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72nd Annual Summer Conference, August 7–10, 2003

Trading Cultures: At what price national identity?

Left to right: Adam Ostry, Edward Asner, Elizabeth McDonald, Ron Atkey

Summary by Sonali Thakkar

Adam Ostry: Moderator
Edward Asner: Actor, former president of the Screen Actors Guild
Elizabeth McDonald: President and CEO, Canadian Film and Television Production Association
Ron Atkey: Chair of the Arts, Entertainment and Media Law Group at Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt law firm

Ostry: We’ve been at this now for fifteen years, what has been the impact on the audio-visual industry?

Asner: I’ll begin by talking about what many in my town, Hollywood, think about the subject. I have worked on production in Canada and gained the benefits that my profession offers. The production of films in Canada is not only what is referred to in my field – bitterly – as runaway production, but is also free trade. Unlike foreign countries that support their film industries in economic ways, the United States is very much behind the ball in this issue; within this decade, the US will lose more than [?] dollars in lost business. Lost jobs and business. Germany, France, Canada and Spain attract American productions with incentives and subsidies. Some refer to it as internal, some as infernal, but they lose about 30%. Someone of my political leanings begins to look at what we could do with that money. Nothing extreme, only those things that have been taken hostage by right-wing pirates since the 1980s: schools, parks. The city of Los Angeles alone has lost 4 million dollars. Of the over 120,000 actors in the screen actors guild, over 80% earned less than the poverty wage, and were not entitled to welfare benefits or health benefits. When an actor gets paid, a bulk of that goes to agents, personal managers etc. and it is only after that expenditure that we begin to even get around to paying taxes. Many people rely on an actor and the actor’s livelihood for their own livelihood. Take it from me, filmmaking is suffering in the US. Locations that were once flourishing have fallen on hard times. Film budgets are leveraged more than three times in the locations where films are shot and completed. If a film has a budget of 3 billion dollars, the revenue to the surrounding area (where it is shot) is more than 9 million dollars. That’s money that will be spent in Canada rather than the US, for taxes, for pre-production etc. I don’t mean to imply or suggest that this indicts our northern neighbour… Canada has done a masterful job attracting investment and economic interest… I just wish my own country had done as good a job

McDonald: I’m going to talk a little more broadly but I won’t shy away from the issue of runaway production. I’d like to start off – since I’m talking about cultural issues – to acknowledge that I’m a member of the Film and Cultural [?]. The experience of the Canadian film and televisions industries is probably different from other industries under NAFTA because there’s the well-known cultural protection aspect. In the perid from 1995 to 2001, the Canadian film and television indstury grew from a 5.1 industry to a 137,000 + full time jobs. These aren’t McJobs – you’d want your kids to have these jobs. Even with the protection of the cultural industry, the Canadian film industry is a hybrid experiment. It is a system that is Canadian with the best of the world has to offer. Mr. Asner’s expression may not fully understand the difficulties of this issue in Canada. The phrase used to be: the state or the United States, and the threat at that time was the domination of American radio signals. Determination and support of Canadian production means we do have truly Canadian TV programs and other services in both official languages. However, unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, more than 80% of Canadian households receive United States channels. Canadian regulation only requires that 35% of prime time viewing must be required for Canadian viewing and Canadian shows, leaving about 65% open to foreign broadcasts. The Canadian broadcast system is the most unique in the world. As for runaway production, recent research done by Telecom Canada – the agency that invests in Canadian television and movies – shows that those people who work for hire are the most likely to be able to sustain their indigenous film industry. This problem (of film industry people not working) characterizes not only Los Angeles etc. but also Toronto, Calgary etc. You see far fewer movie sets in your downtown this year because of SARS etc., and LA and Mexico have been the beneficiaries of this. In terms of runaway productions, the assets or copyrights have been mostly outside of the US. Canada buys more television programming and pays more for it than any other country in the world. And we are still trying to tell Canadian stories

Atkey: Canadian government was trying valiantly to give Canadian producers a good seat, a good position. The X-Files really caught on, and that was in Vancouver, but there were incentives to producing in Canada. There were tax shoulders, tax incentives; Canada was in the sights of Hollywood not only because we were close by etc. but because costs in Hollywood were through the roof. They were looking for places where they could produce the same film, with the same time zones etc. It’s easy to manage a production in Canada, the cities can easily be made to look alike, and we’re better than Australia because we drive on the right side of the road., We have good craft unions. Right up till 2001 or so we were doing really well as a production center. New Zealand, Eastern Europe, Hawaii, Jamaica etc – they’re all offering incentives. 41 states now offer some sort of incentives. I think that if you find ways to bring the cost down, studios will look at it.

