Thursday, February 26, 2009


Yesterday, Chapters & Indigo Books, Canada's largest bookseller, launched a new service called "Shortcovers" an eBook delivery system designed to rival Amazon's Kindle reader by transmitting books, magazines, blogs, poems, speeches and even (God, help us) Fan fiction to your iPhone, Blackberry and other electronic devices.

No word yet on whether the CRTC will regulate the amount of Canadian content available for download or if that wide access to Fan Fiction finally made DMc's head asplode.

Like a lot of new media technology, Shortcovers is pretty stunning stuff. I create an account and from there on, with the simple push of a button, the book I used to have to drive around looking for is on my iTouch, ready to be consumed -- and usually at a fraction of the price of the hardcover version.

The service includes a lot of added perks like the chance to read sample chapters of the book you're interested in buying for free and recommendations for or samples from other material related to the title you're already reading.

What the Shortcovers website, Chapters and the glowing reviews in most of today's papers don't tell you, however, is that there's a dark side to this technology. A lot of the writers you're accessing on Shortcovers won't be benefiting from the money it makes from selling their work to you.

A year ago, television writers, members of the WGA (like myself) fought the major media conglomerates for a fair share of the money they were making by distributing our work online. The arguments the networks and studios made were all the things they said when the last new delivery format arrived, "We don't know if people will want this." "Nobody really knows if there's any money here." and "Give us a free ride until it catches on."

We knew they were lying and the immediate explosion in new media profits that followed the new contract made it clear that so did they.

But now that same argument is being used by Canadian publishers negotiating eBook rates with Canadian writers.

Chapters began planning Shortcovers about a year ago and simultaneously Canadian authors got calls from their publishers. Although the costs of creating an eBook are a fraction of the normal expenses for publishing a novel -- no paper, no printing, no warehousing, no shipping or stocking -- many of those writers were told that the costs were "comparable" and what's more "Nobody is sure there's any money to be made in the first place".

Canadian writers, long familiar with a system that has never seemed able to fully reward them for their intellectual property, and being eternally hopeful types eager to help out their (usually Government subsidized) publisher if it might bring that day a little closer -- agreed to terms that gave them a small percentage of the new earnings. Many were even pressured to hand their electronic rights over for free.

What these writers weren't told was that the publishing industry had lots of data showing that eBooks were a massive source of new revenue.

In the United States, in a market primary serving the then still problematic Amazon Kindle, eBook sales had doubled from $8 to 16 Million during 2008. In some Asian countries, 300% increases in book sales were now coming from eBook downloads to cell phones alone.

Indeed, an entire new art form called keitai shosetsu has emerged in Japan. These are novels written specifically for and often on cellular phones. One website that specializes in them is visited 3.5 Billion times -- per month.

Three and a half Billion visits per month!!! I know at least one blogger who read that and just came in his pants. I could hear it from here...

But Canadian publishers -- they weren't really sure there was any money to be made.

And once again, Canadian creatives, those supplying the raw material the publishing industry (and Chapters) rely on for their own corporate livelihoods, are getting it in the shorts from Shortcovers.

This is more than a familiar story for anybody writing for Canadian movies or television (industries also receiving substantial government funding). And we're not alone in finally having had enough of being screwed around by people who go to the public trough with their "I support culture" pin prominently displayed, while sharing so little of the largess they receive with the artists they pretend to support.

But Canadian novelists, magazine writers and those who will otherwise be available on Shortcovers, still have a chance to receive their rightful share of this new revenue stream. Sarah Sheard, published novelist, former editor and currently the chair of the Contracts Committee of The Writers’ Union has started a blog to inform writers of their rights in this new media and how to negotiate a fair return for their work.

If you're a Canadian Writer whose material may be destined for Shortcovers, check out Ms. heard's blog before you sign anything.

And if you're thinking of buying something from the site, you might want to ask Chapters if the author is receiving what he rightfully deserves for the work.

And maybe all of us should start asking our MPs how come so much of our tax money never gets to the people we're told we're assisting, but instead gets eaten up along the way by those who exercise the term "exploit" in its less palatable form.

We really have arrived at a place in time where the distribution systems we have in place no longer serve the purposes for which they were created and it's almost easier for artists to deal directly with their audiences. What's the point in continuing to throw public money at publishers, TV networks and the like if their top-heavy structures and outmoded technologies under serve both the creator of a product and its end users?

Let's move on, people. It's a whole new world where no writer and no reader needs to be short-changed anymore.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


There comes a time in every life when you recognize where the bar has been set. "You Must Be This Tall To Ride" does not just apply to kids yearning to test the roller coaster for the first time. We're all told what the acceptable standard for our craft or behavior is at some point -- and then we have to decide whether or not we're going to meet or exceed it.

For some that's paying the mortgage, keeping the kids out of trouble and hoping the world's a little better because of our contribution when we go to sleep at night. Athletes can refer to the records in their sport for direction. Actors see what the rest of the tribe is putting out there and come to terms with it.

As a young actor, I saw my bar raised to a new level by Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts in "The Pope of Greenwich Village". Roberts came to that film as one of the hottest stars in Hollywood with "King of the Gypsies", "Raggedy Man" and "Star 80" already on his resume. Rourke had stumbled out of the gate with forgettable roles in "1941" and "Body Heat" but shot to luminescence in "Diner" and "Rumble Fish" the year before.

