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Hollywood Celebrities Will Save Canada!:
..the "Intelligent Design" of the Canadian entertainment biz


Apparently there’s a new push by some people in the Canadian movie biz to loosen funding restrictions on Canadian movies, to allow for the importation of (more) American stars to front Canadian movies. Admittedly, many of us might be surprised to know there were such restrictions, given the number of so-called Canadian movies that star non-Canadian actors. I have no idea whether this is just an idea dreamed up solely by current Telefilm Canada head, Michel Roy, or a genuine movement in the biz. But the fact this is being trumpeted as the great solution to the industry’s woes by a man with a lot of clout makes it seem like more than idle chatter -- given Canada’s Conservative government generally likes to see itself as the enemy of artistes anyway (who they presumably see as a bunch of liberals, intellectuals, and homosexuals), they’ll probably jump at the chance to side with Roy and so tweak the nose of Canada’s entertainment community

Still, if this news will lead, predictably, to a lot of angry blogging and commentary -- ironically uniting people often at odds on cultural issues -- it might not be entirely for the reasons you might think. Sure, it can be inferred as a slap in the face of Canadian pride, suggesting Canadians aren’t good enough to star in their own movies. Economically it can be seen as taking jobs away from Canadians (in the middle of a recession!) and sending Canadian dollars out of the country.

But I think the real source of frustration is just…exhaustion. Because despite Roy claiming “we will have to dare to do new things” -- what he’s proposing is anything but new. And so movie folk are just exhausted, the same way evolutionists are exhausted every time they think Creationism has been put behind them, only to have it resurrect itself under some new name (Intelligent Design). They are exhausted like the heroine of a horror movie who thought the monster was dead, only to have it come back for the umpteenth, low-budget sequel.

You see, Canada has already been this route!!! And the fact that Roy -- or anyone in the biz -- doesn’t know that says shocking things about people in charge of Canadian entertainment (Remember George Santayana’s famous comment about those who fail to learn from history?)

In the last Century is was practically mandatory to import non-Canadian actors to star in Canadian movies -- and generally came to be seen as a complete and utter failure, both creatively and, more significantly, commercially. These Hollywood “stars” were supposed to guarantee bigger box office success…but didn’t. For one thing, a sucky movie is still a sucky movie, no matter whose name is on the marquee. Secondly, Canadian producers often couldn’t afford the “A”-list stars, so they were giving starring roles to American actors…who wouldn’t be given starring roles even in Hollywood!

Now, the argument could be, not that a Hollywood actor will guarantee box office success, but that they will at least catch people’s attention. People will go to the movie based on whether it sounds interesting…but they’ll at least know it exists because of a recognizable face on the poster.

But, then, there are plenty of Canadian actors making names for themselves in Hollywood (and in the occasional successful Canadian movie or TV show). If you really need a “name” on your poster, there are still plenty of Canadians to choose from. Admittedly, this can give those Canadian actors an unusual -- and maybe unhealthy -- amount of power (as they suspect the producer needs them more than they need the role). But I also think that producers think it’s cooler if they can hire an American actor, it makes them seem more legitimate by association.

In some cases, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if producers and funding executives push for hiring American stars…simply so they can have their picture taken with them at the premiere party! They don’t care about the film’s success or failure, they just want to share cocktails with Julianne Moore (which is soooo much more chic than sharing cocktails with, say, Liane Balaban).

It’s not that I necessarily object too much to hiring non-Canadian actors. After all, Hollywood hires non-American actors all the time. But when Hollywood hires an actor, it’s an actor who has voluntarily joined the Hollywood community. The same is often true in other countries -- American actress Gillian Anderson has appeared in a number of British productions…but that‘s because she actually lives in England! But when we’re talking about Canadians using Hollywood actors, we’re talking about importing a celebrity to show the provincials how it’s done. I mean, if, I dunno, Gary Sinise (or whoever) wants to hop on a bus, drive up to Toronto, and read for the starring role of Sir John A. Macdonald in a bio-pic, and he aces the audition, sure, why not give him the part if he’s the best man for the role? But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a producer going out and hiring an actor who might not be able to find Canada on a map, has no interest in Canada or Canadian film, bringing him up, paying him with tax payers dollars, then shipping him home again…all for a movie that then bombs anyway.

And the “tax payers” dollar point is important. Despite what some people might tell you, there’s absolutely no restriction on movie making in Canada, nor on who you can hire to star in your movie. You want to hire George Clooney and Angelina Jolie to star in a bio-pic of George Washington? Knock yourself out. BUT…if you want to access some of the government money available, as opposed to using non-public money (the way Hollywood movies are made) then, yeah, there are a few token restrictions applied (and I say token because the DVD shelves are still full of tax payer funded movies that, through one loop hole or another, star imported actors anyway).

