The Artistic Frontier: Hollywood…or Canada?

There are a few ideas about Canadian film & TV — where it is, where it’s headed, and so on — I’ve been meaning to opine on…partly just because, well, when I decided to take on the idea of a blog, I promised myself I’d try and post something every few days (as opposed to every few weeks/months as was true with my previous essays posted here). Anyway, some ideas wrap around and overlap with each other, but to avoid a rambling posting, I’m going to try and tackle them in various more focused essays. So today, I just wanted to play a bit of Devil’s Advocate and consider a certain unconditionally accepted trusim of Canadian film & TV — and global entertainment in general — and its relationship to Hollywood.

There is sometimes an undercurrent, when people criticize Canadian film and TV, of implying that those who stay home in Canada just couldn’t hack it in Hollywood…they are either talentless, or cowards.

But you know, I’ve often thought the opposite view could be taken.

Once upon a time, yes, Hollywood was the creative frontier, if you will. Artists, dreamers and mogels trekked out into the dessert (some, in fact, Canadian-born like Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, and Louis B. Mayer) and, almost as though a biblical fable, literally built an industry out of the sand, using nothing but talent, hard work, and moxy (and, um, yeah, in some cases borderline criminal monopolies and underhanded practices that eventually had to be curtailed by U.S. government intervention). But out of that was built a well-oiled machine that has come to dominate global culture.

But that’s kind of the point — Hollywood, and American industry in general, has become a well-oiled machine. It’s like a perpetual motion device that chugs along almost on its own volition, its true inventors long since turned to dust. It’s an industry that’s greater than any one product, studios that are more than the sum of their executives and stars — all of whom come and go faster than witches in Oz.

One could make the argument that Canadian actors and film makers who head to Hollywood are, in fact, the ones taking the easy route. There may be hundreds, thousands of people competing to get in the doors, but once you get in those doors, the water is running, the pantry is stocked, the beds are turned down, all ready for you. The journey may be hard and fraught with peril…but at the end is a shining metropolis.

To use my initial analogy about Hollywood having once been a creative frontier, one could argue that it is the Canadian film & TV biz that still remains a dilapidated frontier town — the successes are few and far between. The well is frequently contaminated, food scarce, and the bedding has lice and fleas — and everytime you ask for help or improvements, you are accused of demanding hand outs. Even when a movie or TV show is successful, the apparatus to build upon that is creaky, if non-existent. Far from taking the easy route, or not being brave enough to test themselves against the cream of Hollywood, one could equally argue those who stay in Canada are the gutsy ones, the ones still trying to build an industry, still trying to make fertile farmland out of an at times inhospitable wilderness.

It’s the talent that heads south that, in a sense, has thrown in the towel, has given up trying to win a seeming Quixotic fight. They head south where the perpetual motion machine was built decades ago by dead men, and the current generation are not much more than Morlocks keeping it oiled.

I mean, how many times have we read interviews with Canadian actors, writers, directors who have announced they are fed up with their lack of recognition, their lack of success, in Canada (or they’ve had success…but are having trouble following up on it) — and so are heading south where, they assure any and all who’ll listen, they’ll be treated right. Granted, often such declarations are made by people who are never heard from again…or slink back to Canada a few years later. But still — isn’t the subtext that they figure it’ll be a little easier in Hollywood?

Nor do I blame them, really.

So where does that take us? Even if we accept that the successes of modern Hollywood are thanks to pioneers long dead who created an industry and an infrastructure that the modern generation benefits from, and equally, modern Canadian film and TV suffers because its founders made the wrong choices, backed the wrong horses, decades ago — does that point to a solution?

Well…yes, and no.

It’s worth considering, to realize that for all those who gloat over the failures of Canadian film and TV, the modern Canadian film makers aren’t operating on a level playing field with their American cousins. It should lead to a certain rueful sympathy for the toilers in the field if nothing else.

