Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 343: The Gunfighter

The launch of the new TV season is well underway. And we’re being inundated by promos for all the new and returning shows, all of them knowing they’ve got to catch our attention quick or risk an early departure.

Most of these shows drive home their premise in these ads, making sure we know exactly what we’ll be getting. Others play coy, hinting at what might be in store, leaving it to our imaginations.

Among the latter group is CBC’s new series “Strange Empire” a Western featuring mostly female characters and promising to upend “Western conventions”.

Now, there’s probably no genre with more conventions than the Western and there’s almost as long a line of movies and TV series which have played around with them.

Sometimes, with “Blazing Saddles” or “F Troop” taking a different tack has proven quite successful. And now and again, a film such as “A Million Ways To Die In The West” comes along to suggest it’s maybe better to leave well enough alone.

However, all of those titles are comedies and from what I can glean from the “Strange Empire” promos, the intent is to tell a serious Western story quite seriously.

That’s a bigger challenge for audiences and after watching the “Strange Empire” trailer here, I started wondering if you maybe might want to get really good at a genre before you went about upending it.

Still -- I hope it goes well for them –- at least as well as upending Western conventions worked for director Erick Kissack and writer Kevin Tenglin’s brilliant little film “The Gunfighter” winner of the Audience Award for Best Short Film of the LA Film Fest.

Enjoy Your Sunday…

The Gunfighter from Eric Kissack on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Netflix Finally Changes Everything

Thank the sweet baby Jesus, the year or more of “Let’s Talk TV” in Canada has come to a close – at least the “Let’s Talk” part anyway.

And after watching the CRTC Hearings over the last couple of weeks, the strongest feeling I got was – “What was the point if you didn’t intend to listen to Canadians anyway?”.

For all of the intimate and online discussion groups and surveys and invites for submissions, the Commission panels were made up of pretty much the usual suspects –- craft guilds, consumer advocates and the Broadcast delivery units so the Commissioners could hear what really worked best for them.

And while the promised intent was to look at the best way to “unbundle” channels as well as make sure Canadians not tethered to a cable system had access to Cancon, the discussion inevitably devolved into what the usual suspects required and not what the public had said they wanted.

Unbundling (despite being a specific consumer priority of the current government) would (in the mind’s of the usual suspects) cost jobs and programming and diminish production funding. And providing Cancon to the untethered could only happen were something to be done about the entity most of the young and/or untethered have already embraced –- Netflix.

Much was made of the appearance of a Netflix representative on the final day of hearings, when the Commission demanded confidential corporate information and became outraged when Netflix said “Okay, but can you guarantee its confidentiality?”.

CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais went ballistic at the suggestion the regulator could not keep such information on the down low –- even though it has occasionally been required to release similar info when an intervener successfully argues it might be in “the public interest”.

Oddly, he also seemed to have forgotten he gave exactly such a guarantee to the Disney Corporation a few days previous.

Perhaps thus revealing his hissy-fit as being more about looking out for the interests of broadcasters (who agreed with the Disney position) rather than protecting those of the consumers he was appointed to serve.

Anyway, a lot of demanding and setting of hard deadlines followed. All of which Netflix ultimately ignored to the chagrin of supporters of the Commission and the relief of Canadian TV watchers.

In the end, what the hearings revealed is that what really needs to change about Cancon in this country is the way it is financed.

The current nanny-State solution operates such that money goes from BDUs to a Government supervised fund from which it then returns to the BDU owned channels to spend as they see fit. And the current level can’t be sustained when Canadians are cutting the cord and embracing online delivery of content.

As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once observed about  Socialism – “Sooner or later you run out of other people’s money” –– and so the current method of funding Cancon similarly appears to have run its course.

And a lot of Canadians insist they never got either the programming they wanted or their money’s worth to begin with.

So where do we go from here?

If you ask me the solution is staring us right in the face. It’s a scary solution for many, but one we need to embrace quickly and rewire the system accordingly.

The solution is Netflix.

Or perhaps more correctly, the Netflix model. Give the consumer what they want, when and wherever they want it.

