Sunday, March 30, 2008


I first met Allan Eastman on the set of "Lions for Breakfast". I was starring with his girlfriend Susan Petrie and he, fresh from Bristol Film School, was anxious to check out the scene. We hit it off immediately, a couple of prairie kids who had embarked on a show business path unknown and unexperienced by any of our friends and family.

But, like baseball and most wars, the average film set is moments of extreme action and excitement between long interludes of crushing tedium. And after a couple of hours of watching me work, Allan had reached his boredom threshold and asked if I had anything he could read. I had a script I'd just written and handed it over.

At day's end, he wandered back, said he'd liked it and would I be amenable to him directing and Susan assuming the female lead. I said sure and that weekend we talked to "Lions" producer Tony Kramreither and mutual friend John Hunter about producing. They said sure and a year later "A Sweeter Song' was in the can.

See how much easier life was before Telefilm, Cavco and government supervision?

Anyway, that film launched Allan's directing, writing and producing careers; careers that have taken him around the world. And luckily for all of us, allowed him to parlay his other degree in Political Science into something more useful than a seat in the House of Commons.

Though still working, Allan now spends every available moment he can cadge traveling to places where, for some reason or another, he hasn't already been shooting on location.

This week, he had to turn back from an expedition to Everest because of the conflict in Tibet. The following is a letter he wrote me from the Tibetan border that he has agreed to share. No doubt it will become a chapter in his soon to be published travel journals.

You can find that book's first chapter at and I hope you'll share my feeling that this is a travel writer with a difference. Few of those can link working with guys like me, Grizzly Adams and John Wayne into the same anecdote. Nor do they come to the craft with an understanding of politics, history and a director's gift for turning the surrounding chaos into a focused story.

I got started in the blog world because Will Dixon published something I'd never intended to make public. And hopefully this post will inspire Allan to bring his stories online as well. He's got a lot of personal and professional insight to share and we'd all be better for the experience.

Herewith: A Dispatch From The Borders of Tibet

The locals call them “The Him-all-yahs”, not “The Him–a-lay-ahs.” Live and learn…

I’ve made it into Spring here up in the mountain village of Manali – hope you North Americans and Europeans are getting some of that too…it really is lovely, bright golden sunshine, trees budding with vivid blossoms, the snow still glinting hard white from the surrounding peaks…air so fresh, it knocks you cold after a walk. We’re about 10,000 feet here, 3200 meters, and about 100 K from the Tibetan border.

The town is full of Tibetans, local settlers but now also refugees from the Chinese crack down. About 50 of them are on a week long hunger strike in the main square here to protest Chinese rule. I sat in with them for an hour.

The political situation of Tibet is a little vague – it wasn’t recognized as a state through its long isolation from the rest of the world though it was clearly an autonomous area for centuries under the benign leadership of the Dalai Lama. After the Chinese Revolution, Mao’s troops marched in during the early 50’s, said “IT”S OURS!” and have occupied it ever since, forcing the Dalai Lama into exile here in Himchal Pradesh, where I am. The Chinese essentially want it as a buffer zone between themselves and India and there have been border skirmishes ever since.

Like everywhere under its military control, Beijing rules with a heavy hand. The Free Tibet movement is called a terrorist organization and China warns the outside world not to interfere in its “internal affairs.” They’ve moved many ethnic Chinese into Tibet and given them certain economic advantages so not the least of the native Tibetans grievances is that they are 2nd class citizens in their own country. The recent protests have been ruthlessly suppressed by the Chinese Army and many Tibetans have been killed.

It is a very interesting leverage that the Tibetans are using now. China wants to manage this summer’s Olympics in Beijing as a showcase for the new modern, economically powerful, Chinese State. Their PR clearly matters to them. What the Tibetans are exposing is that the Government is no different from the Totalitarian Monolith that gunned down the student Democracy Movement in Tien’anmen Square 19 years ago.

I remember the powerful feeling of Big Brotherism in China from my visit there 2 years ago. Soldiers everywhere, large parts of the net blacked out, massive censorship, the warning that your hotel room may be “under surveillance.” The fear of the inhabitants. This is still a Police State, and therefore a Gangster Government like the Nazis and the Stalinist Russians.

I know the West wants the cheap Chinese goods in Wal-Mart and too many powerful Corporations are getting mega richer outsourcing to there, but I do hope that the Tibetans’ brave stand against Beijing will be recognized and supported by the World at large and China humiliated at their big show.

Delhi was the most different place I’ve seen in India. New Delhi, built by the colonialist Brits is a green, leafy metropolis of wide avenues, no cows and seems a modern world City. Old Delhi still is a bazaar and is fun like all of those in India.

My old friend and collaborator, the actor Maury Chaikin was in town doing a part in Deepa Mehta’s new movie so we spent a nice Sunday hanging out before he flew back. We took pedal rickshaws to visit the Red Fort and our western bulk on these flimsy vehicles was a source of amazement and amusement to the pedestrians on the thronged sidewalks.

Maury is the first familiar face I’ve seen for almost 4 months so that was pleasant and it was totally great to just sit around and shoot the shit with someone you’ve known for a long time. We had lots of laughs recalling movies we’d done together, especially our long period in Croatia doing "Race For The Bomb". Maury played General Leslie Groves, the engineer who built the Pentagon and was placed in charge of the Manhattan Project, working with Robert Oppenheimer to build the Atomic Bomb.

That was a great shoot, despite some bizarre production decisions – I was co-directing with the insane French director Jean Francois Delassus, shooting both English and French versions and we got along about as well as Clinton and Obama – the best thing about it was the superb cast from Canada, US, France, UK, Italy and Jugoslavia. I thought at the time it was the best young cast in the entire world.

I still keep many close friendships from that 6 month shoot including the redoubtable Pier Paulo Capponi in Roma, the tragically lost Denis Forest, Tom Rack, Geza Kovacs, Ironside of course, not to mention falling in love with Cintija, getting married and becoming a father. Memorable.

Maury and I had a lot of laughs remembering people and events – my AD, Jimmy Kaufman would use the same circular hand gestures to describe anything he was trying to explain to Croatian service staff – a pot of tea, grilled lamb chops, a diet coke. Maury used to mock him unmercifully.

In old Delhi, I stayed in a really funky neighborhood called Karol Bagh. For three days there, I didn’t see another western face so that gave me a dumb sort of feeling of accomplishment, like I really had escaped the beaten path. The whole area is a vast market and I got adopted by the guys at the Juice Stand I frequented who steered me to all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies.

The 2nd part of the trip up to Simla, also spelled Shimla, was on one of the famous “Toy Trains” – a very narrow gauge railroad, about 28 inches, that more or less just climbs straight up the mountains, gaining 7000 feet in altitude in its first 30 or 40 K of travel. Built about a century ago, this is a truly amazing engineering feat and a marvelous trip. The rails run along the narrowest of ridges on the highest elevations all the way so out either side you are looking at a 1000 foot drop and across miles of verdant valley.

I had a wrong mental picture of the Himalayas. Because of the benign weather here in the subcontinent, a great deal of the mountains are lush and green and the valleys are dedicated to growing mangoes and apples so we would occasionally roll through forests of blossoms. The tree line goes up to beyond 10,000 feet so it is only later and much farther North where you start to see the snow capped peaks, now getting up toward 20,000 feet.

The weekend I traveled was the Hindu festival of Holi when most people paint themselves with vivid red and green and purple colors and dance in the streets. They also attack everyone they see with handfuls of paint powder and buckets of water so pretty soon, you too carry and abstract Mondrian design on your clothes and skin.

I caught one particularly sneaky attack through the train window and arrived in Simla with my white shirt now bright red and purple and orange and green streaks on my face. It kinda washes out although my shirt now looks like a tie dye relic from the 60s.

Simla is a cool town that slants down the side of a mountain range. It reminds me in some ways of Valparaiso in Chile – the same 45 degree living. I stayed in Clarke’s there, a 110 year old Grande Dame wooden hotel and prowled the exotic back streets where Kipling had Kim learn his spy craft.

Tomorrow, it is back to Simla – 8 hours by car – then back to Delhi the day after to catch the train for Varanesi, the center of Hindu life on the banks of Mother Ganges where the pilgrim must bathe in sacred waters and the funeral pyres return the departed to the ash that floats along the river to the sea.

My expedition to Everest is clearly off because of the political troubles in Tibet so after that, I guess it’s on to Darjeeling and Calcutta (Kolkata).

India remains the most fascinating and diverse of places but one of the nicest things about Johnson’s Hotel here in Manali is that a great portion of their restaurant menu is western – fresh trout, roast chicken, porridge, pasta, baked potatoes, ice cream in hot chocolate sauce…I’ve always loved Indian food but I got to say that after 2 months of nothing but, I may never eat it again once I leave here…

Saturday, March 29, 2008


I often work late into the night. And as writing is a lonely enough profession, I usually have music, the television or a radio on in the background. During one of my LA residencies, a neighbor addicted to the paranormal turned me on to a radio program that's been running since the early 1980's seven nights a week for four hours each night.