Walking into the theatre to see "The Pope of Greenwich Village" you were accompanied by the same expectations as those who looked forward to finally seeing Pacino and DeNiro duke it out in Michael Mann's "Heat".

What you witnessed on that screen was two young men with more talent than anyone could imagine possessing at the time, working together, building off one another to create an emotional experience unlike any you'd experienced before. You walked out of the theatre knowing where the bar had been set. You needed to be that good.

Oh, you'd always be able to find work as an actor. There's no end of opportunities in guest star roles, dinner theatres and soap commercials for folks who can be create a character, remember their lines and not offend anybody too much. But the road is rougher and the bar set much higher if you want to do anything memorable.

Neither Rourke nor Roberts ever regained the pinnacle they reached in "The Pope of Greenwich Village". Roberts came close in Andrei Konchalovsky's "Runaway Train" and Rourke took a couple of decades to reignite in Frank (Robert Rodriguez) Miller's "Sin City". But the greater part of their careers has been spent doing junk.

What happened to them? Life, mostly. Somebody drank too much, did too much coke or fucked the wrong guy's girlfriend. They acquired reputations that sold supermarket tabloids and inspired late night comics. And people came out of the woodwork to make money building their own careers on that rep.

I once watched a guy on a pay phone in the Santa Monica Mall, reeling to stay on his feet because he was so drunk, reading potential Enquirer style headlines from a notebook, clearly hoping to sell one of them to whoever was on the other end of the line.

A week later, I noticed one of his headlines gracing my local check out line. I figured he'd succeeded in securing his liquor budget as well as ensuring the employment of several publicists, "journalists" and magazine show hosts as the subject of his imagined scandal regrouped or attempted to gain from the spin.

That aspect of the business has led to a current world where the most innocent of asides are chastised and brainless "interns" on TMZ come to believe they're also stars by snarking on celebs going through airport security. The caustic comments of critics are now more valued than their actual thoughts. In this world, dreams die and great art goes unmade while Harvey Levin sucks his sippy straw and watches his bank account climb. That man's a wealthy genius in our world, while the rest of us have fewer films with courageous actors in them to enrich our lives.

And that's what a lot of Mickey Rourke's bad-boy image is really about. I have no doubt he "crossed the line" on occasion. Actually, I'm pretty sure he hurled himself headlong beyond the established parameters. You don't create characters like he and Eric Roberts created without raising some ugly issues with thirsts that need to be slaked while you're purging them from your system.

I've worked with a number of "Difficult" actors. My belief has always been that if what's on screen is worth the pain off screen it's more than a fair trade. I can't tell you how much pain that has left me to swallow from time to time -- and how much I'd swallow again for the same level of craft.

Once or twice, I've fielded that call from an insurance company letting me know they won't cover somebody who's fucked up somewhere else. Networks get nervous. Studios have some upwardly mobile minion, who's fully with the program, call late at night to ask if you really want to roll this poison pill around in your mouth.

"It's your candy store, Jim. If you want to make Cyanide candy, that's up to you. But..."

Like the PR people and that lost soul in Santa Monica, they're all part of the same pre-judgmental machine. They're, as Bill Hicks once remarked, "Demons dispatched by Satan to lower the standards".

Mickey Rourke never lowered his standards and, unfortunately, never met enough people with the courage to place themselves between he and the machine to buy him the room he needed for his art. I can't imagine the pain he endured going home after a hard day on the set of "Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man" but I'm pretty sure I can see it in his eyes in those speeches to his daughter in "The Wrestler".

Frankly, I don't care if Mickey Rourke wins the Oscar tonight. Winning or losing won't change my opinion of the man. But I know for certain that the machine will not allow him the latitude he received at last night's Independent Spirit Awards to speak from his heart.

It's a voice we were denied too long and need to hear more often in the future.

Mr. Mickey Rourke. Enjoy your Sunday.

Monday, February 16, 2009


About half of Canada has today off to celebrate "Family Day". Despite the warm and fuzzy moniker, it's really just an excuse to sneak a long weekend into the drought between New Year's Day and Easter. For Irish Canadians and their imitators, it signals one final month to rest up or practice.

But for some it is about family and that put me in mind of the thousands of Canadians who don't have that luxury because they're half a world away, fighting a war in Afghanistan.

Not long ago, in one of their traditional post-casualty reviews of whether or not we should be in this war, the CBC National News noted that a lot of Canadians still don't know why we're over there -- avoiding the most obvious answer -- maybe because the CBC isn't doing its journalistic job.

Before I go further, I think we all need to acknowledge that there's a growing feeling of biases in our media. Right-wingers think the CBC skews Left. Those on the Left don't like what gets said in the National Post or on Global TV.

A friend of mine once posited that "Good books are those that reinforce your own prejudices" and I think that applies to movies, newspapers and newscasts as well. Some think Fox's Bill O'Reilly is a goof and some feel that way about MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. I'm willing to bet that if you drilled down far enough, you'd discover both sides had a case.

But every now and then you hear a story that makes you wonder if there might indeed be a concerted effort by our National Broadcaster to weaken support for the Canadian men and women fighting in Afghanistan.

Some part of me has always wondered why we can go days, even weeks, without hearing a word about Afghanistan on the CBC, but hardly an hour goes by without somebody making an argument on one of its services for repatriating Omar Khadr, the Canadian born Taliban combatant currently being held in Guantanamo Bay.

