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Precarious establishment: Cinema Canada article from 1978 about Canadian independent film production in the 1970s

Precarious establishment

Cinema Canada, No. 49-50 (September-October 1978), pp. 44-47.

[I’ve made minor copy-editing corrections and have added headings.]

Click here to access the online version of the article >

Jaan Pill talked with some of the older hands in Toronto, and gives us a thumbnail sketch of some of the companies, the projects and the preoccupations of these 16mm filmmakers.

by Jaan Pill

What does it take to survive as an independent producer in Canada’s non-theatrical industry?

Jaan Pill talked with some of the older hands in Toronto, and gives us a thumbnail sketch of some of the companies, the projects and the preoccupations of these 16mm filmmakers.

[Introduction]

What does it take to survive as an independent producer in Canada’s non-theatrical industry?

The answer that kept recurring among the independent producers I spoke to – both those featured here and ones left out of this survey because of space limitations – is that for the independent, the film business is first of all a business. And survival in that business simply means success at selling your services, products and ideas. Period.

Many of the producers originally had their start with CBC or NFB, where the requirements for survival are usually of a vastly different order. When you’re on a govemment payroll your salary often has no direct relation to productivity as measured by your products. And your production costs often don’t have a direct relation to your film’s selling price .

One issue that came up over and over was the Film Board ‘s pricing policies for its educational films. The Board argues that it has cornered only 10 per cent of the largely American­ dominated education and library market – and that it’s opening up the market for Canadian producers by selling its pro­ducts cheaply. But many independents, such as Insight’s Pen Densham, argue that as a private entrepreneur you can develop a production that happens to parallel a Board production – and then find that the Board sells film at a third of your own selling price. “The American competition,” he says, “at least is a healthy competition, in that it’s going at the same prices .”

Another issue is the Board’s control of government sponsored films. While the independents speak highly of the efforts that Walford (Wally) Hewitson of the Sponsored Pro­gramme Division has made to improve relations between the two sectors on this issue, many of them also call for legis­lation – such as deletion of clauses 9 and 11 from the National Film Act – to further decrease the NFB monopoly. As Graeme Fraser of Crawley’s points out, the film medium could be sold much more widely to government departments if the Board didn’t stand in the way.

The immediate concern of most producers, however, is the CBC, whose $500-million budget dwarfs the Film Board’s budget under $50-million.

The independents – through the revitalized Canadian Film and Television Association increasingly acting as one voice that speaks for the entire industry – are pushing for a vastly improved deal for the taxpayer by requiring the CBC to buy instead of make their own productions – and they’re making their point with a sales presentation in the fonn of a unique film directed at senior decision-makers in Ottawa.

Jaan Pill

[End of introduction]

Crawley Films

Crawley Films Limited was founded by Frank Radford (‘Budge’) Crawley in Ottawa in 1939.

Crawley Films has now made over 2500 films including sponsored films for just about everybody and also features as well as 700 commercials and promos. And it has won over 200 national and world awards including an Oscar (1976) for The Man Who Skied Down Everest.

The parachute opens in Crawley's The Man Who Skied Down Everest.

The parachute opens in Crawley’s The Man Who Skied Down Everest.

Also, Crawley Films is a member of ‘IQ’ – International Quorum of Motion Picture Producers – an association of major international producers, who use each others’ services when producing outside their home countries. Crawley’s vice president Graeme Fraser is an IQ past president.

Of CBC, Crawley notes that “They’re subsidized 500 million dollars a year. Nobody knows how it’s really deployed. They’re just absolutely hagridden [sic] with overhead.” The solu­tion, he says, would be to cut the budget in half. “The pro­grams would be better. They’ve got such an overhead of use­less people. That’s their trouble. It’s empire building like you wouldn’t believe.”

Chetwynd Films

Chetwynd Films Limited was founded in 1950 by Arthur Chetwynd, who till then had been teaching physical and health education at the University of Toronto.

