people where they're going as well.

For those unfamiliar with either airline, the best comparison comes from Comedian Mike McDonald, who says there are only two kinds of truckstop waitresses, the bubbly farmer's daughter and the junkie Goth. Respectively, that's Westjet and Air Canada.

To my surprise, the Westjet ticket agent got all excited about booking a "kitty ticket" as he called it and was a wealth of information on traveling with an animal. And when I told him she might be difficult, his response was simply, "Well, we all have bad days, don't we?"

I prepared myself for the worst flight of my life and a particularly trying day.

And the bad day started pretty much as I expected. Screaming as she went in the kennel, howl-fest in the car. Thrashing around as we walked into the terminal. And then...

Dead silence. And then...

Purring for the ticket agent. Snuggling with the security screeners. A happy chirp for the stewardess and the lady in the next seat.

"Why your cat is good as gold!" Uh-huh and I've got the love-bites and passion scratches to prove it.

But suddenly an animal who can't stand anybody (especially me) is everybody's friend. And I'm dealing with something I had been completely unprepared for...


All the other traveling pets are purse dogs. Their owners could easily be mistaken for Paris, Lindsay or Brittany. They and their animals are fashionable, glittering and bejeweled. They catch the attention of everybody in the airport lounge as they go through the pre-boarding parade of those with kennels.

And then there's this dumpy, middle-aged man with a cat...

All the looks I'm getting say just one thing -- "My God, this guy is SERIOUSLY PATHETIC".

I glanced into the kennel. The cat looked at me with a glint of pure malice and the hint of a smile.

Gotcha again, Cowboy! Next time, cough up the cash for a kitty spa. And make it one where they don't skimp on the catnip!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Every Prairie primary school I attended pretty much shut down on the first of December. Christmas holidays never officially started until a couple of days before Christmas. But while a few of the teachers went through the motions of teaching history or math, most of the rest and all of us kids were otherwise pre-occupied with one thing -- The Christmas Concert.

In the towns where I lived the bible story/nativity stuff was left to the church Christmas pageant. In the pre-political correctness era, I believe this was more a copyright issue than a creative choice.

Our Christmas concerts were all about carols, dancing candy canes and Santa Claus. Although I remember Batman and Robin making an appearance on one occasion.

These things were never scripted. and if they were, it was by somebody with an advanced case of ADD or who would one day end up in charge of programming at MTV.

Most of my early grade teachers would simply let us know it was concert time and ask what we wanted to do. That was the cue for some 7 year old "Friend of Dorothy" to explode with sketch ideas that ranged anywhere from Santa's elves finding a way to turn on Rudolph's nose to the workhouse production number from "Oliver!".

Each grade was required to deliver one Christmas themed scene and a carol. Usually the scenes came first using sets we'd painted and props we'd created, and then we all scrambled into our sweater vests and bow ties to troop out one class at a time for our song.

The oldest grades had a preset routine to avoid anybody blurting out something rude or revealing Santa's real identity. So the girls would get into red or white leotards and a candy cane outfit while us boys would fetch the Styrofoam tin soldier suits stored under the gym bleachers for the rest of the year for a stirring rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy" (complete with drums) which signalled the beginning of the musical portion of the program.

Being inside those suits was like being zipped into a well used hockey bag, but it was worth it cause you got to be in the wings for the candy canes' Rockettes routine.

Back when I was 12, there was nothing hotter than watching the cutest girl in class high-kick in a leotard, strategically placed holly and all.

Once we'd suitably butchered the little Drummer Boy, it was everybody else's turn to massacre a Christmas classic and class after class would troop on stage for their carol. Because nobody talked to each other, this meant a couple or three versions of "Jingle Bells" (sometimes in a row) and and at least one kick at Elvis' "Blue Christmas".

And there was always some deluded musicologist on the staff who thought his or her Grade Four Class could handle a chunk of Handel's "Messiah" or a medieval Chorale. They were the ones leaving in tears before Santa appeared at the finale, tossing out bags of candy while our moms searched for our coats and all the dads went to warm up the car for the ride home.

In memory of those confused and chaotic Christmas concerts, I'm posting a couple of my favorite carols. Feel free to add your own in the comment section and I'll update to include them here -- creating our own "Who the hell knows what's coming next " prairie Christmas concert.

Multiple versions of "Jingle Bells" and Santa themed sketches are more than welcome.

And have yourself a very Merry Christmas!

Courtesy Will Dixon of the Buck Owens Memorial Middle School on the extreme Southwest side of Regina:

Monday, December 22, 2008


When I was a kid, we were taught that Canada had the world's largest supply of fresh water. We had something like 3 million lakes and endless rivers clear enough to drink from even if your mom didn't think it was a good idea.

And while Wikipedia now insists the "Most Fresh Water" resides in Brazil with Russia, China and Canada close behind, it's hard to find a tourist poster for the country that doesn't still feature pristine lakes, glacial streams or Niagara Falls.

We've got water everywhere. But for thousands of us, there's not a drop fit to drink.

I was born on the Siksika Reservation just east of Calgary. And before anybody starts thinking that hiring me makes them eligible for one of those Aboriginal incentives our governments are so fond of -- sorry, they just had the closest hospital when I was ready to make my debut.

But I grew up with a lot of "Indian" kids (the acceptable descriptive back then) and soon became aware that the way they lived was different from the way the rest of us did. The housing on the reserve wasn't as good as it was in the nearby towns. The people were poorer and they seemed to have more problems. And while we got our water from a tap and had indoor toilets, they relied on a communal well and outhouses.

A lot has changed for Canada's Aboriginal peoples over the last 50 years. But in a land still rich in fresh water, thousands living on reservations don't have access to it.

We've all heard the stories of Northern outposts relying on water supplies tainted by raw sewage. Every time one of those makes the newspapers, there's a national outcry. And then it fades. And then nothing happens.

Right now as you're pouring yourself a tall glass of water there are thousands of Canadian children without access to drinking water unless it comes in an imported bottle and forced to visit community centers if they want a bath or a shower.

And the only difference between you and them is that you live wherever you live and they live on a reservation.

This has been going on for years in some places. The continuous "boil-water" advisories, the recurring epidemics, the endless indignity of fetching the day's drinking water and carrying it home in a pail.

All of this could have been solved long ago. Some say $15 Million could solve it permanently. $15 Million! 1/1000th of the money we're spending for the Vancouver Olympics. 1/100th of what was granted this week to our failing automakers.

Money in both cases granted immediately without the need for the reams of feasibility studies and environmental assessments that seem necessary anytime a little is needed by our less fortunate citizens.

Good to know there'll be no thirsty athletes in 2010 and you'll still be able to get a cold Evian or Valverde at the Chrysler dealership when you drop in for a test drive. That Mohawk kid trying to get through his school day -- well, he'll have to wait.

I think we all know the problem here is a political one. And there isn't a political party in Canada who is blameless. They've all held power in one place or another where the lack of drinkable water on reservations has been a concern.

But in the Canadian tradition of political parties, they reward their supporters with consulting contracts and ministry reports that carve away the money regularly set aside for these projects. It's much easier to study an issue than simply solve it and that's how most of those in government service make their salaries.

Gosh, if the problem were solved how would they justify their jobs or their hefty consulting fees?

$15 Million. Less than the budget of "Passchendaele". Fewer public dollars than get spent each year on Film festivals and script development.

During the Christmas season, it's usually pretty easy to run into all stripes of politicians from local officials to your MP, a cabinet Minister or somebody from an opposition party who'd like to have those jobs. They're hosting parties, attending levees and, this year in particular, looking for your support for or against a coalition.

When one of these guys buttonholes you, or you manage to get his or her attention, could you change the subject and ask them one question?

Isn't it time every kid in this country could turn on a tap and get a glass of water?

Because you can't be a rich nation when so many among us live this poorly. You can't be a nation that wants to be great or thought of highly and still treats its children this way. And there's no such thing as National Pride when this kind of shame and disgrace keeps hanging around.

This Christmas season, please add this issue to whatever you're talking to your representatives about. And don't let them just smile, mumble something compassionate and walk away. Demand a commitment. This needs to be dealt with now.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


We're gonna do things a little different this Sunday. Video first and then Jim's little sermon.

