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How to Make a Successful Canadian Movie:
"One Week", Joshua Jackson, and a possible trend in Canadian film



 

The new theatrical release, One Week, stars Canadian-born Hollywood actor Joshua Jackson as a young man who, on learning he has terminal cancer and only one week to live, elects to ditch everything and go for one last road trip…across Canada. I haven’t seen One Week yet. As I’ve mentioned often before, I can be a bit slow getting around to these things (I once received an e-mail from someone castigating me for this, demanding to know why I hadn’t seen some film or another, and so show my support for Canadian film).

Anyway…One Week is proving to be an interesting case. It seems to have garnered the usual mixed reviews -- some good, some middling. Not too many are saying it’s especially terrible while neither are that many arguing it is the greatest movie ever made. I don’t know how much it cost to make, how much it’s grossed, or how much it needs to earn to make a profit. Yet something funny seems to happening.

For a movie called “One Week” it seems to have a longer life span than its hero.

See, where I live -- a medium sized Canadian city -- for a Canadian movie to actually play at the local theatre (as opposed to the repertory “Art” cinema) is fairly infrequent. In a given year, you might expect no more than three Canadian movies to arrive in town -- and that’s in a good year. For a Canadian movie to play more than one week at the local theatre is unusual. For it to last more than a week and still be playing two shows a night (as opposed to being relegated to one show, or an afternoon matinee) is a rarity.

One Week is into its fourth or fifth week at the local theatre, still playing two shows a night.

Now, I repeat: I don’t know the finances, how much it’s making or needs to make to be profitable. Still, just going by its run at the local bijou…it’s not doing badly for itself.

So what’s going on? How did this modest little film (c’mon, who had heard much about it prior to its release?) develop such legs? What lessons are to be learned, if any?

Maybe One Week is just a really good film thriving on word of mouth. After all, it is written and directed by Michael McGowan, a guy who did arguably the best “slacker” comedy in Canada, My Dog Vincent (an otherwise rather tiresome genre that was all too common among Canadian filmmakers because it required little money and little structured plot) and arguably one of the best comedies in Canada in recent years, the wryly quirky, Saint Ralph. If someone has the potential to do a “populist” Canadian movie, McGowan would be at the top of my list.

Maybe Joshua Jackson has a bigger fan base than anyone realized. Possible…but not likely. Jackson’s a perfectly agreeable performer, but he’s been in plenty of films, with no indication he, and he alone, can make a hit. Maybe the fact that Jackson is currently starring in a US series (Fringe) might have proven a lucky bit of serendipity. Usually when Canadian movies land their “name” actors -- either Canadian, or American imports -- they tend to be between gigs, people whose claim to fame is behind them. Ironically, chances are Jackson filmed One Week before he even got cast in Fringe, which is why I say it was serendipity. Though it’s not like Fringe is necessarily doing that well, ratings-wise.

Maybe it’s the ads. I’ll admit, “terminal illness”, “road movie” -- these are pretty trite concepts in Canadian movies and don’t exactly make me drool with anticipation. But the posters -- the posters have taken that concept and made it as cool as they can. First, if you knew nothing about the film, the title is nicely cryptic…without being artily obtuse (unlike an earlier terminal illness Canadian film, Two Thousand and None). And this is married with the equally mysterious tagline: “What would you do?” And it’s put over a Spartan image of Jackson looking grim and enigmatic in a leather jacket (followed later by a poster of Jackson and co-star Liane Balaban…looking enigmatic). I dunno -- but to me, they’ve played the minimalist card quite well. If you knew nothing about the movie, that poster would kind of make you pause as you leaf through the movie listings -- What about one week? (you might ask) What do you mean ‘what would I do’? Do about what? And why is that scruffy lad from Dawson‘s Creek staring at me so intently?

In a country where money for blanket marketing is rare, they came up with a poster that kind of…intrigues.

But what’s really intriguing is how the movie’s being marketed, with reviewer quotes featured on the poster saying: “A love letter to Canada” and “the best Canadian movie in years”.

Huh? Saywhutnow? A Canadian movie that not only is set in Canada…but actually admits it in the marketing? That chooses to emphasize those quotes over all others to feature on the poster? Are they frickin’ insane?

Maybe not. ‘Cause One Week, as mentioned, is proving to have a life considerably longer than its title implies. And if you trip back through the last few years, you kind of notice a weird, largely unremarked upon trend. That maybe after years, decades, of the Speakers of Cultural Wisdom in Canada assuring us anything with even a whiff of Canadianness is death at the box office, and assuring us success can only be achieved by setting movies in the U.S. (or elsewhere) and hiring American, British (or whoever) actors to star in Canadian movies, that after all that…maybe it’s not true.

(And this comes at a time when Flashpoint, the Canadian-set, Canadian-made TV cop series is proving a ratings success both in Canada and the US).

Think of some of the Canadian movies that have actually performed well at the (English Canada) box office in recent years -- Passchendaele, Bon Cop Bad Cop, The Trailer Park Boys, Men With Brooms. And, just possibly, One Week. These aren’t movies that grudgingly admit they are Canadian…these are movies that make their Canadianness part of the marketing. They don’t apologize for being Canadian…they brag about it. And it seems to be working, based on the box office returns. At least, it seems to be working better than a lot of the Hollywood North films that came -- and sank -- in the same time period.

