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Hollywood North: Creating the Canadian Motion Picture Industry

Spencer, Michael and Susan Ayscough. Hollywood North: Creating the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Paperback. 230 Pages. Cantos International Publishing: Montreal, Canada. 2003. ISBN 2- 89594-007-X 230. Canadian $30.

Reviewed by Janet Fine

Film industries around the world seem to name themselves after Hollywood, the epicenter of filmdom, from Bombay's "Bollywood," to Egypt's "Hollywood East" and Canada's "Hollywood North." The implications for transnational broadcasting are plain: programming developed in one part of the world is readily disseminated around the globe. This fascinating new book by Michael Spencer and Susan Ayscough is a history of a new TV and film industry carving out its own identity. Lessons learned here are applicable to other regional film and programming production centers, such as those sprouting up in the Middle East.

In tracing Canada's fledgling film and TV industry's break away from Hollywood, 82-year-old author Spencer calls on his extensive experience since 1940 in the Canadian film industry in which he rose to become first executive director of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) from 1968 until 1978. The book traces step-by-step the development of the Canadian film industry. To hold the reader's attention, Spencer constantly asks us "who would have imagined that the Canadian film-TV industry now worth $3 billion a year was started by the $10 million government investment in CFDC known today as Telefilm Canada?"

What makes the book read almost like a novel are the painstakingly detailed memos, events, and facts recording an industry initially shunned by the USA and scorned by its own people.

In the foreword, Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, who was able to succeed in both countries, writes: 
"The burgeoning Canadian film industry had to confront (Americans) in its struggle to exist. This is the story of that battle and it's a truly terrific tale. It was a fierce fight. I was mortally wounded at least three times and pronounced dead twice. Michael Spencer was at the heart of it all, undercover in the trenches, at the diplomatic level, everywhere."

The transnational struggle of the Canadian film and TV industry to establish its own identity mirrors the struggle of early American producers to break free of the film cartel of the East Coast and establish their own film frontier in California. In fact, many of the early Hollywood stars, such as Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, and even producer Louis B. Mayer, came from Canada. Yet Hollywood, that Mecca of independence, refuted the idea that Canada could produce and screen its own films, and instead vigorously promoted the American films that long dominated Canadian screens.

"It is ironic that the purpose these days so many US TV series and films are being shot in Canada is because of low cost and excellent facilities," said Michael Spencer, recounting long years of fights by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPPA) to prevent Canadian product being made and laws crippling a separate film and TV industry.

The story is reflected in Spencer's exemplary background. Born in Great Britain, Spencer got an early start in 1939 with a film job in Ottawa with Canadian documentary film pioneer John Grierson, who set up the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). World War II found Spencer filming for a Canadian Army film and photo unit and so it was natural that he should return to Canada to work for NFB. He ruminates, "Who would have thought that I'd become the first executive of the CFDC, an agency funding a Canadian film industry? I had never heard the term Hollywood North, and yet in the years to come I'd have a hand in defining it." Co-author Susan Ayscough, an accomplished journalist, also has worked as Communications director for Alliance and Telefilm, experiencing first-hand all the growing pains of Canadian TV and film industry.

Global Impact

While Canadian documentaries and animated films excelled in the 1950s and sixties, Spencer said the move from Ottawa to Montreal in 1956 was the first step for the Canadian Film Board to establish contact with creative directors. It remains there today, with its production facilities full throttle for American and other productions. Original staffers like Gilles Carle, Denys Arcand, and Claude Jutra went on to become internationally famous directors. Spencer credits Guy Roberge in 1957 as the first French NFB chairman to help launch the Canadian feature film industry and involve Canadian producers in international co-productions. To combine Canadian and international talents was the first step in transnational impact for film and later TV as an ingenious step to combat U.S. dominance over the industry and create a global impact.

Co-production treaties became the way to make new films with other countries. The Canadian open-door policy to new nationalities was reflected in the internationalism of the fledgling industry, which needed all the allies it could gather in order to gain domestic and international audiences. This was especially true of English-language pictures while, according to Spencer, French-Quebec films flourished due to the homegrown audience for films in the local language. This international impetus led to official Canadian government investment of $3 million in Canadian films in l961, a figure that had increased to $10 million by 1972. This was the first step to try to overcome American dominance, writes Spencer, who said it became a role model when he helped guide the establishment of the Australian Film Commission.

Establishing Identity

The bilingual Canadian film industry began its slow path to national identity in the l970s with some hit films, mostly by Quebec producers Cineplex and Onyx, which had a contract with Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC) that prefigured the merging film-TV synergy. The start of the Montreal International Film Festival in 1976 and of the Toronto Festival a few years later were, according to Spencer, another step towards globalization of the industry and he said his most productive trips were to the festivals at Cannes and elsewhere to link film deals that would at least begin to help popularize Canadian cinema and increase its popularity with its own audiences. Detailed descriptions of films and deals document the 70s era of new tax incentives adding impetus to the movement to get films screened in English-speaking Canadian theatres and making Canada's own Genies Awards in l978 a new step in bi-cultural awareness.

Enter TV

"To have a functioning industry, we had to make money and the money, we knew, was in television in 1973," writes Spencer. "We wanted the Corporation to invest in TV films and series, but it would take another 15 years for the Corporation to legally invest in TV.

"Still keeping an eye on the broad political front of Canadian cinema, I had been waiting for the licensing of pay TV as a possible solution to the perennial lack of funds from Canadian theatres to finance Canadian movies. Strangely enough, pay TV had made its appearance in Canada in the l960s under the name of Telemeter but was not a success. The CRTC finally licensed pay TV in Canada in l982."

The chapter "Changing Channels: 1980-88" covers how money was allocated to TV and how satellites changed the way programming reached audiences. The Canadian Broadcast Development Fund came into existence in 1983 with CFDC executive director Andre Lamy committing $50 million annually to the fund, with private sector participation. The National Film and Video Policy Act in 1984 transformed the CFDC's role, now responsible for TV, changing its name to Telefilm Canada. This was initially a controversial choice, says Spencer because the name was associated with TV films. The Broadcast Fund also was the harbinger of the current Canadian TV fund's annual $200 million (cut to $150 million in April 2003) and the book explores all the details how Canadian film and TV, once ignored, could now produce popular series with international satellite appeal, such as "Due South" and "Traders."

Canadian transnational content

Final chapters deal with the successful transnational marketing of Canadian film and TV and how their content played a crucial role in better defining Canada's own national identity. The Canadian Audio Visual Certification Office (CAVCO) established that foreign co-production films and TV must have 35% Canadian content. A good example is the 1985 TV movie "Anne of Green Gables," rated one of the most widely seen Canadian stories in the world, which was sponsored by Film Finances Canada (with which Spencer is associated).

Hollywood North is an exciting chronicle of the creation of a contemporary industry and final chapters celebrate the transnational emergence of Canadian films and Canadian stories by an author who witnessed that history in the making.

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