And I can't exactly show the video either. That's because it's not in an embeddable format in the only place I can find it.

It's also a commercial as well as technically NSFW and in the spirit of the season, we're trying to stay "family-friendly" as well as fiercely independent here at the Legion.

So go here first and then come right back.

Okay, now I don't care who you are -- that's funny right there. (To coin a phrase)

And don't you just wish some theatre company near you had the cojones to run it?

But theatre folk are generally a conservative lot, imbued with a feeling that they need to respect and protect the rituals and the traditions of their art.

I love the theatre. It's where I got my artistic start and where I have been both enormously inspired and spent evenings the memory of which will entertain me for the rest of my life.

There is simply no experience like being swept into a story which is taking place right before your eyes -- involving real living breathing people just like you!

But all over the world, the theatre is dying. Theatre companies are closing up shop or reducing their seasons, unable (or perhaps a little unwilling) to compete with new media that's more accessible, more affordable and where you don't have to turn up on time and relatively open to participate in a group experience.

Have any of you noticed how so many of our great recent leaps in communication (instant messaging, social networks or blogging) actually succeed in isolating us even further from each other? Oh, the information and the opinions are shared -- but the physical aspect of interacting is slipping away.

Going to the theatre is also hard work. You're required to suspend disbelief on a number of levels; accept that a canvas drop is Elsinore, that there really are 76 trombones leading the big parade and somebody named Godot is actually waiting in the wings. Films and TV fill in the blanks and deliver all the trimmings, theatre expects you to bring something of yourself to the party.

And lately that includes a lot of your money.

When I was starting out, tickets to movies used to cost more than tickets to most plays. I saw great stars like Lawrence Olivier and great plays like the debut run of "Equus" for less than a buck and a half. Well into the 1980's most theatres in Toronto still priced their shows just under the going rate at Famous Players or Cineplex and many still have a "Pay-What-You-Can" matinée to serve those who can't afford a seat at prices that have skyrocketed.

But the costs of producing live shows keep rising and have to be amortized over a constantly shrinking audience base. Tickets for Broadway shows and their touring companies regularly reach triple digits, and locally produced shows aren't far behind.

This Christmas, I decided I'd try to inspire people to do a little something extra in honor of the season. The first was in the post below, and the final one will follow tomorrow. Just little things you might do to make life a little better for somebody else at a time when the rest of the world seems to be going steadily South.

Today, I'd like to ask you to buy one ticket to see a play. Just one ticket -- at whatever price level you can comfortably afford. Because the simple economics are -- if everybody living within a few miles of a theatre bought one ticket, that theatre would be sold out every single night of the year.

And then theatre wouldn't be dying and some of the great performances and great ideas that have inspired generations would be around to inspire one or two more.

The news these days would have you believe that massive forces and unimaginable amounts of money are necessary to turn things around. It can make anything you want to do seem insignificant and impotent. But, in truth, it's the little things that make the biggest difference.

And making a difference for all the people who work in the theatre is as simple as buying one ticket.

Think about it. And enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Last Spring, a freeway near me was renamed "The Highway of Heroes". It was a special designation recognizing a 100 mile ribbon of asphalt running from Trenton, Ontario to downtown Toronto. This is the route taken when Canadian soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan are returned home.

Military protocol requires the bodies of our fallen be flown to CFB Trenton, where their families have been gathered to receive them. Then a procession of hearses and limousines ferries them on a solemn two hour trip to a morgue in Toronto where their autopsies are performed.

As of today, 103 Canadian soldiers have made this final journey of repatriation and that alone would seem reason enough to rename a road.

But that's not the whole story. Because right from the return of our first casualty something very special has happened along this stretch of road.

While our politicians debate whether or not we should be in Afghanistan, a debate that ramps up in the media with each new casualty, ordinary Canadians are doing something else. They are coming in ones and twos, carrying flags and homemade banners and waiting, sometimes for hours, to show their respect as the fallen pass.

This grassroots show of affection and respect has grown to the point where thousands now line every mile of the route, a truly overwhelming sight to witness.

This week I was in traffic going the other way when our last three fallen soldiers were returned. I'd passed several of the overflowing bridges and overpasses, so I knew what lay ahead, but it hadn't prepared me for the moment when the procession arrived.

Traffic ahead slowed, then came to a stop. As the leading police cars passed on the other side of the median, two elderly gentlemen got out of the car in front of me. They walked to the shoulder, came to attention and saluted as the hearses passed. The Semi behind me laid on his air horn, sounding a long, forlorn salute of his own.

Inside one of the limousines, a woman placed her hand on the window acknowledging one of the banners or maybe the high school kids standing in the bed of somebody's pick-up with their hands over their hearts.

It only took a minute for the vehicles to pass. One of the old guys wiped away a tear as they returned to the car. The other gave me one of those waves old guys give you when they've disrupted the flow of things. And then the traffic started moving again.

An hour or so later, some talking head on CBC radio was going on about how the latest deaths meant we were paying too great a price for the mission. It made me wonder if anybody in the media ever considers that the immediate moment of grief might not be the best time to suggest a family's sacrifice has been in vain.

I've never had to go into combat and I'm not sure what it would take to make me willing to risk my own life or take someone else's in the name of a cause or a commitment made by my country. But I look at Afghan women executed for seeking rights Canadian women don't think twice about. I see little girls disfigured with acid because they just want to go to school. And I see cultural treasures destroyed because they represent the "wrong" religion -- and I figure having fewer of the guys perpetrating those crimes around is probably a good thing.

I also think that we should be doing a little more to let our men and women in uniform know we care about them than simply paying our respects on their final journey home.

If you'd like to send a Season's Greeting to one of our men or women in Afghanistan, you can do so by going here.

And if you'd like to do more, say make a donation to comfort those who've been wounded in battle, assist a military family or help out the people of Afghanistan who have been ravaged by this war, you can do any (or all) of those things by visiting this site.

However you may feel about their mission, these people are half a world away from their families at Christmas and each and every one of them is tackling a problem that requires a heroic personal sacrifice.

Let's show them that we care.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


According to people who study such things, times of great social upheaval give rise to the creation of super-heroes. When we are overwhelmed by world events and personal circumstances we seek escape and look for someone with special powers who might better grapple with what we're facing.

What I start to look for when I see the world going to hell in the proverbial hand basket is what wrong turns we made that got us here and how those who were in charge, apparently working with better personal and inside intelligence than the rest of us own, might have avoided trouble in the first place.

And that invariably leads to one of two conclusions. Either George Carlin was right and "selfish, ignorant leaders are chosen by selfish, ignorant people" OR the people who presume to know what's right for us are posing as super heroes and need to be unmasked.

The photo above was taken at the CRTC hearings last April as CTV head honcho Ivan Fecan and Leonard Asper, Canwest Global's fearless leader, set aside their partisan differences to be among the first of Canada's corporate citizens to seek a government bailout of their media conglomerates.

Both had recently been stretched financially thin by purchasing most of their competitors and appeared as a united front seeking "carriage fees" -- a few bucks annually from each of their viewers to pay for services they had been licensed to provide and historically delivered at no charge.

Last month, the CRTC turned down their request and the above photo ran again in several newspapers when both men axed a significant portion of their network staffs to reduce costs.

I seldom read the online comments to articles posted by the Toronto Star but this time the first response caught my eye. It simply stated: "The man has diamond cuff links".

A lot has been made of the heads of GM, Ford and Chrysler taking private jets to their own bailout hearings or the CEO of Lehman Brothers, who convinced longtime staff to accept severance buyouts and then bankrupted the company so he wouldn't have to pay them.

CTV employees who attended the "Town Hall Meeting" where the layoffs were announced have described how Fecan was asked by a fellow exec whether the company's apparently dire financial situation meant that bonuses would not be paid this year. He was assured bonus packages would arrive as scheduled.

"You hundred or more guys in the back take a hike! Anybody in a suit -- order an extra case of Beaujolais Nouveau."

As governments wrestle with bailouts in the auto industry, there is a growing concern about how the money should be spent. If it goes to save the jobs of auto workers, it's basically welfare that doesn't address the woes of the industry. And if it goes to the companies, it rewards mismanagement.

