The Best Ad for a Canadian Film…is the Film Itself (part 3)

Last time (well, time before last) I started with the astonishing pronouncement that Canadian movies aren’t made for me!

Gasp!

Yes, despite being a long time observer and supporter of Canadian cinema…the movies aren’t necessarily made with me in mind. And that’s fair. And the reverse of that is I support and advocate for Canadian cinema as an idea, as an industry…but the individual films have to sink or swim on their own. I’ll freely admit — I ain’t a big Atom Egoyan fan. Yet many of those who count themselves as Canadian film appreciators would see a membership in his fan club as almost de rigueur.

But that’s the point. I ain’t a Canadian film fan. I’m a fan of films. And I’m a fan of Canada. And I’m a fan of the two coming together in a satisfying way.

Yet Canadian movies continue to struggle. They struggle at the box office…and they struggle with perception. Even when a Canadian movie does well, it is dismissed as the exception rather than as an indication Canadian movies are okay. For all that Egoyan is often cited as the acme of Canadian cinematic achievement by some…to others, his films are precisely what they point to when they claim Canadians make bad, boring movies!

Supporters of Canadian film blame distribution. They blame marketing. They blame a media biased against them, refusing to print entertainment articles about Canadian productions the way they do about Hollywood productions. They blame American interference. They blame an audience too brainwashed by the Hollywood machine.

And all of those are legitimate complaints.

Critics of Canadian film blame talentless filmmakers with more ego than skill who primp about with a sense of entitlement.

And that’s a legitimate complaint too.

But I also want to blame the movies — or rather, the type of movies, and how they are presented.

Movers and shakers within the Canadian film biz…prepare to get PO’d!

The thing is, years and years ago, I adopted as my hobby (for reasons that made sense at the time) Canadian film and TV. As I say: it brought together two interests of mine. Film & TV on one hand and Canadiana on the other. And though I said that I’m not necessarily a fan of Canadian film, that’s not entirely true, because during the 1970s and early 1980s there was a cinema verité style in Canadian film that I found quite intriguing and somewhat different from Hollywood films (at least, Hollywood by that point — Hollywood had flirted with that style in the late 1960s/early 1970s). A “realist” style that could also be applied even to pulpy and fanciful things, like the comedy-mystery TV series, Seeing Things. There was a “realism” (in delivery, in throwaway dialogue) in these things I just wasn’t seeing in Hollywood productions at the time. Then The Grey Fox came along…and the Art House school of Canadian film began (continued by Egoyan and others) where kinetic realism was cast aside for icy artifice and pregnant pauses. Still, it’s fair to say in the beginning I was turned onto Canadian film and TV partly for itself.

But anyhoo…

Because I had adopted this hobby, I made the effort to watch Canadian movies and TV shows. This led to my watching things that, otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with if it was American or whatever. And, as such, I freely admit I would discover little hidden gems, or surprise myself by enjoying a movie that, simply going by the description in the paper, I wouldn’t have even bothered with. Little arty dramas, or enigmatic films proved satisfying ways of spending my evening.

I say all this just to acknowledge that good films can fly below the radar. Good films can arise in surprising places, and out of subject matter that might not seen that interesting at first glance.

And I say all that…because I’m not sure it’s enough anymore.

Canadian film has basically been around since the 1960s, has produced some noteworthy efforts, critically and commercially, but still remains on life support. And the perception — whether fair or not — is that too much of the industry is geared toward making parochial elitist films that are more aimed at winning nods at film festivals than winning audiences. An industry run by an Old Boy’s (and Girl’s) Club where filmmakers who made movies that weren’t very successful cherry pick the next generation of filmmakers to follow in their footsteps, where everyone knows everyone else, and they present themselves to the world as the voice of Canada…when most Canadians don’t watch their films. And they do this because commercial success has proved so hard and elusive…a lot of them have just given up on even trying, convincing themselves they are pursuing a higher calling by making movies that no one really wants to see in the first place.

They seem to reason that they can’t be accused of failing…if they weren’t seriously trying in the first place.

The operative theme in my earlier statements is that even with Canadian films I like, these were often movies which I wouldn’t have bothered watching if not for my self-appointed task of watching Canadian movies. Ignore that I watched ’em, ignore that I might have (on occasion) liked ’em. The key point is…in most cases I wouldn’t have bothered trying them. And most people do not have my hobby!

You see, I was looking at a recent listing of some up coming Canadian feature films — movies that were being tagged as the hot Canadian movies to watch, the ones fresh off the festival circuit.

And in most cases, they weren’t movies that I’d give two soon-to-be-decommissioned pennies to buy a ticket for!