I don't know whether this young man is a dangerous terrorist or not, but I'm given pause when I see him being championed by Bob Rae, a politician I find utterly without shame, who is now claiming Mr. Khadr was an innocent child soldier. This after his party spent years openly supporting those who relied heavily on recruiting child soldiers.

I think the average Canadian is beginning to wonder why one aspect of the Afghan conflict requires so much coverage, while the part which impacts directly on thousands of Canadian families is barely referenced.

Are there stories and images coming out of Afghanistan that the CBC does not want you to see?

Unfortunately, the answer appears to be -- "Yes!"

In 2002, award winning Calgary filmmaker Garth Pritchard, considered by many our most experienced military documentarian, made his first trip to cover Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Since then he's been back six times, shooting hundreds of hours of combat footage.

According to Pritchard, "Every time my footage or documentaries were offered to the CBC -- both to the National and the CBC's Documentary Unit, they were refused."

Okay -- so maybe the guy's not as good as some people think.


Pritchard was actually on the ground and in a position to film the "friendly fire" air attack in 2002 that accounted for our first Afghan casualties. It was a huge news story and any news outlet in the world would have jumped on that kind of footage.

But the CBC said "No!" and later hired a Toronto filmmaker who'd never been to Afghanistan to do a one-hour documentary on the attack -- without using any of Pritchard's footage.

Seven months ago, Pritchard was embedded with Combat Engineer Sgt. Shawn Eades in Kandahar, risking his own life on one occasion covering Eades' men as they dismantled a Taliban bomb factory. Footage the CBC, once again, declined to air.

Pritchard shared his disappointment with Eades, who had served in the Canadian military long enough not to be surprised. "What do you expect, Garth," he said. "They have no intention of telling our story."

Not long after, Eades and his squad were killed. Pritchard immediately offered the CBC free footage of these latest Canadian casualties. The broadcaster again declined. "This time they took it to a new level," says Pritchard. "'How do we know you are telling the truth?'"

If this isn't unsettling enough, a few days ago, the CBC aired a documentary on our troops in Afghanistan -- shot by an American filmmaker -- three years ago.

There's so much here that should give us all pause (no matter our political leanings). And at the very least, we deserve to see Garth Pritchard's work and make up our own minds.

So here's your chance.

This is some of Pritchard's original "friendly fire" coverage. It's powerful and moving stuff. And I'd venture it's unlike anything you've ever seen regarding Canadian troops in Harm's way -- certainly unlike anything you've seen on the CBC.

Maybe we should all be asking questions on why we're not allowed to see this kind of material. Is it in somebody's interest to shift our attention elsewhere?

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Celebrations were held across Canada this week to mark the beginning of a 365 day countdown to the 2010 Vancouver (& Whistler) Olympics. From shining sea to frozen one to other shining sea, our politicians and Olympic Media Rights holders popped champagne corks and began the marketing portion of the pre-Game festivities.

I already have a letter from my bank asking me to carry the Olympic torch over part of its nation-wide hopscotch. I wrote back requesting the Olympus to Santorini leg of the journey, letting them know I am available anytime between now and the Spring thaw.

Our airwaves are also filled with ads for Olympic coins from the Royal Mint, Olympic pins from Coca-cola and "Collectible" Olympic glassware from our local Petro-Canada gas stations. The glasses were apparently a huge hit during the Calgary Olympics in 1988. Although I'd be cautious in believing they will some day be worth a fortune on eBay. There isn't a yard sale in my neighborhood that doesn't feature a ton of these for around 10 cents a dozen.

I also noticed that Petro-Canada's new design no longer features the gold embossed torch and rim that used to flake off if you drank anything stronger than Kool-Aid from them. I guess the nice folks who raped you for gasoline last summer aren't giving back any of the precious metals they bought with their looted booty.

I wonder if it's unleaded glass. We should all go in and ask. But then, they're probably made in China, so you don't have to.

In Vancouver, where the Olympic committee has already cut its souvenir prices in half because nobody's buying them, local taxpayers recently discovered they were on the hook for a Billion dollar shortfall in constructing the Athletes Village/Future Yuppie Condo Enclave (as if Vancouver doesn't have enough of those. This week they learned that the security bill was rising from $175 Million to $1 Billion.

I think all those politicians were drinking champagne to celebrate successfully pulling over another one on us idiot taxpayers. How many Olympics do we have to have in this country before somebody asks those successfully submitting the "lowest bid" for contracts to be on the hook for any overages?

Meanwhile, the CTV and Rogers Media empires rolled out details of broadcast coverage of the 2010 Games, revealing how these two fierce competitors would be following the rest of the world's example and "coming together" in Vancouver to present every hundredth of a second of the Winter Olympics over all of their mutually available platforms.

They waxed on endlessly about how personalities you now only see on one sports channel in one empire would be sharing desk and parka space with their identical others from the opposite empire. Then at the end of the week, their bosses clammed up after the CRTC suggested the convergences they were so happily utilizing would also be taken into account when considering the "historic losses" they're apparently suffering in their free-to-air divisions.

Sorry, Media guys! Seems you can no longer have it both ways.

However, don't take my "characteristically bitter ranting" the wrong way. I love the Olympic Games and will definitely be one of the boobs glued to every second of coverage, be it on TSN (1 or 2), CTV, my BELL mobile phone or my SYMPATICO Internet account -- not to mention whatever sports the Rogers outlets offer and what's only available for download from iTunes.

I just hope one of these Media entities have the courage to offer something Australia's ABC created for the 2000 Sydney Games and has retained as part of their Olympic coverage ever since.