The company’s first productions were coaching, education­al and Red Cross films, followed by several years of childrens’ shows for CBC.

Chetwynd Films made football films for Big Four football teams untill 10 years ago, has made Grey Cup films since 1947, and films for the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede since 1952.

Sports films make up a third of the business. Also acci­dent prevention, medical films and lots of travel films are produced. Over 3000 films all told to date have been made.

Grand Prix Canada 1967: Robert Brooks CSC, at that time Chetwynd Film's Photography Director (and now President of Robert Brooks Associates) gives instructions to Jack Brabham on the operation of Chetwynd's helmet camera.

Grand Prix Canada 1967: Robert Brooks CSC, at that time Chetwynd Film’s photography director (and now president of Robert Brooks Associates) gives instructions to Jack Brabham on the operation of Chetwynd’s helmet camera.

Chetwynd stresses that the non-theatrical business is “a communications business, pure and simple” – which ex­plains, for example, why the company is involved with things like the Canadian Schenley football awards, where it stages a two-hour show combining film, live music and speeches.

And finally Chetwynd Films is very much a family com­pany – employing Arthur Cbetwynd, his wife Marjory and son Robin (who’s now the owner and president) .

Westminster Films

Westminster Films Limited has been in business since 1958 and has made strictly sponsored drama, industrial and do­cumentary films. “Name it, we’ve done it,” says production coordinator Margaret Beadle.

It has also produced slides and multi-screen productions, such as the 6 1/2 hour communications seminar show for Bell Canada.

Don Haldane and Lee Gordon are the two owners. Hal­dane is currently coordinating the Discovery Train (for the NFB), a special train sponsored by the National Museums and comprised of ten museum cars depicting scenes from Canadian history that will travel across Canada for the next five years.

Haldane is Westminster’s president. Lee Gordon, who both directs and produces, serves as executive vice-president. Also Keith Harley does model animation and special effects.

Westminster has six permanent staff members plus free­lance technicians and cameramen. It has always been a me­dium-sized film house. Gordon and Haldane prefer its size to that of an expanding company, as it allows them to be personally involved with each project.

Quinn Laboratories

Quinn Laboratories Limited was started in 1968 by Findlay Quinn who had his start in 1946 when he joined the Film Board. In the war he served as an RCAF squadron gunnery officer who used films for training and as a result became interested in filmmaking.

In 1957 he left the Board to run Transworld Film Labs in Montreal.

Around this time it happened that Bob Crone, a producer, director, cameraman, soundman in Toronto, was regularly sending work to Montreal. Crone decided to form a service unit and contacted Quinn for the lab and Len Green for sound division. The result was Film House.

Some years later, both Quinn and Green left, and Quinn started Quinn Labs. (Green now runs the NFB sound divi­sion.)

Findlay J. Quinn

Findlay J. Quinn

The sound division of Quinn Labs – Mirrophonic Sound – was started in 1974. Quinn is president of Canadian Film and Television Association and has had a major role in its revitalization. (He credits his predecessors Harold Eady and Gunter Henning for getting the ball rolling.)

I asked Quinn for an estimate on annual dollar volume for the industry. He put it at $100 million for all the projects that CFTA covers. He says that features are about 25 per­cent of dollar volume. Estimates from other sources were in the same range.

During the preparation of this issue of Cinema Canada, Quinn Labs were sold to Film House. We chose not to edit the copy but to let it stand, a tribute to Finn Quinn and his contribu­tion to the industry. Ed.

KEG Productions

KEG, started in 1964, is named after the three principal shareholders – G.S. Kedey, Ralph Ellis and Dan Gibson.

KEG’s TV wildlife series – Audubon Wildlife Theater – has never been off the air since 1969. The series, which has been shown in about 40 countries, was financed through presales based on pilots.

KEG also produced Wildlife Cinema, another wildlife series for TV, along with To The Wild Country -and a feature film, Wings of the Wilderness.