Many feel relief should only be offered if those in charge are fired for the excesses and incompetence that got them where they are.

The auto industry's real problems might have been brought into painfully sharp focus by a credit crunch. But surely, the only reliable solution to the current crisis is making certain that outmoded business models and decades of myopic vision aren't allowed to continue.

Which brings me back to those two guys in that picture. For during their individual reigns, neither has managed to either design a corporate model for broadcasting in this country that seems able to keep their companies viable or generate product which grew their domestic audience.

Ivan Fecan arrived in Canada in 1987 to take over the management of television programming at the CBC. He'd been considered a local "Wunderkind", who'd impressed NBC program legend Brandon Tartikov so much, Tartikov not only hired him as a VP of Programming at NBC but offered him lodging in his guest house. Presumably that meant he was returning after having been thoroughly schooled at the great man's feet.

I may have been the first producer Fecan encountered here in Canada. That year, I was producing the Genie Awards for the Academy of Canadian Cinema for CBC broadcast and Ivan asked if he could attend our final production meeting -- a concept I found refreshingly responsible of a new network executive.

He arrived on time with two assistants in tow, said some nice things about how much he was looking forward to be back working in Canada and settled in to listen.

Production meetings can be long and tedious but he seemed quite engaged, nodding approvingly at some things and laughing in all the right places.

A common element in Awards shows is something called a "Bumper" -- the moment before a commercial when you get a heads up on what's coming next. We'd designed our bumpers to familiarize the audience with some of the lesser known nominees. They would be shown looking up from their mix boards, design tables or scripts announcing the upcoming award.

I began talking about the status of the bumpers and Ivan touched my arm, "Excuse me, what's a bumper?".

That surprised me a little. This was a guy who supposedly had a background in variety programming. He had taken credit for designing the news format of CITY-TV and had ridden his participation in "SCTV" into a top American network office.

But I explained. He whispered to an assistant, who wrote down "Bumper" on her legal pad accompanied by my definition.

This happened three or four more times during the meeting and could well be construed as somebody open and confident enough to ask questions about terms on which he wasn't clear.

But all of what needed to be explained fell well into the category of "Production 101' and there wasn't a department head in that meeting who wasn't wondering if this guy had been at Tartikov's place to wash the car and clean the pool -- sort of his own Kato Kaelin.

And perhaps we were wrong, because during Fecan's tenure the network created successful series like "The Kids in the Hall", "Road to Avonlea" and "North of 60" along with movies such as "The Boys of St. Vincent", "Conspiracy of Silence" and "Love and Hate" -- television anybody would be proud of.

But those shows amounted to an average of one series and one movie per year of his time in charge, or less than he would have gotten to program in a single season if he'd stayed at NBC. Why had this guy bothered to come back here? And where was this "New Wave of Innovation" we'd been led to expect?

Where was the library of new programming that could feed the soon to arrive specialty channels and burgeoning foreign market? NBC and the other American nets had made that a priority. Around the world, Syndicators were creating their own shows and even their own mini-networks outside the standard network and studio system to mine the new revenue streams.

Not so much here.

I can't tell you how many of the "great" projects that arrived during Fecan's tenure were in development prior to his arrival or how much he was involved in their creation. But I do know the Tartikov style of carpet-bombing the competition with new and innovative shows definitely wasn't part of CBC's way of doing business and very little changed.

A couple of years into Fecan's reign, I was hired over there to write a movie and met with an actual local legend, Jim Burt, to discuss practical matters like delivery. It was April and he told me they'd like to have a draft by December.

"You're giving me 8 months to write a script?", I asked in disbelief.

"Well," he answered, "We try to package everything so Ivan can read it over Christmas."

I was used to seeing LA studio and network executives lugging script loaded Airline Pilot style satchels home every weekend for immediate review.

"Your guy only reads once a year?", I asked. Jim offered a resigned shrug. It's the same shrug CBC producers will give you today when you ask how "MVP" got green-lit or what guy thought it was a good idea to renew "Sophie".

And in some ways, Fecan didn't have to develop much. Because a couple of years before he returned CBC had moved their flagship nightly newscast, "The National" from 11:00 pm to 10:00 pm, pulling their own preemptive Jeff Zucker move that eliminated the need to come up with more than 2 hours of prime-time each evening.

I don't know what finally drove Ivan Fecan over to CTV. It might have been a disastrous move of the news even earlier to 9:00 pm that cut ratings in half. Maybe it was other restrictions and limitations inherent in Public broadcasting. In any event, he was soon in charge of CTV. But the Tartikov programming style didn't surface over there either.

Indeed, if you look over the financial pages reviewing many of his annual reports, you'll find a pattern of "laying off" staff to make the bottom line look better than it would have otherwise appeared.

And while CTV has seen ratings success of late with programs like "Canadian Idol", "Corner Gas" and "Flashpoint", it has continued to follow a passive corporate path, dependent primarily on American programming and burying much of its homegrown product through lack of promotion and a lackluster online and after market presence.

CTV also continues to depend on public funding to support its new media initiatives and has no sizable library of product to monetize through the new media streams now readily available to it.

Just like his time at CBC, Fecan seems unable to step beyond a broadcast model that used to be a license to print money without investing too much sweat equity or company cash. But that business model no longer works -- and frankly hasn't for several years.

Indeed, we now see a somewhat unseemly situation at CTV where jobs and programming are cut while a series produced by Fecan's wife is immediately renewed.

And while Sandra Faire's talents as a producer and the success of her show are no doubt significant -- does it seem proper that while politicians are forbidden from hiring relatives; such restrictions aren't placed on those in the private world who are spending Public money to realize their shows?

This is a conflict of interest that wouldn't be tolerated in any American network and surely should be called into question when it involves taxpayer money.

Otherwise, one is tempted to ask if Fecan campaigned for "carriage fees" to prop up his own lack of management foresight or to top up the joint account.

Over time, Ivan Fecan's Patrician approach and shock of prematurely white hair earned him the affectionate nickname of "Jor-el", because he reminded so many of Superman's dad. And while that image may befit someone working among the elites who manage Canadian programming, Jor-el was no superhero.

He did, however, possess the ability to see trouble coming and prepare for it, something else you can't say about Ivan Fecan.

As more and more of what's going on in Canadian broadcasting gets blamed on "the economy" maybe it's time we started taking a closer look at what might be the real issues, all the while recalling the Albert Einstein quip that "you don't solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them."

Next time -- in Pt.2 -- the other guy in that photograph. Leonard Asper, a man often referred to in Canadian showbiz circles as "The Boy Wonder".

Sunday, December 14, 2008


My apologies for the lack of activity around here last week but I've been sicker than a dog. And in my case, that analogy is particularly accurate.

Because when I get sick I act exactly like this old dog I used to own. I crawl into a dark little hole until whatever the problem is has worked its way through the system. His spot was under the porch. Mine's somewhere beneath a Duvet with the drapes drawn.

Every now and then I'll emerge lucid enough to refill my waterbowl, refresh the DVD collection or send a couple of emails. Then I disappear back into that black hole.

Black holes are tough to escape. Never happens to most things, Constellations, solar systems, big-ass planets. Somehow I always resurface. Although one look at a desk covered with last week's undone tasks and next week's looming agenda makes me want to disappear back into that black hole.

Maybe that's why we survive these things and planets don't. They don't have all the pressing responsibilities and sense of accountability we do.

Anyway back soon. Much as the Canadian TV powers-that-be were looking forward to putting my doctor on top of their Christmas card lists, not gonna happen this year.

And here's a little story about a black hole. Enjoy your Sunday.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


There are some things embedded in any culture that speak volumes about the places they come from.

Once you've experienced Mexico's "Day of the Dead" or stood amid the smoke from pyres along the Ganges, you look at your own mortality much differently.

Brits may cringe at "Coronation Street" and Aussies grimace at the suggestion they "put another shrimp on the barbie", but the flavor of "The Rover's Return" still resides in every modern pub and nothing augments a cold bevvie better than a sizzling Crystal Bay prawn.