Anyone who owns an AppleTV, Roku, Sony or Boxee unit is aware there are a myriad of Netflix copycats out there already. From Crackle to Flixter to Youtube to offerings (currently blocked in Canada) from Amazon, Yahoo, Hulu and others.

Services offering sports and news and music are available too. On any evening the owner of a smart TV can access everything from SkyNews to KTLA to college sports or MMA from Bahrain.

Meanwhile, some of the drama and comedy content currently Geo-blocked is already being produced right here, created by Canadians –- and fully financed by an offshore OTT service because there is an audience the entity is certain will pay for the product and create a profit worthy of the risk involved.

In other words, the consumer is allowed to pay for what they want to watch rather than funding channels which may only have one or two or zero programs in which they have any interest.

“But”, I can hear the detractors cry, “What will happen to BookTV or Etalk or OUTtv if we all don’t pay for it!”. Sadly, the same thing that happens to anybody who makes a donut or screwdriver not many people want.

Yet, Netflix already offers more Cancon than most of us could find on the entirety of our local broadcast system of an evening. What’s more, it does not pretend to offer a genre, like History Channel or A&E which schedule precious little of the content suggested by their monikers.

Nor do those operating by the Netflix model retain or reorder new seasons of content for which the audience has precipitously dwindled merely because it reaps some hidden regional tax credit making production even cheaper, or fits some social engineer’s idea of what’s “good” for us.

This is a system based on one requirement, giving the audience what it is willing to pay for. And wouldn’t our current system benefit by following that one simple rule?

How likely would it be that fewer people would cut the cord or want their channels unbundled if the channels offered original content or non-copycat programming unavailable elsewhere?

But for as long as the current system has been in place, Canadian broadcasters have seemed averse to creating original content.

And of late, they’ve rerouted funding earmarked for production to reruns, declined to promote series beyond their premiere seasons and even suggested producers purchase ads on their own shows to make them viable.

And if you think any of that is untrue you’re probably a CRTC Commissioner who thinks Canadian broadcasters need further protection.

Indeed, you have to ask why the question, “When will we see a Canadian ‘House of Cards’?” was only asked of Netflix and not every other broadcaster appearing before the Commission.

It was almost like the CRTC was admitting it had given up the hope of such programming ever being delivered by a Canadian broadcaster.

So why don’t we go back to what the CRTC was originally designed to do –- to make sure Canadians have Canadian media options. Let them simply rule on how many hours of Cancon must be delivered during the various day parts to assure those options and then get out of the way.

Why don’t we have whatever funding comes from government or BDU’s flow directly to production companies who would then offer their produced content to whichever channel outbid the others for it –- exactly the way Canadian broadcasters now deal with CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX…?

Perhaps we find a way to incentivise private investment in production since the Netflix model reveals that there are now many new media players (and more on the horizon) in search of original content.

Does it cost us Culturally? Doesn’t it cost us more if Canadian Creatives can only find employment based on their regional availability or ethnic background or on series hamstrung by low budgets and limited to 8, 10 or 13 episodes a year?

All of that means we need to alter our Nanny-State approach, our welfare system for Cancon. And making such changes has historically been a good thing.

There was a time (and not so long ago) when you could only buy a drink in Toronto on a Sunday if you first purchased a meal. It was a way of keeping the Lord’s Day holy by reducing the public consumption of alcohol.

But all it really did was reduce the number of people employed in Taverns and the amount of disposable income going back into the community –- and maybe made those (perhaps like CRTC Commissioners) who saw themselves as pillars of the community, feel a little more self-satisfied.

Is public drunkenness in Toronto rampant on Sundays since the law was repealed? Hardly.

Will Cancon disappear if it isn’t government sponsored? Just as hardly.

If the current generation of Canadian Creatives has done nothing else (and they have) they’ve made it patently obvious that Canadians want to watch Canadian stories. How it is still possible for Network execs to crow about ratings in the millions in Public and still argue before the CRTC that the audience doesn’t really want that much Cancon?