Ostry: Now, what impact has 15 years of free trade had on cultural expression, storytelling itself?

Asner: Audiences are very sophisticated now… Today, we all travel to big cities everywhere, especially when they matter so much to the story being told. Only one major feature, Uncle Ninio, was shot entirely shot in Chicago last year. They agreed to stay put only because the union agreed to take a 30% cut. It seems that it’s only New York that can’t be supplanted, that can’t be turned into something else. Only because of campaigns of industry alliances. We’re all subtly, profoundly affected by globalization, memory, our remembrance of oral history. We received that free trade, as all things touted as free, these new economics came with strings attached. Bit by bit, these things are becoming entrenched in all levels of culture. If we let corporate greed call the shots then we will tremble, shudder, or possibly be snuffed out…

McDonald: My role is to talk about why it’s important for Canada to get the kind of production that Canada is trying to get, provincial governments have not only sought to aggressively get in the area but also in the area of Canadian broadcasting, foreign programming services and foreign programming., We’re Canadian but also Canadian North Americans. Our roots are evolutionary not revolutionary, we’re different, but we are struggling to establish and hold onto a national health care system; we believe in a mosaic and not a melting pot, and we want to see those realities reflected on our movie screens and movie theatres. The other day, I saw a woman wearing a head scarf, holding a box of timbits in one hand and a Tim Hortons coffee in the other, and thought "welcome to Canada.’ Preserving our local or indigenous culture is key – we have to find the economics to be able to do that. We have to keep struggling, we have to keep moving to try to preserve a separate identity etc. As was the case 10 years ago, there are no certainties in this area. The US can take the role they want. But if we don’t fight for a distinct identity my children will not know what separates them from your children on that side of the 49th parallel.

Atkey: Makes it an easy sell: children’s program, documentaries… We have niches. We have an infrastructure. We can do it in such a way that it enriches our natural life. Trade liberalization has been good for the studios and has been good for Canada. But we shouldn’t become complacent that it doesn’t disrupt elements… There are disruptions, but what surely guide this is efficiencies and the fact that studios do productions in a bunch of different areas. Canada is going to have to fight for its position, but I think we’re going to do very well…………..

Asner: I’m not here to dump on Canada. Maybe one day fair trade will come back south across the border.

McDonald: On the other hand, on behalf of Canada, we have the responsibility to capitalize on the opportunities here.

Ostry: What you and Ed are saying are essentially the same things. You’re both saying that stories are rooted and that we need our stories to represent us.

Asner: I agree. We are pigs. And its studio greed that has destroyed one of the most beautiful communities that we have ever known. The greed of the big shots in LA.

Atkey: We talked about the fact that the platform has become global and the industry has become local… Bend it like Beckham, wonderful little film, our own Hollywood/Bollywood. But again – and for those who haven’t seen it, it’s a Canadian take on the East Indian community – who put up the money for that? Tom Hanks? I think as we move into this new global community of filmmaking the films that make the money will be those that appeal to local cultures. The philosophy of studios that I have observed is that they know they can make money by appealing to the local culture as long as the film has international legs.

McDonald: I don’t disagree with him at all. The cultural exceptions have set down Canada’s marker when it comes to cultural industries. For example, simultaneous substitution, when the ads that were supposed to be on the Superbowl are substituted with Canadian ads. But doesn’t work in a digital and satellite world. We have to pay attention to the US digital rights agenda. We also see a word where the US and the EU have chosen to be at loggerheads, and this all seems doomed to play out in Cancun and the US is now actively playing out a aggressive trade role. Canadians will always try to tell their own stories, and we have been struggling with this since 1932, but we also have to strive to incorporate our filmmakers in the global economy.