In Canada, we're in love with hockey. Barely a parent escapes the 5:00 a.m. ritual of tying skates on our sons and daughters so they can be imbued with the thrill of speeding down the ice, scoring a goal and going into the boards with your elbows up.

When others question the game's on-ice fighting, cheap shots and trash talk, we silently question their masculinity and their reliability in times of trouble. In fact, many of us believe the easy-going nature of Canadians is directly related to our understanding that scores are best settled on the ice.

Hockey arenas are the centers of our communities and this time of year they are where we go to drop off bags of groceries and toys for the needy. But even some of that is connected to the game -- especially on Teddy Bear Night.

Virtually every small town, semi-pro and minor league team hosts one of these during our Christmas season. The concept is simple...

Bring a stuffed animal to the arena.

Set it in your lap.

Watch the game.

And when the home team scores its first goal you hurl your bear onto the ice. As Rink Announcers are fond of saying, "It's Panda-monium".

Play is suspended and the bears are collected and donated to charities. Teams like the Calgary Hitmen annually truck up to 30,000 off the ice. Given the capacity of their arena, this means quite a few fans are sneaking in extra bears.

The whole process is stupid but fun -- sort of the way most of us actually play hockey.

Enjoy your Sunday -- and don't forget to duck.

Friday, December 05, 2008


They didn't have "time outs" when I was a kid. You just got spanked/yelled at/grounded/whatever and life went on.

We've been through a pretty rancorous week in this country. Not quite Brother on Brother stuff, but friendships have been strained, trust fractured and feelings definitely hurt. And much as I'm no fan of the Monarchy, I'm kinda glad the Queen had a local BFF who sorted through all the arguments and hate mail yesterday and said, "Okay, let's everybody take a minute to calm down."

I believe her instructions could be expanded to read, "Catch up on your Christmas shopping. Send those cards and letters. Sit down with the family and pass around a little turkey. Drink too much and eat too much and maybe -- just maybe -- some of that 'Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men' thing might sink in as you realize just what a special country you live in."

No matter where you stand on the issues, I don't think anything is accomplished by attending rallies and marches and continuing to stir the pot. Sometimes you just need to let things simmer for a bit so the true nature of what you're cooking can be determined.

"Hey, maybe all we need is a little less betrayal of principles!"

Most of all, I really hope the Main Stream Media stops banging the regional drum. Honest to God, have you ever seen so many people reach for the played out old tapes so quick? I'm becoming convinced the MSM think Quebec is some hot exotic dancer who'll walk out of the VIP room the minute the country runs out of $20 bills, while the West is one big oil-rich doofus Jethro Clampett.

So, why don't we use this time-out wisely. Skip the rallies and do your Christmas shopping. Buy that Grit or Tory you apparently despise a tall cold one and talk to him likes he's that best friend who's about to screw up a pretty good marriage.

And if you'd rather just heckle or kick my ass, I'm center stage for one of those "Drinks with..." sessions INK CANADA hosts around the country tomorrow night.

Fynn's of Temple Bar
489 King Street West
Toronto, Ontario M5V 1K4

Saturday, December 6th. 5pm to 9pm.

I'm mostly there to impart whatever the Ink Interns need from me. But I'm sure we'll end up talking about television, culture and a whole lot of things far more interesting than who gets to call themselves a "Right-Honorable".

And just to be certain you youthful Weisenheimers turn up, I want to make it clear that Karen Walton referred to me as "legendary" in her invitation for a reason.

She said she wouldn't talk about it. But she has. So "It's On!"

For those who can't turn up. Here's a little something to get your laugh track rolling again. If you don't know the "Super Mario Brothers" click through for the rest of their oeuvre. They're a guaranteed smile on the downest of days and this time they're doing Cancon with a message for all of us from our political leaders.


I better go get the cape dry-cleaned.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


If you need any further evidence that our lives are run by trolls, just watch any newscast out of Ottawa this week. My God people! Maybe the Prime Minister we've got is an ill-tempered, ideological bore and not the best guy to be running this country. But these other guys....

Gilles Duceppe -- a man who hates Canada!

Jack Layton -- a man who hates the free enterprise system!

And Stéphane Dion -- a man who hates that he's such an endless fricken loser!

Yeah, Canadians are going to be better served by that combination.

Elsewhere, those supporting the Coalition keep pointing out that 62% of Canadians voted for a more "progressive" option -- including the 13% who voted to take Quebec out of Canada. Yeah, that's a real progressive agenda!

Play with numbers all you want, folks. Sure, Harper only got 37% of the popular Vote. But through 12 years in power, Jean Chretien never got above 38%. That's democracy in a multi-party system. Which is supposed to mean that YOU get a say in how your lives are governed, not have those decisions made for you by people who had a different set of goals when they campaigned for and won your vote.

I'm originally from Western Canada, though I've lived far more of my life in Ontario. But I remember clearly, as all Western Canadians do, how our needs and concerns were eternally back burnered over a greater need to keep the country united. And we understood that and (albeit grudgingly sometimes) went along with it.

We went along with it even when we sensed most Quebecers were not much different from us and didn't really want to leave, in the process enriching and empowering a governing mentality that panders to regionalism over what might be the correct course of action.

Regionalism just might be the greatest handicap this country has. In our own TV and film business, people who live and work in one province can't work in another without economically penalizing the production. What kind of apparently "Free" country doesn't allow its people to work wherever their skills are needed?

Regionalism has allowed a culture to develop in this country where one part of the country can be played against another for the benefit of those who enrich themselves and solidify their power bases on the fear they can generate in the rest of us.

And fear always leads to only one outcome -- defeat. Because this constant chaos drives us further apart and further from the kind of cultural and industrial critical masses that historically are what make things happen in the world.

Last night, driving to a meeting before the party leaders "urgent messages to the people", I heard a CBC radio reporter ask one politico whether his calling Bloc Quebecois members separatists might not offend some in Quebec.

And I thought, "Wow, here we go again!" Somehow it's wrong for Canadians to call out the people who want to destroy their country. And some of that long forgotten Western Canadian in me stirred and said, "Gee, as far as the CBC is concerned, a Canadian from Quebec has more value than pretty much everybody who lives North and West of Toronto".

Well, of course, following that line of thinking leads to madness.

But replaying the old tapes continues the Culture of Defeat that has too long burdened any effort to create something new and exciting in this country.

Perhaps -- and I'm calling on every try-to-be-fair-minded cell in my body here -- perhaps -- a coalition will better and more fully represent the views of the country. Maybe a guy who can't even get a DVD from one office to another on time and frames himself with a book entitled "Hot Air" over his shoulder will run the country more effectively.

And maybe Jack won't stage a coup within a coup like he almost did last night by demanding he also get TV time to speak for a coalition that had already been spoken for by its designated leader.

And maybe Gilles Duceppe won't demand that every Tax dollar collected goes to Quebec.

And maybe the Premier of Alberta does not have the "Plan B" he's inferred to protect his people from being pillaged.

And maybe this will only last until the Liberal party appoints Michael Ignatief their leader -- a guy who has written in favor of torture and now opposes free elections -- Gee, we can have our own Robert Mugabe!

And in all this chaos, is anybody going to deny the desires of Broadcasters they will depend on come election time or provide funding for "arts projects" which are always short term endeavors when auto workers are losing their homes?

No -- the Culture of Defeat will triumph once more, because it's more reliable and predictable than change.

Viva the Three Amigos!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


In 1885, William R. Travers, prominent New York businessman and builder of Saratoga Race Track, was taken out for lunch by a Wall Street broker anxious to impress him and win his business. The broker took Travers to a nearby marina to show off his yacht and those of the other brokers who worked for his firm. The businessman looked down the line of beautiful craft and asked, "Where are the clients' yachts?".

The broker didn't have an answer. Travers took his investment business elsewhere.

For all of the detailed media coverage of celebrity lifestyles, star salaries and box office grosses, not many people in show business actually own yachts -- nor mansions, nor exotic vacation properties or private jets. Those remain mostly in the hands of the corporate executives who control our industry.

The same guys who never pay us what they promised to pay us in our contracts. The same guys we're always chasing for earnings that even massively successful films and TV series somehow never earn. The same guys who courier script notes via executive limo but send the cheques by mail.

