Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Detaching From The Matrix

I had breakfast on a Banff patio the last Wednesday of June, a mere two weeks after the mountain town had been Ground Zero to the biggest upheaval in Canadian Arts in recent memory.

As the guys at the next table snickered over how bad the Calgary Stampeders were going to kick Toronto Argonaut butt the next day, my eyes swept the street. But I guess the heavy Spring rains had washed away all the blood and tears that had been shed during the conflagration.

On the other side of the patio fence, Japanese tourists lined up to get their picture taken with my sheepdog…

"Is -- this -- a -- bear?"

"Yeah, but just a little one. A lot of us tame them."

I searched for the telltale damage from the battle and tried to discern where the barricades might have blocked the streets. But Banff is a tourist town, so imperfections are quickly painted over or repaired. Those must be the reasons it looked like nothing had happened.

And then I remembered I was still in Canada, where little ever comes from Artist outrage. And certainly not if any of those artists want a future grant or a pitch meeting at networks that only survive because of Government largesse.

Glenn Beck, the former failed stand-up comic and current rodeo clown on Fox TV either opens or closes his show with a quote from (I think) Thomas Payne. "When people fear the government, there is Tyranny. When government fears the people, there is Liberty."

In some countries, artists are feared and their talents respected because they have an ability to influence hearts and minds that politicians can only ape. We in Canada, on the other hand, put our governments first, thus inhabiting an arts colony on the Planet of the Apes.

But then, maybe what happened in Banff wasn't about us Creative Types at all…

For those who have already forgotten, Banff exploded (metaphorically, of course) when Alberta Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett asked a panel on "Home Grown Talent" to explain why he funded "so much shit".

Within moments, I'd received a dozen Tweets and Re-Tweets with the email address of a CBC Journalist wanting "Producer reaction" to what had been said.

Within hours, there were newspaper pieces, radio reports and blog reactions to this "ineloquent criticism" of our culture. Blackett was attacked for all sorts of reasons, including being from Alberta as well as a Conservative -- because, well -- "you know what that says about a person…".

And as the days wore on, Artists debated the definition of "shit", who had the right to call "shit" and just exactly what kind of "shit" the Minister had a problem with.

Paul Gross, a Canadian Star who seldom misses the opportunity to self-promote, immediately issued a statement. “It’s sad for the thousands of talented people working in Alberta to have their efforts reduced to a four-letter expletive and sad for all Albertans that this is what passes for responsible government.”

Mr. Gross failed to add that Mr. Blackett's apparently "irresponsible" government had kicked in $5.5 Million dollars that he'd dropped down a black hole entitled "Passchendaelle" a massive piece of shit that was a box office disaster which will likely never be in a position to return a dime of that investment to either Mr. Blackett's ministry or the people of Alberta.

Meanwhile, CBC TV's General Manager Kirstin Stewart, who was in the panel audience, responded with, “Nobody can ever question the quality of what we do here in Canada, creatively or otherwise.”

And that, of course, roused the ire of those within the anti-CBC spectrum, with some wondering "why" it wasn't okay to question what we do here in Canada and some on the fringe even going so far as to suggest in the MSNBC/Obama/Tea Party vein that Ms. Stewart disagreeing with Mr. Blackett, who is Black, suggests maybe she's a racist.

And while I'm certain that last charge is completely false, the returning shows on CBC as well as the promise of "Camelot" this season might make you wonder if somebody else around there might have a problem.

As I watched a couple of chipmunks scrabble for the last of my toast crumbs, much like Canadian artists at a submission deadline; I realized that what had happened in Banff had nothing to do with Art or Television and everything to do with what prevents both from thriving in this country -- bureaucracy.

Thanks to Diane Wilde, founder of the best source for Canadian television news TV, Eh? I was able to listen to the panel discussion in its entirety here. There's a lot of good insight into what's not working in Canadian TV, especially from one of the home grown talents who stayed home, Peter Keleghan. But all of that got lost because of what Mr. Blackett says 37:20 into the discussion.

But hearing the actual event suddenly makes you aware of a couple of things. First, the artists on the panel don't take any offense at the Minister's remarks. Indeed, like intelligent creative people, they immediately engage him, question his opinion and offer their own take on the subject.

What's more, it's clear from the tone of Blackett's statements that he's looking for some guidance and the heavy handed reaction tells you all you need to know about what this kafuffle was really about.