Maybe Canadians really do have a hunger to see themselves, and their country, on the screen.

Admittedly, it’s a problematic concept. After all, I’m not talking about movies that merely show the CN tower looming in the background of a shot, or a red Canada Post mail box. There are other, well-reviewed Canadian movies that admit they are set in Canada and haven’t had the same box office impact. No, the box office tigers are movies that really play up the Canadian angle: Bon Cop, Bad Cop was an action/comedy about the Two Solitudes, Passchendaele was about a significant military battle in Canadian history, One Week is a “love letter to Canada”. But at what point does an intrinsically, essentially “Canadian” movie…become a promoter of an out-moded stereotype? For a multi-cultural, pluralistic, immigrant rich nation…these “quintessentially” Canadian movies are pretty white.

Still, it’s all about baby steps on the road to a sustainable popular cinema. And these uber-Canadian films seem to be walking further than their “Anywhere BUT Canada” siblings.

Now I’m ignoring the elephant in the room. As I wrote about in a previous essay, there can be a difference between a movie making a lot of money at the box office…and actually making enough to turn a profit (or even break even). Passchendaele reportedly made something like $4 million at the box office…a more than impressive take in Canada, but nowhere near enough to cover its cost. And a lot of these movies that do well in Canada…don’t travel well, often struggling to land international distribution deals. So although marketing something on the basis of its in-your-face Canadianness might prove successful in Canada…it isn’t really much of a selling point in Poughkeepsie or Bangkok. And even though a movie like Bon Cop, Bad Cop was every bit as good (if not better) as similar movies like Lethal Weapon or Rush Hour, good movies get lost in the international market place all the time (yes, even Hollywood movies).

So, one could argue, even if I’m right, and contrary to what we’ve been told (practically brainwashed into believing) about how Canadianness is death, and instead proudly Canadian movies actually can do better than their anonymous compeers at the Canadian box office, it doesn’t change the fact that, from a practical point of view, they still don’t do well. But first off, neither do a lot of the Hollywood North movies…even the ones that are distributed internationally (Bon Cop, Bad Cop, I believe, made more just in Canada than, say, Being Julia made in all of North America -- at least according to the IMDB). *

But it also relates to the issue I was trying to explore in that earlier essay. Which is, how do we, should we, and must we, define success? Obviously, from a practical point of view, a movie should earn enough money to return a profit to its investors. But from a less practical point of view, are there other litmus tests for success? Bon Cop, Passchendaele, Trailer Park Boys, Men With Brooms…all these movies played, at one point, near the top of the weekly box office, beating out most of their high profile American competition to win the #2 or even #1 slots. So within the market they were distributed, they did very well -- even if it was a market place of one (Canada). Whereas many of the Let’s-Pretend-We’re-Not-Canadian Canadian movies were distributed to more marketplaces (countries) but in most cases, never came anywhere near the top of the box office in any of those countries (including Canada) -- they were in more markets, but attracted a smaller percentage of those markets to their showings. They may’ve achieved greater fiscal success…but which films boasted the greater populist success?

There’s the old adage that says: find something you can do well, and then do it. And maybe that’s the point. Regardless of the “big picture” profits, when these movies do well at the Canadian box office, it seems like the filmmakers kept their eye on a goal -- a modest goal, but a goal -- and hit it. That goal? Wooing a Canadian audience. Sure, Canadian filmmakers can continue pumping out anonymous little movies that are intended to swim out into the international market place, unnoticed, attaching themselves remora-like to the shark that is American culture -- movies that no one’s ever heard of, or cares about, but they pick up a few bucks here and there by languishing in the two-for-one DVD bin in a Gary, Indiana Wall-Mart.

But maybe the path to international success is first proving you can actually land a Canadian success. Maybe conquering the Canadian box office is the first step to making it in the global market place.

* I chose Bon Cop, Bad Cop just to make a simple analogy, and not to bruise your brain with math, but I know some people would say I’m unfairly stacking the deck given that Bon Cop, Bad Cop was one of the most successful Canadian movies…ever. So if you want another comparison, and don’t mind crunching numbers, consider: Men With Brooms cost about $7 mil to make, and grossed about $4 mil, mainly in Canada. Being Julia cost $18 mil, and grossed about $7 mil, worldwide (again, according to the IMDB -- however reliable or unreliable that might be). So, despite international distribution, and a largely non-Canadian “star” cast, Being Julia made less than half its cost, whereas Men With Brooms made more than half its cost (and more than half as much as Being Julia)…largely just on the strength of its Canadian box office.

Post-script: A friendly e-mailer subsequently sent me these additional statistics: apparently "One Week" cost about three million to make, including promotion. And grossed close to one million (and those numbers before its theatrical run was entirely over, and before the DVD release or any international distribution). So, it didn't break any records, but by Canadian film standards, making a third of its cost back just with a domestic theatrical run is pretty good.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Apr. 8, 2009

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