In a lot of ways, these are the same kind of people who ran the now bankrupt Lehman Brothers and Bears Stearns investment banks, who supervised now defunct insurance companies and hedge funds or hold the reins of any number of once profitable industries now struggling to stay alive through massive infusions of public funds.

At the moment, we're going through a bit of a constitutional crisis here in Canada precipitated by political parties that would be unable to survive if they had to depend on their own supporters to pay for their campaign funding. Maybe that's democracy at its finest, insuring everyone has the means to run for office. Maybe it's just another way the entitled help themselves to our money.

Anyway, the more I watch this current world-wide Financial crisis, the more it feels like a familiar case of class warfare. A battle between those who feel they have a right to an exceptional lifestyle -- and -- those of us who are expected to pay (via money or blood) to support it.

There are also those who feel they are entitled to be in charge (even if they can't actually run things) and that the rest of us should stop demanding that they live up to the commitments (contractual, political or simply moral) which they made in order to be in line for the big paydays.

At the moment, we're about a month away from another entertainment industry strike. This time it's SAG, the Screen Actor's Guild. And in exactly the same way that the AMPTP (The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) painted the members of the Writers Guild of America as greedy and ignorant of industry realities, the Producers are now saying our Actor brethren's demands would bankrupt the system.

At the same time, news is coming out that WGA members are not being paid the new media earnings they won during the last strike. A couple of days ago, the AMPTP admitted that was true -- because doing so was "too complicated".

The next time I'm in a story meeting and somebody asks for a change, I wonder how far I'd get by saying the alterations were "too complicated".

There's a definite US and THEM thing going on here. And some of us believe the reality is the media conglomerates (and perhaps their counterparts in other industries) can't continue to function unless they are permitted to lie, cheat and steal to cover their incompetence. We're supposed to keep delivering the product they sell without interruption. Paying us fairly -- yeah, that's a little harder to figure out.

I get a palpable feeling that what those people in charge supervise in order to make their fortunes has become secondary, almost an annoyance because it takes their focus off their other priorities.

Now, I gotta back up before I go forward here:

Last summer, I had the good fortune to film a Canadian TV show in Paris and the surrounding countryside. We needed palaces like Versailles and Vieux le Vicomte, which had been built by members of the French aristocracy. I'd seen them in books and movies, but nothing prepared me for the reality of standing on the immaculate grounds of those limestone monstrosities.

And I was even less prepared for the countless great homes that surrounded them. There were hundreds, all built by the sweat and tax money of thousands for the benefit of a minuscule handful. Sometimes the hundreds of rooms and manicured acreages were intended to be enjoyed by only two or three residents.

During shooting I learned that virtually every original owner had met his end under the Guillotine of the French Revolution, victims of a people whose capacity to be overburdened or used had reached their limit.

One thing I also learned about the French Revolution is that pretty much everybody could see it coming, but the guys on top simply refused to corral their excesses or even show a modicum of understanding for the needs of the people supporting them.

If you haven't had the pleasure, there's a terrific French film entitled "Ridicule", written by Remi Waterhouse, Michel Fessler and Eric Vicaut which perfectly captures the self-absorption, skewed priorities and terrible short-sightedness of the time.

Well, those French Dukes and Marquises may be gone, but their ilk seems to still inhabit our ruling and executive classes, including those who run the entertainment media. Yes, even those who run the Canadian entertainment media.

A couple of week's ago, Canada's broadcast regulator, the CRTC, ruled against allowing our Free to Air networks collecting carriage fees. Days later, the execs of these companies began culling staff and making noises about reducing their "Broadcast obligations".

At this point, nobody is certain whether that means cutting back local news, Canadian content or any number of things the Broadcast Act requires which our broadcasters find onerous.

And since they're going to be trekking up to Gatineau with a wish list, maybe it's time for us Creative Types to be putting together a list of our own -- a list of the business practices in the industry which have severely curtailed our ability to earn a living.

I'm going to go through several of these in the weeks to come. But first up is something called "Fair Market Value".

Fair Market Value means that a studio or network sells its movies or TV series for the best prices it can get. To many people that would seem to be a given. But it's not.

In 1999, "X-Files" star David Duchovny filed suit against 20th Century Fox Film Corp., seeking $25 million he claimed the studio had cheated him in profit participation. Duchovny maintained that when Fox sold the successful series into syndication, it deliberately minimized revenues by selling to its affiliates and Fox-owned FX instead of selling to the highest bidder. Fox settled in order to sign Duchovny to the series' eighth and final season. It was reliably estimated that he was paid an 8 figure sum.

Two years ago, the writers of "M*A*S*H" received a settlement in a similar suit that amounted to tens of millions of dollars. "M*A*S*H" writer Ken Levine details the suit here.

As Media conglomeration in the US has resulted in fewer players owning more media outlets, the practice of self-dealing to lower costs and raise profits within the parent companies has become more prevalent. But the practice also eliminates payments and profit sharing to the very artists those parent companies are dependent on for their product and contractually obligated to pay.

At the moment, a bill to ensure films and TV series are sold for fair market value is near passage by the California State Legislature. And we need a similar bill here.

A few years ago, my accountant was having trouble understanding why one of our media conglomerates continually provided financial statements where the expenses and fees for distributing their product always exceeded the payments they received for use of the films.

"It costs them more to sell this stuff than anybody pays them," he said, "Who stays in that business?"

I explained that self-dealing their product to a network they owned allowed them to maximize the profits the network made from advertisers. He was still confused.

"But that's cheating you and the government. You're both profit participants." I agreed with him, acknowledged that my lawyer and I were beating our brains out trying to get answers. He still couldn't fathom what was going on. "Where's the government in all this? This is public money!"

A lot of Canadian artists are waiting for that answer. And if our Broadcasters want to approach Ottawa about adjusting their obligations to improve their bottom lines, perhaps questions needs to be asked about how their profits have been achieved in the past.

Quite simply, if our Members of Parliament feel they are entitled to $2 for each vote we cast in electing them, then maybe we're owed the same kind of consideration in our financial dealings.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


One of my favorite film moments takes place during the opening titles of the Gilles Adrian scripted French film "Delicatessan". As the camera wends its way through the garbage produced by the small apartment building that is the story's setting, it finds one piece of detritus or another to match each of the film's craft credits. Discarded script pages identify the Screenwriter, a rusty camera acknowledges the Cinematographer and a broken phonograph record is imprinted with the name of the Composer.

And the Producer's name -- is reflected in a smoky mirror.

Yeah, that's producing all right. Most of the time, even those of us who do it aren't sure exactly what we did to make a project happen. Somewhere along the way, somebody was moved by an impassioned argument that could easily have been interpreted as just so much bullshit -- and frankly, might have been just that.

The producer cajoles, massages or wills the pieces he needs into reality, gaining strength and conviction as each part of the machine falls into place, never admitting how precarious the whole thing remains all the way through shooting and well past the delivery of the final cut.

In many ways, all movie magic is an extension of the magic producers have to accomplish to allow the rest of the process to happen.

Which might be why I'm such a big fan of Magicians. Even when I know how the tricks are done, I'm still enthralled by the process, often getting as much enjoyment out of simply watching others being entranced by a Magician's skills.

One who never ceases to amaze me, however, is actor and magician extraordinaire Ricky Jay; whose incredible knowledge of the history and inner workings of his craft has inspired and influenced the work of cinema and TV icons like David Mamet, David Milch and Christopher Nolan.

Jay doesn't just "do" magic, he creates an entire world, drawing you into stories, anecdotes and possibilities that may or may not be fictional. Ultimately, you don't care, you're just caught up in the tale he's weaving and where it might lead.

Gee -- no wonder writers make the best producers...

...and producers rival the best magicians...

......unless the Magician is Ricky Jay...

So sit back. Prepare to be amazed. And enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


A Country band named "Alabama" had a hit a few years ago called "Angels Among Us" which proposed the theory that there are -- well -- Angels among us. Angels that guide us in the right direction in times of trouble.

For the last three days I've been about an hour away from another of my relentlessly insightful postings about the intricate behind the scenes machinations of the Canadian TV & film industries when the ground has shifted on me.