Asner: I’m not a fortune teller, but I see plenty of changes everywhere. The new economics, the new interest in the digital taping of television shows, the new formatting of television shows etc. The quality of what you view is diverse. Have you every pondered why you prefer some shows to others? There’s a sophisticated texture in filmmaking, for example in Friends and Frasier… the traditional three camera format employed for years is costly, since three operators are needed: that’s twelve camera operators. With digital or single pedestal, you need far fewer of those assistants. And it’s like the difference between reading a well-bound book and Coles Notes. I’m a big supporters of unions. Globalization preaches the unity of man but is actually about the unity of business. For example, an hour long line-up at Air Canada. They needed fifteen more people behind the counter but they can’t hire them because they’re near bankruptcy. We must hold accountable those that are in charge. A quarter of a billion kids are working in terrible conditions, half of the world’s population struggle by on less than half a dollar a day. If a dollar a day proves too expensive for Nike in Indonesia then they’ll move to the Congo. The WTO, IMF and World Bank are not governed by humanitarian principles: profit is their bottom line. The three richest people have as much wealth as the 40 least developed countries. There is an ever-widening gap between rich and poor… Let me end my rant with a question about the morality of this new global order. What does it do for people and how do people participate in it?

Atkey: I think there’s a certain grain of truth underlying this. We call it the entertainment industry but there is a historic failure to appreciate the importance of culture through film and television, which is what we’re focusing on in this panel and I see some small signs of understanding culture among the studios and there is a lot of work left to be done. I spend a great deal of my time trying to explain Canadian culture to folks in Toronto and New York. Chicago as the same as Toronto, Boston is like Halifax, Seattle and Vancouver too, when you put it in regional terms. What is just beginning to be understood is that there is a different sense of values. Michael Adams, in Fire and Ice, really does describe some significant value differences between Canadians and Americans and why we’re so passionate about our culture.

McDonald: Film and TV as a good or a service? I think what Ron says is totally correct. One of the things we do as Canadians is be angry… One of things we’re beginning to understand is that we are different. We’re not just an extension. I know that when I deal with the UK, that’s a country that’s been protected by geography in a very specific way. But now, because of satellite television, the light is beginning to come on… There are more and more digital channels and more and more, young people aren’t choosing UK productions. When you are the largest producer of entertainment production in the world, if you have done that for a long time, and people are continuing to buy, it shouldn’t surprise you…that more and more people are also trying to tell their own story, coalescing together. And there’s respect for what Canada does…

Asner: Well, honestly, I congratulate Canadians for their efforts at creating cultural products, which is a Sisyphean. Effort should not be ceased. Most of us don’t even watch commercial television anywhere because of commercials… As president of the Screen Actors Guild I contacted the SOB from Mobil who was bringing all of the UK stuff over and asked him, isn’t there some way to fund American products? He told me to go straight to hell… Wasn’t even interested in the effort. We have always been bogged down in the question of whether it’s art or business and it’s a terrible, terrible problem to be confronted with.. The great American movies have all been the simple tales of people dealing with adversity on the smaller level, such as It’s a Wonderful Life… The Best Years of Our Life. Those films are the ones that have carved their way into American hearts and should those films continue to be made they will be the ones that continue to win our hearts and our minds. Our culture represents your devotion.

QUESTION: I have friends at UCLA that like to appoint out to me that the third largest city in Canada is LA because of the number of Canadians working in LA. Would you agree with that or not? Despite the runaway productions you talk about, the US still has cultural commodities as one of its largest exports. So clearly, it doesn’t seem to make much difference to American overall, these runaway productions.

Asner: Some of the finest talent is from Canada. I tend to be third man through the door, but they’ve been a wonderful asset and I wouldn’t trade them for any Austrian or Germans.

McDonald: There’s always a gap between what goes into Canadian film and foreign film. What goes into Canadian film is invariably higher. There were cuts to the Canadian television film this year and there was a lot of noise made about it. What will happen with the new government is uncertain. Martin has been incredibly supportive but the issue will be accountability of that money. Canadian producers are audited to death by the CCLA. Whether there’s more of it or not, the challenge will be audiences.

QUESTION. I’d like to turn the discussion towards what this session is entitled. Our fundamental method of storytelling is the evening new and morning paper. But because of cuts, today, I’m your videographer and writer and director. I think that this has caused a decline (that I’m all they get) and a diminishing sense of national identity. I’m wondering what each of the panel thinks about this.

Asner: I think news has been going into the toilet for years. There’s been slashing of newsroom crews, slashing of network news and news shows. There is no investigative reporting. The intimidation of reporters fearing being cut off from their sources. Everyone is taking their stories off the wire services. Interestingly, in the States themselves, a story will occur, but it will never get picked up by any of the major papers.

McDonald: The real issue is that the consolidation of the media sector has gone without consideration of the impact on the local news. One of the major differences between Canada and the US is the importance of local news. We have pursued consolidation, which does provide some benefits in terms of a national window, but a loss in some other ways.