Happy 1st & 4th of July. Ahem.
It’s now two days after Canada Day, and no doubt cultural agencies and perhaps a few media corporations feel good about their own respective contributions to the nation’s artistic heritage.
Or maybe there’s a general sense of indifference, due in part to the criteria for branding certain films, TV series, and music as culturally valid.
A long-standing tradition for Canadian films is that they don’t exist on DVD, appear only on specialty channels due to CanCon regulations mandating a minimum Canadian content, or are available as imported videos.
Problem A: most of the small companies that released films during the 70s and 80s are currently owned by larger ones with an immutable streak of chilly indifference.
Actually, the plural form is redundant here, because there’s really just two big companies: EOne, the biggest home video distributor in the country; and Alliance, who own many of the small companies that once specialized in art house and exploitation classics – Norstar Releasing, and Cinépix (later absorbed into Lionsgate, which itself was absorbed recently into Alliance).
Lumped into this with differing content is the CBC and its various in-house and co-productions, and the NFB, which over the past 2 years has started to make older content available online; this is likely due to DVD production and replication being too complex, given the NFB’s catalogue consists of short films covering a huge variety of subjects. (Of course, that hasn’t been an issue with Britain’s BFI, who’ve taken it upon themselves to release not only themed collections on DVD, but have gone after specific directors like Humphrey Jennings in Blu-ray. Ahem.)
Problem B: Pay TV/ specialty channels (like The Hair Network, Carrot Style, Gazebo Cooking, and Maple-Monkey Fun!) are not the best venues to bring a label’s catalogue to niche audiences, which could included folks interested in indigenous productions they haven’t seen in 20-30 years (either in fleetingly in cinemas, or most likely on TV); or exploitation fans wanting something not-so-great but still important, because it has resonace in their youth, or would nicely complete their film collection for a specific actor, director, genre, or fetishistic fixation for Northern Ontario gazebo construction.
DVD is not dead, and collectors still prefer to own rather than download, but the corporate mindset seems to be if total interest for a specific film is less than perhaps 10,000-30,000 potential buyers, then why bother going through the motions of manufacturing a physical product, or making it available digitally?
Solution: Americans, who may not be die-hard fans of Canadian films, but seem to like some specific action, horror, and weird crap produced by us. I can’t help singling out Code Red and Scorpion because they not only put these film out on DVD, but seek out the best elements, make anamorphic transfers, and if anyone’s still alive, try and gather interviews for a commentary or featurette.
Have you seen the superb job Code Red did on Rituals (1977)? Of course not, because it was an import, and is apparently out of print. But I digress.
For fans of exploitation films, the source points within Canuckleland – besides rare TV airings – are U.S. lables (indie, as well as budget brands who may lump a CanCon title among genuine crap); and tracking down old VHS and/or Beta copies because there’s simply no other way to see some of these films.
I’ve uploaded a review of Dancing in the Dark [M] (1986), a superb little psychological drama based on Joan Broadfoot’s novel about a housewife who one days snaps after being emotionally dead in a banal marriage.
The film was screened this past January at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of their Open Vault series, and as sometimes occurs, both writer/director Leon Marr and actress Martha Henry were on hand for a roughly half-hour Q&A with a moderator + audience members.
When I asked the director if the film would one day appear on home video, the response was basically ‘not a chance, because there’s absolutely no interest,’ which is only true if the audience consist of the mass, general-minded public.
You know, bland people who actually lack fingerprints, speak monotone, and who’s concept of a great weekend is sniffing Elmer’s Glue.
The question for Canadian filmmakers, and more specifically, the companies that own distribution rights for a lengthy term, is whether restricting a film to rare archival screenings is really serving each party the best.
In the current climate, general and niche audiences will likely never see the film, and its existence becomes an apocryphal footnote in places like, well, this blog and the odd review site; the director also becomes a statistic in Canada’s Who’s Who of Cinematographic Hinterland; and perhaps both film + filmmaker will become irrelevant as coporations and government agencies only trumpet high-profile filmmakers like James Cameron – those that are genetically Canadian-born, but never made a film up here, and certainly never stayed here and eked out a career locally the way David Cronenberg’s done.
Now, it’s all apples & oranges: Cameron makes blockbusters with commercial traits heavily valued by the major U.S. studios and requires budgets no Canadian studio could finance solo, whereas Cronenberg’s a critically praised (and innately cultish) filmmaker. Atom Egoyan and Deepa Mehta are equal critic darlings whose work is widely available on home video, but it’s rather ludicrous when the CBC (or any Canuckle news network) always refers to Cameron as “Canadian director James Cameron.”