Many of you are probably familiar with "Coast to Coast", originally created and hosted by Art Bell and now featuring George Noory. It's an eclectic mix of the supernatural, conspiracy theory and new age thought with unusual guests and even weirder callers. It also features great music woven through the night's stories.

I've never been clear on whether Bell and Noory put much credibility in the people and concepts they explore or have simply developed a presentational style designed to make the participants feel safe enough that anything might transpire.

But now and then, there's a story on "Coast to Coast" for which there is tangible and irrefutable proof, but no logical explanation. A story like "The Coral Castle".

The Coral Castle is a roadside attraction in Homestead, Florida created by Edward Leedskalnin, a diminuative recluse who singlehandedly constructed structures out of megalithic stones (mostly fossilized coral) that each weigh several tons.

From 1923 to 1951, working under cover of darkness and completely alone, with only the most rudimentary homemade tools, Leedskalnin somehow moved rocks weighing as much as thirty tons and larger than those at Stonehenge. He constructed a castle and sculpture garden that features such pieces as a sundial that keeps perfect time and a telescope permanently locked on the North Star.

There is no logical or scientific explanation for how he accomplished construction tasks said to rival and perhaps even surpass the building of the pyramids. In 1935, a group of teenagers claimed to have spied on Leedskalnin, insisting he made the massive rocks float like balloons. But no one believed them and Leedskalnin refused to divulge his secret, only saying that it wasn't that difficult once you knew how.

To make this story even more bizarre, Leedskalnin grew tired of the encroaching development of Florida City and packed up his castle and moved it down the road to Homestead in 1936. To do so, he dissassembled his structures and hired a flatbed truck to move them.

When the driver arrived, Leedskalnin refused his help. And despite the fact that the driver saw no other workers or heavy equipment present, the builder ordered him to leave for a few hours while the job was accomplished. A short distance down the road, the driver realized he'd left his lunch behind. He went back, discovering that the heavy stones had already been loaded.

Leedskalnin's creation has been immortalized in songs by Crystal Gayle and Billy Idol and it's secrets hold the makings of many stories. It's a mystery that inspires and confounds as only the best mysteries can.

Enjoy your Sunday...

Friday, March 28, 2008


I'm not a fan of empty gestures and there are few that feel as empty as tomorrow's planned "Earth Hour" set for Toronto and several other cities around the world. Among the things I have less time for are arrogance and hypocrisy, which both seem in full supply for this event.

I'm not going to argue Climate change or whether that crisis is the result of man-made or natural causes. It makes no difference whether a threat comes from within or without a bio-sphere. If it is not combated or compensated for, it will have a negative effect. So, if reducing our energy use helps then we should do that.

But for some reason, our current crop of environmentalists seem less interested in actual change than creating "consciousness raising" events that don't really change anything.

From "Live 8" to all the copycat films coat-tailing Al Gore's movie, it seems the process is more about branding yourself environmentally friendly than actually doing something concrete.

Back in 2000, I bought a farm just North of Toronto. One of my first calls was to CANWEA, the Canadian Wind Energy Association, because I wanted to get off the grid and build a couple of Windmills that in addition to serving my own needs, would put some clean energy back into the system.

I grew up with windmills. Every farm in Saskatchewan had at least one that pumped water and maybe powered a string of lights in the barn or a heater in the chicken coop. Today, much more efficient versions power towns and cities all over the world.

The CANWEA guys came out and set up a test site, determining that a single windmill on the property could handle my needs, those of at least two of my neighbors and maybe send a little juice down the line to Toronto.

The windmill never got built.

Permits to do so got tangled in so much red tape of government fact finding and approvals that I was looking at several years of waiting before I could get started. It became very clear to me that the powers that be hadn't figured out how to make money off the process, or at least, how not to lose any.

Even the blackout of 2003 couldn't shift anything. I recall listening to a news conference two days after the disaster with officials insisting they needed to find a specific number of Kilowatts to get things back to normal -- when that exact number of kilowatts was already on hand from clean energy sources they wouldn't allow onto the grid.

Five years later, I've got friends who could be contributing solar and wind energy to reduce our dependence on nuclear and fossil fuel. But the costs of connecting to the grid remain prohibitive.

Say what you will about George Bush, but prior to his 8 years in the White House, he passed laws in Texas forcing their hydro electric companies to buy green energy first. That law resulted in windfarms and regular income from a renewable resource that has saved many family farms and ranches while also improving the environment.

Yet Canadian politicians, instead of simply doing the same, are more interested in the PR points they can earn by flipping off their lights for an hour.

The corporate hypocrisy is just as bad. While Rogers will be a good corporate citizen and turn off the exterior lights of Toronto's Rog Mahal (formerly the Skydome) they'll be staging a Supercross event inside that won't be interrupted.

After doing endless coverage of "Earth Hour" all over the CBC and with the exterior lights snuffed at their headquarters and the Air Canada Centre, our National Broadcaster will still have its TV lights and satellite trucks at full power so it can Broadcast the Toronto-Montreal tilt for Hockey Night in Canada.

This game will be broadcast to countless 42" flat screen televisions in the "blacked out" city that eat up more power than all of the lights in your home put together.

The whole thing is an empty gesture designed to make you feel you, your elected representatives and your corporate brand partners are all doing something positive -- when you're not making a damn bit of difference.

Do you want to do something that really will change things?

Go to a hardware store and spend $2 on a CFL bulb. One bulb. If every home in Canada changed one bulb, we'd lower our annual energy costs by $73 Million and permanently save hundreds of thousands of Kilowatts.

That's a fact you can look up on more places than Wikipedia.

Imagine if all the time and effort spent on "Earth Hour" had been spent convincing people to change one lightbulb in their home or maybe all of them. The impact would have been immediate, visible and substantial.

But the powers that be wouldn't have been able to profit from that change (unless they owned a bulb company) or make you believe they really care about the planet. In the meantime, they know they can fool you with empty gestures.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


After a month of chastising Canadian show business, I thought it was time to follow the Thumper's Mom rule and say something nice for a change. God knows, I'm far from the crusty curmudgeon some of my new readers must mistake me for and much of what we do in this country rivals the best you will find anywhere in the world.

About a year ago, DMC, in an uncharacteristic moment of self promotion, mentioned he would be appearing on a CBC Radio 1 program entitled "Q". Not being a huge fan of CBC radio, so much so that I didn't even know there was now a 1 and a 2, I nevertheless decided to tune in and hear what he had to say.

I'd likewise never heard of "Q", knew even less of its host, Jian Ghomeshi, and fully expected that if I did manage to find the correct CBC channel on the dial, I'd probably stick around only long enough to catch the TV Panel segment.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Anyone who works in the Canadian arts industries has had the experience of meeting somebody who asks what you do, has never heard of you or any of your work and then proceeds to tell you how much they dislike Canadian movies, television or whatever.

Their prejudices are very clear and invariably firmly entrenched.

A lot of the time you can't argue with them because you're painfully aware that our Arts scene is so twisted out of shape by regionalism, subsidy criteria, social policy and the like that what they're being served has lost all connection to the normal artist-audience dynamic.

And no matter your life path, interests or priorities you almost begin to believe that they're right and if you really were any good you'd be in LA.

So you let them vent and offer an assurance that what you do is different or suggest a title or two their rant has indicated they might actually like if they gave it half a chance.

But like them, you can't fathom why Telefilm put 25 Million of their tax dollars into "Where the Truth Lies", how a show like "Jeff Ltd." ever got on the air or any of the other imponderables that separate our industry from that large lump of the population many of us refer to (not without affection) as Don Cherry Nation.

They're the people who work hard at jobs that never get mentioned in the media, put up with the same national incongruencies that we do and when they flop in front of a television just want something that entertains them as much as Don Cherry's rants on Hockey Night in Canada.

As much as we artists and that nation are almost identical, there sometimes seems to be a chasm between us that we don't know how to bridge and they have no incentive to attempt.

Five minutes into my first listen of "Q", I could hear the footings of a bridge between us being planted in place.

I've got more years than most listening to CBC arts programming from both sides of the microphone. I've been interviewed by everybody over there from Peter Gzowski and Lister Sinclair to Barbara Frum, Sheila Rogers and Andy Barry.

Most often, it was with regard to plays, movies or TV shows which they'd never seen, nor likely would see, but which had somehow touched a nerve, caused a frisson of interest or maybe just offered appropriate fill on a slow news day.

There was a distance between me and them that approximated the chasm that exists between us and Cherry Nation.