How much further might we get if the broadcasters simply had an hourly quota of it to fill and it was up to actual Canadians who’ve chosen to create in their own country for their own countrymen to come up with the shows?

Netflix won’t be going away anytime soon. Nor will anybody be requiring that you watch two Canadian made Youtube videos before you can link to whatever else you want to watch.

And anybody arguing either of those as beneficial is simply handing Stephen Harper his next majority government. Because advocating against the gougers in cable and mobility is a proven political winner.

Canadians, via their massive embrace of Netflix, have clearly voted for freedom of choice. It’s time for our broadcasters to find their way into that game and get rid of a system which holds back the hands of the clock instead of reaching for the future.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 342: The Silly Bastard Next To The Bed

Politicians are repeatedly caught saying the wrong things or blowing things out of proportion or managing to accomplish both at the same time.

I think it comes from thinking you’re far more important than you think you are –- something even petty bureaucrats (like those who work at the CRTC) should maybe consider before blowing their stacks.

Important issues get suddenly marginalized by an offhand quip while things of no consequence spiral into enormous distractions.

It’s the nature of the beast. Here’s a small example…

Enjoy Your Sunday.

The Silly Bastard Next to the Bed from scott calonico on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Vancouver Confidential

I spent a couple of days in Vancouver this week and on a sunny day, it’s probably the most beautiful city in the world. It ain’t half bad looking on a rainy day either. And as the locals say, “Wait twenty minutes” and you can observe it either way.

It’s hard not to like Vancouver. The setting is perfect. The architecture, even the pervasive condo towers, is impressive. There’s amazing food, designer beer, art and culture, social consciousness and environmental awareness.

But take a drive a couple of blocks past the downtown glitter and there’s something else. A sea of lost humanity the city does all it can to ignore or gentrify out of existence.

Cruise along Hastings Street on any morning and in two blocks you’ll go from the hipster minions dutifully lined up single file at the bus stops to a blocks long sidewalk flea market where the junkies, the lost and the abused spread knapsacks of old clothes, canned goods and the booty of car break-ins in hope of earning enough money for a fix, a bottle or even a hot cup of soup.

I’ve been on enough police ride-a-longs to differentiate the addicts searching for a dealer from the hookers and the runaways. And here you find them mixed in with those who have obviously just been broken and left beyond hope.

This time through I noticed one young man sitting cross-legged next to a strewn pile of clothing. Both eyes were swollen shut from a recent beating. The rest of his face was marked with cuts and bruises. He looked shell-shocked and lost. Somebody bent down, took a pair of soiled socks and tossed him a quarter.

I almost picked up my cellphone to dial 911, not to request help but ask WTF the people paid to help were doing.

I knew they wouldn’t come. And if they did, I’d probably be the one they’d want to do something about. I’m sure somebody would assure me that the problem was at least “contained” or “under control” or some other bullshit civic officials use to hide their lack of action.

As I drove away, I wondered if that young man would in the next few days become one of the bridge jumpers fashionable Vancouverites complain about at cocktail parties because they tie up traffic.

So I’d like to pass on three things from a guy who’s been embedded with drug squads and gang units all over the US of A.

Number one. The worst parts of Harlem during New York’s crack epidemic of the 1990’s and Compton when any one of the Crips and Bloods street wars raged were far more civilized than what’s going down on Vancouver’s “Lower East Side”.

Yes, it’s laudable that you have a safe place for junkies to shoot up. But that only solves a public health problem. Not the big one. And yes you have a thriving poverty industry promoting the needs of the homeless and the helpless. But from what I see on my regular visits –- they’re not accomplishing much.

The second thing I want you to know comes from a narcotics cop I spent weeks with on Chicago’s notorious South side, where every officer on the force accepted that the “War on Drugs” was mostly a war on the poor and the disadvantaged.

One night he told me that like a solid wooden stool you need three legs to support a drug problem. The drugs, obviously. But you also need crooked cops and crooked politicians.

If you don’t have a drug supply, there’s no problem.

If the politicians aren’t willing to look the other way, you’ve got no problem.

