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The Fall of Alliance-Atlantis:
or Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish?



 
 

For months now there have been rumblings, grumblings, and out right warnings that the sky is falling in the Canadian film and TV biz. Specifically in television, production has dropped off radically in the last few years -- in the 2002-2003 season, there was onlyy one new set-in-Canada drama series to premier on any of the Canadian TV networks. This was partly attributable to the regulatory body, the CRTC, making the bizarre and unexplainable decision to allow networks to pass off infommercials and reality shows as Canadian "drama" -- not surprisingly, the networks saw little need for expensive fiction programs when the CRTC was telling them they could pass off cheap-o reality shows instead.

Now the other shoe has dropped. Alliance-Atlantis has announced it's getting out of making movies and TV shows entirely.

So who's Alliance-Atlantis? In some respects, Alliance-Atlantis is the Canadian film and TV industry -- or, at least, it was. They were involved, in one capacity or another, with the lion's share of productions in this country. The company arose from the merger of what had been, then, the two biggest production houses in Canada -- Alliance Films and Atlantis Films. When the two merged there was some under-the-breath mumblings from observers. After all, wasn't it risky putting all the industry's eggs in one basket? What if something happened to the new uber-company? Wouldn't the industry be in a pretty pickle then? But such naysayers were dismissed as worry warts. Then the new, voracious Alliance-Atlantis started buying up some of the other, independent Canadian production companies out there, including Salter Street Films. Again, there was some nervous fidgeting among the pessimists, seeing in this a recipe for disaster. Again, such concerns were dismissed as alarmist.

Of course, the naysayers' fear was that something unexpected would happen to Alliance-Atlantis -- it would go bankrupt, it would lose its shirt financing a two hundred million dollar bio-pic about Ralph Benmergui; maybe an atomic bomb would accidentally get dropped on its main H.Q. Something. I don't suppose anyone foresaw that they'd just arbitrarily pack up and quit producing voluntarily.

The irony of this is even more pronounced. You see, Alliance-Atlantis has quit producing to concentrate on the much more lucrative business of simply distributing movies. After all, there's a much bigger profit margin involved in just shipping prints of The Lord of the Rings (and other Hollywood mega hits) to theatres, than in actually making films themselves. It was for this reason that a few years ago the Canadian government brought in new regulations shutting out American distributors and essentially handing distribution rights of foreign (ie: Hollywood) films to Canadian distributors. It was, essentially, a license to print money. But the understanding was that the profits companies reaped from distributing Hollywood films would be used to finance Canadian movies. In other words, Alliance-Atlantis was basically handed the distribution market by the government, so that it could make a lot of money, so that it could then invest in production...but now Alliance-Atlantis has discovered that because it can make sooooo much money just distributing films, it doesn't need to make movies and TV shows at all!

There's a parable in there somewhere.

Of course, this raises the question of where is the line between the right of a private company to do what it wants, and its responsibilities to the greater society. Business analysts seem to regard this new direction for Alliance-Atlantis as a good thing, business-wise. Good for the shareholders. But Alliance-Atlantis has surely reached the position it's at, in part, thanks to government assistance. Not just by the government literally changing the law of the land to hand them the lucrative distribution contracts, but what about all those years they were receiving investments and/or hand-outs from various government film and television funding agencies? Surely the understanding, implicit if not explicit, in all that money collected by Alliance-Atlantis over the years was that it was to help Alliance-Atlantis overall as a film & television production company.

Surely, now that Alliance-Atlantis is saying, essentially, "so long, suckers!", the tax payer has a right to demand a little something back. Like, I don't know, how about a refund on all those hundreds of millions of dollars funneled into Alliance-Atlantis over the years? And the government needs to revisit the legislation that handed the distribution of so many Hollywood movies over to Canadian companies in the first place. As noted, that law was established with the express understanding that companies like Alliance-Atlantis would use their profits to make things. Since it's no longer doing so, and is laying off workers in the process, then why continue to give them the distribution rights? Why not open it back up to the free market and let Alliance-Atlantis sink or swim on its own? That would certainly make Hollywood happy (the original legislation having raised the ire of American distributors).

And that's the joke. Alliance-Atlantis is only such a big, profitable player thanks to years of government assistance, tax payers dollars, and legislation...and now they're thumbing their noses at everyone -- not just Canadian film makers, but tax payers like you and me, and the government itself.

What does this betrayal (if I may use such a word) by Alliance-Atlantis entail for the industry?

In the short term, it's probably nothing short of a disaster -- and if one were paranoid, one might even suspect a conspiracy. A company goes around, slowly, over a number of years, buying up most of the significant film and TV production houses in Canada until they're all under one roof...and then it shuts them all down in one fell swoop? You gotta wonder what's at the back of it all.

In the long run, though, who knows? You see, although Alliance-Atlantis was the major source of film and television production in Canada...that doesn't necessarily mean it was that good at it. After all, the whole reason Alliance-Atlantis is shutting down its production arm is because, according to them, they can't give their products away. Alliance, before it was gobbled up by Atlantis, was responsible for such successes as Night Heat and Due South. But in recent years? Maybe Alliance-Atlantis stepping aside will prove a good thing...because it won't be feeding at the trough anymore, gobbling up subsidies and funding dollars that maybe could be going to other, more worthy producers. Am I being catty? Hell, yes. But there's some truth to my point. Consider that Alliance-Atlantis' biggest hit -- and the one program exempt from all this down-sizing and cost cutting -- is CSI, the mega hit American crime series they help finance. It's a series in which almost nowhere in the credits will you see the names of Alliance-Atlantis executives. In other words, the only time Alliance-Atlantis seemed to be capable of producing a hit...is the one production they seemed to have next to nothing to do with creatively. They just sign the checks.

If the reputation of Canadian film and television has reached a point where it's almost impossible to sell overseas...then how can the company that, essentially, is Canadian film and TV production not take some of the blame?

For years even I've questioned the overall efficiency of Alliance-Atlantis. Maintaining this site, and sometimes receiving queries from people about whether such-and-such a movie is available on video, I've suggested people contact the production company...in many cases, Alliance-Atlantis. I, myself, have e-mailed Alliance-Atlantis, looking for information on some of their productions. Usually such queries have been ignored. Get it? A company that makes and distributes films and TV shows...that ignores queries from people looking to buy their movies and TV shows! What's up with that?

Alliance-Atlantis dropping out of production is a crippling blow to the Canadian film and TV industry...and they know that, they know what they've done and are unrepentent. But in the end, all they've really done is admitted that, frankly, they couldn't hack it as a creative force. If Alliance-Atlantis executives think they've reached the limits of their talents being, essentially, delivery boys for Hollywood movies, in a job that only exists because the federal government created it for them as a glorified welfare project...well then, O.K.

But the rest of us have more pride in ourselves and our capabilities...and that just may be what will save the Canadian film and television business in the end.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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