Jian Ghomeshi, who hosts "Q", is different.

In listening to this guy's interviews, you immediately sense the presence of somebody who cares, who wants his audience to understand and connect with the people who visit his show.

He's actually listened to the albums of the artists he interviews, he's read their books, seen their movies and TV series and engages them through impeccable research, asking the questions that form in my own mind as the discussions progress.

This is a media guy who wants the artists and Cherry nation to get to know each other simply because of how much he knows they have in common and how much they'll get off on one another once they get to know each other.

It's as if he's linking two nomadic tribes in the desert of his Persian ancestry.

He also made me realize that my own prejudices were very clear and firmly entrenched.

The other night, I listened to a lengthy interview Ghomeshi had done with Paul Anka, an artist I had been forced to endure during my youth and whose faux Vegas Rat-Pack persona I detested as much as his carefully (and in my opinion crassly) crafted songs.

But I was enthralled by what I heard, finding levels to the man I'd never conceived could be there.

I don't know who produces "Q", who writes or researches it. I haven't the first clue how they go about deciding the elements that make the show. But I cannot more highly recommend it.

What I don't understand is why CBC does something this good at 2:00 in the afternoon and further hobbles by creating a two hour show that only runs for an hour in most major markets so the locals can get detailed traffic reports two hours before most of them even get off work.

For the longest time, I thought I'd had a stroke or an acid flashback which had eliminated all memory of segments that had been promoted through the first hour.

The two hour version of "Q" repeats in one hour late in the evening, condensed unfortunately by eliminating the music that is much a part of the format. But once again, that repeat happens at a time when most people are doing something else.

I understand Ghomeshi has been with the CBC for a while, but it'll take better brains than the ones who appear to be running the place at the moment to find him the audience he deserves.

Luckily, somebody has been smart enough to park the show on iTunes as free podcasts.

Last week, in the middle of a particularly trying day, I climbed in the truck to hit Tim Horton's for a cup of coffee. "Q" was just coming on and Ghomeshi's guest was Sarah Slean, a singer-songwriter I'd heard a little and labeled "cute and quirky" and "not really for me".

I wasn't in a mood for droll irony and reached for the off button as I parked outside the coffee shop. But Ghomeshi's keen interest in what she was going to sing stopped me. A moment later, I was giving my full attention to a song that might be the best thing I've heard all year.

Somewhere in the bridge, the volume of the music increased and I reached for the dial. But it wasn't my radio. It was the one in the electrician's truck parked next to me. The driver was a guy in his 30's with a Leafs cap, his coffee cup on the dash next to a half eaten BLT. He rode the volume higher, a member of Cherry nation on his lunch break and as taken with this song as I was.

I felt another beam in that bridge lock into place. If either of us had had a goat, I'm sure we would have killed and shared it.

I hope those of you unfamiliar with "Q" will take a moment to sample the show. Anyone despairing at the condition of our industry will receive some healing. And, at the very least, there's ammunition for the next time somebody tries to tell you our stuff isn't as good as it could be. Because it is and with luck, Jian Ghomeshi and "Q" are delivering that message to our audience.

Here's Sarah Slean and that song as an example...

You can find "Q" here and select from an archive of past episodes at iTunes.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


The first Australians I ever met were members of some sports team that was playing University squads in Canada. I'd been invited to a welcoming party at a three-storey house in downtown Regina. And while I don't recall what sport these gentlemen played, I'll never forget ambling up a quiet street on a summer evening as screaming exploded from the house I was headed for.

Then, these two Australian guys burst from the front door stark naked with flaming newspapers tucked into their butt cheeks. They vaulted off the porch and dove ass first into two large tubs of water sitting on the front lawn.

Apparently, it was a race that had started on the third floor as newsprint was inserted and lit, giving the boys mere seconds to descend two flights of stairs without being "disqualified" for losing their newspapers and reach the waiting water before anything got singed.

Since this first heat was too close to call, they ran the race again. The loser of that contest demanded a "best of three" and so it went. I don't know who ended up winning. I only remember being helpless with laughter.

Canadians are rightfully proud of their contributions to the world of comedy from Jim Carrey to Mike Myers to Paul Anka. "You're Having My Baby" was supposed to be funny, right?

But beyond Dame Edna, Rolf Harris and Barry Humphries, most of us have never experienced Australian comedy and that's a shame, because much of it is priceless.

I was in Australia during the 2000 Olympics and the ABC network (their version of the CBC) broadcast every minute of the Games with all the generosity and respect the visiting nations and their athletes deserved -- until 11:00 pm. At that point a show entitled "The Dream" recapped the day's events in a manner that once again left me helpless with laughter.

Host sportscasters "Roy & HG" (comedy duo Grieg Pickhaver and John Doyle) presented such things as Greco-Roman wrestling with a Barry White soundtrack and invented new names for the moves in Men's gymnastics including the "Flat Bag", "Dutch Wink" and "Hello Boys".

They also created a new mascot for the games, "Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat" to replace the mundane official mascots they dubbed "Syd, Ollie, and Dickhead". Fatso became so popular that Australian athletes carried him to the medal podium and the Olympic Committee tried to have him banned.

A statue of Fatso has since been erected at Sydney's Olympic Park.

Insulting New Zealanders was also de rigeur. When New Zealand won their first gold in Rowing, Roy remarked that Kiwis were "only good at sitting down and going backwards". As for the former Olympic host city of Atlanta, it was dismissed as "the toilet".

Australians and Canadians are much alike. To them, we're "Australians with better manners". But funny is funny and I'd like you meet two current stars on Oz television, John Clarke and Bryan Dawe. Both are well known screenwriters and actors who now provide regular commentary on the news of the day.

I hope that, like me, they leave you helpless with laughter. Enjoy your Sunday.


Direct Link


Direct Link

Friday, March 21, 2008


This morning, thousands of young men in the Philippines celebrated Good Friday by flagellating the flesh off their backs and being crucified. Government representatives, who quietly promote the practice through the Ministry of Tourism, didn't quibble over the health implications, advising the crucifees to get Tetanus shots first and to use clean whips and nails.

In San Fernando City, where 23 people, including two women, signed up to be nailed to crosses, the ceremony is officially sponsored by Coca-Cola and a local mobile phone network.

Think of that as savvy product placement.

And get used to it. Because in the ever hungry-for-cash television landscape, there will soon be more integration of entertainment and marketing.

While those of us with a religious bent or sense of taste might find this particular mix of spiritual suffering and lifestyle enhancement unsettling, these Good Friday traditions are a big draw in their part of the world. So thousands will gather to watch the gruesome festivities and maybe buy a Coke or a mobile phone subscription to boot.

And let's be honest! It's not like Coke is the first organization to realize you can make a buck off religion.

But there's always been an uncomfortable relationship between movies or television programming or music and advertising. And for decades, we all managed to keep our distance from one another.

Time was when big screen movie stars would sneak off to Japan to make some extra coin doing commercials while refusing to append their name or likeness to any product over here. As an example of how much times have changed -- this morning, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony's month old twins began selling PEOPLE magazines in a deal that netted their folks (or their trust fund) Six million dollars.

Major rock stars in the 60's, 70's and 80's refused to cozy up to the corporate shills anxious to turn their hits into product jingles. Nowadays, even the loudest voices in support of social change (like U2) release their work to brand product almost from the moment it begins to drift down the charts.

We can probably all share the blame for this state of affairs. I know I hounded my Mom into buying "Sugar Pops" because Kit Carson and the Cisco Kid ate them. And I'm sure I've bought something somewhere mostly because I connected a fond personal memory with the hit song that now underscored that product's commercial.

So I'm fairly certain the kind of endless product integration that's currently ubiquitous on "American Idol", "The Apprentice" and virtually every design and makeover show will soon be as much a part of your favorite comedies and dramas as guest stars.

And that's really a natural progression. On "Top Cops', we had a stable of Ford Crown Victorias that we painted and repainted to fit each week's police jurisdiction because that's the car most of those police departments drove. By the second season of the series, Ford was one of our sponsors and now and then ferried a vehicle down the road from the Oakville plant to be on camera.

Back then, that was called "Contra" and helped both the advertiser and the series a little. Likewise, whenever we did an episode that involved a traffic fatality or car chase, I'd let the network know and the Ford spots would be shifted somewhere else for that week so we didn't show anybody in a bad light.

The same went for Budweiser whenever we depicted a character who'd been drinking or American Airlines if the episode touched on a hijacking or involved the bomb squad. Not once did any of our sponsors dictate program content and we never argued if they decided their corporate image was better served by being somewhere else during a particular segment.

That's beginning to change as Multinational corporations have gained power and influence and media companies have been merged or gobbled up by the same companies that used to buy their ad time.