Ralph Ellis serves as KEG’s executive producer. Like Arthur Chetwynd and Findlay Quinn at the end of World War II, he went directly from RCAF in to the film business. And like Quinn, he began with the Film Board. He stayed on for 8 1/2 years, ending up in New York as the Board’s United States sales distribution manager.

After leaving NFB he founded Freemantle of Canada Limited , an international distribution company in Toronto, whose holdings he sold 7 years later.

Right now KEG is relatively dormant. In 1968 Ellis had formed a production company, Manitou Productions Limited, for Adventures in Rainbow Country, a dramatic series for children. He presold the series in England, Australia and Canada on a presentation basis to get the money to produce it.

Dan Gibson with his nature family in KEG Productions' feature film Wings in the Wilderness.

Dan Gibson with his nature family in KEG Productions’ feature film Wings in the Wilderness.

Ellis [is] reactivating Manitou to co-produce with CBC Wild Canada, a series of 13 hour-long TV specials to run for a four year period , starring John and Janet Foster, Dan Gibson’s producer on the series.

Along with Manitou, Ellis has a distribution company, Ralph C. Ellis Enterprises Limited , that brings TV series such as Upstairs, Downstairs into Canada.

International Cinemedia

International Cinemedia Center Limited began in Montreal in 1969 when Joseph Koenig, John Kemeny and George Kaczender left the National Film Board.

Koenig says that before he joined the Board in the early ’50s, he was a reporter for some trade papers in Montreal. He began as a writer for NFB educational film strips, then moved to educational films.

Looking back, he’s pleased he had to make a living on the outside before he went to work for the Board.

“A lot of people didn’t and still don’t have that experience and it’s a serious – a very serious – problem.”

At the Board, Koenig directed films like Origins of Weather and Climates of North America, both of which gained wide­ spread popularity.

Among the films he produced were Cosmic Zoom and Imperial Sunset.

International Cinemedia has made sponsored films as well as features including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and White Line Fever (a successful movie about truckers for Columbia in which “All the good guys have funny names and don’t wear ties and all the bad guys wear ties, speak good English and have paintings on their walls.”)

Koenig stresses that his company’s first job is to sell communication. For example much of its educational work in­volves 35 mm film strips. “We’ve found it’s very important ,”Koenig says, “because the market for 16mm films … has simply dried up.”

Joe Koenig. Jaan Pill photo

Joseph Koenig’s first job is to “sell communications.” Jaan Pill photo

They’ve moved into the print (as in paper and ink) medium too. “We ‘ve got to provide communication stuff. We can’t just be movie makers. We find that’s not what people want to buy. They want to buy a service.”

The company moved its head office to Toronto in 1977. Kemeny, who is its president, is in Los Angeles concentrating on features.

Insight Productions

Insight Productions was launched by John Watson and Pen Densham in 1970 with a series of fillers for CBC.

They’ve recently produced several TV specials including Toller, World of Wizards and Stallone, The Million-to-One Shot.

The latter film resulted from Densham’s stint as ‘intern’ to Norman Jewison in Hollywood on F.I.S.T., the feature starring Sylvester Stallone.

Insight divided the past year between Toronto and Holly­wood – where Universal hired it to do a documentary on Stallone’s new feature, Paradise Alley. Instead of using in­terviews with actors, Insight wrote lines which the characters deliver as if they were actually stepping out of the film for a moment to talk to the audience .

Impressed with the results, Universal then hired the com­pany to do the feature’s product reel and trailers.

Insight finds such projects “an ideal opportunity to dis­cover the inner workings of a successful major films corpora­tion.”

John Watson, Malcolm Bricklin and Pen Densham during an Insight shoot.

John Watson, Malcolm Bricklin and Pen Densham during an Insight shoot.

Recently, Insight cut back on staff and production in Toronto – to ensure that they stay personally involved with each film instead of becoming a film factory. As well, they want to concentrate on projects pointed toward international­ sale TV specials and features.

