Quiet on the Set

Can we again be Big Screen Country?

By Fil Fraser

Making movies is the most collaborative, combative and challenging of the arts. Writers believe it begins with “the word,” and they assert that every syllable is sacred. Directors have their own idea of what the words “really” mean. They, of course, want all the time in the world to shoot the movie in as many exotic locations as possible. The producer, who has to find the money, wants to shoot the whole thing next weekend for $147 in a neighbourhood pub. On the set, sensitive actors plead that they “just can’t say this stuff.” The art director, of course, has her own vision for how the film should look, and the editor says, a bit menacingly, “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it in post.”

Movies are the most compelling means of telling the stories that influence the things we laugh at or cry about, that frighten or infuriate us; they can set the tone for what we believe, how we grieve, how we love. They are our most potent transmitters of culture and values. Wonders light the screen when everyone on the crew is making the same movie; any one of us can tell when they’re not.

But making movies is also a business, one of the toughest on the planet. Only two countries, the US and India, have self-sustaining and profitable film industries. All others subsidize movies in the cause of presenting and preserving culture and identity. In Canada, governments—federal, provincial and municipal—devise ingenious, sometimes too-clever-by-half programs to help producers and others advance their craft.

Alberta can claim pride of place. We led the provinces in creating, in 1973, the first film industry association in Canada, the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association (AMPIA). The first provincial program to support the film industry, the Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation (AMPDC) opened its doors in 1982, providing a model that other provinces soon followed. Alberta was the first to appoint a provincial film commissioner with a mandate to lure Hollywood producers north.

It all paid off; the province revelled in a golden age of film during the 1980s and into the mid-1990s. Everything changed abruptly in 1996, however, when Ralph Klein, in a cost-cutting orgy, shut down the AMPDC. He told me his government “didn’t want to be in the business of business.” Ironically, records show that the “business” was profitable. Government funding to AMPDC resulted in tax revenues that exceeded the money allocated.

The industry crashed. The value of film production in the province, which had been increasing annually, plummeted from $150-million in 1995 to $50-million by 1997. Two-thirds of production evaporated. Many of our most talented creators moved to BC. Their stories—Alberta’s stories—went with them.

Since the mid-1990s, Alberta’s film producers (those who opted to stay after Klein’s guillotine) have been struggling to rebuild the industry. But there is something about Alberta’s creative spirit. So how are we doing?

You could make the case it all started with Back to God’s Country, produced in 1919 by Nell and Ernie Shipman and reportedly funded by Calgary dentists and doctors. Nell was a Canadian who became a Hollywood superstar. To her husband, dubbed “10 per cent Ernie,” movies were definitely a business. Back to God’s Country, shot on location around Alberta for $70,000, grossed $1.5-million.

The prequel to the modern industry in Alberta came in 1961, when Larry Matanski produced Wings of Chance, based on a story by one of Canada’s most successful short story writers, John Patrick Gillese. The Alberta-born Matanski, a flamboyant character who owned and flew exotic airplanes, also produced The Naked Flame (a.k.a. Deadline for Murder) in 1963, a sexploitation story in which Las Vegas showgirls were brought in to portray Doukhobor women, known for dancing nude as their houses were torched in a protest against materialism.

The modern filmmaking era in Alberta arguably began after Sydney Newman, then Canada’s National Film Commissioner and head of the National Film Board, made a 1973 speech at the Canadian Film & Television Producers Association annual meeting. AMPIA had persuaded the association to hold the gathering in Edmonton, the first time it had met outside of Ontario. Newman, speaking in a hotel ballroom to virtually everyone in the province who wanted to make films, told us that if we wanted to succeed we should move to Toronto, where we could create a critical mass of talent similar to that in London. Newman had enjoyed a remarkable career at the BBC working on The Avengers and Dr. Who. In London, actors, writers, directors and technicians could work on movies one day, TV the next and on the stage the day after that.

In hindsight Newman was probably right about creating a critical mass of creative resources. But many of us Albertans, including me, then an AMPIA director, were raging regionalists. We were going to do it our way, in our place, dammit.