And if cops aren’t hamstrung or taking money to NOT do their job, you’ve got no problem.

Vancouver, therefore, has the Lower East Side because it has all three legs of that stool firmly in place.

Now, I know the good people of Lotus land don’t want to look at their politicians and police that way. Their city fathers entice the world to come to Olympic Games or World Fairs and organic garden and smoke salmon on the side.

The police ride bikes and watch over the nude bodies on Wreck beach without being judgemental. And they always get to the daily gang shootings minutes AFTER they happen.

Which brings me to the third thing.

I know you don’t want to believe your shining jewel of a town has a dark flaw at its center (and I don’t mean the Sedin twins) but frankly, that’s your history and your civic tradition.

If you don’t believe me, buy a terrific new book that’s being published this week by Anvil Press entitled “Vancouver Confidential”.

It features the work of a gang of your most talented writers and journalists, chronically the stories most cities would strive to live down. But decade after decade, Vancouver appears to replicate them.


Well, my personal theory is that it’s a place so smitten with its own charm and sophistication, it is wilfully blind to what any visitor with open eyes sees with frightening clarity.

Or maybe it’s the way so many in Vancouver think that by living there they’re somehow more special, like the film crews who differentiate between being somebody who does “Features” and would thus never deign to toil among the lower caste who does “TV”.

Whatever the real cause, you have a problem Vancouver. And you’ve had it for a long, long time. Pretty as you are, the rest of us can tell you really need to change your underwear.

Buy the book. Learn your history. And then -- Stop repeating it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 341: The Masterclass

Another Toronto International Film Festival has drawn to a close, debuting most of the films that will vie for awards during the winter to come.

Aggravating and elitist as it has become over the years, I’ve always had a soft spot for TIFF. I had a film in the very first one. Back when the biggest celebrity they could convince to attend was Wilt Chamberlain.

But from the start the festival’s true affection for films and filmmakers was obvious. And so in its early years, I always made sure I’d saved enough money to take the week days of the Festival off as well as afford one of the Industry passes that got you in to see every single film and entree to most of the parties.

When times got flush I became a patron, by then the only way to assure you could view the films really you wanted to see.

But while most now know the Fest for its red carpet mobs and glittering premieres, it has another aspect that is far more valuable to those who love or aspire to create film –- the industry seminars.

These may be the hardest tickets to get your hands on, for they offer the chance to talk movies with those either famous for or about to be recognized for making them.

This is where the great minds of cinema as well as the hucksters gather to map the coming trends in making movies and remember the great moments from its past.

And TIFF has come a long way since the year you attended the screenwriting seminar and got –- me. This year’s seminars featured in depth discussions on craft, distribution and funding as well as a litany of famous actors, writers and directors revealing their personal creative process.

And now, TIFF has put all of these seminars up on Youtube for those who couldn’t physically or financially be there in person. You can find them here.

And as a taste of what’s in store, what follows is this year’s Masterclass featuring director Barry Levinson.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Writing the CRTC’s Movie

Yesterday, it appeared that CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais had found himself in a socially awkward position.

The Writers Guild of Canada had presented their clear and cogent argument on the quality and appeal of Canadian made television. It wasn’t anything Blais hadn’t heard before. And maybe he was tired or maybe had just heard too much irreconcilable difference from a week’s worth of self-serving interveners. But the man knew these people had put a lot of work into their presentation and deserved at least a couple of half-hearted questions.

But somehow he asked this one –- How would the WGC as Story tellers make the people of Canada understand a complicated regulatory system involving SimSub, linkage rules and the business models that make up the Canadian television system…?

This took me somewhat aback, mostly because of what the question revealed of Blais himself and perhaps his entire Commission.

He was just like the rest of us, a guy who looks for guidance or at least some kind of plausible world view that so many glean from the stories they see in movies and on television.

Gee –– despite all those broadcaster arguments about what the audience thought was good or how commerce obviously mattered more than spending money on Art –- Blais recognized the inherent need for individual clarity and social self-examination for which the Human race created Drama in the first place.