Those realities and the advent of the PVR, which allows audiences to skip commercials, means some new formula has to be found to pay for programming and the current wisdom suggests making the product a part of the show is the way to go.

Common practice in Canadian reality shows, for example, is that no brand name is seen or mentioned unless a cash payment has been made that is shared by the producer and the network.

So far, it's a business model that seems to make everybody happy. This season, Pond's Moisturizer appeared in a key dramatic moment of USA Network's "The Starter Wife" and saw the lagging product's sales surge by 400% overnight. Indeed, in 2006, American networks earned $1.5 Billion from product integration.

But that's now creating dilemmas for a lot of the people who make those shows. Because while advertising has always been a cross that many television artists have felt they had to bear. It now appears to be one to which we'll be nailed.

You might be a writer with an environmental conscience, for example, who's now faced with only getting your show off the ground if your hero drives a Hummer.

You may be an actress and a strict vegetarian. Of course, you're only playing a character who says "Hey, let's all go to Burger King". But if you've been vocal about your beliefs, you know that clip is going to turn up on YouTube, exposing you to a certain amount of personal ridicule.

You could well be a producer who has lost a member of your family to lung cancer and is vehemently opposed to encouraging kids to smoke. And even though it's illegal to advertise cigarettes, every tobacco company is eagerly waiting with a government mandated "educational" fund that'll write you a six figure check if the teenage hottie on your show can be seen lighting up while bemoaning her addiction and struggling to quit.

Under the current system, all of those content decisions are in the hands of the network funding the program and are not made by a show's creative contingent.

The WGA wrestled with these issues in their last contract without gaining much ground and SAG will do the same in their upcoming negotiations. So far, both unions' requests for artistic controls on what gets promoted through their creative output have been ignored. And when you see Guild proposals which seek a percentage of the money earned from product integration, you wonder if that approach even addresses the real problem.

What today's sponsored Crucifixions in the Philippines exemplify, however, is an element I don't think either artists or advertisers are considering. And that's how the audience will view the links made between product and entertainment.

For example, I became a fan of open wheel racing in 1986 with the arrival of the first Molson Indy in Toronto. A year later, we worked the race and a couple of the drivers into an episode of "Adderly". Locally, the event was advertised as great family fare and an exciting opportunity for corporations to link their products to a clean and wholesome brand.

Imagine my surprise a few years later, when attending the same circuit's race in Surfer's Paradise in Australia, to see no mention of bringing the kids, but a lot for the promised week long debauch of drinking and nudity.

In Toronto, the fans might be treated to a few taut tank tops. In Surfer's, the course snaked around endless condo towers featuring naked women and drunken public orgies.

It's kind of interesting that the same corporations who branded those race cars didn't mutter a word of complaint when the circuit decided to drop the Toronto race from this year's calendar in favor of keeping the Australian leg of the tour.

But thanks to the internet, we're past the days when a product could be sold one way in one market and a completely different way in another.

And as product integration on internationally marketed shows becomes more ubiquitous, I think the audience's relationship with both the shows and the products themselves is going to be similarly influenced.

I'm already certain that while Coca-Cola may sell a few more bottles to thirsty crucifixion fans in the Philippines today, there are some North American congregations deciding to opt for lemonade at the next Church social.

Audiences have a very personal relationship with their shows and their favorite characters. I know I used to find Chuck Norris harmlessly entertaining until I recently saw him pushing his political views. From here on, I'll reconsider renting one of his DVDs on a slow night when I just want to see something blow up.

Some people might be tickled that Eva Longoria bought an Oldsmobile on "Desperate Housewives" and now does promotions for the company. But somewhere in Ohio or Florida, there's a woman whose child was killed by a drunk behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile who has stopped watching the show altogether.

What happens to Diet Pepsi if this week's allegations that one of their prime spokesmen, Sean Combs, was behind the murder of Tupac Shakur prove to be true?

How will the fans of "House" react if their hero one day recommends Pfizer's new depression drug? And what happens to that series and everyone connected to its creative decisions if a fatal side effect to that drug is later discovered -- and to make matters worse -- a victim's family claims Dr. House's word was what convinced the deceased to change his prescription?

In that moment, all the easy money that came from product integration might not seem like such a gift and we'll be yearning for the days when everything on TV was manufactured by the "Acme Novelty Company".

In the end, you gotta suspect that on this day in particular, Jesus might be looking down on the recreation of his suffering, noticing all those people with a Coke in their hands and wondering how we missed the real message.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


It's officially Spring in the Northern Hemisphere; a fact lost on those in my part of the world where we're still buried under six feet of snow. But while the temperatures remain in the subzero range and the painfully jolly weather guys claim there's weeks of the same to come, the first sign of impending rebirth wandered past me this afternoon. My new neighbors have arrived.

The Canada Geese are back.

When I was a kid on the prairies, the change of seasons was clearly marked by Canada Geese winging their way either South or North. In the Fall, the trademark "V" formations of Southbound flocks covered the sky and were inevitably followed by a brisk North tailwind. Spring came with a similar Northbound "V" accompanied by a warm wind from the South West.

Here in Ontario, the milder winters and year round supply of food mean many of our wildfowl stick around. Yet our Canada Geese still signal the vernal equinox by moving in next door.

They first appear in groups of 10 or 12 tramping through the snow, waddling from parks and wetlands into urban neighborhoods, searching for places to settle down. And you can come across several of these little parades on any given day. They're like weekend real estate tourists scoping your street for an open house, making mental notes about access to schools and the mall before making a down payment.

Hah! "Down" payment! Get it?


Right now, the small groups just make a slow tour of the area. But as soon as the snow melts, they'll be back, walking the same route, dropping pairs as they go. And the nesting will begin.

I'm sure there are Ornithologists who understand why Canada Geese don't keep to the relative serenity of more pastoral settings let alone how they choose who goes where and what spots are best, but to me there's a fascinating chaos to the outcome.

Apparently Canada Geese mate for life. Hence, according to my Mom, the reason they are called "Canadian". Further proof most of the folks I know are genetically flawed, but fascinating because the longer you live in one area, the more it seems like the same pairs are setting up house using the same personal criteria of "location, location and location".

It's not unusual to find a nesting pair right smack in the middle of a parking lot or on the boulevard of a busy intersection. Sometimes, you'll pull into the drive to discover somebody laying eggs by the front step. Even the most territorial dogs get used to the idea that part of their yard has suddenly become "off-limits".

My own theory is that if you're going to be stuck sitting on a half dozen eggs for a few weeks, you want to be someplace where humanity can at least keep you entertained. And so they sit amid shoppers and rush hour taffic watching the passing scene.

Now, for all their grace and elegance and decades as a national symbol, the truth is that our Geese are pretty much a public nuisance. They chase pets and small children, crap everywhere and deliver this material (which we euphemistically call "grease") in daily amounts that approximate twice their body weight.

They are the scourge of beaches, golf courses, public parks and schoolyards. By rights we should be "greasing" them by the thousands. But we don't. Oh, we do hunt them, but only in remote locations and only for a couple of weeks, when they're fat and grain fed and "good-eatin'". But that's mostly an excuse to dress in camoflage and start drinking before breakfast.

Up to then, we go out of our way to make sure they renew the cycle of life with as much help as possible. It's like these birds become part of our families as soon as they move in.

So you will find a nesting female in her parking lot surrounded by piles of birdseed and baked goods that passersby have dropped off so the expectant mom doesn't have to go very far for a snack. Likewise, nesting sites are typically decorated by paper cups filled with water. Our two national symbols, the Canada Goose and the discarded Tim Horton's Cup living in mutual harmony.

I've seen people literally guarding a nest as the eggs hatch, becoming surrogate mommies and daddies as they help the gander keep interlopers at bay.

Once the goslings are born, the impact of our Geese on our lives and our deference to their needs increases exponentially. Baby Geese need to be taught to forage for food, to swim and to fly and we help out with that as much as we can.

Needless to say, these educational activities can't be accomplished in a parking lot. So the Geese walk to the nearest park or stream and we help them get there and safely back home again.

For about 3 weeks in early summer it is completely normal to find a half dozen lanes of traffic backed up for blocks as a mating pair slowly cross the road with 8 or more less than nimble offspring in disorderly single file behind them.

Horns will Honk and tempers flare at the backs of these lines, but once word passes that it's Geese on safari, the road rage subsides into a kind of good-natured acceptance that the wait is unavoidably worthwhile.

Last summer, I wandered a dog friend into a marshy area where the local dogs like to goof around to find several animals and their owners still leashed together, waiting patiently as a mother goose prodded one nearly mature youngster after another into the air. The last one just couldn't get with the program. But Mom had decided it was time to solo and she wasn't handing over the beach until everybody was airborne.