There’s a direct line between Newman’s speech and my getting into the business with Why Shoot the Teacher? To make movies is to chase a dream. First, though, you have to persuade government and private investors to risk money based on a script. Some producers sell their cars, mortgage their houses or sign devastating personal guarantees to raise funds. Most navigate a labyrinth of rules to qualify for grants or loans. You then have to persuade a broadcaster to sign on.

With Why Shoot the Teacher? I spent six months going from office to office in the CBC’s Toronto headquarters. I eventually cut a deal, in half an hour, with CTV program director Pip Wedge. Getting the financing took still more months. I had 32 documents at the closing; it took a roomful of Bay Street lawyers most of a day to sign and seal the paperwork. Only then did I begin the work of casting and producing the movie, which ultimately took two years of my life.

The movie, based on a Max Braithwaite story, tells of a teacher whose first job is in a one-room schoolhouse on the Canadian prairies. It was shot in Hanna on a budget of $1.2-million, and the weather was awful (the movie was set in winter; that March was warm). But there were magical moments. When I called the star of the movie, Bud Cort, he told me he was in Groucho Marx’s bathroom, praying that someone would offer him a role. (Marx, then elderly but still sharp, had opened his home to young actors.) Indeed, it was as much good luck as good management that when Why Shoot the Teacher? was released in 1977, it won Canada’s Golden Reel Award as the year’s most commercially successful movie.

That same year, the Alberta Task Force on Film was launched by Culture Minister Horst Schmid (English Canada’s first culture minister) and Industry Minister Hugh Planche. It led to the 1982 creation of the AMPDC, a Crown corporation whose mandate was to support Alberta producers through a combination of loans, investment and advice.

There followed a virtual explosion of filmmaking in Alberta. Theatrical features, documentaries and educational movies contributed thousands of jobs, millions of dollars to government coffers and a big boost to the provincial psyche. Filmmakers such as Tom Radford, Anne Wheeler, Dale Phillips, the late Allen Stein, Albert Karvonen, Arvi Liimatainen, Gil Cardinal, Francis Damberger, Tom Cox and Doug MacLeod, among others, produced programs for big and small screens. These won international awards (10 alone for Cardinal’s Foster Child), opened the 1988 Winter Olympics arts festival (Wheeler’s Cowboys Don’t Cry) and shared Alberta stories with the world (Karvonen’s films have been distributed in over 100 countries).

In 1980 Bill Marsden became the province’s, and Canada’s, first film commissioner, with a mandate to persuade foreign producers to shoot in Alberta (while training local crews and hiring local actors). An impressive number of Hollywood films were made in Alberta under Marsden’s watch, including Superman (1978), Cool Runnings (1993) and Legends of the Fall (1994). A filmmaker himself, Marsden had a knack for convincing directors to come see our striking landscapes for themselves. A mark of his extraordinary success is the single-card credit (a rare thank you in the film’s closing credits) given by Clint Eastwood for his help in facilitating 1992’s Unforgiven.

The AMPDC was vital to Alberta film through the golden era. The notion of provincial assistance for film was copied by all of Canada’s provinces. The corporation’s mandate was expanded in 1988, with $7-million added to its budget and a vote of confidence given by Minister of Economic Development Larry Shaben. None of this stopped Ralph Klein’s government from killing the agency outright in 1996.

With the death of the AMPDC, and the termination of the film commissioner position, many worried about local film’s viability. AMPDC director Gary Toth expressed hope. “I don’t want to say it’s a total demise of the domestic industry,” he said. And it wasn’t the death of local movies. But productions were cancelled, droves of actors and producers moved away and much of Alberta’s cultural pioneering was undone. It was a new era: the province didn’t even name a Culture Minister between 1992 and 2008. As a replacement to the AMPDC, a private film commission was created. Lacking resources, it struggled even to maintain a film commissioner; Hollywood opted for other locations. “Needless to say,” recalls Marsden in his memoir Big Screen Country, “competing film commissions were delighted.”

The government seemed to realize its mistake by 2001, announcing a Film Development Program under the auspices of Community Development. But the new agency was a shadow of the AMPDC, with an annual budget of $10-million (now closer to $15-million). Alberta, while the fourth-largest movie producer after Ontario, Quebec and BC, lags well behind those provinces in terms of government incentives.