It struck me that maybe, after all these years of CRTC hearings on Canadian television, that maybe we were getting somewhere.

My own movie about CanCon would have paralleled “Romeo and Juliet” in which the star-crossed creators of drama and those hungering for it have been kept apart by a broadcast system ruled by what keeps violence from breaking out on the streets of Hollywood.

Or it might be one in which the star-crossed find themselves aboard a doomed broadcaster ship heading straight for an iceberg labelled “Netflix”, its Captains rigid and unable to change business model course and save not only themselves but all aboard.

Either of my movies, it seems, would require Leonardo DiCaprio as one of the leads -- meaning we’re back to International Co-Pro’s or buying big budget American product, which doesn’t really help our case.

But maybe one of those in the tribe of Canadian writers can. There must be a story out there that turns all those arcane concepts from “Pick’n Pay” to “OTT” and “Cord Cutters” into relatable characters every Canadian can recognize and embrace.

If you know that story, feel free to share it here.

Or at least share it somewhere.

I think the CRTC might finally be ready to listen.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 340: Thirteen Hours

Here’s the thing about dramatic television. There’s no place in a writers room for ideologues.

Not to say you can’t hold views of any political stripe and hold them passionately. Not to say you can’t let your writing reflect that world view. Not even saying you can’t wield your point of view like a broadsword to bash those who hold an opposite vision.

But you can’t approach anything close to truth unless you understand why and how the opposite vision exists.

On opposite ends of our current political scale we have writers like David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin. And much as each cleaves to a particular Conservative or Liberal world view, each paints the other side as an adversary worthy of respect –- and perhaps even the side History will one day vindicate.

It’s like any good guy/bad guy scenario. Courageous and true as your protagonist may be, he’s nothing without his villain. And if your villain is a cartoon, your hero becomes one too.

Among the best insight’s into writing I’ve ever gained came from Steven de Souza, he of “Die Hard” fame – “Without Hans Gruber, John McClane is having a couple of drinks and going home”.

Without understanding the other side of any story –- what makes those whose values you reject or dismiss believe what they believe -- you simply don’t have the whole fully fleshed out story.

And as the man said, “Every bleach-blonde bimbo cheerleader in Georgia is gonna know it”.

In Cowboy parlance, “You can fool everybody but the bull”.

Two years ago this week, the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked. The Ambassador, an Aide and two Security contractors died. And nobody still knows exactly what happened.

More than that, those directly involved, the ones on the ground in Benghazi living that nightmare, have never publically spoken. Some were sworn to silence. Others had taken an oath of Omerta in advance. A few are still so seriously wounded they are unable to speak.

In their stead, idealogues on both ends of the political spectrum have written the narrative which best suits their world view. There have been outright lies, conspiracy theories, hypothetical scenarios, all those things a writer or a writers room encounters as it formulates a truth the audience will accept.

This week, a book written by some of those who were on the ground in Benghazi will be published. It is entitled “13 Hours”.

Last week, those authors submitted to their first public interview.

Whether you accept or reject what they have to say, what resonates throughout is authenticity. An authenticity that comes from definable character traits and a clear desire to provide clarity.

It’s the same authenticity that compelled Joseph Conrad to define his job as a story teller with the simple phrase, “My job is to make you see”.

And you cannot see the whole picture if you are blinkered in one direction.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Direct And To The Point

The primary skill in writing for television is that you need to get right to the point. There’s no time for lolly-gagging, no room for stuff that isn’t important. You only have so many minutes to set the stage, tell your story and make way for the next show.

Viewers make snap decisions about whether or not what the remote just called up is worth their time and mental energy. You don’t grab them or hold them, that button-thumb is jerking and they’re gone.

Understanding that reality better than most, simply because of who they are, the Writers Guild of Canada has produced a three minute video that says everything the soon-to-meet CRTC Commissioners need to know about building a solid future for Canadian television.

Whatever their months of surveys and upcoming days of hearings might suggest, the only element of importance is right here.

Let’s hope –- for once –- they’re paying attention.