My “Self-described Creative” Life

I take my title from John Doyle’s recent column in the Globe and Mail on the CRTC’s new decision to reduce the point system for Canadian content in order to allow producers to hire more “attractive” creative talent. And by that they mean American talent. Writers, directors, and actors. Why? Because Netflix. Netflix “broadcasts” for free, pays no taxes, and contributes nothing to Canadian production. They are the Uber of the broadcast world.

I am being bombarded with emails from my union, ACTRA, exhorting me to stand up for Canadian content and have been swept up in the Twitter and Facebook wars, including a clash with Mr. Doyle himself. More on that later.

Doyle’s article is the usual banal take on CanCon from the G&M: the CRTC is bad as is all government intervention in free markets, and Canadian content makers are using tax payer dollars to dig their own grave by making bad tv. Nothing we haven’t heard before. Yawn. But one paragraph stands out:

Reaction was swift from the self-described “creatives” in the Canadian industry. Outrage, anger, despair and more outrage. Using Facebook and Twitter, some are claiming they will walk away from the industry. Others are saying they’re heading for Los Angeles because employment opportunity in the Canadian business is now considerably diminished. Some of this reaction borders on hysteria. Some of it is anchored in a kind of happy-clappy nationalism beloved of children, not thinking adults.

Forget the misogyny bred into the last two sentences: Creatives are hysterical (female) children, not thinking (male) adults. I am both an academic (thinking) and an actor (hysterical) so I thought I might be well positioned to respond to this, because in a sense he is right: I am a “self-described” creative. I’ll tell you what I mean at the end.

Recently, I sat in an MBA classroom at York University listening to Peter Grant speak at us (he wasn’t interested in questions, really) about the history of CanCon, a system over which he rightfully claims authorship. Mr Grant is the lawyer who “invented” communications law in Canada and he is no slouch. He even wrote the books on the subject. I know this because he held up one of them whenever he made a point, invoking the gospel, as it were. He explained how modern CanCon came into existence. It seems that after the GATT agreement was signed, the American networks and studios made it clear that they were coming into Canada and were prepared to shoot at the whites of our eyes. The Americans filed a complaint against Canada with the WTO for protecting its broadcasting industries. This scared the then-players in the tv business. They formed a “committee” designed to address the problem, much like Minister Joly has recently done.

Grant’s knowledge of the complexities of the CanCon system is literally mindboggling and I won’t go into it all here because my mind is boggled. You can read about it in chapter 21 of this book. But there are a few things that stand out as relevant to this discussion: the role of artists in negotiating these terms.

The first roadblock Grant and his clients encountered in their quest to protect their markets were the artist’s unions (See page 343 of his chapter). They were “politically intransigent”, Grant told us. Too “happy-clappy”, as Doyle would say. They had to be moved out of the way and so they were, apparently with ease. The next step was to find a legal solution to protect their market.

Grant found an ally (patsy?) in UNESCO, a group of U.N.-style culture warriors comprised of “academics and artists; no teeth” as Grant characterized them. UNESCO had a little known clause supporting a country’s right to protect its cultural diversity. Now UNESCO does not make laws, only suggestions. So Grant and his team of rich white dudes began a long, slogging, and utterly brilliant international campaign to have the ENTIRE FUCKING WORLD adopt an international declaration of cultural diversity that would supersede any trade pacts. And they did it. They outmanoeuvred and isolated the U.S.. It is a feat worthy of a parade. It is also evil.

CanCon, under this set up, has little to do with the old NFB mandate to “Show Canada to Canadians” or whatever that was, than it does with “I got mine”. What it did was legally allow a protected market for those players at the table who used it to build their companies and then cash out to the tune of billions in the great “convergence” drive of the early ‘90's. None of them are in the game anymore. But I’m sure the golf is good wherever they are.

In fact, telling Canadian stories to Canadians, or Cultural Diversity, as the UNESCO treaty calls it, is a red herring. It is a story that cultural industry executives are more than happy to let the unions chew on because it has literally no effect on this conversation —because it was never part of the formula to begin with. It’s just a ruse.

Except for this: Grant had a secret agenda. He is a booster of Canadian production. Grant is actually the hero of this story because he did one thing that still resonates: while setting the table for the big dogs to fill their pockets, he ingeniously forced them to knowingly cut tiny holes in those very pockets. The change that trickled out and hit the floor has funded Canadian Content for over 30 years. He created a “cultural tool kit” that became an international standard and that broadcast executives and government were forced to endorse and support.