But it maybe suggests that Hollywood’s success, ironic for a country that prides itself on its rebel past and rugged individualism, is partly a result of a certain collectivism — an industry mentality, where even the artists are merely cogs in a vast mechanism. Heck, the very fact that the American movie industry is consolidated in one area is telling.

The Canadian entertainment undustry, in contrast, is still very much about the individual — the artist, the autre — more than the industry. And where even physically it isn’t particularly localized, with a number of centres vying for the title of “Hollywood North” — Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax, even Calgary and Winnipeg all make varying claims to being production centres. Unlike America, in Canada you can often recognize where a movie or TV show is shot based on the supporting actors in it, because there are actors who are based in particular regions and don’t need to stray outside of that area to keep themselves employed.

Whereas in Hollywood a distinction is made between a “mainstream studio” movie and an “independent” film…in Canada, all movies are essentially indie films.

And that’s partly good — in a country as physically vast and culturally diverse as Canada, it’s probably in some respects healthier than the U.S. model. But the negative side to that is does that help keep the industry from coalescing into, well, an industry? Rather than building something up, we’re constantly carving it off into little fiefdoms. There are too many wanna-be captains and not enough navigators. And whereas Hollywood is steeped in tradition and paying homage to its past, one gets the impression that a lot of Canadian film makers take pride in dismissing and denigrating the past — they want to be the “special one”, they want to be the guy or gal who stands above the crowd, and they can’t be that if they acknowledge people did good work who came before them.

Now again, it’s not black & white. After all, given the problematic history of Canadian film & TV, you wouldn’t necessarily want to slavishly revere productions that weren’t very good to begin with. You wouldn’t want the modern generation of TV makers declaring their goal was to live up to the glory of, say, The Littlest Hobo, would you? And would a visionary producer who fancies himself a Hollywood-style mogel be a kind of Moses, leading his filmmaking followers to the Promised Land…or would he a delusional egomaniac, more akin to the Pied Piper…or a chief lemming shouting “Follow me — I know a short cut over this cliff!”? And the problem with putting too much faith in consolidation, in a few companies or visionary producers to build that machine…is that means it’s even easier to knock down, like a house of cards. Maybe having a bunch of production centres, and a bunch of little companies, makes the industry more resilient, more able to whether ups and downs.

A few years back, Canada seemed to be developing its own studio giants like Hollywood, with production companies like Alliance and Atlantis having their fingers in half the film and TV productions in Canada. Then they merged into an even bigger, super production house, and they even bought up a few rising companies. They were shaping up to be Optimus Prime ready to do battle with the Decepticons of Hollywood (or, y’know, Godzilla ready to go toe to toe with Mecha-Godzilla). And then…and then…and then this super company that was almost the galactic core of Canadian film and TV…decided to pretty much shut down its production arm and concentrate on the low cost/high profit field of film distribution. Which is why you’ll still see the Alliance-Atlantis logo today…but generally preceding films (often American films) rather than in the actual production credits. A lot of industry folk were left rather stunned and shattered by that move, like frontier settlers who wake up one morning to find that the fast taking entrepreneur who was promising to put the town on the map and bring the railroad through has skipped town in the night.

And, honestly, that’s kind of the history of Canadian film and TV — dreamers who don’t play well with each other, businessmen who are more interested in short term profits than in industry building. But like plucky pioneers of old, the toilers in Canadian film & TV keep struggling away, through dust bowl and blizzard, still hoping they can build a city where sod huts now stand. But maybe there needs to be more of a sense that they are working toward a goal, toward building an industry — a machine — greater than themselves.

And I do sometimes wonder if the problem in Canadian film and TV is that while Hollywood renovates its existing house, adding new support beams where needed and attaching new wings over the decades, Canadians are too quick to just knock their house down, and try to build from scratch…and then a new generation comes along, and they just bring in more bulldozers to knock it down, determined to start again. And the result is a frontier town that has yet to become a city of dreams.

But that’s just me being Devil’s Advocate.

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