Thursday, April 15, 2010

Even New Zealand Kicks Our Ass


We need to talk…

This weekend, screenwriters from across the country will gather in Toronto for the Writers Guild of Canada National Forum. A mix of elected representatives, industry experts and committed scribes, they’ll engage in an intense and free-ranging discussion of issues facing the local writing community.

And there’s a lot of important stuff for them to hash out. Recent changes in regulatory policy, impending broadcast licence renewals, transmedia, crossplatform, development funding and much more.

But if they’ve got a moment, I hope they might also ruminate on the creative conundrum that’s bugging me this morning.

How come the rest of the world is making television people want to watch and we’re not?

Take New Zealand.


I kid, Kiwis. Some of you know me and understand how much I like you and your country.

New Zealand, like Canada, shares the geographic misfortune of being right next door to a comparative media behemoth. In their case, it’s Australia. And for years, the best and brightest NZ creatives crossed the Tasman Sea to work in the much busier film and TV world of OZ.

One night in Auckland, a cab driver told me that New Zealanders weren’t all that troubled by the migration as it was raising the average IQ of both nations.

That export of talent began to change when the “Lord of the Rings” cycle filmed there. Every time we took a haitus on “Beastmaster” many in our cast and crew pools boarded planes to pick up a few days on those epics. Many continued to make the trip when Hollywood discovered the unnatural beauty of the place and shipped over more projects.

That has led to one of the unexpected breakthrough hits of the current TV season “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” which, though peopled with creatives from around the world ( including Toronto screenwriter Miranda Kwok) primarily features New Zealand talent.


If you haven’t been watching “Spartacus”, you need to start. Over its first 13 episodes it has exhibited everything a writer needs to learn about creating, sustaining and evolving a television concept.

For its first few episodes, the series clearly showed its raw creative roots in bad gladiator movies and the graphic novel, F/X excess of “300”. But through a combination of inspired writing, committed performers and an unapologetic grasp of its genre, it has quickly found a rabid following.

The twist endings, precisely motivated but still unexpected character turns combined with dialogue that’s part Shakespearean part grindhouse, not to mention sex far hotter than the overly self-conscious “Californication” have resulted in an exhilarating hour of television.

Indeed, I’ll confidently predict that the penultimate episode of Season One will become required viewing for anybody designing a season recap, finale set-up and/or tease for Season Two.

Early on, I began to wonder why “Spartacus” was being shot in New Zealand. The series makes little or no use of the local landscape. In fact, most of it takes place in front of tightly contained sets or a green screen. That means there had to be some kind of a “deal” making the location preferable to others more convenient to the producers.

And since the added costs of working a distant location usually offset any tax credits or currency fluctuations, that means that somebody down there thought “Spartacus” was worth having on the national resume.

How does a country with fewer than 5 Million people have the courage to make that creative decision, when a country 7 times its size (Canada) somehow can’t?

And “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is but one example of our creative reticence and risk aversion. Across the television landscape, Canadian production is falling further and further behind the mainstream.


I've watched the opening episode of "Treme" four or five times now. HBO apparently shared my initial reaction that David Simon has already surpassed his work on “The Wire”, because they picked up Season Two on the basis of public reaction to the pilot.

Here’s a show that doesn’t make the smallest attempt to provide you with any character background or dramatic frame of reference and leaves you an hour later with a complete understanding of who its people are and why their future journey is imperative to your own life.

And Khandi Alexander, all I can say is: I don’t know if you already have a husband or a boyfriend. But if you want another one, my email’s in the top right corner of this page.

Meanwhile "Justified" just keeps taking the rules of building a series world and fucking with them. Every single scene crackles with fresh approaches as familiar images, character types and reliable cop show stories are reworked into something you’ve never seen before.

I swear there are moments where lead actor Timothy Olyphant does a perfect imitation of Clint Eastwood for the first half of a line and then with what’s becoming a trademark smirk transitions through “Smokey and the Bandit” to “Deadwood” and beyond.

This is a series that knows exactly what its audience has come to see --- and will get around to that when it damn well feels like it.

A few years ago, shows like these would have been defined as “pushing the envelope”, examples of the concepts you can get away with on pay or cable services that the rest of television can’t do.