"The Dream".

ABC broadcast every minute of the 2000 Games with all the generosity and respect the visiting nations and their athletes deserved -- until 11:00 pm. At that point, "The Dream" recapped the day's events in a somewhat different manner.

Host sportscasters "Roy & HG" (comedy duo Grieg Pickhaver and John Doyle) presented such things as Greco-Roman wrestling with a Barry White soundtrack and invented new names for the moves in Men's gymnastics including the "Flat Bag", "Dutch Wink" and "Hello Boys".

They also created a new mascot, "Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat" to replace the three official mascots they dubbed "Syd, Ollie, and Dickhead". Fatso became so popular Australian athletes carried him to the medal podium and the Olympic Committee tried to have him banned.

A statue of Fatso has since been erected at Sydney's Olympic Park.

Insulting New Zealanders was also de rigeur on "The Dream". When New Zealand won their first gold in Rowing, Roy remarked that Kiwis were "only good at sitting down and going backwards". As for the former Olympic host city of Atlanta, it was regularly dismissed as "the toilet".

"The Dream" helped keep the Olympics in perspective. Sure they were fun, but does anybody really take prancing around with a ribbon seriously? And if you want to be recognized as one of the politicians or civic movers behind the Games, maybe you should also have to go on TV and exhibit that you have no grasp of simple math.

The next 360+ days are going to be painful for Canadians already tired of the corporatization of the Olympics. And the decades following will be equally painful as we realize that it's us and not Petro-Canada or Coca-Cola who are paying for the cost over-runs.

Finding a Canadian Roy & HG might help us all bear the burden a little easier.

Here are three separate clips of their brilliance. Enjoy your Sunday.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Last week, I posted my reaction to a Writers Guild of Canada proposal to place a small levy on ISP profits to fund web initiatives supporting Canadian broadcast content.

That started a lot of discussion, which is always a good thing.

But it also led to a surge in something a lot of veteran (as if anybody's a veteran in this world) bloggers see virtually anytime we bring up one of the pressing issues in the Canadian Film and TV industries.

That's the back-channel buzz wherein we're flooded by either comments we're requested not to publish or private emails.

These are mostly from people who are in development deals, working on network shows or otherwise currently entangled with various broadcasters. In some cases, it's people who hope to be in those positions.

They'll reveal their opinions privately, often passionately. Some even send us the ammunition to go after somebody exemplifying a case we've made. But they all share a fear of saying anything publicly that may upset/offend/whatever any broadcast executive or member of the CRTC.

The producer quoted by John Doyle a couple of weeks ago in his article on Michel Arpin is another example -- people terrified some organized conspiracy exists in the industry that will "get" them for speaking out critically or even simply suggesting an alternative way of thinking.

The reaction last Spring when WGC Executive Director Maureen Parker made her incredibly lucid "It doesn't have to be this hard" comment to the Commission was enormous. Yet, for every response I heard saying "Good for her" there must have been 50 worried it meant the CRTC would never look kindly on the Guild again or worse -- do something to punish us.

What this always says to me is that no matter what shape the industry is in here, it's always perceived as precarious and in danger of completely disappearing. No matter what successes anyone achieves, we remain locked into a "Square One" mind-set, with everybody feeling they have to start over from the beginning with each new project.

In some ways, that's a predictably Canadian trait, living next to noisy, daredevil neighbors who don't seem to know the meaning of caution, always surprised that winters actually end and most of us survive, amazed that we even get our mail.

It might also have something to do with the fact that we tend to look at our arts and entertainments not as single pieces of individual creativity but more as some ongoing mass cultural Great Leap Forward. I mean, have you ever noticed how many of those CBC Arts interviews are only all about determining where somebody "fits" in the cultural landscape instead of whether or not their song's got a good beat and you can dance to it?

We take ourselves way too damned seriously and then wonder why everybody in our lives is happily watching "CSI:Miami" and "Dancing With The Stars".

Anyway -- some of that back channel traffic got me thinking the WGC proposal needed revisiting and since back channels can also be aquatic, I'll try and stick to the boat metaphors.

First, the continually nice people at the WGC got in touch to let me know I was somewhat "at sea" in describing their initiative. Trust me, they really do seek to inspire the best in everybody, believing both the Captains of our Industry and deluded non-believers like me can still be led to the promised land.

Like I said, they're my Guild and I'll go to the wall for them. I am, however, more like the Danny DeVito character in "Hoffa", ever hopeful but also putting more trust in a sawed off baseball bat and that little somethin' tucked in my waistband.

So here's the Guild's description of what they envision in their own words, so we're all clear:

"the proposal actually jives with one of your suggestions: that the money go to 'creating new and original Canadian content designed specifically for the web'. The fund we propose wouldn’t be handed over to the broadcasters, and it wouldn’t go to traditional broadcast programming – it would be for independently produced original made-for-the-web content in support of broadcast.

It connects to the traditional Canadian broadcasting system because it’s the CRTC and their jurisdiction is the Canadian broadcasting system. We are proposing an opt-in system so that new players can become part of the system and get access to funded programs. We are also proposing that the funded programming, while it has to sit on a Canadian broadcasters’ site, can be original – i.e. not related to broadcast programming. So we’re stretching the limits of the broadcast system as much as we can.