This is not a case of artists being smeared by an evil or incompetent politician. It's a war between bureaucracies. The reason the Alberta Ministry of Culture funds "so much shit" is because the place is staffed by bureaucrats, not artists or people with a finely honed sense of what's resonating with the Public or what projects might bootstrap the industry into being able to fend for itself.

These are people who are assigned a budget and shovel it out the door in traditional bean-counter/pencil-pusher fashion, knowing some political master is going to scream at them if enough of it doesn't end up on their preferred bed of roses.

Of course, they'll discuss and prioritize and listen to "stakeholders" and do all those things people in charge of Public money are supposed to do. But like Cub Scouts incapable of starting a campfire, their endless failure to build sparks of creativity into anything that warms the hearts of the masses, tells you clearly that they don't really know what they're doing. 

And they can't even ask for help or suggest they're not happy with their results because that endangers the complacency among other bureaucracies like the CBC, who have their own entitlements to protect. And despite achieving the lowest levels of Cancon in 30 years and renewing series audiences have clearly abandoned, Ms. Stewart has to make sure nobody starts to question what she's doing or not doing as well.

If I've told this story before, skip this paragraph. But back when I was acting there was a TV season when budgets got really tight at the CBC. I was doing a two hander at a small Toronto theatre that the head of network casting came to see. She came back afterward to gush over the performances, wishing she had something to offer. I asked what they were doing and she said they hadn't cast a single show all season. But her big worry was that she had seven people in her department and if this kept up she might have to let one of them go.

What Canadian artists need to fully understand is that while the average percentage of unemployment at any of our creative guilds hovers between 60 and 80%, the unemployment level at the CMF, Telefilm, Canada Council and the provincial Culture ministries, including Alberta, is always ZERO.

What we have built through our institutions is no longer about supporting or nurturing the Arts (their original intent) but has become a process of protecting or expanding the turf and jobs of those who dole out subsistence welfare to artists.

Like Neo in "The Matrix" we are the batteries that keep their lights on. But as long as we do, we're never going to be allowed to find a way to recharge and function on our own. If we did -- what would they do for light and warmth -- and employment?

You can perhaps best see how this functions in the myriad of new rules that were set up with the establishment of the new media division of the CMF. The intent of bringing Canadian Content to the Internet has already been compartmentalized into specified webisode lengths and defined costs per minute which must be met in order to trigger funding.

While artists from other nations on the web are spending a little or a lot to create web content that might be 2 minutes or 20 in length and on subject matter that may or may not find interest, Canadians are already being boxed in by rules and regulations controlling their output.

That's not how artists are supposed to work. And throughout history, state sponsored art has invariably alienated more people than it has inspired.

Early in my writing career, I worked on an American pilot that went horrendously over budget. Bean counters from the studio arrived intent on firing the producer, line producer and production manager for so badly exceeding what the studio felt the show should cost. But the Executive Producer countered with a simple argument. "Maybe the studio's wrong. Maybe this is what the show really costs."

He won his point because at some level the studio people understood that sometimes what it takes to succeed can't be determined in advance or reliably codified.

I know this is a tough decision, that it's so much easier to hope that one new open slot at the CBC will be for your show. But they'll buy a Paul Gross movie that tanked 10 years ago before they'll ever consider your work, no matter how original or ground-breaking it might be.

When you renew a series that has lost 75% of its audience, you know there is no interest in finding an audience let alone exciting them. When you only spend what you are "required" to spend by yet another government bureaucracy (the CRTC), you know our networks are not really trying to raise the bar, attract attention or even attempt to take on the competition.

That's just the way it is. Nobody cares about the audience -- or you. They just need to make sure their government job doesn't go away.

And when we get drawn into these bureaucratic squabbles, we only strengthen their hold on us, forcing us into their camps, signing on as the cannon fodder for wars from which we'll never see any glory or treasure.

It's time to take the Red Pill.

It's time to realize that the work YOU want to do is the only work that matters and that you can't call yourself an artist if your biggest worries are who you might offend and your greatest goal is to get hired on a show you know is shit.

So, for a start, go listen to that panel discussion. Draw your own conclusions. Maybe learn something from Peter Keleghan. Like most actors he's a pretty savvy guy.

And now and then, go into the mountains with your dog and go fishing. Get away from the "shuffling fudge lickers" (as another savvy actor I know once defined them) in the government approved tourist spots and remind yourself of what makes this country so damn special.