Owners hunkered and dogs flattened on the ground, tongues lolling, all of us patiently waiting for nature to take its course, and somehow sensing that it was more important for this to happen before anybody got to chase a tennis ball.

A few minutes later, little Orville or Wilbur finally grasped the concept and took off. Mom turned to us, Squawked what I took as a "Thank-you" and then flapped off to join her family in the pond. The dogs rose as one and the humans quickly followed, unsnapping leashes and getting on with the play at hand.

Today's real estate tour circled my house a couple of times, with the lead pair, who seemed somewhat familiar, taking particular interest in the shade tree that sheltered a mating pair last Spring. I better go get some birdseed and stop by Tim Horton's. It looks like I'm gonna be a daddy again.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


I have a confession to make...

This week I started reading a book.

Yep. A real book. And it isn't work related! It's not something somebody wants me to adapt. It isn't research for an original script. It doesn't purport to improve my writing, my personality -- or my cat.

It's one of those compilations of bound and covered paper you read -- for pleasure.

Now, those who've been reading this space for a while will recall that I can't recall the last time I read a book. Too much script and proposal writing and reading had just taken over.

It wasn't always that way. I used to read two or three books a week. Most Sundays I'd pick up the NY Times, sift out the "Review of Books" and read it cover to cover, making a list of titles that looked interesting. Then it was off to a book store or library to find one of those titles.

When I moved to LA, I noticed most bookstores had a huge pile of the "Review of Books" at the counter and once asked a clerk how much it dictated what they sold.

"Most of our customers don't buy books." he said, "They just buy that so they can pretend they've read the books."

I soon discovered he wasn't kidding, meeting far too many movie people whose opinion of a particular novel exactly paralleled the NY Times reviews -- right down to a favorite scene or passage.

So, what inspired me to finally read a book?

Actually it was an invitation I received to check out a new website that debuted this week called promises to deliver insight and information on books, writers and the process of writing; including a regular one hour video discussion with several authors on their latest works. And boy does it deliver!

The debut features one of my favorite writers, Richard Price, Academy Award nominee for "The Color of Money", writer of the novels and screenplays of "The Wanderers", "Clockers" and "Freedomland" among others. Price also wrote several episodes of "The Wire" and his new novel LUSH LIFE has just been published.

Listening to Richard Price talk about his work process and why he writes what he writes is nothing short of enthralling.

Joining he and moderator Daniel Menaker (former Editor-in-Chief at Random House) are mystery writer Colin Harrison, deputy editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of BREAK AND ENTER, BODIES ELECTRIC, MANHATTAN NOCTURNE, and AFTERBURN; Susan Choi, winner of the Asian American Literary Award for Fiction for THE FOREIGN STUDENT and 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist for AMERICAN WOMAN -- and the guy who convinced me to start reading again, newcomer Charles Bock, whose debut novel BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN is a current best seller.

Initially uncomfortable being interviewed, Bock's talents quickly begin to shine through and before the video was done I was checking to see if the "Chapters" up the street had a copy. They did -- and so far my instincts are right. This is a book I can't put down. may just be new the online equivalent of the NY Times "Review of Books". I know it'll be a place I go to find new books and to learn more about their authors and the process that brought the story to life. If you have an hour today, pour yourself a cup of coffee, sit back and click the above link to check it out.

And if you don't have the time or an interest in reading or writing, take two minutes to enjoy Comedian Bill Hicks' take on people who don't read books.

Either way, enjoy your Sunday.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Like any business, creating film and television depends on money. Our money arrives under a number of pseudonyms; network license fees, foreign sales, Telefilm loans, grants, tax credits and private investment. Little gets made without a mix of most, if not all, of these different funding streams.

Cable Honcho Jim Shaw recently suggested he doesn't feel he's gotten his money's worth from the millions his semi-monopoly contributes to production and the furor over C-10 gave those who don't like seeing public money invested in the Arts an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with what we produce.

And while taste is always subjective and nobody will ever create anything that makes everybody happy; the debate begs the question many who make the shows constantly ask -- "Why hasn't the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into our world created a viable industry -- where is all that money going?"

My last posts in this realm followed my personal journey through financial reporting and creative accounting to find out what happened to money I felt I was owed. Hopefully, illustrating how it is owed to thousands of Canadian creatives, and begging somebody in authority to help us get the real numbers out of the secret vault where they are stored at Telefilm Canada.

There will be some more of that today, along with material I've gotten from other producers which basically proves something I've been saying since my first days in the blog world...

The single greatest element holding back the Canadian television industry are our own Broadcasters. Because this small group, which benefits most from the work of our creative community and the largess of the average taxpayer and cable mogul, financially contributes the least to producing Canadian television and in some cases doesn't pay anything at all.

Yep, the same folks whom "public policy" has anointed the gatekeepers of our culture have enriched themselves while simultaneously impoverishing our artists and short-changing the audience they have been licensed and mandated to serve.

It'll take somebody way smarter and far better connected than I'll ever be to unravel the web of political deals and backroom wrangling that put us where we are today. But there is no denying that we live in an environment where our Broadcasters do not need ratings success to survive or cultural contribution to benefit from government support. And they all enjoy state sanctioned territorial and genre protections which ensure that they will never face any real competition.

Thumb through the hearings of our broadcast regulator, the CRTC, and time after time, you will find evidence of hundreds, sometimes thousands of interventions, counter arguments or appeals for logic turned aside for more or less what the Broadcaster wanted in the first place. They own the Commission and anyone who doesn't choose to believe that is a fool.

Others here and here in the Canadian production community have been discussing ways to overcome our apparent inability to develop and sustain popular programming. But having done too many cop shows, my first question on arriving at the scene of that crime is to ask "Who benefits from this?" and usually that means you start following the money.

So, let's start with tax credits...

Allow Jim Russell, a partner at Heenan Blaikie LLP and expert at entertainment law explain them as he did in last Saturday's National Post...

"When the tax credits were first brought in, in 1995, the rationale was that they wouldn't be included in the financing plan for a show. They were designed to allow producers to build up their equity in their company between projects. And it took all of about two seconds for broadcasters, distributors and other stakeholders to say 'No, producer, that's your skin in the game'."

You can read the full article by Joseph Brean and its well-written primer on Canadian film financing here.

Prior to 1995, Canadian networks paid license fees on a par with the rest of the world, that being 60% of the total cost of a program. This meant for an average $1 million dollar hour of drama, the broadcaster would ante $600,000; receiving in return the right to all domestic broadcast revenue and usually a percentage of equity in foreign sales or future earnings.

With the advent of tax credits, the Broadcaster contribution dropped to around 20%, or $200,000 for that same hour with the same benefits in return. In other words, $400,000 in taxpayer and cable mogul money replaced their own investment without impacting their earnings.

Now this was specifically forbidden when the tax credit system came into effect. Yet it goes on every day and the Canadian Film and Television Producers Association (CFTPA) and others reminded the CRTC of that fact during last month's CTF Hearings. But it didn't change anything.

So your tax dollars and cable fees continue to be used to reduce the costs of Canadian Broadcasters in order to increase their profits.

And, in case you haven't noticed -- there never seem to be any profits to be shared with either the people who made the show or you guys who paid for it.

Even with this enormous windfall, Canadian broadcasters continued to moan about how "expensive" it was to create Canadian programming, although they had reduced their actual spend to less than what they typically pay to acquire a similar hour of imported entertainment.

It could be argued that this "abuse" of the tax credit system actually counters any benefits that could accrue to the Canadian production community because it frees up more Broadcaster money to purchase more expensively produced fare from Hollywood.

And let's not forget that this programming arrives with the massive cross-promotion campaigns of the American media behemoths (saving our broadcasters those expenses) as well as providing them the opportunity to simulcast and thus artificially inflate their own viewer numbers so more money can be charged Canadian Ad buyers for commercial time.

That's a pretty nifty business model! Could you blame anybody who might suspect that the CTF rules aren't enforced because some of those profits are making sure the guys who legislate and regulate the system don't mess it up too much?

Meanwhile, Canadian producers are left struggling to create programming that can compete with these imports on a fraction of their budgets. And when they do manage to create something that might do that, their own broadcaster doesn't usually promote it because that too is money out of their pocket.

So we have the odd scene of CTV executives appearing before the CRTC to declaim their dedication to Canadian content like the recent MOW "Mayerthorpe" while promoting the film only on CTV in unsold ad slots -- and only for one week.

But this system gets much darker when you look at how Broadcasters spend their CTF envelopes in development. Let's take Global, where more than one producer has told me they sailed through the initial script stage (funded by the CTF envelope) and received the standard 20% license fee guarantee -- and were then instructed to make an American sale that would trigger said license fee.

About a year ago, I had a similar conversation with a Global Exec interested in a project we had scripted and packaged internally, indicating a possible commitment once I got an American sale. I remember thinking, "I get an American sale, I won't need Global."

