Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

TIFF and the political economy of Canadian films

September 15, 2011

To many, the Toronto International Film Festival is now second only to Cannes in terms of importance and star power. It may in fact be gaining ground on its venerable French rival. The dizzying array of Hollywood mega-celebrities on hand each year appears a testament to the fact: from Madonna to George Clooney, Gerard Butler to Francis Ford Coppola, there are enough famous artists for the 2011 edition of the Festival to fill the pages of every paper and magazine.

This is part of the conundrum. A glance at blogs, newspapers, magazines and television crews covering TIFF shows the vast majority of comments and interviews are devoted to Hollywood blockbusters and film stars, none of which really need the publicity given the size of the prints and advertising budgets at their disposal.

Who does need this publicity? Oh, yes: Canadian films (in addition to their independent foreign equivalents). Then again, so does TIFF itself. In attracting the big names and joining the big leagues, the Festival has become more and more financially viable and now has more capacity to make a difference for Canadian filmmakers… but in courting Hollywood bigwigs, it has to give them something back. That “something” is a platform that, in generating its own heat, inevitably crowds out the less stellar participants.

The result is either a vicious cycle or a virtuous circle, depending on where you stand. Hollywood can and will pick up independent product; its stars and directors come from all over the globe, so one cannot speak of being “shut out”. Yet, this very transnationality precludes most localization save for American references. Toronto and Montreal become New York or Chicago. The occasional blockbuster or epic will take place in China or perhaps the Congo. However, the majority are set stateside.

Despite 34 features screening at the Festival this year, Canadian programming itself is still the wallflower at the dance compared to its more glamourous Hollywood counterpart. In addition, the vast majority of films entered as Canadian are coproductions. True, foreign films have a pride of place at the Festival, and rightly so, that they simply can’t garner at other times of the year. There may be French, Jewish and Native film festivals in Toronto; however, the exposure they get is clearly not the same as any film can get at TIFF. The mere fact of being chosen for the festival is a badge of merit for most. This is why the relative obscurity of Canadian features in Canadian media at this time of the year is a shame.

Journos and newspaper publishers alike, along with television managers and their ilk, will argue that they give readers and the audience what they want. It’s a circular argument, and easily belied by the most elementary knowledge of economics and differentiated product neo-marginalist theory. How do you know what people want? They ask for it. Most will shrug their shoulders and end it at that. However, there is a deeper question which we must ask: why do people ask for one kind of entertainment and not another? Answer: because it’s what they know.

It stands to reason that no one can possibly ask for something they know nothing about. In basic economic theory, perfect information is a sine qua non condition of a competitive marketplace. There can be no proper competition without full information. Prints and advertising are information. So is media coverage. Every article and interview is free publicity for the recipient, allowing information about the product to be disseminated to the potential audience.

Therefore, the constant and fulsome media coverage granted to Hollywood superstars does indeed reinforce the impression that their films are the ones to see before all others.

Information as a crucial component of film marketing is shaped by the nature of film as an economic product. By definition, cultural products behave exactly like differentiated products. This means they rely on branding to reach an audience. Films can’t be sold in the same way as wheat or petroleum. To buy a film is to consume it entirely. There are barriers to entry and those barriers have to do with unsubstantial things such as image as much as, or more than, standard economic characteristics such as economies of scale.

Marketing a film is always a shot in the dark, even with generous funds available for prints and advertising. The 1980 Hollywood film Heaven’s Gate is a classic example, losing $40 million even after a recut and rerelease. At the other end of the marketing and distribution/exhibition scale lies the practice of four-walling, whereby a distributor rents out a theatre for a flat weekly fee and retains all resulting earnings. This type of strategy has been used successfully for niche films such as Spike Lee’s early work and My Big Fat Greek Wedding by Nia Vardalos. Another kind of grassroots marketing is targeting the audience by demographic category. This method worked relatively well in the case of the 1990 Canadian film The Company of Strangers, about a group of seniors stranded when their bus broke down. The producers created buzz through organizations and venues frequented by seniors, also offering screenings in targeted locations.

As it happens, TIFF does that type of grassroots marketing. It’s called Film Circuit, and it actually started in Sudbury, Ontario, in a small festival called Cinefest, founded by a guy called Cam Haynes. Film Circuit brings great indie films to people who might not otherwise have a chance to see them, in locations where foreign and Canadian films are usually shut out of local theatres (unless they’re called Porky’s). It’s a terrific initiative and I’ve always felt Haynes was a genius. However, it just doesn’t get enough recognition; i.e., publicity.

So here we are again. Okay, we can’t expect the New York Times to get excited about Canadian cinema. But what about right here? Earth to Canadian media: hello there. Canadian cinema exists. Would you mind, please? I’ve got nothing against George Clooney, but you know Pascale Bussières might have made just as good of a cover on Hello magazine Canada.