The other problem is, of course, one of deliberate anonymity. The point in hiring a Hollywood actor (and, indeed, in setting a Canadian movie in the United States) is to pretend it’s American, on the theory that there’s a stigma against Canadian films (the irony being, it’s the poor quality of many of those let’s-pretend-we’re-American movies and TV shows that have led to the stigma, but anyhow…) But the thing is, even if your movie is successful this way…it doesn’t take you anywhere, that very anonymity meaning it does nothing to dispel the supposed stigma for the next film.

It is -- to quote Sidney Poitier from “A Piece of the Action” (and excuse the vulgarity) -- like masturbation: it might make you feel good, but it doesn’t produce life.

That relates to the other argument, which is the claim hiring an American movie star boosts the profile of everyone associated with the film. But if all the good parts go to imported actors, the last thing a casting director wants is to cast a supporting actor who might steal scenes from the leads. So the pressure would be to deliberately NOT cast the good looking, charismatic Canadian actor in a supporting role. So the Canadian actors who get work and exposure will be those good at playing villains, and supporting roles, and then when the next movie comes along, gosh, the producer just can’t find a Canadian leading man…and so looks to Hollywood again…and again…and again…

As well, it becomes a slippery slope, a reverse incline. Consider David Cronenberg. His early films were set in Canada, and featured predominantly Canadian actors, with only one or two imported actors to fill out the cast. These days? His movies feature almost entirely non-Canadian leads, and are never set in Canada. Instead of hiring Hollywood actors simply to boost his films…it became a crutch. And, ironically, his modern movies are commercially less successful than his early, more Canadian movies!

The absurdity of the desire to loosen casting restrictions is that, in actuality, there almost are none anyway. As far as I know, the rules (once you strip away the doublespeak and legalese) simply require that SOME of your lead roles go to Canadian actors. Not ALL the lead roles! And the definition of a lead role, I suspect, is pretty open to interpretation (I’ve seen Canadian movies where all the lead roles go to American actors, but a Canadian actor is given prominent billing all out of proportion to his part, and I suspect that’s so the producers can pretend a “lead” role went to a Canadian actor). So if Canadian executives are pushing for looser rules, it isn’t so they can hire that choice, carefully selected American actor for that difficult, challenging part that the big, bad regulations won’t let them hire…it’s so they can fill up ALL of the lead roles with a bunch of Hollywood celebrities -- at least, those they can afford.

And the most ridiculous thing about this is that it’s like someone throwing a coat of paint on a condemned building and thinking that will make it habitable, when what it needs is new support beams. Movies and TV are subjective, there’s no getting away from that. What I like, you might not, and vice versa. But even then, we can often step back enough and recognize what has mass appeal and what doesn’t. That is, I can love a movie, but I can still recognize it only has “cult” appeal. The whole debate about bringing in American movie stars only makes sense if you can point, inarguably, to a great Canadian movie that should’ve cleaned up at the box office…and didn’t. And if Roy wants to put his money where his mouth is, if he wants to point to a film -- by name -- and say he KNOWS that movie would’ve been a hit if only it had starred one of the actors from “Friends”, then let him do so. But I don’t think he can…or would. Because a lot of Canadian movies are just plain mediocre, and even those that are “good”, are often deliberately arty, or quirky, or otherwise non-mainstream (and by “mainstream” I’m including anything from “The Ghost Writer” to “Up in the Air” to “The Hangover”). If Roy wants Canada to produce commercial successes, he should focus on the stories, not the casting.

Of course, what makes this all the more amusing is that it comes at a time when there are plenty of U.S. articles, and Hollywood insiders, publicly speculating whether we’re seeing the end of the “star power era”, as a number of recent movies have become major hits, with little known actors. So just as Hollywood is wondering whether stars are even essential to box office success…Michel Roy is saying we need to hire more American celebrities!

Roy would seem to be unaware of this new Hollywood trend and, as mentioned, unaware Canada has been down this route (and continues to produce box office duds featuring imported Hollywood actors -- Blindness, Where the Truth Lies, Head in the Clouds, Beowulf & Grendel, etc.). If he’s so unfamiliar with the movie biz’ past and present, how can he possibly plot out its future…and why is he heading a film funding agency in the first place?

As I say, it isn’t really that I have strong objections to hiring non-Canadian actors. Indeed, if I were making movies, there are lots of American, British, etc. actors I’d be eager to employ…in the right role, in the right project. And actors that don’t even have much marquee value, but I just happen to think would be great to cast. But then again, unlike (I suspect) a lot of Canadian producers, there are lots of Canadian actors -- both domestic and Hollywood-based -- I’d equally love to hire.

In fact, that’s what’s most disheartening, when you hear about Canadian actors struggling to pay bills, or who move to Hollywood, all due to lack of local work. The real intent behind loosening casting restrictions isn’t so Canadian executives have the option of turning to Hollywood if they are unable to find the right actor among the Canadian talent pool…it’s so they don’t even have to pretend they bothered to look.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

March 3, 2010

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