In Hollywood, you can always tell the “talent”, i.e., the actors, writers, and directors, by the casual way in which they dress. Jeans and t-shirts are the norm. And usually, the more casually dressed, the more talented (or at least the more successful). On the studio lot and around town, this show business dress code also serves to separate the talent from the “suits”, those studio chiefs, network executives, and agents, who, like their counterparts in traditional business, wear, well, suits.
What are not so easy to spot in Hollywood are the Canadians. Yet, it turns out that there are a lot of them and they have been turning up in Hollywood since before talkies. From the Silent Era to the Golden Age to the New Hollywood, Canadians have in large part shaped show business. Hollywood’s foremost “suits” and “talent” are and have been from Canada.
Hollywood as we know it began with the two major studio pioneers, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers and Louis B. Mayer of Metro Goldwyn Mayer. These two built the industry. Both were Canadian. Warner secured the technology to bring sound to motion pictures and he reigned as a studio head for 40 years, greenlighting more Hollywood movies than anyone. Warner serves as the original archetype for every hard charging studio chief that has come after him. Think Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman. Mayer, meanwhile, invented the “Star System”, the method whereby publicists, agents and studios turned actors and actresses into stars by carefully crafting their public personas and images. Variations of this system are still an integral part of today’s Hollywood. The difference today of course is that any press, good or bad, will satisfy the star makers.
Of course, Hollywood has always been about the stars. In that regard, Canadians have also dominated. Hollywood’s very first movie star was Mary Pickford. Born and raised in Toronto, Pickford went on to become the biggest star in the world during the 1920’s and was dubbed, ironically, “America’s Sweetheart.” Pickford also possessed keen show business acumen and co-founded the United Artists movie studio.
The great, golden age dramas of the forties and fifties saw the rise of the Canadian theater actor. Raymond Massey, Christopher Plummer, and, yes, even Leslie Nielson, were in high demand and commonly thought by American audiences to be British stage actors.
In modern times, Canada has produced its fair share of superstars. Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey and Keifer Sutherland have all enjoyed the status, at one time or another, of being the highest paid movie or television actor. In that vein, Canadians also produce a lot of comedians. For example, Saturday Night Live, that bastion of U.S. political and cultural satire, counts nearly as many Canadian alumni as American. SNL itself was created and continues to be produced by Canadian Lorne Michaels. The youthful and ubiquitous Seth Rogan and Michael Cera continue the long tradition of Canadian funnymen.
Canada is also the source of Hollywood’s most bankable directors. James Cameron, born in Ontario, directed the two highest grossing movies of all time. Neil Blomkamp, a Canadian transplant from South Africa, is the leader of the new wave of young filmmakers who are using technology to bring in the blockbuster on a budget. Meanwhile, Canadian Jason Reitman leads the charge for directors of quality independents. After three feature films, he has four Academy Award nominations to show for his efforts.
As impressive as the names is the numbers. The Canadian ex-patriot community in Southern California, numbered at over 1 million, represents the largest collection of Canadians outside of Canada. Many of these Canadians work in the entertainment industry. The shear number of talented Canadians in Hollywood ensures that Canadian influence over U.S. movie and television production will continue.
And while all of those Canadians are located on U.S. cinematic soil, Canada has emerged as the location of choice for U.S. film and T.V. production. Vancouver, which has been a popular filming location since jump street (or at least since 21 Jump Street), has grown to become the third largest film and TV production site in North America. According to the B.C. Film Commission, last year there were 239 motion picture projects shot in the Vancouver region generating over $2 billion in production spending.
Bringing the Canadian influence full circle is the announcement recently that ABC, CBS and the CW Network had purchased Canadian-produced television dramas and sitcoms. Each of the networks plans to air the Canadian shows in the U.S. this summer and may include them as part of their fall line-ups. This is an unprecedented coup for Canadian programming. Even the King of Kensington couldn’t crack the U.S. market in its heyday.
So what accounts for this disproportionate Canadian influence over what is the primary source of American culture? Mike Myers once remarked that the difference between Americans and Canadians is that Americans grow up watching TV while Canadians grow up watching American TV. Indeed, it is the unique combination of our proximity to the U.S. and our distance from it that gives creative Canadians special mastery in observing, interpreting and portraying the uniquely American character.
More importantly, the force of Canadian talent in the entertainment business has transformed the U.S. movie industry into the North American movie industry. Ultimately, as Canada and Canadians increasingly exert their influence, the industry will hopefully further evolve to where moviegoers will increasingly demand portrayals of that culture and character that is uniquely Canadian.
In the meantime, when you next come across a location shoot or watch an award show and you want to know where in the pecking order a particular Hollywood player belongs; do not look at the clothes. Instead, just look at the passport.
by Keith Fraser on July 27, 2010
Jamie has been in FILM since 1994, and is a full time minister of Jesus Christ to the FILM INDUSTRY