Saturday, November 1, 2014

'tax shelter cinema' - a Canadian chronology

See, this blog isn't really dead ;)

Recently I did a presentation at Toronto's "Small Talk" event, in which I presented my standard qualified defense of tax shelter cinema from a viewer perspective. Since I was (finally!) being called on as an authority, I figured it was time for me to clarify the timeline of Canadian government policy on film financing.

My preconceptions were challenged. Of course the 'tax shelter' was not one policy but many policies in a rather chaotic sequence. The most interesting thing I learned, which nobody really talks about in my experience, is that at each stage the issue was not the introduction of the policy itself, but its capacity to be exploited for mercenary means - at each stage, things got ugly a couple years after the policy itself was introduced. (Of course, this raises the question of whether tax credits are really the optimal way to fund the arts - a question many readers will have already answered for themselves.)

My friend and canuxploitation emeritus Paul Corupe asked to check out my research, and I figured it was about time this info was generally available in a concise form, so here it is. Note that I'm not a historian or an accountant and did this research in my spare time so it's not authoritative, but I haven't seen a more complete or penetrable account myself. Hopefully others will continue to run with it as I tinker away.

In compiling this chronology I made reference to the following books in particular:

Susan Crean - Who's Afraid of Canadian Culture?
Ted Magder - Canada's Hollywood*
Manjanuth Pendakur - Canadian Dreams and American Control
Douglas Fetherling, ed. - Documents in Canadian Film
Take One's Essential Guide to Canadian Film



Capital Cost Allowance introduced
60% of a given investment could be written off against taxable income
Regardless of national origin of production
Little activity

CFDC created to support Canadian cinema - $10 million, ran out quick

Over time: producers allow investments to be ‘leveraged’ via loophole - CCA calculated on TOTAL cost of the film (CFDC, lab investors etc defer ownership rights to private investors)
Spencer: “based on investors’ expectations that films will be losers”

November 1973
Government closes leverage loophole (in the wake of Harold Greenberg's particularly egregious "The Neptune Factor")
English feature production ‘almost completely paralyzed’

April 1974
Council of Canadian Filmmakers (CCFM) advocacy group launches offensive demanding action on distribution and exhibition

August 5, 1975
New policy introduced: 100% deduction in first year on feature film investment
    75 minutes long
    producer and 2/3 of creative personnel Canadian
    75% of technical services undertaken in Canada

International coproductions automatically eligible

Also ‘voluntary’ quota of 4 weeks per theatre (not per screen) - “a sham” that unsurprisingly went nowhere

March 1976
Tompkins Report
Citing “Jaws”, “the Canadian feature film industry has to aim for a world-wide market, and that any actions taken by the various governments in Canada should lead to this end.”
Quotas out of the question- “The leaders of the Canadian film industry must become sufficiently knowledgeable and skillful to face this competition with marketable standards”
CBC and especially the NFB “impeded the market mechanism, disregarded all yardsticks of competition and reduced the private sector to a marginal existence.”

“the boom”/gold rush
producers use ‘public offer’, shares to small scale investors for immediate tax writeoff (Lantos/Roth's "Agency" was the first)
Also ‘private placement’ offers which did not require public disclosure (hence no FOI info on these investments is available, as I found out)
Soon after, ‘package’ investments limited risk (and potential returns)

Investment firms and brokerages advised clients; eg. CFI Investments (chaired by John Turner!) prospectus indicates ‘family’ plots and ‘immediately recognizable stars’, and specifically spurns ‘self-indulgent producers’ and ‘personal statements’.
increased exploitation of intl copro treaties with: France, Italy, UK, FDR, Israel.

CFDC moved toward big budget productions under McCabe:
1978:         37 films        48.6 million            (1.3 mil avg)
1979:         66 films        171.8 million            (2.6 mil avg)
1980:        53 films        147.4 million            (2.8 mil avg)

December 1978
Revenue Canada clarifies policy around what portion of a film investment is ‘at risk’ and therefore eligible for deduction. Investment rises dramatically.

