Thursday, October 30, 2008


"...We love you Kon-rad and we'll be true-oo!
When you're not ne-ee-ear us, we're bluuuueeee...
O-oh Kon-rad, weeee loooove yoooouuuu!"

You ever have one of those moments when the stars seem to align, a prayer is answered or that cute girl you've been eyeing all night finally smiles at you?

Happened to me at 4:05 this afternoon. Okay, it happened without stars, any Supreme being or a hot blonde in a tight fitting little...uh, nevermind...

Suffice it to say the Earth moved. Imperceptibly to most. But it moved. The first tumbler unlocking the safe that holds a better future for Canadian television quietly fell into place.

The CRTC had promised to deliver its decision on changes to the Canadian Broadcast system at 4:00 p.m. today. So, a few minutes before, I pulled into a local coffee spot, bought my mid-afternoon double double and dialed up Newsworld on the mobile phone; fully expecting our National regulator to give the broadcasters everything they'd asked for back in April.

Because -- well, that's what they always do.

You all remember those hearings back in April and all the goodies our various nets had on their wish list.

You'll also remember that several Canadian Artists Guilds, television producers and four magnificently articulate members of the Writers Guild of Canada argued against the broadcasters' case. And you'll recall the palpable feeling that all those people were ignored.

Well, around 4:05 the news finally broke and I did a spectacular coffee spit take.

Because this time the Broadcasters got -- NOTHING!

And we got -- well, pretty much nothing too. Except for this...

Konrad von Finckenstein and his fellow Commissioners finally heard us.

The Free to Air Channels' request to be paid 50 cents per month per viewer...


They can "negotiate" fees for time-shifting (the ability to watch the Halifax evening news at lunchtime in Vancouver) earning additional revenue that way. But when you can now pick up a PVR for $99, who's going to bother?

So now broadcasters must decide if their inherent greed is worth the reduced audience numbers they'll receive by ceasing to timeshift. Big numbers drive advertising fellas, and given the current ad market, it might be best to leave things as they are.


Broadcasters also wanted genre protection of their specialty channels...


Well, not across the board. But the CRTC did the classic Canadian thing of taking a baby step in the direction it clearly wants to go (Like we do electing minority governments when we think we know what we want but still need some more certainty).

So for now, Genre protection is eliminated in the News and Sports sectors. That means more potential competition and potentially more production.


The Commission also decided to end the "bundling" of channels sold to subscribers. So to get the Football or Hockey games you really want to watch, you will no longer have to buy channels devoted to fishing, poker, or tractor pulls to see them.

Which should mean that the people operating fishing, poker and tractor pull channels have to come up with something more to hang onto any semblance of an audience. Got a tractor pull movie or a Poker reality show concept? Dust it off. The niche channels in these genres have to adapt very quickly or move to a spot on the internet.

And don't think the people who run History, Space and a few other places can't see the writing on the wall. They've got about a two year window to shore up their audiences through unique programming before they could be scrambling to survive.

Still can't tell DejaVu, Bold and TVLand apart? You will (through original programming) or they'll be gone.

Now, nobody says that new programming has to come from Canada. But they're all so "on the bubble" with their current Cancon levels, that's the only way they can go.


The commissioners, in their wisdom, are allowing for greater flexibility in the types of programming pay and specialty services may broadcast.

Meaning -- you might see sports movies on Sportsnet or TSN instead of some boring Golf tournament from Mid-Ohio that nobody but Will Dixon is watching.

Meaning -- Court TV might challenge CPAC by covering Justice Committee hearings or MTV might start playing music again.

Overall, this signals an enormous (and long overdue) shakeout in the industry. Not everybody currently on the dial will survive. The most innovative and creative will. But they'll need to do that by embracing the very same Artists Guilds and television producers they wanted shut out of the process.

Maureen Parker, David Barlow, Karen McClellan, Aaron Martin and Karen Walton -- much as you may have felt ignored, the arguments you offered that made us all proud back in April finally made a difference.

Konrad -- much as I've railed against you in the past, I may have to rethink our relationship.

Dude, you listened!

It may not seem like that big a thing, but it is. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

"We love you Kon-rad! Oh, yes we do-oo!
We love you Kon-rad and we'll be true-oo!
When you're not ne-ee-ear us, we're bluuuueeee...
O-oh Kon-rad, weeee loooove yoooouuuu!"

Monday, October 27, 2008


My grandfather fought in the WWI Battle of Passchendaele. Mostly, when people asked him about it he just sighed and shook his head. I had the same reaction after seeing the new Paul Gross film based on the same event.

For any of you kids who Google brought here in search of information for an upcoming Remembrance Day essay, please go here or here instead. You'll learn about as much Military History from what follows as you will by wasting your money buying a ticket to "Passchendaele"; money that could certainly be better spent on XBox games and recreational drugs.

Okay, so I obviously didn't like "Passchendaele" a whole lot. Much as it has been touted as important because its the most expensive Canadian film ever made, a labor of love and in several other ways labeled "essential viewing", the truth is that it's just not a very good movie.

But in an odd way, that's what we Canadians do with our movies, isn't it? When they don't turn out well, we pretend their value lies somewhere else.

The harsh reality of "Passchendaele" is that the script is weak. Its direction is pedestrian and like one of those aging theatrical player-managers surrounding himself with low wattage ingénues and character actors so his own flame appears to burn brighter, Paul Gross has hired a lot of actors who simply aren't up to the task.

Yeah, there's a big battle scene at the end, less reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan", as the press releases would have you believe, than moments that are a direct steal from (or homage to) "Braveheart" -- right down to our hero chanting "Hold. Hold. Hold." through gritted teeth as the enemy bears down on him.