For the most part, his plan has been a brilliant success. Canadian television boomed. Americans forgot their grudge and came here to make shows in droves. It was a boon to the unions and to creative workers like myself. We not only had a self-gratifying rallying cry, “Canadian Stories Told By Canadians”, we had jobs. Combined with the onslaught of American production that sought to make us as good as they needed us to be, we built careers and became middle class. We bought houses, raised kids, paid taxes. We became very good at what we did. So good that some of us were swept off to Hollywood to play with the big boys. The rest of us by choice or by design stayed here and worked side-by-side with the best in the world.

In the middle of all this lived poor little Canadian television. I say poor because not only was Canadian production protected by CanCon rules, guaranteeing them airtime, they also had sweetheart deals with the unions guaranteeing them access to below market rates for our labour. They called upon the happy-clappiness of nationalism for a discount and got it, no questions asked. It was a happy marriage for the most part. The Canadian networks licensed American hits to sell to Canadians, and we were more or less left to ourselves to invent scripted drama. It was all so fun and naive in those days.

But soon even we “creatives” became too in demand and too expensive. We also wanted fame. Fame creates choices. It bestows power. Canadian networks loath fame because it means they lose control. Think of the fallout of the Ghomeshi affair. Not just content to attack the problem of powerful, male sexual predators in the work place, much noise was made about a “culture” of stardom at the CBC. Linden MacIntyre wrote:

It’s never been much of a secret that popularity and celebrity are potentially dangerous because, along with the illusions of success, they foster artificial hierarchies of power and influence. When egotism and narcissism become factors in success, we will invariably find abuse.

Follow the bouncing ball: hysterical, children, celebrity, narcissism, ego, abuse.

This is a country of hockey player heroes. Humble guys who speak with prairie twangs, credit their teammates, and talk about working hard. We “creatives” are a dangerous breed. We cannot be tamed. We are voracious narcissists who cannot focus on intelligent, reasonable outcomes. Success, for us, is an illusion because there is never enough to satisfy. We are to be disciplined, dismissed, controlled. Better yet, we are to be blamed when things go badly. Kind of like the Scarlett Letter, or R.A. Dickey’s capricious knuckleball.

Here is the Facebook exchange that Doyle launched with his article. His final rebuke is extremely telling.

Wow, huh? Turns out we creatives are a little stalky too.

But this isn’t just about Canadians, it’s about Americans, too. They are here in record numbers and we are working for them. Happily, I might add. I have nothing against Americans and want to note that they have few if any problems working with us. They like finding talent. In fact, I would say they are largely responsible for my life and career.

I studied acting in New York because that is where acting made sense to me. I’ve worked almost exclusively for American networks and studios. I’ve had dinner with several network execs, all bright, interesting people who have spent a lot of time figuring out how I do what I do for a living. Many of them started life as a “creative”. Les Moonves, head of CBS, is a graduate of my theatre school, the Neighbourhood Playhouse. He was an actor, then a writer, then a development exec, then a minor deity. Sorry… major deity. A stand-up comedian used to run HBO.

I loved being in the States. I watched several friends rise and keep rising. Tonys, Oscars, Emmys, houses on Venice Beach. Priuses In the garage. But I didn’t want what they had because I also saw so many extremely talented people disappear. Gone. Not even a breath of air to their career aspirations. I felt the riptide under my feet every time I went there. Success in the U.S. requires talent, sure, but also lots of luck. I didn’t feel lucky. So I chose to come back to Canada for work. It hasn’t been easy.

I did one show for CTV. I won a Gemini for it. I’ve never worked for them again. In fact, I was fired from a CTV series before it went to pilot. Ivan Fecan said he wouldn’t make the show with me in the lead. The show became very successful and I went back to school to pursue a PhD and a somewhat different life. Every time I walk into York I see Fecan’s name above the theatre that he helped fund. Good guy. Generous. Supports the arts. Who’s to say it didn’t go the way it was supposed to?

