o be a Canadian film producer you need one important skill: The ability to fill out application forms. This is because there is no actual Canadian film industry. An industry being a group of businesses that produce and sell goods. Canadian movies don’t turn a profit. They aren’t a product. They’re make-work programs financed by government agencies.
But that doesn’t stop the greenest and most naïve of us from trying to make great things.
I didn’t go to film school. Wasn’t part of the community. My community was global. I was an online entertainer. So when I decided I wanted to make features, I didn’t know the traditions. The rules. I foolishly wrote an action movie that I wanted to produce here in Canada.
Quick– Name your favorite Canadian action movie!
Yeah. Exactly. None the less, I wrote one. And it was good. Low budget, high concept. Something that really stood out up here. Unfortunately , however, despite literally hundreds of thousands of fans online, I was not recognized as a bona fide film producer by any Canadian financing agencies. And without a producer, my script wasn’t going anywhere.
The Canadian Producer (TCP) had the opposite problem. He wasn’t a writer. Didn’t have any scripts. But through a technicality, he was eligible for government feature film financing. Despite having no narrative nor theatrical film experience whatsoever. Bureaucracy in action.
He came across my script and we met. I liked him. He was charismatic. As we walked through his hood to a café, he waved hello to neighbours. A really nice guy. Qualities I did not possess. Qualities that would compliment my own.
I recognized at the time that he didn’t seem terribly quick witted. It was arrogant in retrospect, but at the time I counted this as an asset. If he was dumber than me, he’d be easier to control. Yup. It’s not pretty. Vulgar even. But my brain is predisposed to strategic thinking. Assessments like this happen on an instinctual level. Instincts are not always correct.
TCP had the application form. I had the script. We decided to go after our share of tax dollars. He’d handle the business and I’d handle the creative. Fifty fifty co-producers. We agreed. Looked each other in the eyes. Shook hands.
But here’s the thing. You can’t navigate a bureaucracy on a gentlemen’s agreement. Of the two of us, TCP was the only qualified producer by the funding agency’s standard. And in the film business, producers are the owners of the project. Even in Canada, despite it not really being a for-profit industry. So though we shook on being partners, we couldn’t apply for funding as such.
He would have to option my script. On paper. Become its de facto owner. Just to keep up appearances.
Even though the script was written and we were both happy with it, our first step was to apply for development financing. A rewrite grant. This is the system up here. A producer makes a series of applications on behalf of a writer for development financing. Round after round of unnecessary rewrites to get paid as much as possible. To get the financing agencies so invested that they can’t help but see a project through. More often than not this leads to the time honored tradition of throwing good money after bad.
Welfare program for unemployable filmmakers that it is, the Canadian system does require producers to bring some token cash to the table. But TCP didn’t have any cash. Could barely afford rent. I sympathized. So we made another handshake deal. If we got the development financing, I would forfeit a quarter of it to him so that he could appear to be solvent.
Beg, cheat, steal, commit fraud – you do what it takes. And bravo to a system that nurtures this kind of thing.
Papers signed; back room deals to override them; we sent off our application.
Two months later we got our response. We were in. Project accepted. First step, they cut us a check. I was officially a professional writer.
Second step, TCP wrote me a bogus invoice for consulting services and I gave him a quarter of my development money. I was officially a criminal.
We were on our way. The next application would be for production funding. Within a year I could be getting paid to direct. It was the best feeling in the world. The cash in my pocket wasn’t bad either.
It wasn’t until we began meeting about the mandatory rewrite that I started spotting cracks TCP’s veneer.
He had no narrative sensibilities whatsoever. Almost as if he’d never actually seen a film. Which was great. Creative control was all me. Mental inferiority, remember? Egomaniacal writer at the helm. He was just the “business” guy. The application form guy. None the less, he had suggestions. His first: We should write a couple of iPods into the script. Then, after the production, we’d both have iPods.
Cracks in the veneer.
We watched some movies together for reference material. He fell asleep within fifteen minutes of the opening credits every time.
We attended mandatory government lectures and panel discussions. (They don’t hand out checks without hoops). And again: He’d be out like a light. Right there in the front row. To my embarrassment, I had to wake him. Constantly.
Then he informed me that he was going to be unreachable for the better part of a week. Admitted to me that to make ends meet he often submitted himself to human drug trials. Often. That he’d be in a lab under observation for a few days.
It wasn’t until the street fair that I really started to worry. I found him surrounded by a circle of tourists. A version of three card monte. This puzzle that he could easily solve but was unexpectedly difficult for the uninitiated. He’d call out to the crowd like a carny. Bet them they couldn’t solve it. If they could, he’d quadruple their bet. It was a scam. He was literally grifting.
On paper, this was the man who owned the best script I’d ever written.
(To be continued in part 2 of 3)