Canadian TV is more cost-effective, more commercial, and vastly more significant to our daily lives, argues Rob Salem.
Source: Toronto Star
Canadian film is passionate, distinctive, challenging, brave, thoughtful, thrilling, hilarious, inspirational, eloquent and, yes, entertaining.
But if not for Canadian television, it would not exist.
Is Canadian TV better than Canadian film? It depends on your definition of “better.” Aesthetics aside — and that’s where they will stay, being an entirely subjective call — Canadian television is more cost-effective, more nationally and internationally commercial, and vastly more significant to our daily lives.
Hell yeah, Canadian television is better than Canadian film. Better certainly for the consumer, and in many respects for the creator as well.
(Note: The industries discussed herein are specifically English-language. In French Canada, this argument is moot. Their television and movies are both better.)
IT’S FREE. Or as close as you’re going to get to free, for the one-time cost of an external antenna, or amortized over the selection of channels you get with your cable or satellite subscription, and/or access online through your internet provider.
HOW DO THEY DO IT? VOLUME! No matter how much you love a movie, that relationship ends with the closing credits. When it’s over, it’s over, barring sequels or remakes, which the American industry may thrive on, but Canadian film rarely merits and can hardly afford.
To be fair, Canadian movies do have a viable afterlife. On television.
A TV series will last at least a few months — not even the CBC can kill it quicker than that. You’re free to make a commitment, to emotionally invest, which can admittedly be something of a two-edged sword. Case in point, the tragically short-lived Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, rightfully nominated for eight of the newly minted Canadian Screen Awards this weekend. But even in this case, you got six hours, not one and a half.
On the other hand, you have the various Degrassis, which have endured on the air here and around the world for three and a half decades.
TELEVISION TRAVELS WELL. Canadian movies tend to be more specifically idiosyncratic, and thus a somewhat harder sell internationally. Our landmark sitcom Corner Gas, which is arguably just as distinctly Canadian, was successfully syndicated in 26 countries.
International co-productions exist in both media, but with television the odds are infinitely better that our foreign friends will get significant return on their investment.
THE 300-POUND GORILLA. You can’t ignore the fact that Canadians would generally rather watch American TV shows than our own. It’s not exactly a level playing field.
Movies will never be able to significantly compete. But our television has of late particularly excelled at taking on our American cousins at their own game.
Flashpoint. Lost Girl. Rookie Blue. Saving Hope. The Tudors. The Borgias . . . need I go on?
YOU DON’T HAVE TO LEAVE THE HOUSE. Canadian movies tend to have limited runs in small, sparsely situated art-house venues, at best, and one-off showcase festival screenings. Blink and you miss them. Assuming you can find them.
Canadian television finds you. It comes right to your door. No parking, no standing in line, no trudging through snow. No over-priced espresso. No chatty cineastes to shush. No bum-numbing, elbow-to-elbow row seating — just the comfort of your own couch or big, comfy chair.
And if you do venture out, you can take TV with you, to watch on your laptop, your pad or your pod.
Filmmakers are inherently appalled by those options. Television producers, more inclined to the long view, are more than happy to oblige.
TELEVISION TRIES HARDER. Movies are a fait accompli. TV is a work in progress.
Movies exist outside after-the-fact feedback; word of mouth always gets the last word. They cannot respond to public and critical opinion, good or bad. They can only wait, powerless, for the box-office to correspondingly rise or fall.
Television can learn and grow. As indeed it must, to ensure its continued existence. Success is measured in advertising revenue, which is based on ratings, which, when they start to dip, can immediately be acted upon.
I’m not saying that they are. But the opportunity is there.
Now let’s get back to my original contention — that without Canadian television there would be no Canadian film.
You don’t have to take my word for it. I went to the country’s most influential deal-maker, Michael Levine, a familiar fostering figure in both screen media, ranging from Republic of Doyle to Life of Pi.
“My view is that at the moment we have a far stronger television industry than we do a feature film industry,” he says, “though there are exceptions, and there is a tremendous amount of talent around that would really like to see one develop.”
So what does all that talent do while they’re running around, pursuing that elusive next Canadian movie deal? And where did many of them develop and continue to hone the skills with which to make them?
“There is no question that what television has provided us has been an enormous labour infrastructure of experienced technicians at virtually every level,” acknowledges Levine, “whether it’s gaffers or cameramen, directors, whatever. Even some of our feature filmmakers, like a Jeremy Podeswa, or a Clement Virgo, they make a lot of their money actually directing American TV shows.”
CONFRONTING THE GORILLA INSIDE HIS OWN CAGE. But these days there’s more to it than that, a massive cultural tectonic shift that is obliterating borders and mashing together media into a single, unified, consumable entity.
Mainstream American movies have become overinflated mall-bound 3D popcorn pap. American network television is scrambling for safety under the encroaching shadow of cable — which for the first time shut out network dramas at last year’s Emmys by completely monopolizing the category.
“Basically, the feature film industry has turned into cartoons in America,” Levine concurs. “To a great extent, the quality that we would have looked for in the feature film industry is actually now being best exhibited in the cable industry. It’s the HBOs and the Showtimes and the Starz and the AMCs, not the feature film industry, and not the over-the-air television networks, that are actually providing the greatest quality.
“And remember something else that’s important. Technology is merging the screens. I’ll go back to a contention that I make when I lecture, and that is that I do not approach any project as a book or a film or a television series. I approach it as a piece of intellectual property and a piece of storytelling that can appear in multiple forms.”
And there you have it. It’s not a question of better. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Our problems are mostly mutual. Our goals essentially the same. If this weekend’s freshly amalgamated Canadian Screen Awards can teach us anything, it’s that together we are more than the sum of two parts.
And what could be “better” than that?
© Toronto Star