After that, the film spins from the ridiculous to a level of absurdity that is simply embarrassing to watch. Several at the screening I attended laughed out loud at the climax. By that point I was closer to tears. Once again I was seeing a Canadian film that was less about entertainment or enlightenment and more concerned with that other "E" -- ego.

For we Canadians seem to have a film industry built less on telling our stories and building a domestic audience than enhancing the reputations and future careers of some of our artistes.

Indeed, a Globe and Mail article entitled "Gross's Passion No Porky's" which quoted the movie's first weekend box-office had barely appeared before a Facebook thread and two fellow bloggers I have great respect for (here and here) were weighing in to decry the media for once again turning on one of our own.

Well, Kids, the press reports were correct. "Passchendaele" ain't no "Porky's" and likely never will be. Because "Porky's" was not only a good movie -- it MADE MONEY. This new one failed at the first test and will no doubt fail at the second.

You see, the basic rule of returns in feature films is 3-1. Because of distribution and exhibitor fees and the like, a film needs to take in $3 for every dollar of its negative cost plus what gets spent on marketing to turn a profit. So for "Passchendaele" to make money at a budget of $20 Million and a promotional budget of $2 Million for this country alone, it'll need to earn $66 Million in box office, TV sales and returns from DVD rentals and sales -- just to break even.

In it's first weekend, "Passchendaele" garnered approximately $940,000 -- not a good start.

By comparison, "Porky's" opening three days accumulated $7,623,988 (despite a budget of only $4 Million) and went on to gross more than $109 Million. (All numbers herein courtesy "The-Numbers" ).

So, like it or not, the Globe lived up to its newspaper of record reputation and delivered the truth. What concerns me is why so many in the Canadian film business don't want that truth to get out.

There's always a lot of carping about why so many Canadians just won't support Canadian films. Well, if you look at the issue a little deeper you'll notice that Canadians aren't the only ones not going to see them.

Don McKeller's "Blindness" has been in release for a few months in some places and a couple of weeks here. Budget $25 Million. Total worldwide gross so far -- $6.7 Million. So it won't ever make any money either.

Atom Egoyan's "Where the Truth Lies" (2005) Budget: $25 Million Total Gross: $1.4 million. Not a chance of making a dime.

Robert Lantos' "Being Julia" (2004) Budget: $18 Million Total Gross: $11 Million.

And believe me the list goes on -- and on -- and on. But what's clear from just these few selected titles is that we've got about $100 Million (most of it public money or tax breaks) tied up in four local icons whose films have never earned a penny, yet who keep getting to return to the vault to collect huge honking piles of public cash to make their next one.

Where else but in Canada is such consistent failure not only rewarded but petitioned for and championed by so many voices in the Arts community and the media? Is there some vested interest here that I don't know about?

Much of the "Passchendaele" pre-release press referred to Paul Gross as the "acclaimed" director of "Men With Brooms" a 2002 film that (in addition to also not making its money back) was generally poorly reviewed. In a remarkable coincidence, the generally poor reviews "Passchendaele" received at its Toronto Film Festival debut were likewise softened in many of the same publications when its release date arrived.

It's amazing what the purchase of a few four page inserts and full color ads will do to some people's critical faculties, isn't it? From here on, how about no more Canadian critics saying that they apply the same criteria in judging our films as they do to the stuff from Hollywood.

Because if we hewed to those rules Pauly Shore would be a comedian of consummate talent -- instead of a really bad one whose movies still make far more money than anything that comes out of Canada.

I mean, C'mon -- don't any of you guys want to find (and fund) somebody who might actually make a Canadian film that finds an audience and sells tickets?

Where does this incessant need come from to reward proven incompetence? Is it that you hope such a system may overlook your own faults and smile on you one day? Or are you simply committed to the belief that sooner or later one of these guys is bound to throw something at the wall that sticks?

And that faith is based on what evidence, Pookie?

Hollywood, as we know, is generally less generous with failure. There's a rule of three there too. No matter how big your last hit was, three failures and you're pretty much looking at spending your remaining days on the beach.

Likewise, any studio executive with the track record Telefilm has in funding turkeys would have a tough time getting a job selling corndogs at the Galleria Blimpie's.

And Telefilm is who I really blame for this trail of tears. As a government agency, they can dress up their spending in all kinds of worthy outfits, which many of us apparently buy without first trying on.

And protected as a crown corporation that doesn't have to reveal details of its financials (even under access to information requests) they don't have to tell anybody who really earned what through their support or why they thought it was a good idea to hand over our money to the same people again and again.

So if the Big T really is there to benefit Canadian filmmakers, why does it consistently benefit only a select few, who, no matter how much support they're given, can't seem to make a movie a significant number of people want to see?

Is there some kind Adscam kickback thing goin' on? Does somebody have Polaroids from a TIFF party or one of those jaunts to Cannes? At least one of those scenarios would add a touch of logic to the whole thing.

And while I'm on this soap box, who was the idiot at Telefilm who thought "Young People Fucking" was a good title for a movie and went along with funding it? I'm sure it was a lot of laughs in the boardroom. But did anybody actually see the movie, consider it's potential audience and say, "You know, there's a way we could actually get people to see this"?

Instead you allowed a perfectly charming comedy a lot of people would have enjoyed to be saddled with a title that no teenager could risk telling their parents they went to see while encouraging disappointed perverts to sue for false advertising!

How stupid do you have to be to work at Telefilm anyway? Dumber than Fisheries -- or is it the same guys transferring over now that all the Fish have been mismanaged to extinction -- just like us Artists soon will be?

Gawd, is it any wonder there's a growing chorus of dissatisfaction with "Arts Funding"? I know us Creative types see the need for it, but every time a mediocre movie like "Passchendaele" comes along with all the "this is important" and "it's good for you" hype a few more people who just can't take it anymore defect to the other side.