Just when I thought I had a handle on the broadcasters next "we need your money" move, there was a seismic shift that had me shelve that until I got a cleaner read. Just when what people were watching appeared to be going one way, plugs were pulled and ratings surprises arose to send all that in a decidedly different direction.

Am I the only one noticing that a lot of us blogger types seem to be similarly reining ourselves in just a little?

Are we all just suddenly distracted by more immediate concerns or might we be sensing something previously unexperienced in the zeitgeist and pausing to recalibrate the antennae?

Elsewhere, the fixed stars in my firmament are tap-dancing about cloned starlets and failed musicals, while all around us an industry we'd considered merely flawed seems to be in full collapse.

To be honest, I'm a fan of collapse; a true believer that sometimes the whole forest has to be burned down if a new one is going to be able to come in and take its place. I never was one of those who believed you could change the system from within or maintain your own clear sense of justice in a miasma of corruption.

What's happening out there is truly ugly and unfair right now. Hundreds of industry jobs are being eliminated every day as the current powers try desperately to hang onto their old, no longer viable business models by getting rid of people instead of changing the general idea behind what they do.

In my own home town, Magna International CEO Belinda Stronach (former Federal Liberal Minister of Human Resources & Skills Development) yesterday announced plans to fund a reality music show starring former KISS bassist Gene Simmons -- and today ducked the media after laying off 850 of her own auto-workers, some with decades of service to the company.

It's stuff like that which makes me believe that our industry and political leaders have been more focused on what they'd rather be doing than whatever the job at hand really was for the last little while. And hands unsteady on the tiller tend to lead to times like we're seeing now.

Unfortunately those same hands still retain enough power to make sure other people suffer for their short-comings. Take some comfort in the knowledge that few of them survive times like these with their old image intact.

On the good news side of the local ledger, I hear Belinda's sudden foray into a tired showbiz model has former Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy Tie Domi searching for tongue stretching exercises.

(* For those not making that connection, run some names past Mr. Google)

What I'm trying to say here is the shedding of the old skin here is the hardest part of the process. Some snakes actually die shedding their skins, simply worn out from the thrashing and flailing required. But when all is said and done, they're usually left with something better than what they had.

And as a guy with a lot of faith in the old adage that everything happens for a reason -- a GOOD reason -- I truly believe the future will be better than we ever imagined. In the course of human history, it always has been.

So if you lost your job this week because of some self-absorbed bonehead like Magna's Belinda Stronach, Global TV's Lennie Asper or the guys who used to run Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, GM, Ford or (insert your corporation here) -- know that this too will pass.

There really are angels among us, probably some as pretty as the Victoria's Secret runway models who've brightened up this post. For every tale of doom out there, there's somebody with a much better idea who just needs some of this old, tired and worm-eaten deadwood out of the way so they can break through the soil.

Sometimes it's hard to know what's coming next. But you can always be certain there's something -- and its often far better than what we had.

Never give up Hope.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I had the extreme good fortune of seeing each of the "Three Knights" perform onstage. The Knights being Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, three of the English language's greatest actors.

To many (including the first two on the list) Richardson was considered the best of them all. But I never saw any of the performances that made and established his reputation. Instead I saw him in a play called "Inner Voices" in 1983 which was the final play he did before his death.

That play included a scene that you knew had either been specifically written with Richardson in mind or chosen for presentation by the National Theatre as a token of respect.

Alone on a massive set, Richardson completed a monologue as the stage ignited in a spectacular indoor fireworks display, sparks showering the elderly actor as rockets burst and exploded all around. I have no idea how the feat was accomplished let alone how it was even allowed to happen in an era when Actors Equity Union rules dictated that signs be posted on theatre entrances which warned things like "A gun will be discharged onstage during Act III".

It was both a safety measure as well as the ultimate SPOILER!

Ralph Richardson was a legendary lover of fireworks. He'd almost burned down the house belonging to Olivier and Vivien Leigh when he set off an impromptu display in their garden to impress her. And on more than one occasion, local fire brigades were called to various garden parties when one of Richardson's pyro-technical displays had gotten out of control.

When the National Theatre opened its permanent home on the banks of the Thames, it began a tradition of signaling opening nights by setting off "Ralph's Rocket", a flaming streamer that was shot into the sky -- usually after Ralph himself lit the fuse.

Once asked what his attraction to Fireworks was, he shrugged and said, "I just love them. They're so -- unnecessary!"

Yet as he stood on stage in that last performance, face turned to the colors exploding mere feet away, you could sense his utter joy at being a part of such meaningless beauty.

Fireworks always get me too. Toronto used to have this spectacular summer festival down on the lake where various countries would come to set off fireworks displays to music. Literally millions of people attended. Hundreds of sailboats anchored near the barges that held the charges and traffic along the shoreline expressway froze for the performances.

The best I've ever seen were the closing of the Sydney Olympics when the Parramatta River became a sea of flame burning all the way to the Sydney Harbour Bridge evaporating it in a massive white starburst and New Year's Eve in Surfer's Paradise with the Coral Sea lit up by fountains of fire that ranged from one coastal horizon to the other.

But the biggest Fireworks display in history was apparently held last week in Dubai to celebrate the opening of the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah. The half hour display cost $40 Million and was visible to the Astronauts aboard the Space Station.

Now I know some people would consider all that fairly excessive. But when you're opening a hotel that charges $45,000 per night for its penthouse suite, I figure you gotta go big or go home. And since the penthouse is now booked solid through New Year's (despite this economic downturn) I guess the strategy worked.

And let's be honest -- our lives are generally most enhanced by things you can't justify or put a price on. We all have moments that we can't ascribe meaning to which still somehow uplift and inspire us. And I think that's what Ralph Richardson was getting at -- the moments that are completely unnecessary yet manage to make life so special.

So here are two views of the Dubai Spectacle. Five minutes from CNN and then the same sequence from Ground Zero, right in the middle of the mayhem.

Enjoy the Shock and Awe -- and your Sunday.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I'm not a recognizable figure on the Club scene. Couldn't tell you the difference between "Electro", "Cool" or "House" if my life depended on it. And much as I enjoyed "It's All Gone Pete Tong", I still can't get my head around the concept that guys who play records are Stars.

Just what exactly separates them from the dude in the bad tuxedo who does the same thing at weddings anyway?

But I went to "Cirque", Toronto's hottest, hippest (I'm not even sure if those adjectives are current anymore) club last Friday.

I endured the goofing from the Bouncers, who always think it's funny to ask for my ID and never get the joke when I compliment them on their headgear or jacket in return and ask if they got a free bowl of soup with it.

I ran the gauntlet of the hot chix in the foyer ("Omigawd, Raven! Is that your dad?") and bellied up to the bar -- being the only guy in the place with an actual belly to put in that position.

And -- I was once again reminded that even ordering a drink in one of these places is beyond me. Ask for a Vodka Martini and the Supermodel mixing drinks as research for her role in the next Tom Cruise movie reels off six brand names and seven flavors I've never heard of as my initial list of choices.

Is this why Daniel Craig didn't order any martinis in "Quantum of Solace" -- the risk that he wouldn't be "hip" by the time the film came out?

Anyway -- my own embarrassments aside, (and I would have endured worse rather than miss what followed); I was there to attend a screening of one of the most interesting television projects to cross my path in some time -- a half hour pilot entitled "15 Minutes".

Frustrated by their attempts to get past the gatekeepers at all of Canada's television networks, the producers of "15 Minutes", Tyler Fillmore and Samantha Vite, called last summer to ask my advice.

Filmmaker veterans of the club scene, they had concocted a half hour "hyper-reality" series they describe as "The Hills on Crack" set in the world of club promotion, endless partying and palpable desire for celebrity status.

Financing the project themselves and calling in favors from actors, musicians, local Club stars and friends, they shot and packaged the project figuring if they made it as good or better than anything on MTV, VH-1 or CW, one of the local networks would snap it up.

But nobody was responding and they couldn't figure out why.

So I visited their edit suite and screened "15 Minutes".

It blew me away.