So, yes, it’s new media content that is generally speaking in support of traditional broadcasting. But it’s also about accessibility, visibility – more available content and more easily accessed. It is about acknowledging the change in the ways consumers engage with broadcasting content, and building our audiences by connecting with them in those ways."

Okay, I get all that, but I'm still feeling we're tying ourselves to the sinking ship that is Canadian broadcasting.

Today's papers are full of news that profits are down 90% for these guys and they've already conducted some back-channel discussions of their own with the CRTC, who will be "bailing out" their listing craft in a short time.

So, once again, the arm of the Government established to protect the interests of the Canadian Public when it comes to what fills the public airwaves appears to be doing anything but that.

There's no doubt the CRTC will make it easier for broadcasters to ignore rules they're already regularly ignoring, if only in the short term, to ensure their survival. If that includes cutting back on Canadian dramatic content, are we still going to help them fund their online presence? And where exactly does that get us? They'll still own the content. They'll still have the hammer.

And in that world, they'll welcome outsiders to their websites and have no say in what gets appended to them?


Has anybody considered the fact that virtually all of these troubled broadcasters are part of corporate congloms that include ISPs and they were already in a position to use their converged platforms to help each other out?

If there's one thing I've learned about real life shiny-shoe'd Capitalists, it's that all that really matters to them is making money. Believe me, these guys knew TV was going tits up long before any of us did. And the regulatory mess that is the CRTC doesn't work for them either, beyond using the fools and corporate tools who sit on the Commission to buy the time they need to move their TV investment exposure off the books.

Consider for just one moment that the ISPs we want $80 Million a year from are all owned and operated by the same mobile telecoms that have been taking $7-8 each month from Canadian subscribers for "service fees" they falsely claim the CRTC forces them to charge and are bitterly contesting a massive class action suit that will force them to give that money back.

In addition to the Billions that will soon cost them, they're feeling the current economic pinch too, with lucrative business traffic falling off.

These are also the same companies that won't spend $10 Million to upgrade their 911 systems so ambulances don't go to the wrong addresses and lost kids don't freeze to death begging for help as their cellphone batteries die.

And those guys are going to quickly and happily hand over $80 Million to a few folks who want to write mobisodes?

A lot of the back channel traffic I got listed things those people felt the Guild hasn't been doing for its members while it pursues policy -- like getting them paid in a timely manner, settling grievances or retrieving royalties. In fact, I got a financial statement from the Guild this week with a card enclosed to pass to my agent seeking his help in doing exactly those things.

I realize those back-channel messages are the usual belly-aching from people who aren't looking at "The Big Picture", but it makes me wonder if the Guild is designing policy with our REAL future in mind.

One of the best emails I got last week sympathized with my anti-broadcaster argument, but cautioned that none of us really know where we're going yet.

As the writer succinctly put it: "blowing up the boat sounds too terrifying because the resulting new boat hasn't taken shape enough in everyone's mind to justify blowing up the old boat".

I get accused of just wanting to blow things up a lot. Some of that's justified, I'm sure. But I never feel I'm walking around tossing sticks of dynamite at random. I just know that when there's a bad guy wrecking the neighborhood you don't simply cross the street whenever you see him coming. You take him out. That's the only action that will put you in a position to figure out how you're going to fix the neighborhood and make sure it stays fixed.

And in this case, continuing to repair the leaky boat, doesn't get the new one built.

Pretend for a moment that we lived on a beautiful South Seas Island and made our living from fishing. We don't have a lot of Palm trees on our island, but there are enough to build a couple of boats every year which are enough to keep our island happy and prosperous.

Up to now, we've used those trees (our funding) to build a TV boat that's worked pretty well for us. But now the boat is getting old and starting to leak, so some of those trees we could use to build a new boat keep getting cut down to repair the leaky one.

Some of the really smart guys on the island have designed a new boat called the Internet that can do all the things the TV boat can do and more. It'll catch us way more fish and make us much more happy and prosperous.

But we never have enough trees to build it because we keep having to fix the one that doesn't work.

Unless we blow up the old boat, we'll never build the new one.

And unless we turn our backs on an industry that has never kept its promises to us and forge our own path, scary as that might be, we'll be left stranded once that TV boat sinks, having thrown away our chance of launching a new craft for years to come.

I know some may still be hesitant, wondering how people will ever sort through the chaos of the Internet to find what they've created, or how they'll know its Canadian made when they do. Well, that boat has already been built.

Even Canadian broadcasters can use it -- and without dinging anybody for any more money. You can find it HERE.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Great actors often don't become huge stars. But their work always enhances the material they perform, making everyone around them look better -- sometimes much better than they deserve.

Great actors often don't get much publicity either. They don't make good tabloid fodder because the discipline and professionalism they bring to their craft usually imbues the rest of their lives. They're often generous, courteous and aware that everybody on a set has a contribution to make. Perhaps they've just extended the first lesson they teach in theatre school -- there are no small parts, only small actors.

One of the greats made his final exit this week. James Whitmore was the kind of actor other actors looked to when they needed an example of excellence. His work was always impeccable, precise and perfectly nuanced. Like a martial arts master, there was never an once of wasted energy, never a moment when an expression or inflection could be interpreted to have a different meaning.

Whitmore learned his craft in the theatre, debuting on Broadway in 1947 and winning a Tony award in his first professional role. He made his film debut in 1949's "Battleground" receiving a Supporting Actor nomination for that first performance.