So let's be honest. The Telefilm emperor has no clothes and neither do his favorite courtiers. It's time to change the way we fund our movies. Off the top of my head, here's a first pass at establishing some kind of meritocracy. Feel free to improve on it.

Rule One: Anybody who wants to make a movie gets $100,000 from Telefilm. No track records. No rigid application dates. No binders of support material. You got an idea you get 100 grand and one year to make your movie. Telefilm keeps the same budget so when that many hundred grands are gone, the wicket is closed.

Rule Two: You don't make your movie you have to pay the money back and you never get to apply for anything ever again.

Rule Three: You make your movie but it can't get released or doesn't earn its money back, you get to put your name in the hat for a bonus draw of the final hundred grand envelope next year. Hey, it's showbiz, not everything is going to work, but we're also not here just to keep your doors open anymore.

Rule Four: You make your movie and it makes money. You automatically get $500,000 to make another one. If that one makes money, you get a million the next time around and so on.

All of a sudden we reward success and let those who can't -- I don't know -- teach?

Can you make a decent movie for $100,000? Of course you can. And we won't do anything to stop you from putting more money in it if you want to.

Won't people just make cheapo horror flicks and action movies?

Maybe. But take a look at most of what screens at Sundance, Slamdance or any other Indy festival. A lot of very good filmmakers make films in all genres that they are passionate about -- and with far less assistance.

Isn't it time that film-making in this country was about making good films instead of being so far up Telefilm's ass you can almost see Don McKellar?

Because if we don't change what we're doing I can imagine a very different scenario arriving in the not too distant future.

In this one, Prime Minister Stephen Harper buys TV time so "Passchendaele" can run on CBC, CTV and Global at the same hour on Remembrance Day. He says it's his way of recognizing the film's supposed recognition of our forgotten war heroes.

Then after the final credits roll, he appears on every channel and asks everybody who liked the movie to go online and vote for it. And he also asks everybody who thought it was a really crappy movie to go online and vote that way.

Nothing is said about national identity or telling "our" stories or any of the stuff that makes us Creatives feel all warm and fuzzy. Just was it a good movie or not.

Then once we've voted he says he's going to tally up the votes and if more people thought it was a good movie than a bad movie, he'll increase funding to the Arts. And if more people thought the other way he'll cancel Arts funding for good.

Trust me, Boys and Girls, we don't want our futures determined by that vote.

Losing sports teams change their players. Corporations that don't make money clear out the executive offices. It's time for us to clean house too.

And we've also got to stop this continual knee jerk reaction that says if you pick a fight with any one of us you got a fight with me. Because, quite frankly, the only way we make our industry better and start making some good movies that people actually pay to see, is if we're the ones who insist we all stop backing the Losers.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I live on a street that's just filthy with kids. Driving down it some days is like running an obstacle course. Boarders, bikers, street hockey players and roving packs of wannabe Paris and Lindsays with their accompanying packs of untethered purse dogs. So Halloween is a big deal around here.

A week in advance, the place is already beginning to look like something from the Universal backlot. We've got front lawn graveyards, Mummy heads on pikes, skull covered lampposts and one thoughtful dad has even constructed a gigantic spiderweb that encases their house. I'm told the scaled to match spider is going up on the roof today.

People didn't make as much of Halloween when I was a kid. Oh, us kids did, for in an era pre-dating store bought costumes you had to spend a few days making your own and they had to be special. We also didn't trend to super-heroes and horror movie characters in that regard. Most of us became pirates or Mounties or princesses.

I recall one year where me and about six of my eight year old friends headed out as a bunch of drunken old ladies with grapefruit or coconut stuffed bras, big frilly hats, feather boas and brown bagged wine bottles. I'm sure that was much to the embarrassed chagrin of our mothers. But as we loudly reeled from one house to another, I doubt if anybody found us politically incorrect or in need of a child psychologist.

In the small town I grew up in, we also precisely mapped our routes. The candy collections weren't much different from those Kids get today, but there were edible bonuses that have long since disappeared and even then needed to be grabbed up before they were gone. Things like home-made fudge, peanut brittle or our holy grail -- the popcorn ball -- a foil wrapped softball sized ball of popcorn stuck together with a candy coating.

It could take you a heavenly hour to eat a popcorn ball and a couple of hours of brushing later to get the last of it out of your teeth. I actually think they were finally outlawed by the dental profession.

Nobody decorated their houses then, beyond a carved pumpkin or two and my dad almost got run out of town after going one step further.

We lived in a big two storey house on the edge of town that you had to walk up a long tree-lined drive to reach. My brother and I were coming back home one Halloween night, pillowcases heavy with booty, when a gang of kids came screaming from our yard in full retreat. One of them paused long enough to holler a warning "D-d-d-don't go up there! It's haunted!!!"

We arrived to discover that my old man and one of his buddies had fashioned a ghost out of a bedsheet and chicken wire and were swooping it down on the unsuspecting costumed tykes from an upstairs window.

Much hilarity ensued until Ronnie the cop arrived. They all sat in Ronnie's car for a long time even though my dad had told him he had the best costume of the night.

I kinda of wish there was some way to hold off the current trend in Halloween decoration until the big night. Imagine being a kid coming home from school past the same boring houses, changing into your Spiderman suit and then opening the door to one suddenly yawning street long "Gauntlet of Death"!

But just in case they're jaded by the time they get to my house, I've got a little unexpected treat planned. I've got my own creation, but it was inspired by a guy named Mark Gervais and you can buy or download your own store bought version here.

Just carrying on the family tradition. Enjoy your Sunday.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


There's this envelope that's been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now. It contains a document the Superior Court of the State of California has asked me to fill out and return so that my name can be included in a Class Action suit on behalf of Writers over the age of 40.