Some strong local films were nonetheless made during this period, including Gary Burns’s waydowntown (2000) and the cult-classic FUBAR (2002), financed for $1-million and $350,000, respectively. Burns has been particularly successful in a tough climate, writing or directing seven local movies including the ultra-low-budget The Suburbanators (1995), which screened at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals.

All the while there was AMPIA. The association started with a dozen or so companies whose owners made a commitment to Alberta by setting up offices and incorporating here. AMPIA kept the torch lit through the Klein years in part by maintaining the local film awards. The first AMPIA awards were held in Red Deer in 1974, part of a province-wide festival of the arts. Edmonton documentary filmmaker Radford won the first AMPIA award (then dubbed a “Horst” after the peripatetic Minister of Culture) for Ernest Brown, Photographer.

Now called the Alberta Media Production Industries Association, AMPIA has grown to a membership of some 2,000, including students. Reflecting the exploding digital world, some members make their living in video games. AMPIA offers a variety of services, including professional development and mentorship. But its main activity is to represent the industry to government, whose policies and funding programs so profoundly affect its members’ development.

Radford was also in that fateful Edmonton ballroom back in 1973, when Newman advised Albertans to move out East. Arguably the dean of Alberta film producers, Radford says he’s concerned about the next generation of filmmakers, not only because of low provincial support but because the local broadcasting industry is in so few hands.

Alberta has no locally owned TV outlets anymore; there are essentially only three doors—Bell/CTV, Shaw/Global and Rogers/CityTV—that producers can now knock on in all of English Canada. In earlier days, broadcasting pioneers such as CFRN Edmonton’s Dr. G. R. A. (Dick) Rice and ITV founder Dr. Charles Allard poured millions into Alberta productions. The Edmonton movie studio Allard built is still in operation.

Yet Radford is unwavering in his advice to young creators. “Fight the fight to stay,” he says. “There are so many Alberta stories that need to be told. We still need the big outlets of movie screens and TVs to reach meaningful audiences.”

Radford’s latest effort, Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands, is an example of the kind of stories Albertans can and need to tell. The documentary was denounced by callers to an Edmonton radio show in 2011, with Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett mounting a weak defence of why provincial funding was granted to what some saw as an attack on Alberta. Many viewers, however, lauded Tipping Point’s thoughtful exploration of the downstream effects of industrial development. The film aired on CBC’s The Nature of Things, picked up a Rosie at this year’s AMPIA awards, and won two Geminis.

Indeed, considering the challenges, the range of Alberta-produced programs being broadcast on national TV is impressive. From the documentaries Ian Tyson: This Is My Sky and Al Rashid: The Story of Canada’s First Mosque to nationally acclaimed dramatic series such as Blackstone and Heartland, Alberta is still making a mark on the national scene.

Between the Albertans who stuck it out and the emergence of new talent, hope abounds. Unlike those of us who were pretty well making it up as we went along in the 1970s, the next wave served their apprenticeships on productions mounted by their forebears. And the newest generation has been well educated in the film schools that emerged at NAIT, SAIT, Red Deer College and the University of Alberta.

Josh Miller, president of the AMPIA board, set the modern example by going to film school in LA before returning to Alberta to set up Panacea Productions, producer of such series as Mentors and such movies as Freezer Burn.

Connie Edwards and her husband/partner, Doug Cole, are now veterans of the business. Connie debuted in my film Marie Anne, as a stunt double for Tantoo Cardinal (she was the better horse rider). She volunteered on other crews and rose to the rank of producer, now making serious, socially conscious films.

Larry Reese went from actor (Hounds of Notre Dame) to program director of RDC’s film school, which offers instruction in performance and production. Applicants need two years in a post-secondary drama program or equivalent. In 1998, on a budget of $30,000, his students produced a highly credible feature film, Naked Frailties.

Don Metz is among the most successful producers of sports programming in Canada, and this year collected three Gemini nominations for Oil Change. A member of the NAIT board, he says the development of post-secondary film and media education in Alberta is creating opportunities for new creators. “They understand the power of social media and the digital arts,” he says. “The schools have relevant curricula that create a great environment for brilliant youth.”