From there he never stopped working and appeared in everything from literate classics to schlock where he battled giant ants to one of the most bizarre and riveting films ever to come out of a Hollywood studio, 1950's "The Next Voice You Hear".

He moved seamlessly from films to live and then series television, never considering whether or not his choices might impact the audience's perception of his marquee value or his salary quote.

To Whitmore all those showbiz sideshows had nothing to do with acting -- which they don't. His concern was simply to deliver a believable performance each and every time out. And he never failed in that regard.

Rather than relax between films, Whitmore returned to the theatre at every opportunity, joining the Peterborough Players, where he'd gotten his amateur start, for a summer stock performance virtually every single summer of his professional life.

He also mounted and performed a series of one-man shows, sometimes performing them after a day's shooting or whenever he had a day off. These were always about American heroes he personally admired, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1975, the Truman show was filmed as "Give 'Em Hell, Harry!" winning Whitmore another Oscar nomination, the only one ever made in recognition of an actor who was a film's lone character.

There's no better example of the practiced precision of a great actor's work than almost any of James Whitmore's performances. So I've put together a short double feature for this week's video offering. The first clip is the opening scene from "Give 'Em Hell, Harry!" (the entire film is available on Youtube). And the second is his final moments as Brooks in "The Shawshank Redemption".

I hope you'll appreciate just how good this guy was. And enjoy your Sunday.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Nortel used to be Canada's biggest business success story, earning billions, employing tens of thousands, leading the world in tech developments. This week it's in bankruptcy protection.

Now comes news that while Nortel was in its death spiral, its chief executives were taking home more than $400 Million in personal compensation. Meanwhile, the people who actually created the wealth they squandered are losing their jobs by the thousands and seeing the pensions they spent decades creating shrinking them into poverty in their retirement years.

I've never owned stock in any company except my own and I never will. There are a lot of reasons for that, but chief among them is I had a couple of roommates in my struggling actor days who worked at the Toronto Stock Exchange. Most of their evenings were spent drinking and scheming, figuring out ways to pump up the value or merely the perception of the stocks they cold-called dentists about every day, attempting to sell.

I'd come from a world where people raised cattle and wheat, dug potash out of the ground and drilled for oil. What they created was tangible and I never understood this new world of shuffling around paper and making money even when a company's stock tumbled or all the other casino like games they played that evolved into today's hedge funds, junk bonds and derivatives.

Most of the companies they were selling didn't even seem to exist a few weeks later, like a bad Hollywood movie that's hyped to death in the hope it will make enough money back to cover its costs before the truth gets out.

Even the transitory value of an evening in the theatre or the heft of an unsold script always felt like it had more worth than what they were selling.

They told me this "knowledge economy" was coming where other people would make things and we'd just sit back and manage their money for them. That never made any sense to me, but they were making a lot more money than I was, so I just figured I was too dumb to run things.

Over the years, I've had times when I really wanted to get in on some of the market booms I kept hearing about. Sometime in the late 90's when the Tech bubble was forming, I remember the Globe and Mail hyping a local "Market Visionary" who would be gracing their pages with a rare interview. And when the day came, there he was on the front page of their business section imparting the single investing rule that had created his vast fortune -- "Buy Low and Sell High".

Wow, I thought, why wasn't I (or most of the Globe readership for that matter) smart enough to think of that! I had begun to realize that the Emperor wore no clothes and moved on.

The pillaging of a once great company like Nortel (details here) isn't really news these days. In the last months we've seen dozens of corporate icons and household brand names crumble while those who managed them shrugged off the failure and retreated to lavish homes with severance packages that kept their lush lifestyles intact.

A couple of summers back, I produced and directed a lifestyle pilot called "Mansions" which profiled the homes of some of that executive class. In the process, I got to explore wealthy enclaves I would never have believed existed within the city of Toronto. Places where people had their own private armies of armed guards, fourteen Ferraris in a climate controlled underground garage, Olympic sized pools and art work that occupied entire wings of homes.

Now I'm sure all of these people came by their fortunes honestly and how they chose to spend them isn't my business or anybody else's. Although one of them is now living as a guest of the State in Florida.

But I couldn't shake the feeling that most were hiding; that they'd constructed these opulent retreats as a way of enjoying the best the world has to offer without the risk of actually having to venture out into that world or encounter somebody they might not want to meet in the process.

That was confirmed for me one day as we wrapped up shooting on a home so over-layered with decorative detail you felt you were inside a wedding cake. I asked a new crew member what he thought. His answer, "Man, there is something wrong with these people."

What's wrong with them has become clearer to all of us in the last months as those who supervised our economy are being revealed in growing numbers as a class riddled with a sense of personal entitlement almost beyond comprehension. I'm sure even Sigmund Freud would be flummoxed by what inner terror could drive a man to need to shit into a gold commode before he could be happy.

Last week, US President Obama declared that no executive running a company receiving Federal bailout funds could receive compensation of more than $500,000. That made sense to most people and I hope it encourages somebody from Telefilm or the Canadian Television fund to get around to opening one of those final production audits they never read and rethink the money some of our film and TV execs regularly extract from the public purse.

But Obama's call resulted in quite an outcry from a lot of "free-enterprise" types, seemingly unaware that they'd long ago stopped actually creating wealth for anybody but themselves. I guess looking at losing $9 - 10 Million from your annual take-home can do that to a person.