I’m not saying they aren’t great movies, or worthy movies. I’m not saying they aren’t well made with sweat and sincerity. Or that I wouldn’t love them if I was persuaded to get off the couch and go to see them. Maybe they are…maybe they aren’t. I haven’t seen then.

I’m saying, looking at the descriptions…I have next to no interest in seeing them.

Now this gets back to my opening point about Canadian movies aren’t made for me. Obviously, a Canadian filmmaker can snort at my statement, suggest I’m just not the audience that can appreciate what they are doing, and ignore me. And that would be fine. Except in most cases these movies are going to bomb and, in a lot of cases, aren’t going to get good reviews. So maybe it’s time to ask the hard questions and listen to the brutal answers.

Here’s the thing: Canadian movies have trouble getting distribution, and even publicity (commercials, promotional interviews) so really, the best ad for your movie — is the movie itself. Your movie isn’t going to get a $100 mil in ads, or a McDonald’s tie-in campaign. It’s not going to get the cover of a movie magazine. So its main shot at winning an audience…is going to be a brief paragraph in a “what’s playing” blurb in the paper, sandwhiched between the latest super hero movie and the latest George Clooney “serious” drama.

So that has to be the best paragraph in the world — and describing a movie people will want to see.

And in most cases: it isn’t — because it ain’t.

There’s a feeling that too many Canadian movies (and too many Canadian filmmakers) are counting on their own genius to sell the film. That is, it’s not so much that the movie itself they think will drawn an audience…but they’re convinced that they’ve made such a brilliant movie it will overcome in execution what it might lack in conception. But that’s rarely the criteria people use when deciding what movie they are going to watch. Even with filmmakers who it could be argued that is the case (say, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam) they have millions of dollars in promotion behind them, big movie stars in their film, and a history of films people liked behind them. People didn’t decide they liked Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton and then go to their films — they saw a few films they liked, directed by them, and then decided those were names to watch for (and even then, their recent films have had an uneven box office record).

How often does this exchange occur in a household?

“Hey honey, want to go see “Where Sings the Leopard”?”

“Um…what’s it about?”

“Don’t know.”

“Comedy? Drama? Thriller?”

“Uh…doesn’t say.”

“Who’s in it?”

“Haven’t a clue…but I hear it got a few good reviews.”

“What? Why didn’t you say so? — call the babysitter!”

Not often, I’ll bet.

The thing is: you need a movie that sells itself — at least in part. You need a movie with a concept, a hook, a plot, that makes people say, “That looks as though it could be entertaining”.

Yet often I’ll see descriptions of Canadian movies — in the papers, on the back of the DVD — which will basically describe the theme (a profound rumination on relationships; a mordant examination of mortality). Themes are like scenery — of course your movie should have a theme, but that shouldn’t be how you describe it! No one’ll put this description on the back of a DVD: “Set against the B.C. mountains is this story about, um, people (probably) who do something (I guess)…but man, those hills, eh?”

Just looking at some descriptions of some recent Canadian movies there’s one about a child soldier and another about a transgendered man coming out.

And you know what? I don’t…effin’…CARE!

Yes, I can sense you all recoiling in shock from my statement. Philistine! you shriek (though I gather the Philistines have been slurred by history, but anyway…) How could I be so crude? So insensitive?

My answer? ‘Cause I’m not an illiterate dork.

I know about child soldiers. I know about transgender people. I know about all those worthy and important topics you know about, ’cause I read articles and listen to the radio. I don’t necessarily need to spend two hours in a theatre so a filmmaker (who may have simply read the same articles I did) can “enlighten” me…through a fictional framework.

With that said: I love movies that deal with issues and have powerful and moving themes. I applaud filmmakers who want to tackle important and political topics. But they have to do it within the context of telling a story I want to hear told, of making a movie I want to see.

The Hollywood movie Blood Diamonds helped to move the topic of blood diamonds to the front of dinner table conversations, putting a global issue on the lips of people who previously had never even heard the term…yet first and foremost, it was a Hollywood adventure-thriller. People didn’t go to see it to be educated about a social issue, they went to it to be entertained…and came away educated about a social issue.

See the difference?

Time and time and time again I’ll see descriptions of Canadian movies that just kind of make me go “meh”. It’s not that they sound like bad movies — they may in fact be great movies if I can be persuaded to go and see them — but they just don’t sound like especially interesting movies. Certainly not interesting enough when competing for the same ticket dollars other movies that do sound interesting are competing for. And that’s the key. Just as justice must be seen to be done, so a good movie has to sound like a good movie.

We’ll wrap this up next time, and consider the storytelling lessons…of Charles Dickens

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