Not only was this one of the most funny and charming pieces of Canadian television I'd seen in some time, it was embued with an infectious excitement and passion for its subject you don't see in many places anymore. All the hours of Brittney-Lindsay-Paris coverage I'd seen for years couldn't hold a candle to the connection this half hour immediately made to what the world of celebrity means to those who those hours target.

The characters were completely believable and real. What they wanted from life and the Clubs was suddenly understandable -- even to a guy a generation removed from it.

Most of all, the show was just plain fun to watch.

But neither the program nor their endearingly low-ball sales tag -- which would have seen them working for nothing just to get the show on the air -- had moved anyone here to give them a shot.

I knew there were offices in LA where the doors would have been locked and they would have been forcibly confined until they agreed to a deal. I made some calls. Some friends made some calls. Within a week they had an LA agent and meetings with all of the very same networks they were trying to be better than.

Friday night's screening was a "Thank-you" to Cirque for being the scene of much of the action in "15 Minutes". Tyler and Samantha couldn't afford it as a location, so they shot Guerrilla style, cast and crew paying admission, smuggling in their equipment and pretending to party. Occasionally they had to coax or coerce staff or security to look the other way while they got their shots.

It was interesting to watch the pilot being screened for a crowd that had come to drink, dance and take care of other agendas but gave itself over to a show that was about them and people they knew. They laughed, cheered, went quiet and applauded in all the right places, a huge number taking time to fill out the detailed questionnaire the filmmakers handed around to measure their reactions.

Admittedly, you could win a haircut from somebody who charges $200 for that service by returning a completed questionnaire. But that didn't mean people had to say nice things -- yet 87% of those who responded did just that, many asking to be contacted when it went on the air.

I'm not going to go into whatever might have prevented all those Canadian networks so apparently intent on reaching that 18-30 demographic or just finding good Canadian programming from snapping up "15 Minutes". Let's just say the reasons are easily discovered elsewhere on this blog.

What I do know is -- as cash strapped as they all seem to be at the moment, it would have been easier picking up the show for Canadian dollars than the 20% more expensive American ones it will likely cost if they want to broadcast it in future.

On a personal note, it was really rewarding to watch that club audience and confirm that I could still connect with what entertains them. You can sample "15 Minutes" here. I have a feeling you'll see its potential as well.

As for me, I'm going out to celebrate.

"Hey Raven! Who's your daddy!?!"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Aristotle coined the phrase "Nature abhors a vacuum" in a political context. He meant that if an important person or institution abandons their role, another soon moves in to take its place.

But power vacuums don't just exist in government or business. They exist in cultural endeavors as well. Therefore, when Canadian television networks don't make Canadian programming, let alone shows that strongly reflect the values of their audience, somebody else is going to move in and make programming for them -- programs sometimes designed to move our hearts and minds in a decidedly different direction.

There's little remaining doubt that Canadian audiences raised on a steady diet of American drama or comedy now prefer that style of entertainment over their home-grown product. Indeed, our most successful indigenous shows now work hard to emulate American models of production and presentation. And quite honestly, their style hasn't really undermined our substance and might even be helping us find a wider audience as well as recapturing those in our own house.

But what if somebody had a different agenda? What if the goal of the shows they created was to change how the country thinks and what it feels is worth fighting for or opposing?

Two years ago, I met a delegation of Chinese television executives at a foreign film market. A couple of months later, one of them phoned me. He was in Toronto and had a project he thought I might be interested in getting involved with. It was a dramatic series of 26 half hours that was already financed. But it needed to shoot in Canada and be written and produced by somebody here.

I met with he and his translator, learning that the show wanted to follow the lives of several young Chinese college students studying in Canada. A kind of "fish outta water" version of "Party of Five", it would be shot in Mandarin and English and explore the cultural challenges these kids faced being half a world away from home and dealing with a myriad of unexpected challenges.

The Mandarin version would play in China and both versions would be made available to networks here to serve both the North American and Chinese community. It would give audiences in China an understanding of what students studying abroad had to deal with and replicate the immigrant experience for the locals.

I thought the concept had enormous potential to explore all the things these kids were being exposed to from the differences in day-to-day life to dating to learning about issues not spoken about at home like human rights and...

He stopped me. No stories about human rights, a free press or challenging authority. The series had to assure people in China that the values their children had learned at home would not be "corrupted" by what they experienced here.

I told him he had the wrong guy.

But for a long time afterward I wondered what kind of effect the show he was imagining might have on those who watched it here. I'm not sure if he ever found somebody to help him. I do know how hard the "already financed" part of his argument would be for most independent producers to resist.

But -- could another country come here and try to shape our views through Canadian produced television programming?

I'm beginning to suspect they could -- make that -- already have, through one of the most influential genres of broadcasting possible -- the News, specifically CBC News.

On Thursday, October 30th, the French language television service of the CBC ran a show entitled "Malaise in Chinatown" portraying a group known as the Falun Gong as a major cause of trouble in Montreal's Chinese community.

For those of you who don't read the papers much, Falun Gong is not some Chinese gang or Triad. It's a spiritual movement founded in China in 1992. Its teachings and meditation exercises seek to develop character according to the principles of Truthfulness and Compassion.

Although a peaceful quasi-religion, Falun Gong has been outlawed by the Chinese government, its followers imprisoned and tortured. According to the UN, 66% of torture cases in China and 50% of the country's forced labor population are Falun Gong practitioners.

And if that isn't bad enough. Former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour and Winnipeg Human Rights lawyer David Matas recently published a report entitled "Bloody Harvest" which documents and details the Chinese government practice of harvesting human organs from perfectly healthy Falun Gong members for transplantation.

That report has been recognized as factually accurate by humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and convinced the Australian government to close its Transplant teaching hospitals to Chinese students to prevent doctors with Australian medical diplomas from becoming part of this barbaric practice.

However, the CBC, in its report, seems to be following the path of Chinese government allegations that Falun Gong members cut open their own bodies, drink blood, have sex with animals and commit other immoral acts. During the course of "Malaise in Chinatown", a CBC reporter calls Falun Gong an "omnipresent bothersome religion" responsible for many of the problems within the Chinese community.

Among those interviewed for the program was David Kilgour, who on seeing it stated, "I have never seen such an unfair representation of our position."

According to the Epoch Times a newspaper founded to provide uncensored coverage of events in China, this is far from the first time the CBC has broadcast material that ignores the excesses of the Beijing regime.

Some of you may recall that during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, CBC took the unprecedented action of pulling a documentary it had commissioned from Canadian film-maker Peter Rowe entitled "Beyond the Red Wall" which explored the Falun Gong persecution. It is alleged that CBC acted after pre-broadcast complaints from the Chinese embassy.

"Beyond the Red Wall" was re-edited to remove or downplay some of its content and broadcast a few weeks later. Apparently that wasn't enough for the Chinese government, who blocked the broadcaster's website for a short time in January.

So what happened with "Malaise in Chinatown"? Was this a small payback, a "make-good" for previously offending the Beijing regime? Was it financed as some kind of reward for not talking about "human rights issues" during the Olympics -- or maybe a "tax" for mentioning them by accident once or twice? Was it just bad journalism? Or was somebody helping CBC reframe public opinion?

Again -- it wouldn't be the first time.

During the final week of the Canadian election, CBC talking heads were endlessly questioning the journalistic ethics of CTV for "ambushing" Liberal Leader Stephane Dion by broadcasting interview material not intended for public consumption.

I tended to agree with them that what CTV did was unethical. But the "we're above all that" tone rang hollow to me after the much more organized "smear-job" CBC News perpetrated on Prime Minister Harper during the Isreal/Lebanon war.

That meticulous and conscious reworking of the truth was exposed by Conservative Blogger Stephen Taylor in a video he released to Youtube.

The CBC apology that resulted is also on Youtube in all it's disingenuous "Gosh, I guess we missed that" glory. Not a high point for our national broadcaster. And it appears that with "Malaise in Chinatown", they've sunk to another low.

The one thing I think we all expect from television journalists is either the truth or reporting that's as close to the truth as they can get. We're living in a time when we need to know what we're seeing is as accurate and unbiased as possible -- and maybe produced by Canadians reflecting the values of this country and not serving the agenda of somebody else.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Somebody in London once told me that the best way to sense what that city used to look like was to "Look Up".