While Miller, Edwards, Reese, Metz and others are the industry’s senior members, the next generation—filmmakers in their 20s and 30s—may yet return Alberta to the foreground of Canada’s movie scene. Rising stars include Cameron MacGowan, whose film Bad Dad was a winner at this year’s AMPIA awards, and Camille Beaudoin, whose wild and quirky comedy series, Caution—May Contain Nuts, won a Gemini.

One of the most successful members of the new generation, Ron E. Scott, broke away from the set of Blackstone, which he created and directs, to speak with me. “There are great things happening in Alberta,” he says. His cast and crew show great promise. “They’re learning and getting good training. We’re constantly giving them greater responsibility.” But he says that Alberta filmmaking is not flourishing the way it could. “Unfortunately, the pool of actors in Edmonton, where we’re based, is still small,” he says. “There’s a good theatre scene, but there’s just not enough film work. We use as many local actors as we can, but have to go outside of Alberta to fill the bill.”

I asked how this province might better support its film industry. “We need more infrastructure, not just the occasional big show,” he says. “It would be great to see some more things coming down the line. But I have to say that if it weren’t for Alberta’s film program, Blackstone wouldn’t have been produced. And Alberta offered more than BC did—it’s both more cost-effective and more satisfying to do the shoot here.”

Indeed, the Alberta government has shown that it can occasionally be persuaded to properly support local film. In 2005 it announced a $5.5-million grant as part of Alberta’s centennial celebrations to Edmonton actor, director and producer Paul Gross. His Passchendaele (2008), shot near Calgary with a budget of $20-million, employed hundreds of Alberta actors, technicians and extras and was lauded by critics.

Passchendaele portrayed the 10th Battalion, Alberta Regiment of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, composed largely of Albertans, which participated in every major Canadian battle of the First World War and whose members won many individual bravery awards. Even Ralph Klein recognized the importance of giving life to our shared history. “The centennial is a time to recognize our past and tell our stories,” he said. “Passchendaele will educate Albertans and all Canadians for years to come.”

Joe Novak’s Bow River productions focuses on film production, while his 1,400 Months is dedicated to developing digital products. He’s stuck it out in Alberta, but he agrees that the province needs more infrastructure if it’s to have any chance of keeping the new generation. Along with Heartland producer Tom Cox and others, Novak has lobbied for the development of a studio in Calgary focused on digital and 3D production. He touts it as a hub that would serve the whole province through a high-speed digital connection to the Edmonton studio built by Dr. Allard as well as to film schools. The idea gained Minister Blackett’s attention, but he wasn’t able to get a commitment from his caucus. “We have to be ahead of the curve,” Novak says. “We can’t just tread water.”

As the US economy falters, state support for Hollywood movies—designed to halt the “runaway productions” that saw producers take advantage of the lower Canadian dollar—is dwindling. According to Alberta film commissioner Jeff Brinton, a recent surge in scouting should result in more productions in the province next year.

But a recommitment from government to fully support local film would help most. An additional $1.4-million was added in 2006 to the Alberta Film Development Program, bringing funding to nearly $15-million. Blackett, to his credit, managed in a tough political environment to increase funding for the film industry, in particular adding to the money available to writers. The new cabinet announced in October sees Edmonton-Glenora MLA Heather Klimchuk in charge of Culture, with Blackett relegated to the back benches. I’ve met Klimchuk a number of times and find her to be quite culture-friendly. With Doug Horner as deputy premier and president of the treasury board, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the local film industry.

But Alberta is still far from punching above its weight, nationally or internationally, as it used to. A reprise of those golden years depends on whether funding and government priorities continue to fluctuate with each new caucus. Whatever happens, Alberta’s filmmakers will continue to challenge all obstacles to pursue their dreams, to tell their stories—to tell our stories. They’re driven to it. Ask them and they’ll tell you they have no choice, and like the raging regionalists of an earlier era, they plan to do it here.

Fil Fraser is an author and radio, TV and film producer. He teaches a graduate course on film policy at Athabasca University.


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