To get CTF funding for production, however, producers must deliver 10 of 10 Canadian Content points. Try to convince a foreign broadcaster to put up a significant chunk of your financing under terms where they have no creative elements in play. Most will decline to avoid the headaches they'll inevitably get from their own production communities.

It's not un-doable, to be sure. You might be able to convince a Canadian actor who's well known in the US to play your series lead, or find Canadian directors with network approvals there to take the reins. But those people don't usually work for the kind of money your broadcaster has stipulated as their max.

Many projects developed with taxpayer and cable mogul money, therefore, languish in limbo because the pieces required to get them on the air just won't come together. Indeed, there's one series which Global announced for its 2006-2007 season which still hasn't gone into production for just these reasons.

You'd think the network might've loosened the cuffs with a promised air-date looming. But serving the audience isn't the point. No more than it is making the most efficient use of the "free money" in that development envelope.

Nope, getting somebody else to pay for the show is what all this is about. Believe it or not, there are producers who've had scripts developed with CTF funding, who've been told their license fee won't kick in unless they come back with a US sale and an American setting for the series and an American star.

If that's how a Canadian network wants to spend their own money, I think most people would offer little more than a shrug of disinterest. But I'm not sure such goals were ever in the spirit of the publicly funded CTF.

Although it might explain why CanWest reps at the CRTC were so gung-ho to be able to use their envelope for 8 of 10 or even 6 of 10 shows. They've undoubtedly got a ton of 'em ready to roll.

What all this really highlights is that Canadian content is seen as an unfortunate cost of doing business for our broadcast partners. An "onerous" cost, as CTV has termed it. And like anybody who has to pay for something they don't feel they should have to, they spend as little as possible.

Back in the 1990's, I wrote and produced a series called "Top Cops" that ran for 4 seasons on CBS. It cost about the same as most high action hours of the time and each episode ran once as an original and once more as a repeat during the network season.

So imagine my surprise about a month into the second year of production when I got a call from an accountant I'd never heard of at CBS. "Where do we send the writer money?", he asked. I told him that the writers were Canadian and paid out of the production budget. "No!", he said, "Not their script fees. Where do we send the residuals -- royalties -- whatever you guys call 'em?".

I gave him the address of the Writers Guild of Canada and the next morning the Guild received a check for "the writers" totaling several hundred thousand dollars.

I think this stunned the people at the Guild as much as it did me. I'm not certain if it was the first time they'd collected writer royalties from a Producer who didn't have to be hounded into compliance, but it was the first time I'd earned any. And on a series that only ran in two countries and mere months after the first round of repeats had been completed.

I'd written on shows produced by Canadian companies that had cost a fraction of the "Top Cops" budget and had sold in dozens of markets that were still forecasting losses for the next couple of millenia. And now there I was, barely into a second season, looking at a healthy five figure royalty check with my name on it.

Wow! Despite what everybody here told the government, you really could make some serious cash in this here show business.

And despite my expectation that this was a "once in a lifetime" event, those checks kept coming through all the remaining seasons and for about ten years following as the series went into syndication.

They ceased in 2005 with a nice letter from the network letting me know they had stopped selling the show. By then, even the final episodes were 10 years out of date and in their opinion, "no longer profitably marketable".

Gosh, a ten year stale date! I hope somebody mentioned that potential problem to those guys at Goldman-Sachs who paid millions for an even older and less hit filled Alliance Atlantis library...

Anyway, imagine my surprise a few months later when the series turned up on "Prime" and "MenTV", two Specialty Channels owned by CanWest. And by "turn up" I mean "Top Cops" was running eight times a week!

Now most of our stories were American, but apart from its two Executive Producers, the series was 100% Canadian, give or take a couple of US Guest stars ACTRA allowed us because we were hiring up to 200 of their members every week.

Therefore, "Prime" and "MenTV", at eight broadcasts a week, were qualifying most, if not all, of their required Canadian content from one series shot 15 years earlier.

Incidentally, there's another little regulatory glitch we might want to address if we ever get a CRTC member or two who isn't beholden to the broadcasters.

So, confident in the reality that CBS had obviously made another sale of a series long into profit, I expected another royalty check would soon arrive.

A year later, when it hadn't and CanWest had scheduled another season of eight-a-weeks, I asked the Writer's Guild to find out what was up. They tried. Nobody returned their calls or letters.

Naive in the reality of Canadian Specialty channels, I called the number listed for "Prime" and got an answering machine that accepted "viewer complaints". Wow, a legit specialty channel and the only phone connects to an answering machine...

What I later discovered is that if you have the right connections at the CRTC, you can get a broadcast license with little more on the production side than a satellite link, VCR, some kid to change the tapes and that answering machine.

This was further brought home on another occasion when I tried to contact the owner of the "Romance Channel" with a proposal, discovering she'd had the license for some time but wasn't close to launching and coudn't be reached because she was living in a Mexican beach house that didn't have a phone or electricity.

It really makes you wonder what load of crap the CRTC "bought" from her, or she "sold" them -- or however that all works. Check the dial -- still no "Romance Channel"...

But I digress.

Uncertain whether nobody was picking up the "Prime" answering machine or somebody just wasn't calling me back, I called CanWest, asked to speak to Legal Affairs and was transferred to a Lawyer at the National Post who didn't even know they owned "MenTV" but was game to take down my concerns and get back to me. He never did.

So, now we were into season two and nobody from CanWest was returning calls to either the WGC or me. I called CBS Legal, spoke to a lawyer who'd worked on "Top Cops" and he got back immediately to say that as far as LA was aware, the show wasn't on the air.

Okay -- so now I'm pissed -- because somebody is lying to me.

None of my previous paperwork from CBS showed sales to CanWest that they might be burning off years later. The Guild keeps trying, but nobody responds and they keep sending me emails verifying they're not getting anywhere.

And these Guild guys are being waaaaay nicer than I could ever be -- offering CanWest all kinds of outs like "we just need to know who you purchased the series from so we can contact them", which tells me that if CanWest had legitimately purchased anything, all they had to do is say "We got it from Bob!" and everybody stops bugging them.

But they don't.

And the eight-a-weeks rolled into season three, with "Prime" and "MenTV" meeting their Cancon requirements on the backs of a series nobody's apparently paid for.

And this stuff isn't just happening at "Prime". There are any number of producers who can't get answers about who provided their films for programming on the "Drive-In Channel" -- coincidentally, also owned by CanWest.

It could be all you need to run a Specialty channel is that link, the VCR, the kid, the answering machine -- and a Blockbuster Video card.

People -- this goes on all the time in Canada. Those of you who were avid viewers of those magazine shows which used to run on the CHUM/CITY networks may have noticed that several disappeared shortly after that entity was sold to new owners.

This was the programming the CRTC allowed Broadcasters to substitute for drama and comedy as Cancon in 1999. The story I'm told is that the new owners discovered that there were no releases for many of the clips that these shows used.

You see, you can use a scene from say "The Godfather" in a puff piece on the life of James Caan. All that's required is approval (a release) from whoever owns the movie. Sometimes, they'll give that "Gratis". More often they charge -- and that fee can be several hundred dollars for 30 seconds of material. But you pay it because if you don't, they'll sue your ass for far more than you originally would have had to pay -- and they'll win.

Yet it appears, even though the CRTC had granted our broadcast community the opportunity of substituting even cheaper production to meet their license requirements, one of them wasn't even willing to pay those costs.

In CHUM/CITY's defense, some say that the people charged with looking after clearing the material might have deceived the company. Although it's something you'd think somebody further up the food chain might've thought was important enough to track.

So there you have it. More tales from the sordid real world of Canadian television. You can't know how much I wish I didn't have so many of them.

But if you're reading this on a laptop in an LA Clearing House or in the Legal department of CBS, I'd consider checking out the content on some of those lesser known Canadian Specialty channels and going back a few years when you do. That economic downturn you've been fretting might just have a solution.

Sunday, March 09, 2008


In the late 1980's I was head writer on a CBS television series called "Adderly". It was a mystery-adventure hour following the exploits of an espionage agent who'd lost the use of one hand and although relegated to low level duties always found a way to get back into the thick of the action.

Among Adderly's character traits was a constant desire to prove he wasn't washed up; that he could still do things with one hand that most men can't do with two. So every week we had to illustrate a new skill he'd acquired, sometimes working it into action or plot turns later in the episode.

That skill might have been something as simple as tying a shoelace one handed or as complicated as breaking down and reloading an AK-47.

Whatever I came up with, our star, Winston Reckert, a terrific Canadian actor, would spend hours perfecting so it could be performed flawlessly in a single take. Because to make these moments work, the audience could never feel we were achieving what they witnessed through edits or other movie magic.

