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Passchendaele versus Porky's:
Defining success and failure in Canadian film



 

The movie Passchendaele has recently opened across Canada and raises a few interesting points worth looking at.

So what’s Passchendaele? Well, other than a place in Belgium where some particularly bloody fighting took place during World War I, it’s the name of a new Canadian motion picture starring, written and directed by Paul Gross -- The Man Who Would be Warren Beatty. The movie is a war epic and romantic drama that Gross had been trying to get made for, literally, years. (A few of years back I wrote an editorial asking now that Gross had made THE (English) Canadian buddy comedy, Men With Brooms, and THE Canadian political thriller, H2O, what was next? Apparently the answer was THE Canadian war epic -- well, except, of course, that there have been a few Canadian war epics over the years, but, still, the intent is there).

At $20 million Passchendaele has been touted as one of the biggest budgeted Canadian movies ever. At first glance that seems absurd. Previous Canadian movies have been 20, even 30, million dollars. But (and this will be relevant to later in this essay) it could be what they mean is it’s the biggest budgeted strictly Canadian movie -- other big budget “Canadian” flicks have usually been co-productions with other countries. Passchendaele is as Canadian as poutine.

The movie has been getting mixed reviews -- some favourable, some more tepid…some downright scathing, even vitriolic. Which is probably good. I never trust a movie that seems to get uniform reviews.

I haven’t seen the movie yet (as I’ve observed before…I’m often late to the party with these things) so I have no opinion to offer about the movie itself (though I wonder if anyone has pointed out that Gross basically got his first major break years ago in a World War I drama -- the CBC mini-series, Chasing Rainbows). But it’s some of the stuff surrounding the film that I want to address.

Namely, how some have reacted to it. (It’s ironic that the film is the focus of this debate, because the World War I battle at the heart of the movie is likewise hard to gauge when it comes to success and failure).

There’s always an “are to/are not” rule of school yard taunting in Canadian film and TV -- those who say the media is too easy on Canadian productions, acting as cheerleaders rather than critics, and those who say Canadian critics are too harsh on Canadian productions, judging them unfairly by standards that wouldn’t be applied even to Hollywood films (I myself have been told I’m too soft on some films…and labelled a “hater” of Canadian productions by an incensed Canadian TV writer). The truth, as always, is that both sides are right. Some people go out of their way to find the negative in Canadian entertainment, some the positive.

So, here’s the thing. Passchendaele cost something like 22 million (including advertising). Based on the returns of previous Canadian films, it was unlikely it was going to make that money back even before it opened. And it opened with just under a million at the box office -- $940 000 -- so it would be nothing short of a miracle for Passchendaele to break even, let alone turn a profit. I’m taking moon standing still in its orbit type miracle. And some critics and articles and bloggers have been quick to say that, citing the movie as a monumental failure and a symptom of the self-indulgent hubris that is destroying Canadian show biz.

That’s one side.

The other side is Passchendaele made almost a million in its opening week end! Most Canadian movies are lucky to make a million after a complete theatrical run and DVD sales. That’s almost as much as Bon Cop, Bad Cop made in English Canada in its entire theatrical run. What’s more, Passchendaele was #2 at the box office, beating out most American films. That’s not something a lot of us would know, because often when Canadian newspapers publish lists of the top 10 movies at the box office…they get them from American news services. But Passchendaele isn’t been shown in the U.S. So just going by Canadian ticket sales, Passchendaele beat out most American films for the #2 spot at Canadian theatres.

That’s the other side.

So…yes, Passchendaele is, technically, pretty well destined to not make a profit…but it actually was more successful in the market it was shown (ie: Canada) than most of its Hollywood competition.

So is Passchendaele a success…or a failure? Is the reviewer who tells you it’s a commercial disaster a burning light of journalistic truth…or a deceitful liar for not mentioning that #2 placing and for not putting those box office receipts in the context of the grosses of other films?

And that brings us to the debate that always surrounds Canadian film (and TV, too).