Yet the call seemed to do immediate wonders for the economy as both JPMorgan and Goldman-Sachs, each recipients of a few Billions in bailout money short months ago, suddenly found themselves in a position to pay that money back and get themselves off the restricted salary list. An interesting anecdote for those of you who still don't think the economy is completely fabricated.

Maybe this current crisis will finally get people to wake up and take those who would presume to run our lives with a larger dose of salt. But who knows.

What I do know is Nortel is done, leaving behind two stories I heard this week.

The first came from a friend whose 93 year old mother passed away last week, leaving each member of her family a small sum to remember her by. She never had a lot of money, but one summer a few years ago bought 100 shares of Nortel for each of her kids.

At the time the stock was at $127 and she assumed that it would be something they could use to enrich their lives when they finally received it. Thanks to the men who ran Nortel, now relaxing by their pools and sunning on the decks of their yachts, when her children finally opened those envelopes, the stock they contained was worth $11.00...

Which brings me to a final story I doubt is true but like all good fiction makes its point in spite of that fact. In the version I heard, a father died leaving his two sons the summer cottage they all once enjoyed and $5000 each. The more responsible brother chose to invest in Nortel while his irresponsible sibling decided to buy a huge stash of Beer and celebrate the old man in a summer long blow out at the cottage.

At the end of the summer, the guy who bought Nortel had lost all of his inheritance and the other brother was out of beer. The responsible brother said they had both pissed away what their father had left them. But the other brother told him he was wrong.

Y'see, there was a 5 cent deposit due on every bottle he'd bought. So they trucked all the bottles back to the Beer Store and recouped enough to buy enough beer to fuel one more huge party at the lake.

The moral of that story is very clear to me. Never entrust your money to anybody in a suit, no matter how important and smart he tells you he is. Share it with your friends and you'll end up richer than anybody who trusted the stock market.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


"There were voices in the night
(Don't do it!)
Voices out of sight
(Don't do it!)
Too many men have failed before!"

The Writers Guild of Canada and I have a weird relationship. Don't get me wrong, I am proud to be a member of their fraternity. I helped found the Guild, issued the contracts that allowed dozens of writers to enter its ranks and put in a half decade or more as an elected rep. Hell, I even own one of those Crystal Cubes they hand out for service above and beyond.

But every now and then...

Well, let's just say, I'm sure the fine folks over there wish I'd just shut up, dry up and blow away. And I'm afraid this might be another one of those moments.

Before I go on, I want the record to note that I am a staunch supporter of organized labor. I come from a long line of union members, men and women who worked on railroads, built ships, constructed tall buildings and fought fires. My father helped establish a lonely rural credit union after the local bank, which had foreclosed on a few farms, mysteriously burned to the ground -- along with all of its nearby sister branches.

"Power to the People" made manifest, it would seem.

Even when I'm wearing my producer hat, I sympathize with the positions of the industry's Guilds and Unions. Because I've also been in the meetings where you learn what the powers-that-be would try to get away with if they had the chance. Trust me, those people you pay dues to are all that's standing between you and one ugly, massive cluster-fucking!

Where the Writers Guild and I part company is that they seem to harbor a belief that there is Good in everyone, even studio heads and network executives; and that given the chance those people will see the error of their ways, do the right thing and otherwise prove that they truly believe in the transformative power of Canadian drama.

You poor babies....

"Whatever you do...
Don't pay the ferryman!
Don't even fix a price!
Don't pay the ferryman
Until he gets you to the other side."

A couple of weeks ago, the Guild got in touch and asked if I would help them spread the word on a new initiative they're proposing to enrich the Internet with more Canadian content. I enthusiastically agreed and immediately invited hundreds of people to visit the Facebook group they were launching entitled "Make the ISP's Pay to Play".

And then I started to think about what this campaign might really accomplish for Canadian writers -- and I got a little concerned.

Y'see, I think the WGC has its heart in the right place here and they got behind their new idea with all the best of intentions. I'm just not so sure their "partners" in this endeavor share those intentions.

All over the Internet and especially from content providers (ie: studios and networks) in the USA, there is an understanding that you build and enhance the audience of your traditionally delivered dramatic and comedy programming by offering it online as well.

And you don't just stream your show. You add interactive material to attract people who might not have seen the TV version as well as add additional enhancements to further entangle those who are already watching.

Some sites let you get inside information on the characters, chat with the cast, receive updates on what's coming from the writers. Some gift you with snippets of upcoming episodes, backstage photos or plot lines. Some invent games so you can inhabit the places and dramatic situations on the show.

Some even offer ways to try out your own creative chops from mashing up videos and music to helping the fictional characters solve some of the issues they're dealing with in their dramatic reality.

Unfortunately, most Canadian nets are at the shallow end of this creative pool, streaming some of their shows if they must and that's about it.

Knowing this lack of action will only lead to smaller audiences and less connection between those audiences and Canadian content, the WGC has proposed creating a fund to support the creation of original online content connected with traditional platforms.

The fund would take 1.57% of the profits from major ISP's (somewhere around $80 Million a year) and hand that to the broadcasters to shape their online presence. It'll amount to about $1/month per ISP subscriber. From the Guild's point of view that's a small price to pay even if the ISP's decide to pass it on to you because, well, "quality, scripted Canadian programming gives voices to our values, our unique qualities..." and "...helps define who we are as a society."

And as we all know Canada's broadcasters have always been at the forefront when it comes to delivering "quality, scripted Canadian programming", not to mention giving voice to our values and helping define who we are as a society.

Have you WGC people lost your frikkin' minds!!??!!