The good news was that on the day my agent called to tell me I was done on the show (I knew it was coming), he told me I had an offer for a mini-series. A big budget American series called The Andromeda Strain. Viola Davis and I were the only unknowns in the main cast. Boy, has that changed. I had a chair with my name on it. People on the set in Vancouver thought I was American. Boy, did they treat me well. When they found out I was local (I had just moved to Vancouver) I thought they would turn. Instead, they told me how proud they were that a local guy got a job like that.

I went to LA for an industry screening and premiere of the show. After the screening, I was chatting with David Zucker, the executive producer whose company had produced the show (His partners were the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony). We had hit it off. He started as a playwright in New York (see where I’m going with this?). He asked what I was going to do next. I mumbled about moving to L.A. And without missing a beat he said “Don’t. Don’t do it. There is nothing here worth giving up your life for. We know where you are. We can bring you anywhere. It’s just not worth it.” The myth of L.A. is alive and well in Canada only, it seems.

Zucker kept his word. I’ve worked for him again. I worked with the director, a two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer named Mikael Salomon several times. The last was a couple of weeks ago. I know his wife and kids. He knows mine. He made me a better actor by showing me how to make everything I’m doing visible to the camera. It’s a subtle art. I owe him this last part of my career.

I’ve also had two other major turning points in my career that came at the hands of Americans. But they weren’t Americans, you see, they were Canadians working at the top of the American industry. They were Lionel Chetwynd and Daniel Petrie Jr. They hired me for big jobs when I could barely get an audition. They tried to hire me again several times after that. Why? Because they wanted to help a talented Canadian get a leg up in a ruthless business.

We are a small player in a big world, but we have friends and allies in each other. And we can take a page from Americans. They are hungry for the new thing. They want excellence, and they believe in and understand talent. But they also support their own. I witnessed that during the old “Blame Canada” days, when I was asked by producers to sneak myself over the border to continue working on a show. SAG had tipped off U.S. Customs that we were coming and they were stopping us at the border. I rented a car and convinced the agent to give me two contracts, one a drop-off in New York City, one a return. I booked a hotel in New York for three days. We drove down, dropped off the car. The production sent our plane tickets. We flew out West the next day. The show was nominated for several Emmys. I’ve never seen or heard from the producers again. They even declined to pick up our restaurant tab for our night in New York. Keep in mind that we were not bit part players. We were leads along with well-known American actors. You’ve noticed that I have named names for the most part in this. I won’t here.

Like I said, I have nothing against Americans working in Canada or against those shows getting Canadian tax credits. But I don’t mind saying I do have a bias against hiring Americans on Canadian shows. I’ve earned the right to first choice. And ask the Americans I work for: I’m as good as anyone you will find down there.

Don’t get me wrong, culture and art funding are good things. But they will always be subject to political will. And that political will has consequences and blind spots. Here’s the best article I’ve read about the current climate of arts funding and policy in Canada. Sadly, it was written by an American journalist, which brings me back to Mr. Doyle and the role of the Canadian media in all this.

National Post op-ed columnist Andrew Coyne weighed in on the CanCon thing, although he didn’t wait for the CRTC decision to come down. He’s sharper than most of us and saw it coming a while ago. He got much right in his analysis, but I take sharp issue with some of his premises. Firstly, my brain will turn to sludge if I have to read the CD Howe report on the broadcast industry to form a rebuttal. But lemme guess what they think: free market for goods and services and the invisible hand will cure all. Whatever. But one comment Coyne makes goes a long way to explaining the problem we “creatives” have with the media in this country.

for art is universal, in the way that news, for example, is not

He works for a newspaper, The National Post, which is suffering greatly under the yoke of an American owner. He would know about the fight for life that Canadian journalism is undergoing. But his implication is this: my job is important to local democracy. Yours ain’t. The universality of art is a hoary old fairy tail from the early Modern age designed to exalt the role of the critic and the institutions of art (I see you Mr. Doyle). I’m writing an entire dissertation about the problem of Modern aesthetics, performance, and culture and won’t bore you with the details. But suffice to say that art is not universal, it is decidedly, passionately, and necessarily local. It is as much about the place and people who make it as it is about the place and people who engage with it. Like news stories about Donald Trump (God help us), art may travel the globe, but it always comes from somewhere specific and is read, heard, seen, and felt somewhere specific as well.

So how can “creatives” be both hysterically connected to their bodies, and universal and transcendent at the same time? How can we be both local and global? Good question. No answer to that one. But we do have to answer the question of how to form policy in the face of it. And the first mistake is to exclude the “self-described creatives”.