Basically, the Court recently ruled in that group of Writers' favor in the first settlement of 24 suits lodged against TV Networks, Studios and Agencies believed to have "engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination in the representation and referral of television writers age forty or older".

That practice became known as "Ageism" and this first settlement will cost the ICM Agency $4.5 Million. Should settlements be reached with the other defendants, which now appears almost certain, the resulting payout to us writers over 40 could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

And while part of me is more than happy to mail back this document and cash the cheque, another part isn't comfortable with the concept on a couple of levels.

I had meetings this week with three fellow artists in their 20's. One's an actress. One edits. And the last is a camera operator. They're all extremely talented, have all worked with me at one time or another and, should our stars align, will do so again.

Like most artists their age, they're scraping by, trying to remain optimistic and paying their dues. I offer what help and encouragement I can, hoping they suceed, ultimately aware that's really out of my hands.

We all have to pay our dues. I was lucky enough to sell my very first screenplay -- and the second -- and the third. At which point the Universe apparently said, "Oh, I guess he's serious about this..." and I wrote a dozen more before the next one hit.

For me, "Paying your dues" has always been about spending the time it takes to learn your craft and find your own voice. Some of us manage to keep working through that process. Many don't. People with no discernible talent prosper and those who seem brimming with it fall by the wayside.

This business (much like Life) isn't fair. And Ageism doesn't just target one group. Be you a writer over 40, an actress over 30, or in your 20's and simply humming a tune "they" have never heard before, it can be difficult to earn a living. And even if you can, the ratio of artists to opportunities in the trade dictates that you'll have stretches where you can't get arrested.

But while "breaking in" or "taking hold" is a reality in almost every human career, what's interesting about television is that it's one of the few places where your value apparently deteriorates as your abilities and experience increase.

And why is that?

I mean, we all know that you're only as good as the last thing you did. But somehow the industry is permeated with this belief that an older writer might suddenly lose his skills during the process of the next one -- or its sequels should it come to that.

This doesn't seem to be the rule in other areas of show business. Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are both 65 years old and still selling out stadiums and rocking harder than most bands a third their age. To be honest, I'm finding the current concert scene scarily geezerish with Madonna, Neil Young, Dylan and The Who all rolling through town this month.

God, I remember going to The Who's Final Farewell concert in 1982!!! I guess talent really can't be denied, no matter how long its delayed or how often its eventually considered ready to be put out to pasture.

Jessica Tandy and George Burns won Best Actor Oscars when they were 80. Clint Eastwood snared one for best director at 74. The writers of those films were aged 53, 49 and 51 respectively -- or way over the hill in TV terms.

Hardly anybody under the age of 40 wins a Nobel prize, especially the writers! Doris Lessing, last year's recipient, was 87 -- well over the previous average age of 70. Look down the list of winners in the fields of Medicine, Economics, Physics, Chemistry, barely anybody is under 40.

So, apparently the human mind can discern the wealth of nations or untangle human DNA after 40 but is utterly incapable of writing jokes.

The average age of a newly elected Pope in the 20th century was 65 and instead of driving down the center lane for miles with their turn signal flashing, these guys were considered infallible.

Yet TV Execs don't want anybody 15 years younger than that running their shows.

Why? How many of us want to be a brain Surgeon's first patient instead of in the hands of a guy who's drilled more than a few skulls?

Some claim that younger writers are more connected to what the audience wants. I can't really see how that works. No matter our ages, we're all drinking from the same internet/media/marketing streams of information. And recent surveys indicate that the median age of TV viewers is now 50-55.

The UPN and WB networks were forced to merge because there simply wasn't enough of the so called "Youth Audience" to keep both of them afloat. And their current incarnation "CW" continues to limp from month to month with numbers that aren't indicating a revitalization and only a couple of shows that have connected with anybody's definition of a mass audience.

In a similarly odd twist, 18 year old writer Riley Weston was considered a gifted member of the "Felicity" writing staff who had nailed the voice of that generation -- until somebody discovered she was really 32 and forced her to leave the show.

I don't know about you, but I've also noticed a couple of trends in hit shows lately. The ones geared to younger audiences featuring younger casts ("Heroes", "Friday Night Lights", "Gossip Girl") lose significantly more audience from season to season. Meanwhile those that skew older, most often with an over 40's star surrounded by a bevy of younger sidekicks ("House", "Criminal Minds", all of the CSI's) seem to hang onto their numbers or grow in popularity.

Yet the trendy boys and girls in the Armani and Blackberry combos don't want writers with more affinity to those actors and that audience gumming the Croissants in the Writers Room.

So what's really going on here?

We all know Content is supposed to be King but isn't. As writer William Goldman once quoted a studio executive of exclaiming -- "This is the dumbest script I've ever read -- unless Brad Pitt wants to do it." So it has to be something else.

In the world of TV executives, it's often more about the people you're surrounded with than the product, so if everybody around you is young and hip -- well, you must be too!

Similarly, most of their program content espouses a set of values that reflect these executives own personal interests, insecurities and anxieties as opposed to those of the audience they're supposedly targeting and older writers are less likely to co-sign that kind of bullshit.

To be honest, I think Ageism really has less to do with age and more with the reality that older writers are tougher to push around.

It's much easier to bully or browbeat younger writers. They're new. They've seen "Swimming with Sharks" and figure that's the way life around here is lived. Even if rewriting the bible umpteen times doesn't make sense to them they'll do it because they don't want to appear difficult or honestly believe producers really know far more about writing than they do.

Us older guys are definitely not writing on spec unless we own the material. We're the last guys doing a free rewrite and if you're four episodes into your show and still demanding a revised Bible, we're suggesting that you go back to your real job at Starbucks.