One night after work, Winston and I went into a Blues bar near the studio and encountered one of the most amazing musicians I've ever had the good fortune to hear.

He was a 19 or 20 year old kid who laid his guitar in his lap to play it. His name was Jeff Healey and he was blind. He was also spectacularly talented. As Win and I marveled at a bottleneck Blues solo he played, we realized that we'd found a way for "Adderly" to play the guitar.

After the set, we introduced ourselves, discovering that Jeff exemplified many of the characteristics of our series hero. He was determined, unwilling to accept being marginalized and approached life with an invincible sense of humor. He volunteered to teach Win to play a bottleneck blues piece for the show and we decided he should appear as a guest star as well.

For reasons I've never fathomed, the producers and network resisted the idea and eventually killed it. Maybe it was because you didn't see a lot of people on television with disabilities 20 years ago. Maybe it was because musical interludes weren't as popular as they are today. In the end, "Adderly" played the piece Jeff taught him in a lengthy introspective dialogue scene with his teacher smiling proudly next to the camera.

A year later, Jeff starred with Patrick Swayze in "Roadhouse" and the rest, as they say, is history.

Jeff Healey passed away last Sunday at the ridiculously young age of 41; a victim of the cancer that stole his sight as an infant and that he courageously battled for the next four decades. He was a musician of awesome creativity and courage -- and a guy whose laugh was the most infectious in the world.

If you don't know Jeff's music, you should give it a listen. And if you do, here's one of those songs that you know made him so special.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Got your attention?

Film guys like me love titles that get your attention. "Teenage Caveman", "Hell Comes to Frogtown", "The Four Cheerleaders of the Apocalypse". I've actually been considering a post titled "Teenage Pussy" so I can monitor the monstrous jump in traffic as people stop by to see the photos I want to put up of my 13 year old cat.

I can't lay any claim to thinking up the phrase "God is a Fat Black Dyke". I heard it on CBC Radio's "The Current" this morning. Unfortunately for those anxious to see increased ratings at CBC, it's not the title of a show they're debuting next season either.

Nope, those words come straight from the lips of the Reverend Charles McVety of the Canada Family Action Coalition, the same evangelist who took credit for convincing the Harper government to amend the current rules for film and television tax credit certification.

Apparently, a couple of years ago, the good pastor targeted Anik Press which had received Federal funding to publish a book entitled "The Little Black Book for Girls", described by the publisher as "a book on healthy sexuality written by youth for youth and vetted by medical doctors and health professionals".

You can hear all this in an audio clip of the entire affair here. Click "Part Two". The story begins 14 minutes in.

According to Rev. McVety, the book was "pornographic and disgusting" and he quoted a particularly offensive passage, "If you want an image for God, she is a fat black dyke".

Problem is -- that line isn't in the book.

Such details didn't seem to matter to our moral cursader, whose religious zeal apparently extends to taking the name of his own Lord and Saviour in vain if it manages to rile up the faithful and earn some headlines.

Last week, Rev. McVety was quoted in the Globe & Mail here, taking credit for Bill C-10 through his lobbying efforts on the matter "which included discussions with Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and 'numerous' meetings with officials in the Prime Minister's Office".

He backtracked on that somewhat after the anti-C-10 firestorm erupted within the film community and both ministers named quickly went public to say such discussions never took place.

As of this morning, a spokesperson for Heritage stated that the amendment to the Tax Credit process was an internal decision "within Heritage (not in response to pressure from an evangelist or other political sources, but as an initiative within the department)..."

So, apparently, the man who would like to dictate our national morality was lying -- once again -- and continued to do so when he reconfirmed the remarks in numerous other media formats.

Now, I'm not going to be too hard on Charles for behavior that some might describe as bordering on pathological. He comes from a world where people regularly claim that God will cure your arthritis if you just force those painful digits to wrap themselves around a pen and scrawl them a check.

No, my problem is that Stockwell Day and Rob Nicholson and officials inside the PMO seem to regularly give people like Charles the time of day. It doesn't appear to matter that Charles and his ilk have a "talent for fiction" or will say anything outlandish to gain traction for their causes -- they get listened to.

And somehow us regular Joes who work in the trenches and know how the pieces really go together don't....

If Heritage is finally telling the truth and not just trying to spin its way out of a completely embarrassing situation -- then matters are even more troubling.

You're telling me some government clerk who figured it might be more efficient if all the creative industries used the same form instead of having to print two different ones got the C-10 amendment through Parliament?

No wonder Health care doesn't work and our submarines catch fire underwater.

Not only do our elected representatives (from all parties) not read a bill before passing it; but their staffers make decisions without taking a moment to wonder if there might be some serious economic ramifications that could kill the very industry that provides them with a government job!

If Stockwell Day, Rob Nicholson or anybody in the PMO takes one more phonecall from Rev. Charles McVety, they must not only resign their offices, but they should be sent to have their heads examined!

Why do politicians have so much time for people who lie to them?

Cast your mind back less than a month to the CRTC Hearings on the CTF. Link up with those tedious videos on CPAC (sorry CPAC, but you've really got to work on developing some style) and you'll see Ottawa in action.

The guys with money or a pulpit are listened to. The writers and other artists who appeared might just as well be talking to themselves.

At those hearings, Quebecor promised a $100 Million fund for new programming -- on the very day their publishing division was seeking creditor protection against being forced into bankruptcy!

I've often wondered if anybody who sits on the CRTC actually watches television, but now you have to wonder if any of the Commissioners read a newspaper!

I mean, come on, if Quebecor had $100 Million lying around, don't you think they'd pay the phone and Hydro bills over at Publishing before becoming a patron of the Arts!?!

Maybe our politicians are so used to lying themselves that what people like Charles and Quebecor and Jim Shaw say to them makes complete sense.

And perhaps the people who work for them are so busy figuring out new methods of cubicle efficiency that they don't have time to dig into what's been said and offer some enlightenment.

Which also says to me that 25 or 30 thousand people joining a Facebook group isn't going to change things.

Back in November, I wrote about a police officer who wasn't getting a posthumous Cross of Valour because of a bureaucratic screw up in Ottawa. The last time I checked, more than 60,000 people had signed a petition seeking to right that wrong -- and nothing has happened.

30,000 people concerned about the Arts? Not even halfway to getting noticed on the Hill, let alone being considered a force to be reckoned with.

Writing MPs and Senators and joining interest groups is all fine and dandy. But it's time we started being far more active in addressing the concerns in our industry.

If the Prime Minister's office has time to conference with Charles McVety, they can damn well make some time for the tens of thousands of people who work in the film business.

In closing -- Rev. McVety, if I've said anything here that personally offends you -- well -- forgive me. If you really are a true Christian, I know you will. Perhaps your passions and your Pride just got the better of you -- and we both know what that "goeth before" -- don't we?

I hope you'll take a look at what damage your words can do in future. It's something those of us who write for a living consider every time we pick up a pen or sit down at the keyboard. Most of us believe that if you can't make an argument honestly than maybe there's a problem with that argument.

And, hopefully, a very long time in the future, when you finally go to your ultimate reward and meet your Maker, you won't be too upset if She turns out to be a fat, Black dyke.

Because, as we both know -- she just might be!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Pretty much everywhere you look around the Canadian Showbiz Web, you'll find people expressing their outrage at Bill C-10 and the spectre of government censorship of the arts. And on most of those sites, you'll also find a comment string riddled with input from those who don't have much use for most of what gets produced in Canadian film and TV, usually posting as "Anonymous".

The ensuing debate has become more strident and ugly as members of the Christian Right and those who don't want to subsidize the Arts in the first place have either taken credit for percipitating this change or championed it as a step toward protecting the nation from the improper influences of its artists.

As an artist who's been a victim of censorship and marginalized for doing work that some consider, if not contrary to Public Policy, certainly contrary to how the people in power would like things to be, I'm fully opposed to C-10.

If you're in favor of it, however, I hope you'll take a moment to read the rest of this post. Because I'm here to tell you that it isn't good for you either. It won't improve one thing in your life and those in Ottawa who are supporting it do not really have your best interests at heart.

They're using you, the same way they're using us.

First of all, I want you to know that I'm a lot like you. I was born into a very Christian household. My mom was a Sunday school teacher. And both my parents spent a great deal of time teaching me right from wrong and to be self-reliant and independent.

The artists I work with might come from a variety of backgrounds, but you probably couldn't single any of us out on the street, at a party, or while watching our kids play your kids at a hockey arena on a Saturday morning.

I've been making Canadian films and television for more than 35 years. Apparently, I'm good enough at what I do that I've had many offers to leave and work somewhere else and accepted quite a few of them. Came back more than once. Maybe it's that Socratic, "Every man is born where he belongs" thing. Maybe the work here matters in ways that it doesn't in other lands. Maybe I just want to live in a place where a love of hockey isn't considered "troubling". All I know is, I'm here.