Canada

Canadian women covering war — twice the battle, half the sky

March 23, 2011

Since CBS News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Lara Logan revealed her February 11 assault in Egypt in Tahrir Square, both discussion and backlash have emerged about what women face as reporters in war zones. Canadians are no exception. During a Ryerson Conference entitled Women in the Field: Changing the Face of Journalism, foreign correspondents from leading national media revealed their own stories, impressions and feelings. “Reporting in Risky Situations” was one of three panels on the situation of women in Canadian media.

Gillian Findlay, now host of CBC’s the fifth estate, has covered stories in conflict areas such as Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Iraq and the Near East. In 1998, she was in Bagdad. Iraq was the target of bombings pursuant to sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Unrest swept the capital and Findlay went to work. The security rule was for the crew to stay together: not an easy task in the middle of a mob. As the correspondent stopped to talk to the translator, the cameraman signaled that he would go ahead. “Before I knew it, I was alone… blonde and female in a sea of young Iraqi males”, recalls Findlay. She soon started feeling hands groping her, becoming more and more aggressive. Completely surrounded, the reporter saw no way out. “For the first time, I was truly afraid”, she says. Eventually, the Iraqi fixer for the crew came to the rescue with a big iron bar and dragged her out of harm’s way.

Shaken but unhurt, Findlay kept the incident to herself until the Logan story brought the memories back. “I decided very quickly I didn’t want people to know and certainly didn’t want my bosses to know.” Still young, with two young children at home, she didn’t want to give anyone reason to question whether she was up to the job, she admits today. With the Lara Logan story came the revelation that she wasn’t alone.

Canadian women who work as foreign correspondents not only bear the burden of gender difference, but face the same hostility against foreigners as their male counterparts. Globe and Mail reporter Sonia Verma had her own mob encounter while seeking out pro-Mubarak demonstrators in the wake of the Logan assault. The crowd starting moving toward them. As Verma videotaped the demonstration with her iPhone, men started to hit her with sticks and punch her. Her colleague Patrick Martin headed toward her immediately and security guards from a nearby building came out, shooting in the air. The janitor let the two reporters in, putting his wife and children at risk. “The crowd was outside, chanting for our deaths”, Verma recounts. The crew thought of escaping but was advised to stay in and wait until the crowd dispersed. “These people were right in my face and I could see how much they hated me”, recollects the journalist. Back at the hotel, unable to sleep, she took a bath and, as she stepped out, saw the many large bruises covering her back. Adrenaline had kept her from feeling the blows.

Meanwhile, popular and even media reaction to women assaulted in war zones has ranged from sympathetic to antediluvian. Here in Canada, one of the worst came from Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington, who opined that mothers had no business leaving their children behind to go get themselves raped and beaten abroad. He made no mention of fathers taking risks. When Verma first heard of the column, “I thought it couldn’t be true”, she says. “I read it and my face was getting red. It was hitting all my buttons.” In the end, her husband wrote a letter in response which garnered widespread attention.

Nevertheless, Sonia Verma’s life as mother and war correspondent seems to epitomize the challenges women face in such situations. Reporting on foreign affairs was her lifelong dream and she pursued it tenaciously. While pregnant with her first child, she revealed nothing of her condition and went to Gaza, covering gun fights there. Three months into the pregnancy, she fell asleep in the car as the bullets flew all around. Verma remembers heading for the riots in the old city, where people were using tear gas. Her fixer chased her out, she says, saying tear gas was bad for the baby. Once her child was born, the journalist stopped breastfeeding at three months in order not to jeopardize travel chances. When her children were three and 18 months old, she was taking assignments in Afghanistan. “These are my choices,” she points out. “I don’t need to justify my choices to anyone.” The guilt lingers for all mothers, however. Difficult as it is, “I love my family, I love my work and I’m not willing to give up either one of them”, she declares.

Despite the risk and sacrifice, being a woman abroad can open doors closed to male reporters. Michelle Shephard, national security reporter for the Toronto Star, asserts “I’ve never had a story where men wouldn’t speak to me”, not even Islamic fundamentalists with connections to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, she has always had access to women and their stories. One example she gave was from a Northern refugee camp in Kenya, where a young woman had been stoned to death. All her friends spoke to Shephard, but were uncomfortable around the male photographer. Moreover, being underestimated because of gender can work out to a reporter’s advantage. Once, in Waziristan, “generals were not taking me seriously,” she recalls. They let their guard down and gave her more information.

Overall, the women on the panel were very clear: women prove themselves as reporters every day under the same conditions as their male colleagues. Not to send them out to war means losing half the story.