Trust me newbies -- a reputation is a terrible thing not to have -- and growing and nurturing it is a rapturous experience you do NOT want to miss in life.

But don't get me wrong here. Wisdom and craft expertise does not always come with age. There are a ton of writers who share birthdays with me who are talentless hacks. But then they were talentless hacks in their 20's and 30's too.

You're good or you're not good. That's all there is to it.

And for those who want to mark their calendars, I share my exact birthday (day and year) with the Boss and hardly anybody thinks he can't write anymore.

In conclusion, I guess what I'm saying is -- I'm pleased us writers over 40 won this lawsuit because winning it will help some of the other groups fighting their own discrimination battles catch a break as well.

As for you younger writers, there might be a chance that a chastened and re-educated Executive Class could bring about an extension of your own careers.

I may sign this document and I may not. The cash would be nice but my signature would also dilute the pool of funds being shared among writers who've suffered much more than I have.

There's also this niggling feeling I can't shake that signing is an admission that I'm starting to get up there with more scripts behind than in front of me -- and I don't think that's how I want to look at the future.

Because who knows, some of us old dogs might even learn a few new tricks that'll surprise people.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


If there's one thing those of us who deal in words and language are supposed to understand, it's how much difference a subtle change can make in what you're trying to say. Write the same sentence with alternate words and your intent is crystal clear. Shorten the punchline and you get a bigger laugh. Cut the dialogue altogether and the actor's face is suddenly able to say it all.

Most of the media coverage following this week's Canadian election has been concerned with mauling the entrails, trying to make sense for one group or another of the outcome. Why didn't our leader connect? Why didn't the environmental message get through? Why didn't the young -- or almost anybody else -- turn up to vote?

In our own realm, us Creative types wrestle with the continual frustration of not being able to make people understand the contribution we make to society or its inherent value.

The answers to all these conundrums is simple. You don't need to change the truth of who or what you are. You need to change the way you deliver your message.

Today's offering is a short film from Mexico by Alonso Alvarez Barreda which was deservedly chosen the winner of this year's Cannes Short Film Contest. "The Story of a Sign" is a story we should all take to heart. The secret to making others understand really is this simple.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


The quickest way to lose your cynicism about politics and politicians is to work on a political campaign.

In one of Michael Moore's books, he lays out the way almost anybody can get elected to public office. Find 10 people who'll dedicate a few months to one cause. That's all it takes. Like most things Michael Moore writes about, he's almost exactly right.

I've spent the last five weeks working for a local candidate in the Canadian Federal election that ended last night. My candidate and I don't agree on everything. She's way to the right of me on some issues, a little to the left on others. But when I met her I thought she was a good person, a decent person, somebody who cared about the issues.

She ran in my riding last time around and lost by a few thousand votes. According to the press and the pundits, she didn't have much chance of winning this time out. Her main opponent was formidable and the constituents didn't like her party leader or share his political views.

But she had ten people to start with.

The first thing you learn about a campaign is that there's no money, too much to do and nowhere near enough time. That concept of National parties with election war chests and trained strategists is pretty much a myth for most local campaigns. Ours was considered a "swing-riding", one that could change the complexion of the nation. But even that doesn't cut much ice when money and expertise has to be focused on the leader, national ad campaigns and fleets of buses and jets.

So somebody cadges an office and finds the money to put in a half dozen phones. Chairs and tables are scrounged from second hand stores by somebody else. Somebody's uncle kicks in a computer. Somebody can get a deal with a guy who prints signs.

A changeable board goes up in the office announcing "35 days to Victory...34...33...".

Slowly the machine grinds into gear.

Somebody has some skills with media. Somebody else studied political science. Flyers get printed. Signs get printed. A far too long list of things that should've been done yesterday gets printed. Your opponent takes out his first newspaper ad and you realize you don't have a fucking hope in hell.

"Days to Victory 29...28...27..."

But you can't quit. You're starting to like these other nine people. They care. They're decent. And they have a goal. You can't let them and your candidate down.

So you find yourself on commuter platforms long before dawn, tucking pamphlets into the hands of sleepy commuters, thrilled when you notice one of them reading what you wrote when the train pulls out.

You spend your days in a ditch, your shoulders aching as you hammer in signs, honked at by truckers less supportive than merely enjoying your suffering.

The next day you go back and put the signs back up after the wind, some kids or a disgruntled malcontent has knocked them down. You'll also do that the next day and the day after that. After a couple of weeks you wish somebody would outlaw political campaign signs as a blight on the landscape simply so you don't have to put them up anymore.

You grab dinner while watching the party stars and talking heads on television. Your leader is screwing up. Luckily so's the other guy. Ernest reporters point out that Quebec doesn't like this about you. Big Cities don't like that. Young women and immigrants can't stand you. The polls are stagnant. And then some idiot party heavyweight says something stupid and makes things worse.

"Days to Victory...21...20...19..."

In the evenings you knock on doors, silently cursing your candidate for taking so damn long being nice to somebody who clearly won't vote for her because they're a young immigrant woman from a big city. Dogs try to kill you. So do Moms when the doorbell you just rang wakes the baby. And you realize that even if you made these rounds at midnight you'd be interrupting somebody's dinner or the half dressed couple you finally got somebody to take Junior to the movies.

Everything you do seems to annoy somebody. You wonder if the entire country is made up of people who really don't want things to change because they enjoy being cranky.

You also wonder if the largest growth industry in the country is Polling. Every day there are 4 or 5 more, all of them telling you that no matter what you're doing it isn't making a damn bit of difference.

The leader rolls through town, but doesn't have time for your campaign. You're not gaining traction. Even the local high school paper doesn't want to do an interview.

"Days to Victory...15...14...13..."