During my time in the biz, I've broken most of the Commandments, but I think I can honestly say I never intentionally hurt anybody.

I did nude scenes as an actor, tons of sex scenes, lots of movies where blood and guts sprayed all over the place. I played characters who espoused anarchy, brutality, cruelty or genocide and harmed small children and puppies. I also played Saints and martyrs and men of the cloth along with heroes who did "what a man's gotta do".

Some of those characters might have repulsed you, or frightened you or given you inspiration and courage. But they weren't real. They were only movies.

The first film I ever made was called "The Last Detail" and starred Jack Nicholson as a sailor who cursed a blue streak from the opening credits to the final frame. My mom, the Sunday school teacher, went to see it with her bowling team. The theatre manager tried to stop them from buying tickets, worried they'd be scandalized and complain. They weren't. They laughed and hooted and stood up to cheer every time I got a close-up.

None of those women left their husbands or turned to a life of depravity because of the salacious activities they witnessed that afternoon. They had a couple of hours of fun. It was only a movie.

As a writer I wrote more sex and violence. I crafted speeches for men who wanted to commit horrific crimes and overthrow governments, who hated people because of their religion and the color of their skin. I made some people say the most insulting and outrageous things. But they weren't real. They were only movies.

Tabloids used to link episodes of "Friday the 13th" I wrote to copycat murders, often in places where the show had never been seen. The Reverend Donald Wildmon once accused me of replicating a Satanic Mass word for word. But I'd studied Latin because I wanted to go to medical school and those horrible men in black robes about to conduct a human sacrifice in a dark forest were actually chanting a chorus of "The Teddy Bears Picnic" (If you go down in the woods today, you're in for a big surprise...). It wasn't real. It was only a movie.

My producing career has followed the same path. And much as my job is to make you think it's real -- it's not. The blood is food coloring and corn syrup. The gun is rubber. The leading lady's cleavage isn't all her. I'm just making a buck and the stuff I make is still only a movie.

I hope that what I do sometimes does more than entertain; that I might make some in the audience think about things more clearly or more deeply because of what they witness from my hand. But I honestly don't believe I do any more than put people in touch with what they are already capable of seeing or feeling or becoming.

I light a path. They take their road through their own choosing.

The implication in Bill C-10 is that by controlling art we make society better -- and that's a lie.

What the good people who populate your Government don't tell you is that there are already laws against violent pornography and preaching hatred. If my movies include that stuff, I've got bigger things than lost tax credits to worry about.

So -- why are they doing this C-10 thing? Well, it might be that they're edging away from funding the arts. But I'm convinced it's really to make people like you think they're actually doing something.

But they're not -- and unfortunately, this part is not a movie.

And a lot of artists will get hurt and lose their livelihoods because banks won't fund films and television lacking cost certainty; just so our Government can make you think they're getting at the porn and violent hip-hop videos you don't like and maybe wrestling society in general back to traditional family values.

But Bill C-10 will not stop any of the things you see on television or down at the Cineplex that already upset you. Read the text of the legislation. We have to do something that is "contrary to Public policy" before we're muzzled.

Didn't like those two cowpokes getting it on in "Brokeback Mountain"? Sorry, Canadian cowboys can do that. Hell, they can get a marriage license to go along with such shenanigans if they want. Or they can forego the license and the Stetsons and just get it on atop a float on a downtown street during Pride Week.

None of that is contrary to public policy.

Didn't think it was right that "Juno" girl made teen pregnancy look fun? Well, nothing in Public policy says teens can't have sex -- or get pregnant -- or imply that it's fun. That kid stays in her picture.

Hate it when those Muslims on "Little Mosque" make cracks about Christians? Well, chances are that's going to keep happening -- and maybe even get funnier. Nothing in public policy says we can't goof with each other.

And just so we're clear, I don't think things will change much from an artistic perspective either. Robert Lantos can refer to you guys as "Barbarians" but only because he'd really like people to believe he isn't one. And Atom Egoyan can bluster about maintaining his artistic freedom, but that only means he wants to continue to be boring.

No, as usual, this is about politicians using us to make you look one way while they're busy somewhere else.

Let's talk about Pornography first.

That nice man from the cable company, Jim Shaw, makes a shitload of money from selling porn. So does grandfatherly old Ted Rogers. Even those people at the staid and respectable Globe and Mail are in company with Bell Expressvu where a big chunk of the profits come from selling porn.

They call it Pay-per-View or Movies on Demand and most of what they sell through those services is the raunchy stuff. Personnally, I could care less. Canadians seem to like watching people "do it" and I'm completely in favor of giving an audience what they want.

I know it makes you feel "icky" but the point here is that all of those porn peddling companies are licensed by the Government. Not only licensed but paying through the nose so they can have exclusive territories in which to ply their trade.

So, if your elected representatives really wanted to do something about "smut", they'd go after Jim and Ted and somebody at Bell. But they don't.

In fact, if you check the donations made to all those politicians making sure no tax money goes toward producing pornography, you'll find they've all received significant contributions from Jim and Ted and that guy at Bell -- money that comes from the very "art" your MP says he doesn't want to support.

Let's turn to violence and offending a particular group, the other things the secret panel empowered by C-10 will review.

It's been my experience that few Canadian films opt for "the good old ultra-violence" or go out of their way to imply, for example, that all Arabs are terrorists. That's the kind of thing you tend to find in American films. Movies like "Hostel", "The Kingdom", "John Rambo" and the like, trade fairly equally in copious blood and racial or ethnic stereotypes.

Last year, somewhere around 3% of movie admissions in Canada were paid to see a Canadian movie. So even with Bill C-10. 97% of what's bothering you now is going to be bothering you in the future.

Last year, only 4% of Canadian prime time programming on our major networks was Canadian. Which always makes me wonder why "Anonymous" gets so exercised over how much those crappy Canadian shows are ruining his viewing experience.

Maybe he doesn't nap through most shows like the rest of us -- or he's permanently lost the remote between the couch cushions and is stuck watching "Designer Guys" repeats. The fact is, it doesn't take much effort to get through a couple of weeks without seeing anything more Canadian than the cellphone rodents.

According to stats that came out yesterday, Canadian networks as a whole spent 12 and a half times more on foreign product than the home grown stuff. ($462 Million compared to $36.5 Million) And all of those networks were at the CRTC last month, pushing hard to spend even more on the foreign (and more violent and stereotypical) stuff and less on Canadian production -- so not much of what you're offended by or you feel is adversely influencing your kids is going to change either.

You C-10 supporters are being played.

Beyond putting an economic stranglehold on an industry already choking for a lack financial oxygen, virtually nothing you see on TV or in a movie theatre will be any different.

And what's more, nothing's going to alter on all those reality shows you're offended by with the Paris Hiltons of the world or the magazine shows that follow around those same Paris Hiltons when they're not doing reality shows -- because neither genre qualifies for tax credits in the first place.

"The Trailer Park Boys" may disappear, but Ben Mulroney will live forever!

So maybe this really is only about getting rid of film subsidies.

And frankly, I'm not shedding any tears over that eventuality either. Applying for tax credits already takes up more of my time and energy than they're worth, along with killing a small forest to produce the paperwork. Trust me, the only people making money from the current government subsidy system are Grand & Toy.

Look, I don't begrudge you wanting to see your tax money being spent somewhere else. I see a lot of mine go for public schools I don't use and unemployment insurance I can't collect. I'd love to have other sources of money so I didn't feel like I was going on welfare every time I put a project into development.

All it would take is for the Government to allow some investment incentives so the industry could support itself. But that would mean they'd have no more control over what the artists in this country have to say -- or be able to weasel guest shots on "Corner Gas" -- so I'm not sure that'll work for them.

Anonymous and friends -- I'm afraid we're stuck with each other for the time being. And I'll be interested in your reaction when this Government decides to apply the system they're imposing on us on you.

Churches now have tax free status. But imagine if the tax advantages that have been granted to your place of worship had to undergo a performance review by an unnamed panel at the Department of Justice. It could require your church to forego those tax benefits if a member of your clergy had molested children, not reported a confessed crime or maybe just couldn't prove they had actually gotten anybody into Heaven.

After all, abusing children, failure to co-operate with law enforcement and fraud are all "contrary to public policy".

And how would you feel if your church wasn't allowed to be "contrary to public policy" in its day to day operations?

There would be a lot of things in your holy books you wouldn't be allowed to say in public because they constitute hate speech and those gay cowboys would be within their rights to show up and threaten to sue if you didn't perform a marriage ceremony for them.

The shoe would be on the other foot then, wouldn't it?

Or maybe that's the shoe that drops next...

Keep telling yourself it could only happen in a movie.

But you'd be wrong.