As the clock nears midnight and I watch Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen ready the world for 2023, I begin to contemplate my own New Year’s resolutions. To start with I wouldn’t mind losing the spare tire around my middle, weaning off my anti-depressants, re-training our dog Joey so he doesn’t urinate in our bed and most importantly I’d like to suggest some ideas to improve the Canadian Film and Television industry. However, before I bore everyone with my plan to create a monster industry in Canada I’d like to take the opportunity to look at some of our other industries in which Canada excels at.
Hockey. Canada produces some of the best hockey players around the world including- Gretzky, Lemieux, Lindros, Crosby, McDavid, Roy, and countless others. Hockey is a game Canadians dominate around the world. Hockey is to Canada like baguettes are to France and the red light district is to the Netherlands. At least 60% of the players in the NHL are Canadian. The Canadian teams have the best attendance, earn millions in licensing their games to television and sell the hell out of jerseys and other ancillary rites. It wouldn’t be at all strange to see a kid walking down the street in Sweden wearing a Sydney Crosby jersey. We own the game.
THE CANADIAN MUSIC SCENE
Another industry which continues to flourish is the Canadian music industry. Drake or Beiber are always on the radio and Canadian music superstars are a mainstay on the billboard charts. We’re consistently winning awards at the MTV Music Awards and the Grammy’s. We have a plethora of talent which tours the globe and sells out stadiums every day of the week. Some of our best-known talent includes: The Weekend, Celine Deion, Bryan Adams, Drake, Avril, Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, The Guess Who and a never-ending list of exceptional talent.
Unfortunately, we can’t say the same when it comes to our film and television industry. Most of the hit shows and movies Canadians watch are from America with the occasional British piece of content and foreign language shows like Squid Game. How do we fix this problem? Let’s do a little more hockey research.
Did you know that hockey players from all around the globe move to Canada at 13-14 years of age to play junior hockey? Are their junior league’s not good enough? Other countries try to model their training and in-game tactics after Canadian hockey. Keep in mind we only have 35 million people and hockey’s a very expensive sport. Why can’t we emulate this type of success in our own backyard? What’s holding the true north back?
THE ANSWER IS COMPLICATED
As Jerry McGuire once said, “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” Big American movies and TV shows pay actors and directors like we pay hockey players! CTV, CBC, GLOBAL and our theatrical distributors aren’t coughing up twenty million for the most well-known talent on the planet. Even though the logic clearly dictates if you have the best talent more people come to the games and pay outrageous prices but for some unknown reason Canadian producers won’t or can’t find the funding for well-known actors and directors on a consistent basis.
Since earnings are vastly increased in the United States our talented actors learn their craft in Canada and then jet off to America in search of fame and opportunity. It happens all the time. Michael J. Fox left Canada and was on the verge of being homeless in LA when he snagged the part of Alex P. Keaton on the show Family Ties. Elliot Page, formerly Ellen Page, before she decided she wanted to be a man, had starred in a myriad of Canadian films before everyone and their dog went crazy for her performance in the critically acclaimed box office hit Juno which co-starred Canadian Michael Cera and was directed by Ivan Reitman’s son, Jason Reitman. In fact, Ivan’s daughter Catherine is one of the few successful Canadian producer/director/actors who has managed to create a hit Canadian show, “Workin’ Moms” that Americans cans watch on Netflix and seem to have fallen in love with. After Juno, the majority of Elliot Page’s movies and television shows have been American. Hayden Christensen or as most fans better know him as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader hasn’t starred in many if any Canadian films since he was cast in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Others actors to hit the jackpot in the US include Seth Rogen, Keanu Reeves. Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds, Evangeline Lilly, Sandra Oh, Kim Cattral, Eugene Levy and many, many more. Not to mention if our directors strike box office gold they rarely return: Who even knew Denis Villeneuve before he directed Prisoners and the Dune films? We lost perhaps the best director ever who has some of the highest-grossing hits of all time, Mr. James Cameron.
What is the problem with our industry? When Wayne Gretzky was traded to the LA Kings on August 9, 1988 the entire nation was grieving. Is the NHL the best league in the world? It doesn’t really matter. The NHL pays the most money to players and has hundreds of millions of fans. The brand is known all over the planet. Edmonton’s Conner McDavid earns close to 15 million dollars a year. Given, it’s not soccer superstar money, but it’s still a lot of greenbacks! What Canadian actors earn anywhere near that amount of loonies on Canadian shows or films?
