Pssst. I've made a discovery. It's just like in the movies: I'm the lowly nebbish who stumbled upon a terrible secret and whose life is now in danger. My only hope is to pass that information along before I'm silenced. Quick! Hit your "save" function before this page disappears even as you're reading it.
What did I discover? you ask.
That one of the inviolate tenets of the Canadian film biz may -- just may -- be a lie. I had my doubts, that's why I started working on this essay in the first place. But even I didn't realize how readily available the evidence was to anyone who bothered to look for it.
You see, whenever the question of Canadian film and TV comes up, it's inexorably tied to a question of Canadian identity. As I've mentioned before, many, many, many Canadian movies and TV shows pretend they aren't...Canadian that is. They are generally set in the U.S., often with American actors. The arguments in favour of this "invisible" Canada are many. The main one being that Canada won't sell. Indeed, the argument goes, even a whiff of a Canadian reference in a movie or TV series will kill its chances of winning an audience. Today, though, we won't look at the "why" is this the case. Let's instead consider something far more contentious. Let us ask "if" -- if it's even true.
Everyone says so. Everyone believes it's true. But then, once upon a time, everyone believed the sun revolved around the earth. Just because people repeat a rumour often enough, does not mean that it crystallizes into a fact. Because what seems to be missing from the "No Canada" argument is anything approaching...proof.
Point to a Canadian movie that was set in Canada, and that deserved to score big with an audience, and that didn't. And I emphasize "deserved". There's no point in citing the failure of a boring, mediocre film as proof of some global conspiracy against Canada. Nor is there much point in pointing to a cryptic Art film, or a non-populist TV series, as proof.
Here's my arguments against the "Canada won't sell" theory. (And I realize some of this I've addressed, albeit not as thoroughly, in earlier essays...so bear with me).
First, let's not compare apples and oranges. Too often, people seek to prove that "Canada" won't sell by saying something like: "the Canadian-set art movie "The Adjuster" didn't do as well as the American-set teen sex comedy "Porky's" -- it must be because it admits it's Canadian," when they're two completely different movies in two completely different genres and aimed at completely different audiences (or, at best, meant to appeal to different sensibilities within the same audience).
Let's be fair and compare like with like. Let's compare TV shows made within the last twelve years or so and within the same basic genre -- for the sake of this argument, we'll consider mass appeal, reasonably budgeted, action/fantasy/sci-fi series (and yes, I'm defining the parameters of the "genre" using my own standards). It's a field that Canadian producers (usually with American partners) have gone ape for within the last few years because it's perceived as having a good shot at succeeding within the international marketplace.
"Due South" -- an action-comedy about a Canadian Mountie in Chicago (and if you don't understand why I'm considering a series about a guy evincing super human prowess, who talks with ghosts, as a "action/fantasy/sci-fi" show, then I can't explain it to you). The pilot movie was a ratings hit in Canada and the U.S. And though it was about a Canadian Mountie and a U.S. cop, the American TV commercials only played up the Canadian Mountie angle -- and Americans watched. The follow-up weekly series was, to that point, the only Canadian series to ever run on network American TV in prime time. Even set-in-the-U.S. Canadian series hadn't done that.
"Forever Knight" -- though inspired by a U.S. TV movie, "Nick Night", this supernatural cop series was set in Toronto, Canada, with an all-Canadian cast and ran three years. And it retains a cult following to this day (even spawning novel spin-offs, soundtrack CDs, etc.).
So what's the other side of the equation? What about populist Canadian sci-fi or adventure series that pretended they were American? Let's consider the list: "Queen of Swords", "Peter Benchley's Amazon", "Crow: City of Angels", "Highlander: The Raven", "The Tracker", "Adventure, Inc.", "Night Man", "Total Recall 2070" , "Two" -- all managed a meagre one season. "The Adventures of Sinbad", "Mysterious Ways" and "Beyond Reality" managed only two seasons. Finally "Relic Hunter" and "First Wave" managed three seasons -- the same number as "Forever Knight" and "Due South". I could only think of four that ran for more than three seasons, and all had the benefit of an added marquee value -- either they were spun off from hit movies, or they had the Gene Roddenberry name attached to them: "Stargate SG1" , "Highlander: The Series", "Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict" and "Nikita".
I've probably missed one or two, or included one or two that maybe push the boundaries of my own definition, but this still gives us a reasonable sample to work with.
You don't need a math degree to do calculations here. I can only think of two Canadian-made, mass appeal series that admitted they were Canadian... and both were moderate successes. I can point to at least 14 set-in-the-U.S. series, all of which performed either worse than, or no better than, the set-in-Canada series. Even if we add in the four (with the added marquee values), we still find a hundred percent success rate for the set-in-Canada series, as against a thirty-three percent success rate for the set-in-the-U.S. series. Yet we're still told Canada won't sell?
And yes, I recognize citing only two examples as a "hundred percent" success rate is an awfully small sample group...but I can only work with what's out there. More to the point, no one can argue the opposite by pointing to a Canadian set, populist "action/fantasy/sci-fi" series that ran less than three seasons -- and yet, that's what we're supposed to believe is true!