He is Canadian, but it’s pathetic when the media makes him appear to be your neighbour, if not a figure who’s gone through the same CanCon rules and grant applications as Cronenberg; both struggled during their directorial infancy, but on opposite sides of the border, and one still works within the wonky system we have that’s a mix of government funding, bureaucracy, and CanCon rules. Neither has it easy, but I’m pretty sure Cameron could get funding (or fund solo) a 3D epic on old-growth tree bark, whereas Cronenberg might have trouble with such a venture (unless he makes it an intimate 3D film about a man who becomes tree bark after sleeping in a nook and allowing his biological cell structure to meld with the woody membrane and juices of a giant tree, ending with the birth of a foot-long tree nymph that excretes corrosive maple syrup).
Getting back to the current argument here: there is a substantive body of work by less prolific indie directors, auteurs, hacks, and journeymen directors that don’t exist because their work is not deemed relevant by the labels and governmental agencies charged with propagating only what is proudly Canadian.
The films & teleplays from the neglected celluloid & magnetic oxide pool that’s been more than marginalized are probably not regarded as exploitable in what’s a giant aging back catalogue, so those films just sit and gather dust, and the oddball reflections of our culture within these films – like our foolish efforts to look & sound American, suppressing our identity for cartoon genre caricatures, using bilingual Quebecois actors to portray bilingual France-French or French colony characters, and the non-existence of Canada having three very large cities called “Toronto” and “Montreal” and “Vancouver” – in small slivers, or camouflaged, or up front & centre rarely exist prior to the late eighties.
We celebrate Egoyan’s decision to set Chloe (2009) in Toronto and identify it as such, but ignore other works of equally esoteric directorial style because they’re older, lesser known, and are part of that old-school generation where the drama was set in a Toronto-ish locale, but not quite, to ensure easy sales abroad.
Both the U.S. and Britain, for example, have indie video labels that negotiate with studios or rights holders to release small films because they know there’s an audience out there (Christ, even KINO is releasing vintage U.K. sexploitation crap on Blu-ray – which is a good thing), and if the film is sufficiently unique and gets media coverage, a small product run will sell if produced in specialty runs aimed with respect at niche audiences.
It’s rare when there’s an indie Canadian label showing a similar commitment to releasing local product because it’s expensive, it’s a rights headache, and the indie probably has to deal with incredible indifference from the big entity that owns the film. It’s also as though any effort to produce a special edition home video release is worthless because it’s expected that an American company will eventually negotiate a release, and we’ll just import it via Amazon.com.
This is the norm for what CanCon currently exists on home video, and the mood may never change due to the risk of setting up and running a video label in a country whose audiences don’t care because they don’t know what exists beyond what’s been publicized in mainstream media, usually headlined by ex-models on media channels more concerned with junk pop culture.
Now let’s flip to a unique query: Why do American labels value their own indie drama, art film, experimental work, slasher films, or crime thrillers more than we value our own? It’s not because we’ve made pure crap; crap exists on both sides of the border, and there’s a subjective value among fans for different kinds of crap. We just seem to feel A) our crap is less enjoyable; or, as with the conundrum of how we reassess our own talent, B) if it’s given value by someone else (by a U.S. or U.K. label, for example) then it has value.
None of this is new, but there’s something abnormal in having to enjoy your indigenous art and quality cinema duh fromage as imports, and on obsolete formats. Dancing in the Dark is only available on OOP VHS copies. The Grey Fox (1982) – touted for an eventually DVD release back in and around 2010 – has yet to emerge on HD from beat-up VHS tapes in delete bins, and Paperback Hero (1973) is… like… Where?
The Generic Villain
Let’s focus on a ‘generic’ label / studio / post-convergence entity that owns broadcast, video, and theatrical rights to 20-40 year old films, and why there’s a paucity of quality cinematic art and qvalitats crap made by us for physical and digital media:
1) You, the Big Company, are a hog. Your corporate history is to devour libraries and exploit them in ancillary markets using existing (read: old) transfers because the cost of striking new transfers for the HD realm cuts into the bottom line.