How do we measure success? How should we? Should there be different standards and criteria for different films (ie: Art films vs. pop entertainment)? If a film gets good reviews and lots of awards, can it be forgiven if it bombed? If a movie is generally regarded as terrible, but makes money, is that good enough to justify national pride?

As I say, these debates spring up all the time. But I would argue, very rarely are the ground rules and principals clearly established when getting into such debates. People rarely set out the whys and hows and whats of how they measure success. Even when people purport to be objective, they aren’t. Certainly some of those who are quickest to cite Passchendaele as a box office failure…also regard it as an artistic failure; so if they had liked it, would they be modifying their definition of success more in its favour? Who knows?

So in an effort to try and establish some common ground, or at least stake out some markers for the discussion, I’m just going to toss out a few random ideas for us all to mull over, some hypothetical scenarios.

Even before Passchendaele opened, some websters were predicting it wouldn’t do well elsewhere -- and that seemed to be their final assessment/critique of the movie. No international success equals a bad movie. Lots of Canadian movies that do well in Canada don’t travel well (Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Trailer Park Boys: The Movie, etc.) Does that make them bad movies? Or is it just hard to scare up a distribution deal, and advertising space, when you’re competing with the latest Matt Damon film?

And what about the reverse? If the movie does poorly in Canada, but is a big hit in, say, Thailand, do we then assess it as a cultural triumph? When talking about Canadian movies (and culture) is it important that Canadians like it, that it “speaks“ to Canadians…or merely that someone, somewhere likes it?

And that leads into the next question. Does it matter where a Canadian movie makes money so long as it makes money? If one Canadian movie makes, say, $1 million dollars in Canada, but only $500 000 internationally, and another makes, say, only $500 000 in Canada, but $2.5 million internationally, which is the more laudable? The one that made twice as much money…or the one that twice as many Canadians actually wanted to see?

Or ignoring the international aspect, how about this scenario: if one Canadian movie is made for the ultra low-budget of $100 000 and earns $300 000 in Canada, it will have made a genuine profit and be seen by roughly 30 000 people. If another Canadian movie is made for $10 million dollars and earns $3 million in Canada, it will have bombed…but be seen by ten times as many people. Which movie was more “successful”?

(And it's worth pointing out that movies aren't necessarily a poor man's game. That the old "make a cheap movie so it's easier to recoup your costs" argument isn't quite as sure as it sounds, because a cheaper budget necessarily impacts on the film, its "look", the actors you can afford to hire, its over all "professionalism"...which affects your ability to win an audience. A lot of "cheap" Canadian movies still don't turn a profit).

An argument is that a lot of Canadian movies are financed, to one degree or another, by tax payers dollars…so the tax payer is entitled to expect a profit. But conversely, is the tax payer entitled to expect a movie they want to see, and not just something people in Thailand want to see, or that a small clique of cinematic intelligentsia want to see?

And are movies (and TV) a commercial enterprise, or a cultural one? Should a Canadian movie be Canadian, made by, about, and for Canadians, or is it enough that it merely satisfies some technical book keeping criteria that allows it to count as Canadian?

Consider Porky’s -- frequently cited as the most successful Canadian movie of the sound era (and one TV producer and blogger specifically contrasted its success with Passchendaele’s failure). No, really, consider it. A movie set in the United States, with many Americans in the cast, written and directed by an American filmmaker (who, though he made a number of “Canadian” movies, seemed to imply in one interview that he simply came up here to take advantage of directing opportunities and tax shelter benefits) -- and this is regarded as the great Canadian success story. Even then, I’m really curious as to how “Canadian” Porky’s was behind-the-scenes. Years ago I read an article talking about how a lot of supposedly “Canadian” movies had Hollywood silent partners who footed most of the bill -- they were just Canadian enough to qualify for tax breaks, but were largely bankrolled by Hollywood. So the question I have of Porky’s is, if it really was so successful (and I’m not disputing it was), if it really did make something like $100 million…where’d that money go? A $100 million could’ve bank rolled a lot of Canadian movies…if it had stayed in Canada. But did it stay in Canada? Or were the real producers and investors down in Hollywood? I don’t know -- I say again: I DON’T KNOW. Nor am I saying there’s anything wrong if Porky’s was essentially an American film made by an American with American money…I’m just asking: should it be cited it as the pinnacle of Canadian filmmaking if it was?