Then figure out how to communicate that to your friends and neighbors and maybe even the rest of the world -- without needing to get some bureaucrat's permission in the first place.

Then you'll really be an Artist. And then the Television around here might get a whole lot better.


Unknown said...

"Evil is a bureaucrat afraid for their job."

Can't recall what film it's from (or if it's the exact quote), but it seems to resonate in your post.

Somersby said...

Wow. A thoughtful and thought- provoking piece, Jim. Nicely put.

Somersby said...

A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, Jim. Nicely put.

Rusty James said...

So lemme get this right.

I submit a spec script (feature) or pilot (television) and a Telefilm 'approved' producer likes it. Likes it a lot. Thinks we might have a hit (Canadian, mind you) on our hands.

I get all excited. He submits said script to Telefilm for funding.

A reader contracted by Telefilm doesn't think it reads all that good.

A Telefilm 'exec' reads the notes on the script: Hmmm, doesn't sound like it's that good.

Maybe she reads the script (not if it's a feature - those 110 pages can go fuck themselves!).

She tells the Producer she's not gonna ok any funding for this script by whatshisname, cuz I've never heard of him. But what if I gave the script to, you know, that guy who was one of five writers on that movie that did so well at theaters - you know the one, it made like 6 million dollars! says the Producer.

Sure, she says. If it's the guy I think ur talking about, I go to all his bbq parties every summer.


Producer calls me and says, sorry, we don't really think the script is for us any longer.

Too hard to get Telefilm dollars.


Rusty James said...


The script is dead. Having been rejected by (the almighty) Telefilm, no one's gonna take the risk in making the movie/television pilot with their own money.

Hahahahaa. "You think we'd risk our own money on that scirpt - no matter how good it is?"

Because in this country, the risk is all on the taxpayers' tab.

Artists SHOULD be demanding that Telefilm be wiped out.

We'd all be doing better for it.

Anonymous said...

"The reason the Alberta Ministry of Culture funds "so much shit" is because the place is staffed by bureaucrats, not artists or people with a finely honed sense of what's resonating with the Public"

Ah, there is, as Billy Shakes said, the rub.

What shows do you think those bureaucrats watch when they've put in their 7.25 hours of pensionable time?

Glee, or [insert Canadian show here]?

I would imagine that, much like the cross-border shopping trips organized by civil servants when the Canadian $ is low (yes, this happens), CanCon is for work. Ignoring CanCon is for leisure.

So I would guarantee that the bureaucrats KNOW what is resonating with the Canadian public (i.e., American shows). How to translate those ideas into shows Canadians will watch is another story.

Interesting that you mention the CFL in the same post, as it pretty much is the best example of the Problem: how to convince those pool-playing NFL "fans" that the CFL has a decent, some would say better, product? Its a good step that the CFL has FINALLY hired a promotions team.

I say that Canadian TV and film hires the people responsible for getting various "bachelors and -ettes" on the cover of all those "celebrity" magazines. Can't hurt.

Mark said...

Of more general interest, you might be interested and amused by this article.


Ron said...

You're a genius.
Perfectly analyzed and nicely worded.
Reminds me of an article I had read years ago about the American model versus the Japanese model for video-game production.

In summary, the American model focuses on getting the game developed and distributed as quickly and as cheaply as possible in order to see the potential profits roll in as swiftly as possible.

The Japanese method often sees the game go months sometimes years over schedule and millions over budget, but every time, the game comes out better for it, and the financiers and investors in Japan know and agree that the game will come out MORE successful upon release and continue to fund the project until it is perfect and complete, every time their profits exceed expectations.


Doctor Jones said...

Was a really great read and one of the more interesting blog posts I've ever read.

Thanks for posting!

Lisa Hunter said...

Having grown up in the U.S., I'm stunned by Canadian artists' animosity toward Telefilm. In the States, there are only two ways to be able to make movies:

1. Have the talent and aesthetic to be a top-notch summer-popcorn-movie writer/director, then work your way up in Hollywood, or

2. Have family that will spend $100,000 on your first indie movie. In the U.S., only rich kids get to make "indie" movies. If you don't have rich parents or rich family friends, you can't make your Sundance/SXSW festival film.

Nothing stops Canadian writers from pursuing either of these avenues. But imagine if these were the only avenues available.