But we’ve rapidly reached the point where they’re not somewhere in the stratosphere, they’re the basic audience bar of expectation.

Toss in "Breaking Bad", "United States of Tara", "Weeds", "Mad Men", "Big Love","Pacific", “Sons of Anarchy”, "Burn Notice" and others and you quickly get to 20 or 30 shows we can't even run promos for in one of our dramas without being embarrassed by the comparison.

You can't go by a few weeks of ratings but, on average, more people are watching one of those series in Canada than "18 to Life" or "Dan for Mayor".

And that’s despite the fact that they are broadcast on networks with a tenth of the audience reach of CBC or CTV.

We're getting left in the dust and there isn't one local buyer of content who communicates any desire to attain that new basic level of execution.

This week the Banff Television Festival, perhaps the world’s most respected annual conference on the state of television, announced the nominees for its “Rockie” awards, celebrating excellence in World television.

The only Canadian nominee in the Comedy category is “Little Mosque of the Prairie”, a show that has seldom even tried to be funny, let alone succeeded at it.

In the Drama category, our lone nomination is that "Blood Diamond" rip-off, "Diamonds" -- which was really a co-pro we enabled as the minority partner.

In one of the new web categories, the best face we can show the world is apparently -- “The CTV Olympic Torch Cam”.

And while there’s a “political” element to most awards, enticing some to attend with a trophy or nomination or there’s horse-trading among juries to give everybody some recognition they can trumpet at home; more and more it appears we’re on the nominee list because we’re the host.

Banff has in the past also honored some of the true geniuses of television. But this year the Lifetime Achievement award and Award of Excellence will go respectively to William Shatner and the guy who invented "So You Think You Can Dance".


For me this only confirms where our problem lies.

From the point of view of those who make the green light decisions, Canadian television is not about serving an audience, creative originality or even producing content that can compete equally with the rest of what’s out there.

For the most part, Canadian TV has become doing the least that’s expected as cheaply as possible while maximizing access to a complex web of Public funding.

There is no thirst for national success, no hunger to acquire major international sales, no willingness to risk.

If there is going to be any future for any of those screenwriters gathering in Toronto this weekend, we need some kind of "Own the Flatscreen" campaign. And without the Public, government or network will to get behind that idea, we’re going to have to find some way of triggering it ourselves.

The kind of great television being made elsewhere can only be replicated here if we become the first ones demanding that better work be done.

And if that doesn’t happen, it really won’t matter what transmedia models and licencing policy we come up with.

Because the audience will be watching something else.


DMc said...

You know whatever gets done and whatever they talk about,it's not going to get better, Jim. There's just no chance and we've tried it before and everybody is dishonest and has rocks in their heads or is taking it in the shorts from Satan. There is no hope. Don't try.

I just thought I'd beat Deb to it.


Rusty James said...

RE: New Zealand.

I was just chatting about this with some horror buddies: Peter Jackson (with the FX talent of Richard Taylor) single-handedly created New Zealand's film industry with films like BAD TASTE, DEAD ALIVE etc.

Budget, genre-comedies.

The Kiwis are also very proud - something most Canadians only pretend to be - allowing them to hold onto most of that talent. But they do have good weather, don't they.

I think to survive as an entertainment ground, we should stop checking our mirrors to see who else is around, and focus on what it is that we have: talent, money, a fresh audience? and (hopefully) broadcasters that are *mandated* to carry our content!

Fuck Sue Thompson F.B-Eye.

And thanks for the tv viewing suggestions, Jim. I recommend EAST BOUND AND DOWN. Funny, funny R-rated shee-it.

Because as much as I like to dismiss television, I've come to the realization that it is the ONLY thing my wife and I can agree on doing together.

It also promotes some good ole' laughter.

But it's not like we get that from Canadian teevee... yet!

Dwight Williams said...

Colonial governor/branch plant mindset just can't be tolerated any more.

Steve said...

I don't think that hope comes from the CRTC. I think that hope comes from entrepreneurs like the guys who made Riese, Sanctuary, and other projects that do an end run around conventional media.

If conventional film in television in Canada is unwatchable, and somebody creates something fascinating on the internet, there's nothing preventing them from succeeding. I think instead of trying to fix television, we just replace it.