Concerning the National Film Board, Densham says that independents working for them are learning to please produ­cers, when they really should be out learning to please audiences.

Nelvana Limited

Nelvana Limited was formed in 1971; the principals are Patrick Loubert, Clive Smith and Michael Hirsch.

As result of the success of its animated TV special A Cosmic Christmas, Nelvana is now moving along with The Devil and Darnel Mouse, which will run on CBC and Radio­ Canada and on the same American stations that carried Cos­mic.

Nelvana 's new TV special, The Devil and Daniel Mouse

Weez Weezel yields a gavel while Beelzebub promotes rock ‘n roll in Nelvana ‘s new TV special, The Devil and Daniel Mouse.

As well, George Lucas has selected Nelvana to do the first animation of several Star Wars characters – 10 minutes of animation for a 90-minute TV special produced in Los Angeles.

And it has received a script-development grant from CFDC for an animated feature.

Meanwhile Nelvana continues with live-action industrial and educational films and a series of half-hour family entertainment documentaries.

[End of article]

Comment

Around 1976 I submitted a feature article to Cinema Canada about Insight Productions, which had been founded in 1970. My sense was that they were a great company and warranted coverage in the magazine. It was a beautiful article. I was very happy with it.

However, the feeling among key people at the magazine was, in so many words (and I paraphrase): “Yes, a successful company – they did get an Academy Award nomination for Life Times Nine, etc., but they’re not the kind of outfit that we want to publicize. Sorry.”

I was amazed at the response. I thought: “Wow. What kind of a country is this?” Fortunately, in the years that followed I was able to sneak in stories about Insight Productions, such as in the 1978 “Precarious establishment” article, without any complaints from anybody.

I’m really pleased that some articles, that I wrote many years ago, are available online as archival resources.

When I re-read the “Precarious establishment” article some months ago, after a researcher (Robert Lansdale) contacted me, what stayed in mind for me was a comment from Pen Densham:

“Concerning the National Film Board, Densham says that independents working for them are learning to please produ­cers, when they really should be out learning to please audiences.”

Eventually Pen Densham and John Watson sold Insight Productions, which is now a highly successful broadcast company. The two filmmakers moved to Hollywood, where they achieved outstanding success.

Joe Koenig

Some of the things that people said, I only realize the import of what they said now, these many years later.

With regard to comments, on a recent re-reading of the article, I also enjoyed a quote from Joe Koenig in the 1978 Cinema Canada article:

“Looking back, he’s pleased he had to make a living on the outside before he went to work for the [National Film] Board.

” ‘A lot of people didn’t and still don’t have that experience and it’s a serious – a very serious – problem.’ ”

Koenig also stresses, in the 1978 Cinema Canada article, that his company’s first job is to sell communication.

I remember few things about interviewing people for the 1978 article at their homes or offices. I do, however, remember that when I interviewed Joe Koenig at his home, I had misplaced my wristwatch and had taken along a wind-up alarm clock to keep track of time. I was sitting, maybe in Joe Koenig’s backyard and all at once I take out this clunky, metal alarm clock out of some equipment bag, and check the time. Joe’s son, who was about 12 at the time, was taken aback by the sight of this guy checking his alarm clock. He said something like, “Whoa – you carry around an alarm clock to tell you what time it is?”

 

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2 Responses to Precarious establishment: Cinema Canada article from 1978 about Canadian independent film production in the 1970s

  1. Jaan Pill Jaan Pill says:

    With regard to working to please audiences, as contrasted to working to please producers, I would say that CBC has on the whole done a great job in reaching the audiences, despite many challenges that it has faced and continues to face as a broadcaster.

  2. Jaan Pill Jaan Pill says:

    With regard to the topic of documentaries, a Sept. 8, 2016 CBC The Current article is entitled: “All Governments Lie documentary takes aim at mainstream media.”

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