“Creative” has become a buzzword in neoliberal parlance. Creative cities, creative campuses, creative accountants. God help us again but even creative producers. Culture exists to attract business, to make workers happy so that they spend more and work harder, they tell us. It makes innovation, launches new products. The problem with us “self-described creatives” is that sometimes we don’t add up to money. Sometimes creativity means failure more than success. So unless The cost of failure is built into the model, we can never hope for a successful outcome. American networks and studios know this. Their answer is to hire the best talent, and continuously search for and develop new talent to answer the call. Most importantly, they don’t allow other people to dominate their turf. Good luck dealing with the CAA’s and WME’s of the world, my friends.

Creativity and failure can also mean messy people. We are given to rants, raves, and happy-clappy fervour. I’ve watched it time and again on sets and in theatres. (I’ve watched big American tantrums too. If anyone thinks hiring Americans is going to make the creative personality disappear, they are sadly mistaken.)

The creative industries are industries like no other. We clearly know this. But what differentiates them is not the product, or the distribution systems, or our ability to walk red carpets at TIFF like they do in Hollywood. It isn’t funding bodies and the colour of the money spent or even the way we spell colour. It is the labour. The creative labour that makes the shows is what makes Canadian television Canadian.

Imagine a governing body deciding that foreign workers would help the newspaper or auto industry be more competitive. There would be blood in the streets. Our industry gets away with attacking us because they have allies in projecting and supporting an image of greed and narcissism onto us. Allies like John Doyle. Because Mr. Doyle, a self-described “messenger”, is actually a hatchet-man, doing his best to stir up passions and point us away from doing anything that would actually effect the debate. He works for the man, so to speak. As for his paper, I guess we can conclude that they support the creative industries, but not the creatives.

The CanCon system is designed to help risk averse companies protect their markets. This new policy helps them spread their risk even wider by allowing them to hire names that, they believe, will lead to pre-production sales. They want the profits in the bank before they spend a dime making the shows. It also destabilizes the labour market. Take out the top of the field, and you devalue the price of Canadian labour as a whole. This policy is not an attack on Canadian-ness, it is an attack on the middle class and its aspirants, a class the Trudeau government has sworn to protect. It is union busting, pure and simple.

I am a sort-of-unknown actor who lives a nice middle class life. I’ve worked with the best in the world and continue to be in demand. I am a “self-described” creative in this country only because I am neither excessively wealthy or remotely famous. “Real” creatives are rich and famous.

I fear not for my future because I am well-known in my industry. The studios and networks like me, respect my work, and hire me (okay, so not all of them. Hallmark really does NOT like me. The CBC too. And CTV. Global not so much… Oh well. I’ll live.)

I fear not for my future because this policy will fail, like others before it. If we truly want to solve the problem of Netflix, they have to clean up an easily exploited system. Because the problem of Netflix isn’t that they take without feeding in to the system, it’s that they get away with doing exactly what the big players have been striving to accomplish for years. The hole Netflix has walked through is purpose built by the very powers that now seek to claim injury. As Uber has shown us of the taxi industry, corruption breeds disruption.

CanCon isn’t a perfect thing. Neither is living next to a giant that speaks our language and can reach past our best defences into our homes and minds like a Spock mind meld. Culture has few borders anymore. But labour does. Bodies are caught in the middle of all this. Bodies that work, and bodies that feel things. I can think of few industries that require more bodies and more of those bodies than ours. We work ungodly hours,roll around in dirt, climb onto winches, run through muddy fields, build sets and take that down, hunch over computers trying to hit deadlines. Success is a group effort. And I’m sorry Mr Doyle, but with bodies comes hysteria.

Perhaps the golden days of CanCon are over and we must truly go back to the drawing board and re-imagine what Canadian television and movies can be in the global market. Perhaps we should truly re-imagine what public broadcasting can mean outside the warring discourses of hyperbolic nationalism, or neoliberalism and its discontents. But this is a very poor start for Minister Joly and her merry committee.

Here’s my hint: Follow the talent. Just look at our Tragically Hip moment last week. No commercials. Just local stars on stage, beamed across a grateful nation. In the creative economy, the “self-described creatives” rule. Have us on your side and you will have all.