The ten of you are living on cold pizza and bad coffee. You need to find volunteers for an advance poll and surprise yourself by getting two of them. Then you're splitting that pizza 13 ways. Then you're ordering two and three. There are faces in the office you've never met and the next day they've brought a friend.

On the television the talking heads drone on about all your party's shortcomings. Everybody still hates you but now they're also growing suspicious that you're hiding something that would make them hate you even more.

You wonder where this stuff comes from. You know for certain your candidate isn't the Anti-Christ. The couple of party stars who've deigned to drop by don't strike you as rabid or psychotic either.

And then you notice that the people you're handing pamphlets to outside the Supermarket are actually turning civil and thanking you for annoying them.

You go to a big rally attended by your leader and see all the people who are supposed to hate and mistrust him cheering and waving placards.

You go to an all candidates debate and are struck by how intelligent and decent all the people you're campaigning against actually are. Both the ones that supposedly hate you and the ones you supposedly detest. You want the media to just shut the fuck up so people could hear all their messages clearly and make up their own minds.

Silently, you begin to acknowledge that even if your candidate loses -- every single one of the other guys would do just about as good a job. They're not demons. They're not morons. They're decent dedicated people too. And they care just as much about their country and their neighbors as you do.

"Days to Victory...10...9...8..."

You can't put your finger on the exact moment it happened, but something has changed. It might be you and it might be everybody else. Your candidate refuses to contemplate victory, reminding you to always believe you're still 3 points behind.

But there are more people dropping by to help out. Folks whose door you knocked on turn up with cheques that keep the phones working and buy an extra topping for the pizzas.

And you notice you don't watch TV or read newspapers anymore, realizing that the pundits, even the ones on your side, haven't got the first fricken clue of what they're talking about. They're just parasites feeding on every potential gaffe, insult and unfortunate turn of phrase, constantly trying to wind things up and create a cause celebre. They don't want what's right for their country. They just want something new to yap and theorize about.

You also begin to appreciate the voters you're chasing. They're people with lives and real concerns who don't trade in hypotheticals and who ask tough questions. You admit you don't have all the answers. And in an odd way, that honesty is what they want to hear.

"Days to Victory...3...2...1..."

After weeks on shaping the message and controlling the spin as best you can, the BIG day arrives and you finally walk into the Polling station to scrutinize the vote. There you meet a team of Elections Canada workers so precise and careful you feel embarrassed to even pretend you might find fault with their performance.

And then the doors open and you feel suddenly, utterly helpless.

Because the people walking through those doors don't look at all like the special interest groups and demographics the media has mapped out as your "must-win" base. And now what happens is completely up to them. Your weeks of hard work and sacrifice are at the mercy of either their intelligence or complete lack of it.

But some things in the room make you smile. The same guy turns up to vote twice, until the Returning officers realize he's twins. A blind guy asks for a braille ballot (who knew they had such a thing). The kid who's clerking gets embarrassed as darkness falls when his mom brings him a pizza because he's working through supper.

Unable to talk politics anymore, you and the reps of the other parties talk about movies and hockey and all the things you and your neighbors talk about. Because they're not the enemy. They're decent people who care -- who also happen to be your neighbors.

And then the voting stops. It's over. And a realization grows that losing is a possibility and how much that's going to hurt.

My candidate won last night. Against all odds and the conventional wisdom. To be honest, she won by a larger margin than any of the polls, the pundits or the most optimistic of her campaign workers ever dared to predict.

Amid the celebration, we all stopped to watch one of our opponents, Stephane Dion, acknowledge his party's defeat. And not one of us didn't feel the hurt you knew he was biting back with all the strength and character he had left.

Because we all knew how easily his pain could have been ours. We saw a decent man who cares having to endure a failure that touches every part of what you are and hoped you could be to your country.

Will my candidate be good for Canada? I hope so.

But all I know for sure is that she's decent and caring. In a party that's supposed to hate the Arts, the Arts are her passion. In a party vilified as unfeeling, she brings a career of rehabilitating injured workers. Right now, I know her priority isn't getting to Ottawa but finally being able to help plan her daughter's wedding.

As I drove home tonight, the pundits were already buzzing about who lost and why, where the future pitfalls lay and who needed to do what to gain power.

As usual they're full of shit. You only need somebody decent and ten more people to help.

Monday, October 13, 2008


There's a bench in front of the CBC's Toronto headquarters that has a permanent resident day and night, rain or shine. Dressed in a slouch cap and overcoat, he looks toward the West as if expecting someone or something.

To most who pass, he could be just another of the city's nameless homeless or un-or-underemployed. I'd wager if you asked the passersby, nine out of ten couldn't identify the bench resident as classical pianist Glenn Gould.

You might think one of Canada's Cultural treasures would have been depicted in the rapt concentration of full performance that was his trademark or hunched over the 14" high chair and throw rug he insisted always be under him during a recording session.

Instead, the artist who created this statue chose to replicate Gould as he might have looked on the day he was mistaken for a vagrant in a Sarasota, Florida park dressed in overcoat and mitts despite the local heat. She also chose to position him so music fans or tourists can pose in conversation while their friends snap pictures; this despite the fact that Gould was extremely reclusive in life, avoiding strangers and communicating even with close friends only by telephone or mail.

So, for me, this statue has always symbolized one thing in particular -- the distance between Canadian Artists and reality.

In recent weeks, cuts in Arts funding by Stephen Harper's Conservative government, the ongoing threat of film censorship through Bill C-10 and a prevailing sentiment in the creative community that re-electing the current government would be disastrous for Canadian Culture led to a campaign intent on reminding our populace and the candidates running for office just how much Culture mattered.