2) You’re struggling just like everyone else, trying to stay in the black (or close to it) after you were gobbled up by a multimedia convergeance zealot who thought too big & imploded, and now you’re now pretty much on the auction block because you’re too much trouble to run. Being so troublesome, it also makes no sense to hire someone to sift through your library and figure out the best way to exploit the back catalogue on physical and digital HD mediums the way MGM managed to emerge from near bankruptcy and re-issue catalogue titles en mass on disc to bring cash into their coffers and make them solvent again.
3) Your corporate culture is poisoned by a game of revolving chairs. People who are willing to accept the challenge of exploiting catalogue material for different delivery mediums don’t last long enough because A) the pay scale is horrid; B) there is no pay scale, and you’re outsourcing to a revolving roster of interns who cannot possibly make any impact because if their work generated income, you’d be in violation of labour laws; C) the internal culture is so disingenuous that there’s no company loyalty, so you lose the best people, and are effectively blacklisted by bad word of mouth from ex-staffers, thereby guaranteeing no one wants to work for you.
4) Because there is no valued position(s) of internal archivist and catalogue handlers, those interested in such work drift to other careers, ensuring the country’s cinema history remains exclusive to periodic, one-time cinematheque screenings, the rare TV airing, or as an archival screening in a province rather than in a virtual, on demand marketplace.
On demand exists because it’s a substitute for fulfilling a film fan’s immediate need to see a specific kind of film – essentially what video stores once offered, albeit in an environment that fostered a more measured search in which one had to physically visit the local archive, do some digging, and sign out the film for a limited time.
On demand exists because you created this behaviour. By giving us the ability to push a digital button and watch anything at anytime in any room from any device as big as a wall or as small as a postage stamp, you created the petty, whiny, fickle monster we’ve become. Own up to and meet the demand, Sparky.
A MOD DVD-R, as available from Warner Archives, Sony, and MGM, is an on demand variant because it fulfills the need to not only see but own at whim. In its initial form, the early MOD releases came from older TV and home video masters, but the programme has evolved into quality releases, albeit at a price point that remains ludicrous, and restricted to the U.S. market unless it’s imported for a price that can be 50% above its “sale” price of $19.99. This is called bullshit.
The Canadian rights holders of locally-produced, soon-to-be-forgotten Canadian films seem to have little interest in sub-contracting a special edition release to an indie label. A film’s age translates to an increasingly limited audience base, and the possible participants in the original film’s production are disappearing. Ergo, the longer a film remains unavailable, the sooner its director, writer, producer, actors, composers, and effects whiz will retire & respire, and there goes the oral history of a small sliver of something that we made – good or bad.
If the cast & crew are six feet under feeding worms, and the fan base is past 50 and acclimatized to current fodder – A-level, or grade Z mainstream stuff – for the mega-media entity that controls the niche properties, there’s no point in doing anything because the affected films will only be of note to archivists and scholars.
How many readers have seen a silent Canadian film on video outside of an archive or learning institution? Not me, and I’m approaching middle age.
It’s a conundrum that’s perhaps not unique to Canada, but it is infuriating because we sit cozily beside a bigger nation with a keen interest in exploiting its wares. Americans seem to recognize their culture has value and ought to be exploited, be it to 500 or 5,000 consumers. It has a history of maintaining a functional infrastructure designed to distribute product in every form because it’s a waste to let stock just sit in a closet (and if someone is letting art or crap-art lay waste, there’s some crazy fan or aficionado willing to keep prodding so said art or crap-art gets released at least once its in small, nichey history. That fixation is called dedication, and it’s rather noble).
Moreover, when rights expire, a work eventually makes its way to either Blu-ray on some indie label, or it goes online as public domain download. Eventually it gets unearthed and materializes someplace (although I’m still waiting for Albert Zugsmith’s On Her Bed of Roses. Ahem) because someone’s not only willing to fight to get it out at least once, but risk the headaches, and follow through.
Most American films have existed in some format, so there are source materials that can be used when a title falls into public domain; most Canadian films exist nowhere, leaving nothing for anyone to circulate when it falls into public domain (as it eventually will, since our copyright limits are less than in the U.S.).
To Canadians that continue to curate, exhibit, catalogue and blather in print and digital form, thereby keeping indigenous film history within some consciousness, full kudos.
To the American producers who for some bizarre reason felt flicks like Humongous (1982) needed a special edition release, Bless You, and an early Happy 4th of July.
And to the Canadian entities that propagate blandness, restrict exhibition of genuine cultural classics, lack any inclination to preserve and educate, celebrate false cultural heroes, and lazily live off the domestic distribution revenues from A-level films produced by other nationalities, shame on you.