For starters, maybe somebody can tell me the difference between the Broadcasters seeking $1/month per subscriber for "Carriage Fees" (something the WGC petitioned against and the CRTC just turned down) and taking the same amount of money from virtually the same people to create websites for TV shows those folks are already not watching -- and in many cases, chose to escape from online in the hope of finding something more creative and/or rewarding to fill their leisure time.

You can bet a Public just itchin' to gain control of what's in their overstocked and under-delivering cable packages is going to line up to throw money at that idea!

By positing that the ISPs are now "broadcasting" and therefore subject to the broadcast act and thus responsible for financing television production instead of those who initiate it, the WGC is also finally agreeing to support the lie that broadcasters don't have any money to put into Canadian content, freeing them to acquire even more assets they can't manage.

Even those who argue this is just an extension of the Juno concept that one in three tunes played on Canadian radio must be Canadian should give their heads a shake.

There's a big difference between material flowing through the Internet and what's broadcast from your local rock radio venue. Are we going to end up with some kind of software that regulates what Canadians access, forcing them to stream an episode of "Sophie" if they've already watched "Skins" from England and the Hulu version of "Two and a Half Men"?

Why do we always keep asking for more "Arts funding" to be taken from the public and handed to those who run that process so badly? Who's side are we on here, that of the audience or of those who would control our talents for their own benefit?

The broadcasters followed up their loss of carriage fees with a massive fit of pique that saw them fire hundreds of staffers and begin lobbying to reduce the already pitiable amount of Canadian programming they do at the moment.

These people are as committed to defining who we are as a society as I am to getting it on with each and every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers!

At every single CRTC meeting at which the WGC has appeared, we've heard the broadcasters refer to their drama requirements as "onerous". They have fought promoting Canadian artists every step of the way, continually reducing the number of dramas they produce and continuously seeking ways to meet their license requirements in any way BUT creating quality scripts or giving voice to our values.

Maybe there's a belief at the WGC that handing the broadcasters $80 Million will save a couple of jobs in their already sparsely populated writing rooms, maybe encourage them to hire a couple more freelancers or at the least salvage some work opportunities for newcomers who might get thrown the bone of knocking out a couple of "Mobisodes".

"In the rolling mist,
Then he gets on board,
Now there'll be no turning back.
Beware that hooded old man at the rudder!"

Don't you think that if anybody at a broadcast network or the CRTC cared in the least about Canadian drama, they'd have looked up from their spreadsheets and Harlequin Romance novels and done something by now?

WGC Guys, please -- when did we have to start pimping ourselves out to these people? When have they ever lived up to their commitments to either us or the Commission? Why do we insist on keeping they and their deteriorating quality of life alive instead of sending them to their reward and hooking up with somebody new and exciting?

You know how they say those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it? Well, let me tell you a story from my youth...

Back when I was a kid in Southern Saskatchewan, you needed to catch a ferry if you wanted to cross most of the rivers. So, every 20 miles or so, there was a road down to the water, where a barge that could hold four vehicles or about 40 head of cattle would pick you up and chug you along a tether rope for the 15 minute trip to the opposite bank.

This was the way doctors got to patients and ranchers got a herd of beef to market. It was the route taken by trucks carrying grain or bringing over the mail, the newspapers and the Mad magazines I read for free at the Rexall drugstore. The guy showing movies took the ferry from where he showed his double feature on Friday night to where he showed it on Saturday night.

In summer, the ferryman would let you know it had hailed up in Eston or some fella'd been struck by lightning down in Maple Creek. His passengers gave him the baseball scores to pass along or mentioned what farmer's daughter had run off with which hired hand.

In winter, the ferryman plowed a path over the ice and bored holes every few feet to make sure it was thick enough so the bus carrying the Swift Current Broncos could get to their game with the Saskatoon Blades.

The ferryman was our conduit to the outside world and our link to news and entertainment. Everybody gladly paid him for his services.

And then they built a bridge.

And then the ferryman had to earn a living doing something else.

Canadian television used to do all the things the ferryman of my youth did. It's carried the news, provided access to entertainment, helped a number of Canadian artists earn a living.

But a few years ago, somebody built a bridge. They call it the Internet and it carries far more than the ferry ever can. And since the bridge went in, our television networks have done nothing but bitch about how hard it is to make a living, instead of realizing that their world has changed and they need to change with it.

Giving them $80 Million to change might hold off the inevitable for a year or two at best.

Wouldn't the membership of the WGC (not to mention the Canadian public) be better served if that money went to creating new and original Canadian content designed specifically for the web? Something tells me all those people at Bell and Rogers and Shaw and Telus might actually get excited by content that would sell their online services and mobile enhancements. Hell, they might come up with far more than $80 Million if it also helped them sell more bandwidth and download capacity.

In Greek Mythology, the ferryman Charon demanded payment to take dead souls across the River Styx. Those who did not pay were doomed to remain as ghosts on the shores of the living.

Through their fear campaign of threatening to close local stations and reduce programming, our TV ferryman have gotten some among us to believe that by saving them we prevent ourselves from becoming ghosts.

But ask yourself one question. When have they ever taken us to the other side -- and why should we believe them this time?

Sorry, WGC, I'm taking the bridge.

"And then the ferryman said there is trouble ahead,
So you must pay me now.
(Don't do it!)
You must pay me now.
(Don't do it!)
And still that voice came from beyond, whatever you do..."