Dan Levy, Emily Hampshire, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Sarah Levy and Annie Murphy swept the Emmy awards and Golden Globe’s for best sitcom and their salaries remained insignificant compared to their American counterparts. Not to mention their show, Schitt’s Creek, only gained major popularity and a bigger budget once it was picked up by Pop TV in the United States and later Netflix, which is where fans around the world fell in love with the world of Schitt’s Creek. Something is very wrong with the system. Clearly, until a show is seen by an American audience and blessed by an American channel or streamer, it’s barely recognized? Gosh, this is frustrating. No wonder I spent all those years living in NY and flying to LA.
Let’s recap, Canadian directors, writers and talent leave for the United States to be part of bigger projects and earn more money or as many have dubbed it, ‘The American Dream’. Let’s do a deep dive into those movies that pay the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
BOARDWALK & PARK PLACE
If you think about the movies that are doling out the largest pay cheques in 2023, most of them are major IP’s. Okay, good question, what’s an IP? An IP is for all intense purposes- intellectual property. If a studio buys a NY Times Best Seller suddenly they own a very valuable piece of IP (think of it as prime real estate, BoardWalk in Monopoly) with a built-in audience, meaning people have read the book and may want to see the movie. This is the industry’s big little trick…IP. We don’t concoct anything original that hasn’t been tested in another medium. If the content on screen wasn’t a book, a true story, based on a documentary, a bio flick, a comic book, a successful movie franchise (Star Wars), a play, an article, a piece of gossip, or even a well-known poem, it’s likely not going to enjoy major success or revel in box office glory. Original screenplays may win awards but rarely turn into multi-billion dollars hits!
Canadian Producers for some reason don’t have the money to acquire well-known IP. Instead, they buy critically acclaimed IP that consists of fascinating true stories or documentaries. In America, a producer picks up the Jeffrey Epstein life rights for millions of dollars while a Canadian Producer doesn’t have that type of cash and decides to produce an art house flick that will likely win awards, play major festivals like Cannes and be considered art, but no one will see it. For example, one of the most talented filmmakers I’ve ever met is Guy Maddin. He was born in Winnipeg. His filmmaking is like watching dreams on celluloid. His imagination and telling of the narrative are spectacular. I loved his first film TALES OF THE GIMLI HOSPITAL and thought his love letter MY WINNIPEG was a sensational motion picture but the majority of movie fans out there want to see big stars on the screen and not convoluted art house pieces that make you think. Other Canadian directors like Adam Egoyan and David Cronenberg are guilty of the same crime. They direct these wonderful stories that are complex and layered and have an intellectual shine to them but audiences could care less. They want to see Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in meet cutes or a rom-com. I honestly believe part of the reason Canadian filmmakers write, direct and produce art house critically acclaimed winning films and television is they can’t compete with our American counterparts, thus we provide the viewer something completely different. Something so far out of left field that the critics label it brilliant. In fact, our homegrown films are so entertaining they rarely play at the local cineplex. This forces film art lovers to find the film on some VOD channel or at an underground film festival in China. In the age of the VHS film, a couple of the alternative video stores rented every kind of movie, but as we all know the video store died along with handwritten letters a long time ago.
So what’s the answer to our conundrum? We have the writers, directors and talent. We have amazing crews in this country as billions of dollars are spent here by Americans producing movies every year. They even usually apply for our tax credits, since they are using all of our below-the-line talent. BLT usually consists of everyone but the writer, directors, producers, Executive Producer, actors, sound designers and the cinematographer. Most provincial governments combined with the federal government will provide foreign producers with up to 30% of their budgets if they use our crews and locations.
CANADA NEEDS A MAJOR STUDIO
The only viable answer to solving Canada’s film and television crisis is simple but costly. We need two or three major media conglomerates to enter Canada (like Sony, Universal or Paramount) and pay Canadian directors and talent salaries comparable to their American counterparts. With major studios being in Canada they can provide Canadian Producers with the funding to buy well-known Intellectual Property such as books that are on the NY Times best seller list, the rights to popular movies ready for a remake, comic book and graphic novel franchises—not to mention biopics on lots of Canadian hockey players! Actors and Directors go giddy for these kinds of projects and roles if they’re accompanied by a truck full of money. Will this motivate people all around the world to pay to attend these movies and make them box office Kings? We know our hockey arenas sell out, and we know stadiums around the world are packed to see Canadian singers and bands–the same will and can happen to Canadian film and television.
It all comes down to four words, “Show me the money!”