Consider some true crime dramas from the 1990s (a genre which, I'll confess, I view with some moral ambivalence). The CBC mini-series, "Love and Hate", was scooped up by the American CBS and was such a ratings hit for them that they grabbed up another one, "Conspiracy of Silence". And these were both archly Canadian dramas, ripped from Canadian headlines -- and yet they were ratings successes with the American audience! They did so well, in fact, that CBS decided it wanted to get in on the next one, actually co-producing "Million Dollar Babies".
Still with me? O.K. -- let's keep going.
Robert Sawyer is a Canadian science fiction writer who actually makes a living at it -- being a working author isn't as common as you might think. Sawyer's won multiple awards, including the fan-voted American Hugo Award, and served as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America...all the while writing stories generally set in, and making references to, Canada. What's significant about this is that there are plenty of Canadian SF writers who set their stuff in the United States...but not many of them sell well enough to make a living at it.
Canadian-set mystery novels are a thriving industry, with authors like Howard Engel and Gail Bowen easily available on the bookshelves.
American writers, from high-brow John Irving to action-adventure novelist James Rollins, have utilized Canadian characters...apparently with no drop in sales.
O.K., I can sense the Canada-won't-sell-dammit! crowd getting red-faced with fury, but let's press on.
Going farther afield, there's an entire section of this website devoted to non-Canadian movies that throw in more Canadian aspects than a lot of Canadian movies. "The Whole Nine Yards" and "The X-Men" are just two Hollywood mega-hits that come to mind (both spawned sequels). Apparently the Canadian aspects didn't scare away the audience. Hmmm. Puzzling, ain't it?
Shifting gears to another medium, let's consider one of the most popular comic book characters in the last two decades or so: Wolverine -- member of the superhero team, The X-Men, and star of his own monthly, self-titled comic (plus assorted mini-series, one-shots, and graphic novels). To put it in simple terms, Wolverine is huge. Wolverine is an ex-secret agent for the Canadian government and his success led the American comic book publisher, Marvel Comics, to create a Canadian super hero team, Alpha Flight, which ran for a healthy ten years or so in its own comic (and has been resurrected repeatedly). Apparently the comic book audience -- American, Canadian, whatever -- had no trouble thrilling to the exploits of Canadian heroes.
So what have I demonstrated with a few isolated instances? How can that be proof of anything? But that's the point! I freely admit I've only cited a few examples. But those who make the contrary argument...have cited nothing, certainly no incontrovertible examples or case studies.
The entertainment business is tricky and whimsical, with fortunes rising or falling on the vagaries of the moment. Hollywood movies bomb all the time. American TV series get cancelled after only three episodes. Just because a Canadian-set movie or TV series fails to succeed is not automatic proof that it was its "Canadianness" that did it in. Other factors are far more likely to affect a movie or TV show's success...not the least of which is, is it really any good? Making a mediocre Canadian movie or TV series and then blaming its failure on its Canadian setting is deplorable and dishonest.
But I've saved the best for last. I mention "proof" -- something more than just a vague "well, everybody knows it's true, so it must be". So let's look at numbers. I was flipping through an old anniversary issue of the Canadian film magazine, Take One. It included a list of the ten highest grossing Canadian films ever...according to no less a source than the American industry paper, Variety. One of those films was "The Care Bears Movie" which, I'm guessing, wasn't set anywhere in particular. Of the remaining nine...five were either set partly or entirely in Canada, or featured a significant character who was identified, in the dialogue, as Canadian. What's more, presumably because it was released years before Variety started keeping track, they forgot to include the silent movie, "Back to God's Country" -- proportionately speaking, I believe it's still the highest grossing Canadian movie ever made. And it was set in Canada.
In other words, we are constantly being told that Canada is the kiss of death, that if even a hint of Canadianness appears on screen, it will kill a production's hope for success. Yet 60 percent of the ten highest grossing Canadian movies ever made have acknowledged their Canadianness, and TV series like "Due South" and "Forever Knight" have performed better, internationally, than most of the "let's pretend we're American" series.
Look, I'm not saying there's a big wonderful world out there just chomping at the bit for Canadian entertainment. Nor am I unaware that in some quarters of the United States there is a very real animosity, bordering on hatred, for Canada -- usually from the far right of American politics, but even by more moderate but reactionary Americans who just think that Canadians are condescending, self-satisfied, or uppity, and should be seen but not heard -- and probably shouldn't even be seen. (If you're an American reading this, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about because you probably wouldn't be reading this if you felt that way, so I apologize if I seem like I'm generalizing too much) But saying it's not necessarily easy to sell Canadiana is a far cry from saying it's impossible, or even particularly difficult. Perhaps the glass ceiling facing Canadians is more like saran wrap, and not impossible to break through if you try.
Maybe I'm right. Maybe I'm wrong. But hopefully, by putting forward these arguments, and bringing to light these examples, it will add to the discourse, and force future discussions of the Canadian entertainment industry to at least consider alternate arguments, instead of just parroting all the old ones. That's all I'm asking. Think about what you've read here -- really think about it.
If there's little proof that Canadian references really hurt a production, why do we say it's true, and why do so many Canadian movies and TV shows pretend they're not Canadian? We'll look at some of the possible answers at a later date.
But the secret is out. And now that you've read it, your lives will be in danger. The shadowy men who run the Canadian film biz will want to eliminate you. Your only hope is to disseminate this information as quickly as possible before- Hey, look, the mailman's coming up my walk. Wait a minute! The mail was delivered an hour ago! Then who-? AARRRGHHH......!
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
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