Popcorn, Maple Syrup and the American Way

The producers of Popcorn and Maple Syrup, a documentary on the history of the Canadian film industry, make the claim that the government sold out the Canadian film industry to the Americans in 1947 by agreeing to an early version of product placement.

The American film makers, in return for Canada not passing legislation that would allow for the growth of a competing Canadian film industry, would make an effort to insert various references to Canada in American feature films and newsreels. This watershed agreement, it is widely accepted in industry circles, killed any chance of creating a self-financing, independent, highly creative Canadian film industry.

Perhaps, but what have English-Canadian producers done since to reclaim the vanished industry except to lament what was lost some fifty years ago. Why have they not been able to break the American domination of the Canadian film and television industry that this agreement ushered?

Is it because they lack the imagination and courage of earlier Canadians filmmakers, profiled in Popcorn and Maple Syrup, who went out and created most of the major American studios that today’s Canadian filmmakers blame for their woes?

Is it because the system that was put in place so many years ago cannot be changed or is it that they are their own worst enemies?

Canadian producers would like the government to bring in a quota system to force the major movie chains to show Canadian films and force Canadian networks and specialty channels to increase their Canadian content as a way of stopping what Pierre Berton called in his book Hollywood’s Canada [McClelland Stewart 1975]: "The Americanization of Our National Image".

Will that make a difference? Will that stop the Americanization of Our National Image? No. Not if a quota system just brings us American ideas and concepts repackaged as Canadian content.

Why should Canadians risk another trade war with the United States to get screen time for Canadian productions, or increase television content for programs produced in Canada if all they can expect for their efforts are Canadian imitations of American films and television shows.

Canadian producers could make changes right now that would slow the Americanization of Our National Image while they wait for the government to find the courage to level the playing field for Canadian productions.

They won’t do it because it’s not in their short-term interest, which is making money, and making money is making films and television productions (mostly television shows) that Americans want to see, and that is shows about Americans, if Canadian producers are to be believed.

English-Canadian producers face a difficult choice: put food on the table by providing the type of insipid, juvenile, copy-cat American style programming that they maintain is the only type of programming that the networks and distributors will pay for, or face starvation by promoting original, informative and provocative Canadian content.

At a producers workshop I attended, I asked a number producers to consider The Fractured Nation Interviews as the basis for a six hour mini-series. This mini-series, a sort of Witness to Tomorrow, would be loosely modeled on the successful television show Witness to Yesterday (1973-1974) an off-beat TV docudrama hosted by Patrick Watson.

Their response can be summed up in the words of one producer who refused to even consider the idea of a series that brought the reality of Canada breaking up home to Canadian, saying that was not the reality that networks and specialty channels were looking for.

I did not buy into her argument that Canadians would not be interested in serious, entertaining, informative one-on-one discussions about their future.

Another, a prominent Ottawa producer admitted in private that his concern was with the second interview and the well-being of his family. "I don't care to have someone with a bomb showing up at my door", he said.

So maybe it's a Canadian thing - playing it safe.

Bernard Payeur

Canadian History and the CBC