(And given claims it cost $4 milion to make, by Canadian standards in the 1980s, that was a pretty substantial budget and -- arguments to the contrary -- was hardly an example of a "little" film that made good).

And that again relates to the whole commerce vs. culture debate. Is it more important to have a Canadian movie that in no way acknowledges its Canadianness and might not even provide much work for Canadians…but makes a profit; or to have a movie made in, about and employing Canadians…that doesn’t earn as much? And if the former -- who is it making the profit for? Canadians in general? Or just a handful of canny investors?

And if “cultural identity” is not considered important, then should there even be funding agencies like Telefilm? If the Canadian movie biz should be a purely commercial enterprise, then do the filmmakers need government support? They can sink or swim as the market dictates. Yet one gets the impression that even Canadian filmmakers who pooh-pooh the “cultural” argument, who feel they should be free to hire American TV actors and populate their films with American flags, who feel that free enterprise is their religion…don’t want the government tap shut of. They just want it spraying their way.

One blogger angrily denounced Passchendaele as a product of a Canadian film Old Boy’s Club which rewards failure as long as you’re a part of the in clique -- an accusation that has been made before by others and is not without merit. He then lumped Passchendaele in with other recent “big” budget Canadian failures like Where the Truth Lies and Being Julia. But is there possibly a difference? Passchendaele is a movie about Canadian history, featuring Canadian actors, squarely aimed at the Canadian public. Where the Truth Lies and Being Julia were clearly aimed at the “international” market place, neither were set in Canada, and both featured predominantly non-Canadian actors in the lead roles. Their failure was more egregious than Passchendaele’s because they were clearly expecting and marketed for a wider audience.

Another fact worth tossing in: there might be a ceiling to how much money a movie can make just in Canada given the population size. Bon Cop, Bad Cop, the most successful Canadian movie so far at the Canadian box office…still only made about $11 million combining its English and French ticket sales. Not only did Passchendaele cost twice that, but the general rule in film is a movie has to make three times its cost to earn a profit. But I‘ve also heard it said the 3x equation is because movies have “hidden“ costs -- that a $100 million dollar Hollywood movie might actually have cost $200 million once you factor in advertising, promotion and overseas distribution -- but in the case of Passchendaele, the “hidden“ advertising cost was only apparently $2 million…so it might not need to reach that 3x number. But for the sake of argument, let’s say Passchendaele would need to earn $60 million to make a profit.

As far as I know, no movie has earned $60 million at the Canadian box office. I don’t mean no Canadian movie, I mean no movie -- period. Not Spider-Man, not Titanic. So, logically, no matter how good Passchendaele was, it would still have bombed relying solely on the Canadian box office. Yet the movie was made for Canadians, the implication being they didn’t want to “compromise” by trying to twist the film’s content and pander to an international audience.

So, if “profit” is the sole justification, does that mean Passchendaele should not have been made? I don’t mean it shouldn’t have been made by Paul Gross, but by anyone? Ever? If a $20 million movie cannot hope to make a profit just in Canada, does that mean no Canadian movie should be made dealing with subject matter that requires a “big” budget unless aimed at the international market place…like Where the Truth Lies and Being Julia? And Porky’s?

So there you have some things to ponder. Not “right” and “wrong” things, not black and white with objective answers. No. Merely questions to ask yourself -- and to ask others when the debate arises. Everyone says they want a successful Canadian film and TV industry, everyone can get frustrated by the failures. But a lot of people can be awful vague as to what they want/mean, what criteria has to be met to call something a success.

Here’s the ideal that most people could probably agree on: a Canadian movie is made, by and about Canadians, makes lots of money at both the Canadian and international box office, gets good reviews, and returns a healthy profit. That’s the Platonic ideal.

But what reasonable compromises are we willing to make? What’s our next slot down from “ideal”?

Porky’s or Passchendaele…or something inbetween?

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Oct. 30, 2008

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