Of course, it's not easy. And it's a lot of hard work, and sometimes working for a lot less than scale, but that's how TV, the movies, radio, everything got started in the first place.

deborah Nathan said...

DMc - could hardly have said it better - but would have framed it in a slightly different manner.

Jim, not sure Spartacus is a NZ show - no NZ creative that I can find and no NZ broadcaster. Is it a 6/10 NZ show? NZ directors and no writers? All the writers seem to be from the US. And Tapert lives in NZ I think with Lawless and their kids. He was already shooting Legend of the Seeker there.

But I heartily agree with your overall point - Canada looks to do the least possible for the cheapest amount of money.

John McFetridge said...

Let's just take Justified for a minute. It's based on Elmore Leonard's fifty years of novel writing. Karen Sisco probably got cancelled too soon, but it's more likely the material needed the right network fit.

So, why doesn't CTV or CBC make a series out of Giles Blunt's fantastic John Cardinal novels or Louise Penny's novels?

Scott Ellington said...

Pardon the intrusion, I'm just passing through, but this lovely, straightforward predicament presentation really seems to resonate with the last sentence of the following (double-ricochetted reference:

" is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who've mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future."

Joe Clark said...

I’ve started a Facebook group using the term you coined (a total keeper, BTW): “Own the Flatscreen.” Credit given, of course.

Anonymous said...

John McFetridge makes a good point: Canadian authors are accepted as some of the most popular genre writers around. Mysteries, sci-fi, horror.

So why is it when I look for anything decent on any of the genre channels I get (Mystery, Space, Showecase "Action", etc...), all I see are Asper-inspired Grade D purchases I would pass over at the "5 for $10.00" DVD bin? (Yes, I know space is CTV...I think. Same idea.)

I can handle cheapish looking films with acting and direction a bit lower on the quality scale than perfect, IF the story is there. But why waste my time on a mediocre, non-believable 2 hour movie that looks, sounds and feels like a bloated "Law and Order" episode?

Dwight Williams said...

We've left at least two opportunities for turning home-grown novels into homegrown TV franchises to the US networks already: Robert J. Sawyer's FlashForward and Kathy Erichs' Tempe Brennan/Bones novels.

Anyone want to take a try at filming a proper adaptation of Gail Bowen's Joanne Kilbourne mysteries in Saskatchewan?

deborah Nathan said...

Response to McFedtridge - Prodco did once try to option both Giles Blunt and Louise Penny. In the end, agents said they were only interested in US offers. And they wanted a LOT of money. Wonder if they've changed their minds. Did option two Rob Sawyer books - but couldn't interest a Canadian network. So kudos to Rob for landing his US deal.

Dwight Williams said...

Okay...most popular home-grown SF author in the country and...there are NO words.

Unknown said...

Okay, I guess it takes an American to defend Canadian content. Here goes...

If you want to see a Canadian drama that stands up to promos for American cable shows, how about DURHAM COUNTY? (Torontonians always seem forget about this show? Because it's not made in Ontario? Because you don't get pay cable?)

Also, it's not fair to compare Canadian sit-coms to edgy HBO dramas. Compare them -- apples to apples -- with American sit-coms. 18 TO LIVE is way better than, say, THREE AND A HALF MEN. And if LESS THAN KIND were American, it would certainly be up for Emmys in the company of 30 ROCK, MODERN FAMILY, etc.

If you want people to respect Canadian writers, maybe you should stop trashing their shows.

John McFetridge said...

I doubt that Giles Blunt and Louise Penny would, "Change their minds," they know the value of their work. Their publishers certainly have to pay a lot for it.

For the past couple of years all we've heard is how Canadian producers are now selling shows to American networks and all over the world.

It just seems strange that here we have these resoures with proven sales records - so, yes, they cost money - and we let them get scooped out from under us.

TV is a big money business so either we get in the game or we watch from the sidelines. One thing the intrnational book sales prove is that we have the material if we want to get into the game.

Anonymous said...

If you believe Justified is a fresh show - you ought to consider a new career. It is tedious and a rehash of cartoonish characters - ones that, for example, shoot to wound, not to kill. Ones that we have seen a million times before as in almost every Eastwood western or Deadwood or or or.... it's a yawn fest barely watchable and then only because of the lead - barely.