Jan 1 1981
New CAVCO (Canadian Film and Video Certification Office) ‘points’ system reforms:
6/10 ‘points’ to classify as Canadian
All producer functions to be carried out by Canadians
No points where Canadian shares creative position with a non-Canadian

November 12 - MacEachen CCA cut to 50% in first and second years
Loans to finance films no longer tax deductible
outcry, meetings
December 17 - 100% tax shelter extended to 1982 (in fact held on to 1987)

Jan 1 1982
Further CAVCO revisions:
2/4 points for director/screenwriter obligatory, as well as 1/2 lead actors

CCA reduced from 100% to 30% over two years
"tax shelter era" is functionally over

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films

(Kier-La Janisse, 2012)
This book's fantastically ambitious agenda is all there in the title: Janisse aims to situate trash-horror and art-horror representations of crazy women within the narrative of her own crazy life as a means of explaining their worth and import, and does so 'topographically' - by surveying the entire terrain rather than privileging any one route to enlightenment. The approach is valid and overdue, the personal narrative is compellingly told, and the volume of information and insight into the individual films discussed is invaluable in and of itself. One does wish, however, that it had the benefit of one more rigorous re-drafting, because much of the time the pieces don't quite hang together. Janisse is to be commended for rejecting the 'academic' approach as such in her intro, but given this - and considering the compelling first-person storytelling of the confessional content - it's curious and disorienting that her diction keeps shifting to passive voice in the discussion of the films themselves. This schism reinforces the feeling of the book being two separate things, especially since the anchoring of individual films in her life narrative is tenuous at best; one wants more impassioned celebration and less plot summary, especially since the latter is given a generous 150 pages of appendix. Only in the discussion of cinematic self-harm does one feel the passion that imbues her tales from the trenches. Still, this is a solid (and gorgeously-appointed) step toward a non-alienated approach to genre film criticism, and it follows a compellingly independent moral compass that one is pleased to engage and, on occasion, argue with.

Termini Station

(Allan King, 1989)
This attempt at Tennessee Williams North flunks hard first of all because after a decade of dramatic filmmaking King still can't direct comedy to save his life. Sour and bellicose, his actors trample all over a significance-sodden script that begs for salvation by finesse, and when they do attempt a lighter touch, the moody vagueness of the cinematography renders their efforts near-invisible. This tale of everyday cruelty and shades of failure in semi-urban northern Ontario aims to render daily life poetically, marrying social satire and psychological melodrama while pulling the curtain back on an array of big issues - repression, sexism, racism, suicide, psychological abuse, elder neglect. But King has no feel for this milieu, and the dirty words and unenlightened banter sound like they're being recited out of a textbook. Play-acting the angry young woman archetype, Megan Follows does well on the occasions when she's not instructed to bellow, and Colleen Dewhurst's 'symbolic' grandma is mainly an occasion for frustrated pity. But the key to the movie's failure is Hanna Lee's sad, stupid sex worker - all her info is nonverbal, and King can't get anywhere near her to let us in on her truths. Because of this nagging lack of intimacy, the critiques of rednecks and airheads feel like alienated cheap shots. Overwhelmingly banal themes shouted with a scowl, decorated by flashback digressions that don't work and yet another atrocious musical score.


(Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
More than anything else, this film is a document of a master filmmaker in crisis. At the peak of his powers, none of his perfectly realized entertainment devices seem to mean anything anymore. So the typically expert, breezily vernacular performances are awash in a sea of forlorn, solitary meandering; the 'mystery' of the narrative is constantly discredited as a meaningless diversion; and, in the world-historic masterstroke, the surrogate protagonist's pursuit of obsessive love is suddenly and permanently interrupted by the perspective of the distressed, used, abandoned love object, who just wants to be accepted for who she is. In Kim Novak's eyes, James Stewart's lonely quest for feminine perfection is as inhuman as the unattainable apparition she had presented as in the earlier scenes - the gap is never bridged, and the self-doubt is overwhelming as Hitchcock parallels Stewart's unspeakably solitary cruelty to his own life work of managing presentations and manipulating the vulnerabilities of needy, beautiful people. But while he's wracked with doubt, he's still the greatest filmmaker alive with ready access to the greatest film craftspeople alive, so that his soul-searching takes on an almost unbelievable wholeness of form and texture. Before our eyes, he's turning his demons into the template of high-art cinema that would sustain the medium for the rest of the century, but impressive as that is, it's not why this deserves to be called the greatest movie ever made. It deserves it because it calls into question the adequacy of its own greatness, because it knows that Kim Novak's soul is greater still.