Apparently, the most extensive changes we make to our urban environments (beyond simply knocking buildings down to make room for new ones) are cosmetic and tend to occur only at street level. So to get the sense of how a historical locale appeared back when it was famous, simply raise your eyes a little above the horizon.

Dutch Graphic Artist Piers Schreuders has taken the process in a different direction in his attempt to recreate the Hollywood streets he saw in American movies.

Employing computer graphics, extensive research, a few detective skills and his own talents as an artist; Schreuders has created an extraordinary glimpse into what it must have been like to be working at the Hal Roach studios during the silent film era and shooting on the streets of Culver City.

His downloadable book on the famous comic studio's most used Main Street location can be found here.

Whether you love exploring the past or simply learning about movie history, this is an enthralling piece of work. Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I need to admit from the get-go that my understanding of economics is best exemplified by the look on my accountant's face sometime between his uttering "You did what?" and dropping his head into his hands.

Oh, I can understand a balance sheet, bring a film in under budget and discern that a financial report from a Canadian producer has got more holes in it than a WWI battlefield -- but some of the other things related to our financial system defy my version of logic.

I really need somebody to explain the current "Bailouts" being instituted by various governments to supposedly prevent our economy from collapsing. Because the more I read about the situation and listen to the talking heads, the more confused I get.

I kinda (though not totally) comprehended the bank bailouts. Apparently banks are just run by people not quite as smart as the guys on Wall street who thought up all kinds of fancy debt instruments and easy credit schemes the poor dumb or simply gullible bankers couldn't see were ultimately worthless even if they really would've made them a shitload of money if they'd worked. And since it was my money the bank had put at risk, I figured the government stepping in might prevent their problems becoming bigger problems of my own.

And here's a tip for all those of you who have a ton of Amway products filling up the garage -- try talking to some bank executives. They might just bite.

Although you should be forewarned that they don't bite whenever I walk in with a sure-fire money-spinner. I might have more actual assets and a better grasp on honesty than most of the guys they've apparently been shoring up, but somehow I'm not the kind of people who can apparently be trusted to build an economy.

Okay, fine. But can somebody then explain why I'm now supposed to bail out the automakers?

If you haven't been paying attention -- the Big Three automakers – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler - are about to (according to them) slip into bankruptcy. An estimated three to five million jobs tied to the auto sector will disappear and hundreds of thousands of retired auto workers will lose their pensions and health benefits.

Dire "End of Days" stuff to be sure and a situation we'd all like to prevent. But I'm not clear on how giving Ford, GM and Chrysler our money solves these problems.

Speaking personally. I haven't owned a North American car since I was 18. I've always been able to find a foreign built model that was better made, more enjoyable to drive and/or cheaper. Christ, I even bought a Jaguar when they were considered a mechanic's personal retirement plan and came out financially ahead of friends who purchased Fords and Chevys.

For the longest time, the B3 have known their foreign competition is head and shoulders above them in quality, customer service and innovation. They haven't addressed those issues and as a result have lost more and more market share. Maybe it's the same question I've been asking about the Canadian Film business for a while -- Why is it essential for me to keep rewarding failure and mismanagement?

Because I want to keep my neighbors working? Well, that would be fine if that's how the B3 operated. But it's not. My province of Ontario handed them around $500 Million a little while ago and all they've done since then was shed jobs -- while hiring more people to build their cars in Mexico, South America and China (where you can get away with paying slave wages).

So even when using semi-slaves these guys can't make a buck? Maybe they've got a problem no amount of my money or anybody else's will solve.

Last week, I was listening to a radio talk show on the issue when a call came in from a guy who worked at the nearby Ford plant in Oakville. He related the oft-heard conspiracy theory about the guy who invented a carburetor that could get 75 miles to the gallon and was silenced by the evil corporations. Only he knew the guy personally, named him and identified him as a loyal Ford employee who was a shift foreman.

In his version of the story, the foreman "who still lives just down the street from me" took his invention upstairs to the execs at Ford, who tested it and found it to be far superior to anything they were using. So they bought the idea.

Only, against all expectations of the guys who built the cars that Ford would soon start installing the invention buddy down the line had invented, the miracle carburetor never materialized. However, according to this radio caller, Ford didn't resort to the urban legend of "disappearing" the inventor. They just turn up at his house on a regular basis to remove the ones he keeps putting on his own car and threatening to sue him for patent or copyright infringement.

So -- Ford owns an invention that could immediately skyrocket their share price and out-distance the competition by miles but it would be better if I just lend them some money instead?

Okay, so maybe we're dealing with a autoworker with a gift for fiction and a line mate he wants to make trouble for. I guess the call's in the archives at Talk640 in Toronto if anybody from the government about to write Ford a cheque on my behalf wanted to check.

But here's something in B&W from a (hopefully) more reliable source, The National Post. Their Saturday headline concerned the difficult times facing our automakers. But if you turned the page of one of the inside sections, you were met with a great big picture of GM's new Camaro, anticipated to come off the line in six months as the most sought after car in the world. According to the Post, more than 600,000 people have already expressed interest in owning one.

So does GM really need a handout, or do they just need to find a way to get that car into their dealerships quicker? Speaking locally, I'd make the Woodbridge outlet and its surrounding population of testosterone fueled young Italian males a high priority.

I also got wondering about a company that sits just a few blocks my Newmarket home, Magna International. Magna makes auto parts and they're also crying for help. But anybody with even a passing acquaintance to the company knows that Magna has lost a fortune over the last decade in the horse racing business, particularly by buying up money-pit racetracks.

They also own a golf course on the border of my city that caters to a very exclusive clientele. Former president Bill Clinton is a regular player and Tiger Woods has been known to drop by to shoot a few holes with hand-picked members of the corporate and political elite.

So shouldn't Magna unload those racetracks or that golf course for the money it needs to stay afloat before they come knocking on my door?

How come it isn't the far-more-wealthy-than-the-average-taxpayer guys, the ones who've enjoyed the perks of playing a round at Magna or sharing a libation at their sports arena private box, who are bailing these guys out?

Do they maybe not have the money, influence or intelligence to do that either? Have we got our own pitiably incapable and self-centered ruling class similar to the Russian oligarchs they make so much fun of?

I mean, why isn't the oil industry, currently swimming in cash, stepping in to support the auto industry which supplies the very gas guzzlers that helped drive up oil profits in the first place? Do they maybe know the handwriting is already on the wall for the North American car makers?

As the B3 crumble, I clean out the garage and find a newspaper from last summer announcing the new Honda Canada headquarters currently being built down the road to, as the local paper says "house its growing sales, marketing and customer service operation teams". Meanwhile, many Financial sites this week featured another announcement from Honda -- that they're building yet another brand new manufacturing plant.

Apparently, people are still buying cars. Just fewer crappy ones. So a lot of those endangered auto workers of ours will likely find new jobs. So why do we have to help out their incompetent bosses?

I always thought the whole point of Capitalism was that the strong survived and those who could innovate and increase value prospered. In the same way that there is no crying in baseball, there aren't supposed to be any "do-overs" in business.

I thought the concept that an idling class takes priority over one that creates something died during the French Revolution. Or did the last few years of prosperity and entitlement bring all that back?

Elsewhere on the web, Billionaire Mark Cuban has launched a site called Bailout Sleuth which is already unearthing indications that some of the places where the bailout money is going are already being hidden from us.

Given the banks and brokerages that are insisting the execs who fumbled this whole situation are still due their million dollar bonuses and just about everybody else with a proven record of incompetence lining up for a handout, I'm wondering if there isn't something else at work here.

Where are the perp walks? Where are the fire sales of the luxury assets of companies who screwed things up for the rest of us?

None of that's happening.

Basically, it's starting to look like what we're funding is a continuation of the charmed lifestyles of the Courtiers who caused all this trouble. The peasants who used to work for Magna and Ford, Chrysler and GM will be without jobs, pensions and health care. While the fops and elites who were supposed to be steering the ship are comfortably on the other side of the iron gates again, still playing golf and betting on the ponies.

Anybody ever notice how much the Magna headquarters resembles Versailles? Am I the only one hearing tumbrels in the distance?