Passionate and eloquent voices were raised, predicting that our storytellers would be silenced, films would not be made, books would go unpublished, theaters would close and the CBC, long considered a thorn in the side of the Conservatives and funded by Billions in taxes, would cease to exist.

To emphasize the importance of Culture to the economy studies were trotted out claiming that $4 were created for every dollar invested in the Arts and overall Canada's 1.1 Million Artists created $85 Billion in actual wealth for the country.

The media covered all of this in great detail. Sometimes it seemed to be the only topic on CBC Radio, understandable to be sure if their futures truly were at stake. And predictably the other political parties paused their campaigns to offer a vast list of promises to us creative types.

The Liberals promised to reverse the $45 Million in recent cuts and then kick in $530 Million more in funding while creating 150,000 more jobs in the film and TV sector. According to Liberal leader Stefan Dion, "Canada needs more fun".

Both the Liberals and the NDP promised to allow artists to average their earnings over several years. NDP Leader Jack Layton then sweetened that deal by indicating any government he formed would allow us to keep the first $20,000 we earned each year from royalties and residuals.

The Green Party? With them we'd get access to Unemployment Insurance.

Okay -- first thing, everybody pop a roofie and chill...

Now hands up all you Canadian creatives who've ever earned $20,000 in Royalties over your entire careers let alone during a single Calendar year....

Avril -- Alanis -- Shania -- Anybody from the film business?


Income averaging used to be available to all Canadians until one of the Trudeau governments got rid of it in the 1970's. Apparently it wasn't considered economically feasible when there was a national debt to deal with. Same with unemployment insurance for artists.

Luckily, we don't have any similar economic storm clouds on the horizon that might tag the idea as a non-starter...

Oh -- right -- except for THAT....

I also can't wait to see how Auto workers in Windsor who already have to wait 13 weeks before collecting pogey react when they see actors skipping to the front of the line.

I hope I'm not popping anybody's bubble by pointing out that Politicians sometimes have a talent for fiction.

As predictable as somebody getting nekkid in a titty bar, us Artists hollered and all the opposition parties immediately became our best friends, using our suddenly sacred crafts to cudgel the PM and his right-wing-fundamentalist-oil-rich-sweater-wearing horde as Philistines, Barbarians and lowbrow louts.

Then last Tuesday, Prime Minister Harper announced he was killing Bill C-10 and produced a platform proclaiming the $45 Million he'd cut had simply been re-directed into a new set of programs offering support "at or above" the previous levels.

In the parlance of the trade, "He blinked". And we got exactly what we had said we wanted.

Only our hollering didn't stop.

The next day a rally was held near CBC headquarters, just around the corner from Glenn Gould's bench. And it was our turn to stretch the truth.

Speaker after speaker reminded the assembled of our immense contribution to the economy, sidestepping the obvious fact that while it took 1.1 million of us to create $85 Billion in wealth, down the road in Waterloo, less than 10,000 Canadians making something called a "Blackberry" were hauling in about 3 times that before dollar one had even started to magically multiply through the economy.

All of the speakers also neglected to mention that these "multiplier effect" studies are considered a joke by most economists; like the form letters that flood government offices during any cause celebre, they are looked on as the empirically unprovable last resort of any special interest group trying to look more important than they are.

Oh! This one was a government report?

Funny how the politicians claiming to be on our side accepted that one as fact but not those other ones released the same week relating to job creation, transfer payments or the war in Afghanistan.

Any chance we were allowing ourselves to be used?

And Stephen Harper's recent conversion to our importance aside, (perhaps only done as a cynical grab for votes) several Creatives at the rally insisted he remained the biggest threat to our existence. He still had a "hidden agenda" focused on destroying the venerable CBC. And he didn't really care about the Arts. We were advised, "Don't get mad. Get Stephen!"

Sometimes I wonder if us Canadian Creatives are our own worst enemies. As my cowboy grandfather used to say: "The quickest way to get your head up your own ass is simply by jerkin' your knee."

I mean, there we were, in the shadow of the CBC, championing its hallowed importance to the Culture when the Corporation itself is programming fewer hours of Canadian content than ever before in its history and continuing to stick with shows that draw diminishing audiences while canceling or downsizing those which actually do meet its much vaunted one million minimum viewers mark.

This is the same CBC that just fired its classical orchestras, virtually eliminated classical music from its radio programming and dumped all of its theater, concert and dance programming in favor of design and chat shows.

Am I the only guy who sees the irony in that?

Am I the only one who wonders how much work (and economic benefit) would be created if the CBC actually believed in actively promoting Canadian Culture?

Am I also the only one who remembers that the CRTC gutted Canadian drama under a majority Liberal government in 1999 and no matter how many envoys and appeals we dispatched to Ottawa for the next seven years that government did nothing to help us?

How come we're attacking a Prime Minister who actually listened to us and cheering on the same guys who repeatedly told us to fuck off?

Am I alone in wondering why none of the parties that now so anxiously court us and sing our praises have ever argued to open the books at Telefilm and the CTF so we can compare the official financial reports we and our Guilds and Unions receive from the producers they fund against the ones filed with their own government agencies?

There are a lot of people who believe that an honest accounting in Ottawa might mean we could finally receive money we've rightfully earned and are rightfully owed instead of having to depend on state welfare to survive.

During the recent debate, I heard one of our finest actors, Colm Feore, (who once brilliantly played Glenn Gould) assert that he went to LA to do series like "24" because it allowed him to "invest" in work that might otherwise never get produced here. I couldn't help wondering how many Canadian films Colm would be investing in if he was receiving all of the royalties he's actually earned.

But nope, we insist on fighting for the status quo even when it hasn't been working for us. Is that what real artists do?

Picasso, Brando, Orwell, The Beatles -- yeah, those guys wanted things to stay exactly the way they were. They didn't try to push any boundaries, take any chances, challenge any accepted views...