Django Unchained

(Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
Once again, Tarantino sets out to prove the redemptive power of trash cinema by brazenly applying his glibly aestheticized carnage to a real-life historical atrocity - a provocation by design, and one that positively counts on pissed-off guardians of truth to react against it to complete the effect. Christoph Waltz's brilliantly fleshy performance as a mercenary Jewish abolitionist at once exemplifies the film's deeply eccentric tribute to the spaghetti western and serves as a kind of surrogate for Tarantino's own complex relationship to the subject matter. DiCaprio is also fine as an unexpectedly dimensional slave master - although his phrenological musings seem like a gratuitous demonstration that Quentin did some research. Jamie Foxx's love-torn fugitive slave, on the other hand, is neither dimensional nor complex - he's a force of nature, a symbol of righteous vengeance. And while there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it puts him at a dramatic disadvantage - he's just not as interesting as the characters who are actually allowed to be characters. He's not stereotyped, he's archetyped, and the effect is almost as damaging. And that goes double for Kerry Washington's utterly useless, piece-of-meat love interest - a disastrous choice that inadvertently lays bare the moral limits of fealty to trash formula and upsets the balance of the whole movie. Entertaining scene for scene, but the episodic structure tilts away from Inglourious Basterds' visionary impact toward mere capriciousness, and for such a maestro of violence he seems to have serious difficulty striking a consistent tone for his bloodbaths - cathartic one minute, ironic the next.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Terminal Choice

(Sheldon Larry, 1984)
Here the Magder clan bequeath us a movie about a computer-controlled hospital run amok that doesn't even set up its own premise - why bother when "Coma" did the job already? This frees them up to pack the first act with so much sexual innuendo and 'witty banter' that you nearly have time to forget what the movie's actually about. Admittedly this material also helps them establish an agreeably goofy tone, but soon enough things degenerate into disagreeable nonsense, cramming in mad scientists, illegal betting pools, accidental vivisection rescue ops, and so on. The actors are game enough - and the dated-for-1984 'high tech' trappings silly enough - that it could have worked as camp. Unfortunately, the TV-style slickness is a drag, the pacing is turgid, and the character development is a mess. Key supporting characters disappear for an hour at a time, Don Francks plays a jogger who's really an attorney who's really an investigative journalist, and Joe Spano's alcoholism and romantic subplots just evaporate into the underwhelming crescendo of Commodore 64 carnage.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Down the Road Again

(Don Shebib, 2011)
Shebib's belated "Goin' Down the Road" sequel is heartfelt and honest, but that doesn't mean it's any good; its elegiac tale of mortality is tragically bereft of craft. The first half of the film is a wistful epitaph for the long-gone Paul Bradley, and there's no there there; the flashbacks and exhumations from the original fail to find any semblance of form or focus. The East Coast sequence cedes some ground to original characters and present situations, but only glimmers of poignancy survive the overwhelming air of contrivance. The skeletal narrative taxes credibility in outline and pulverizes it in execution, with way too many unmotivated leaps in character development. None of Shebib's artistic strengths shine through; his dialogue, once so full of wit and surprise, is leaden and literal, and the direction shows no trace of the spontaneity and open space that used to breathe life into his languid intimacy. Kathleen Robertson's Betty-Jo is the invention of a man who can't recall the distinction between 40 and 25, and the sympathy and charm of the cast as a whole is left to wither and die.