If you were a curious young movie fan whose parents had a decent Canadian cable TV package in the late 1990s, chances are that you were a regular viewer of The Showcase Revue. The daily late-night film series was the first stop for the most sophisticated, adventurous and controversial cinema of the era: Crash, Kids, La Haine, Exotica, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.
With a deceptively simple tag line (“Uncut. Every Night.”), the Revue offered budding cinephiles – and older audiences who lived nowhere near an independent movie theatre – their first exposure to international film, art-house auteurs, and, thanks to the Revue’s “Fridays Without Borders” edition, enough sexually provocative work to stir all manner of personal awakenings.
As locked-down Canadians make yet another weary trip into the depths of Netflix, The Globe and Mail presents a look back at a bygone era of appointment viewing and daring small-screen decision-making.
1995: Led by Robert Lantos, Alliance Communications launched Showcase Television on Jan. 1. Programming focused on second-run Canadian series, but after the “watershed hour” of 9 p.m. – when the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council permitted content “intended exclusively for an adult audience” – Showcase aired a nightly movie series. Titled The Drambuie Showcase Revue, it was hosted by actors Chas Lawther and Linda Griffiths.
Audrey Cole, former vice-president, Showcase: Because so much of the content was foreign-language, we felt audiences needed to be invited, in a way. I was a fan of hosts like Elwy Yost at TVO. I wanted Chas, who hosted an all-night show on CFMT [now Omni Television], to play a projectionist character, like in Cinema Paradiso. But we had to do a lot very fast – it was nine months from presenting to the CRTC to going to air. So it ended up being more simple.
Chas Lawther, former host: It was just me sitting in a chair. And there was no teleprompter. I was doing five nights a week with minute-and-a-half-long introductions. It was a tremendous amount of memorization.
Phyllis Yaffe, former president and CEO, Showcase: Alliance was Canada’s largest supplier of foreign films, so we had a ready-made place to go shopping. There was such a dearth of that kind of television programming then, and certainly there was no streaming or even cinemas that consistently showed foreign films. There was no confusing Showcase with any other channel in those hours.
1997-98: Programmer Laura Michalchyshyn arrived from Women’s Television Network. The Revue’s Drambuie sponsorship is dropped, as are Lawther and Griffiths. Filmmaker Valerie Buhagiar and critic Cameron Bailey are hired as the new hosts.
Laura Michalchyshyn, former senior vice-president of programming, Alliance Atlantis: I’d been volunteering as a programmer at the National Film Board before joining, which is where I met Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Bruce MacDonald, Mina Shum. When I got the job, they’d all give me advice. I had this incredible social circle of curators and programmers and film historians. The TIFF team at the time really helped me program Showcase.
Noah Cowan, former programming associate, Showcase: There was a lot of snobbery about TV then and what it meant for films to be on TV rather than in theatres and festivals. Making the case for what we’d now see as an art-house streaming service was not obvious at the time. Laura would keep pushing us to be more daring.
Michalchyshyn: I started to cherry-pick the best titles we had as a company. Alliance had an amazing output deal with Miramax, October Films, New Line. I’ll never forget Noah telling me that we have to program Sex, Lies and Videotape after it premiered at Sundance. I knew the title alone would attract audiences.
Norm Bolen, former executive vice-president of content, Alliance Atlantis: There was a philosophical idea – to push boundaries – but there were financial considerations, too. A lot of the good content available wasn’t suitable for conventional television, so we were able to access that at a reasonable cost. We aggressively pursued art films, and bought large packages of movies. It was an economy of scale.
Valerie Buhagiar, former host: I’d just finished my third short film, had a retrospective at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, acted in a play at the New York Fringe that won best production, but I couldn’t make ends meet. Then I had this call from my acting agent for The Revue, and I got this lucky gig. Cameron and I just clicked.
Cameron Bailey, former host: I was a critic for NOW Magazine and CBC Radio, and I think Canada AM, and had just left my first stint at TIFF. But this was my first big TV gig. It was an interesting division of labour. Valerie and I didn’t choose the films – it was Laura and her team. Our job was to watch them, and give the audience a way in.
Buhagiar: They would dump off VHS tapes and huge boxes of printed-off information for each film. I was watching 10 a week, researching and writing my intros. Cameron would pick me up in his Volkswagen Golf, and we’d drive to the studio together. They gave us a fashion allowance and asked me, “What designer do you like?” I said, um, [in French accent], “Valuuue Villaaagé”? Cameron, who is on top of things as far as fashion goes, took us shopping to places that I’d never step into, which was so much fun.
Bailey: I forgot about that! But it wasn’t like a montage in Pretty Woman. I was just doing as best as I could.
Michalchyshyn: The Friday night slot was “Fridays Without Borders,” and we didn’t have to promote those films because the audience found them regardless. I remember asking my team: “Can we show this on television at midnight on a Friday? Are we going to contravene CRTC rules?” But it worked.
Bailey: Fridays were the saucier movies. Something European in that nudge, nudge, wink, wink way. I remember a film called Malèna, about a young man obsessed with this woman played by Monica Bellucci. A 100 per cent male gaze movie. But show a movie like that to a teenager in a basement in rural B.C. or wherever, and maybe they begin to think about film in a different way. Maybe it piques their curiosity to watch something more artistically ambitious because they want to see more Monica Bellucci.
Buhagiar: I still get stopped on the street, mainly by men who were figuring how to come out back then. Laura programmed a lot of gay-positive films, and I imagined all these young people watching while their parents were asleep, questioning things. I like to think that it was inspiring and comforting.
November 2001: After four years, Buhagiar and Bailey are let go by Showcase.
Buhagiar: It was painful. We were shocked. I wondered if it was my fault, which is my tendency. I had just had a child, and this was the perfect job for a new mom.
Bailey: It was probably the usual TV reasons: budget, audience, market share. It was a surprise, though, and it hit hard. It was a good lesson for me in terms of nothing is permanent. And also: if you have to deliver news like that, do it in as generous and empathetic a way as possible, which Laura did.
Bolen: The channel evolved, and we were able to start acquiring high-volume, high-impact series. The reality of specialty TV is it’s difficult to market around one-offs or anthology series. When you have a series like Oz or Trailer Park Boys, you can build a constituency around that and get advertisers to support that series.
2007-present: CanWest and Goldman Sachs purchased Alliance Atlantis – including Showcase and 12 other specialty channels – for $2.3-billion in 2007. Over the next decade, Showcase would change ownership twice more, from Shaw Communications in 2010 to Corus Entertainment in 2016. Today, programming consists of U.S. network procedurals and third-run Hollywood movies.
Michalchyshyn: I left in 2005 for the Sundance Channel, but my understanding is that the reality of the market changed, and films became less and less available. It snowballed from there with the change of ownership. But for 7½ years, it was the most fun programming of my career.
Yaffe: The whole notion of appointment viewing is unnatural to kids today. It’s irrelevant, yet it was so foundational.
Bolen: A lot of channels now, it’s hard to tell the difference between them. They also have a model of subscriptions plus ads, which is no longer an attractive one to consumers.
Bailey: I don’t get nostalgic about technology. If a better platform like streaming comes along, I’ll jump on it. The movies aren’t on cable any more.
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