Oh wait, that's us!

Back around the turn of the last century, French painter Eduard Manet and the poet Baudelaire started a revolution in their nation's arts by turning their backs on government "approved" (and therefore funded) work and striking out on their own. Their rebellion caused an explosion of French art and culture that continues to ripple through the world today.

But we Canadian creatives seem eternally adverse to any path that might test our talents in any real marketplace. We resist venturing into unknown territory, content to allow our abilities to be defined and directed by faceless bureaucrats.

And somehow that's not seen as a threat to either our individuality or what we create.

Our inherent trust in the Canadian way leads us to believe no art gallery in Canada would ever shy away from an artist because his work might upset the powers that be. But that's exactly what happened to Robert Mapplethorpe.

Communist governments might ban the work of Vaclav Havel but that doesn't happen here. Yet Pierre Trudeau turned his back on Michael Hollingsworth when his play "Clear Light" was shuttered by the Toronto Police in 1973 -- even though his own government had created the very program that funded the play.

Anybody want to ask Ivan Reitman how close he came to not only losing all chance of qualifying for future subsidies but of going to jail for "Cannibal Girls"? Anybody remember how the ladies in Vancouver who ran the "Little Sisters" bookstore had their mail seized for bringing in books the governments of the day didn't approve? And all that happened back when Stephan Harper was little more than a gleam in Satan's eye.

Guys -- they're not really on our side! At least not when we're being real artists and not somebody who simply parrots their political agenda.

The simple fact is that when Government controls your purse, they control your work (or like to think they do). And when a nation's artists are dependent on what amounts to welfare and prior approval it can't help but cultivate mediocrity.

The powers that be won't risk you pushing the envelope -- and if you want to pay for that new flat panel plasma screen or maybe just cover the rent in a bachelor apartment -- neither will you!

But that's inevitably what we do. Instead of demanding a playing field that allows us to succeed or fail on our merits, we trade our passion for grants that keep most of us near the poverty level. We set aside inspiration to retain institutions that serve neither us nor our audience. We're content to be patted on the head and told we really are necessary and special.

We've been turned into a bunch of pampered purse dogs. No wonder the ones that have to herd sheep, escort the blind or guard junkyards for a living hate us. If I were them, I'd hate us too!

Glenn Gould was once told he was necessary and special. His radio concerts for CBC gained the corporation untold audiences and immense industry respect. Now the same CBC Radio plays little if any of his music let alone anything from the cultural genre of which he was a part. The studio in their building that's named after him is most often home for the same kind of sketch comedy to be found in unfunded comedy clubs. And yet we want taxpayers to keep paying for it.

Perhaps most tellingly, instead of a statue that replicates Gould's talent, his unique passion or unusual character, the powers that be commissioned a work where he has been relegated to a park bench, faceless and alone.

That's what they really think of him -- and us! That's how state art, "pimp art" as some call it, really treats those it supposedly respects.

The only difference between Glenn Gould and the rest of us is that unless we find a way to stop dancing to the tune of politicians instead of building our own support networks, we'll be out in the cold on our own park benches. Only we'll still be breathing instead of immortalized in stone.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


This was a tough week for a lot of people. The financial meltdown on Wall Street turned many Billionaires into mere Millionaires and scores more who thought they had a future (or maybe a house) into folks wondering if they'll ever work again or how much of their stuff can fit in a grocery cart.

If you read the papers -- or more correctly, if you BELIEVE what you read in the papers, we'll shortly be unable to afford retirement, shelter, transportation or food. In other words, the entire world will become a Canadian Artist.

From a media perspective, it's fortunate the collapse of Capitalism-as-we-know-it came along when it did. After a couple of years of Global Warming scenarios in which we were all drowned by melting ice caps, wiped out by unleashed tropical diseases or felled by methane released from the thawing tundra, we still hadn't panicked en mass. So now they get to cook up a whole new series of Post-Apocalyptic scenarios people wouldn't buy in a Roger Corman movie, but which apparently sell newspapers.

Like all dark clouds, however, the Sub-prime Credit fiasco has its silver lining. Playboy magazine has announced it will do a feature entitled "The Women of Wall Street" allowing everybody to see what their favorite financial analyst looks like when the only suit she has left is the one she got for her birthday.

This is a repeat of something Playboy did successfully in 1989 after some other Market collapse. I don't remember that issue. I was married back then and only allowed to read the articles. Of course, that was also a time when the magazine still had both a readership and relevance.

But, ever determined to appear current, Hugh Hefner pulled his oxygen mask and Viagra drip aside long enough to promise a payment of $2000 per model formerly employed by an investment bank or brokerage and willing to bare her "assets".

No wonder 2 out of 3 of Hef's current "Girlfriends" are cheating on him. He's so out of touch he doesn't know that two grand barely covers a Blackberry data plan these days.

Closer to Legion World Headquarters in my hometown of Newmarket -- our major employer, Magna International, has seen its stock drop 40%. This meant co-owner Oleg Deripaska, one of those Billionaire Russian blingsheviks who've been buying up all the good soccer teams and mediocre Canadian conglomerates, defaulted his entire ownership share to some obscure French bank.

Oleg already couldn't travel to the USA or he risked sharing a room with such Canadian corporate icons as Conrad Black and Bernie Ebbers. Which, in that odd way that business works around here, made him much in demand as a co-CEO.

Unfortunately, his departure has a lot of my neighbors wondering if they'll have jobs in the not too distant future. That suddenly puts them on a par with their other neighbors who used to make cars or Canadian TV shows.

So I thought I'd post this little film about being "Laid Off". In some ways, the concept is not as bad as it might sound. And in some other ways, it is.

Enjoy your Sunday -- while you still can.