Skip to main content

Michael Spencer aided in the funding of Canadian films, fighting against the monopoly of Hollywood movies and the skepticism of filmgoers at home. ‘This is the price of keeping Canadian culture alive,’ he said.

National Film Board of Canada/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Michael Spencer loved the movies. Canada has a film industry today in large part due to the vision and persistence of this modest English-born birdwatcher who, in the 1960s, grasped the special problems confronting filmmakers in a U.S.- dominated industry. Somehow he put forth enough optimism, conviction and daring to encourage a generation of talent to stay here and tell our stories.

He never stopped working to make his adopted country into a cultural entity with not only its own music, drama and literature but above all, its own popular film arts.

He was the first executive director of the Canadian Film Development Corporation, later renamed Telefilm, a government body that provided seed money for Canadian productions. He was also the first Canadian to be a judge at the Cannes film festival.

Story continues below advertisement

Many Canadian directors and producers who went on to success – Claude Jutra, David Cronenberg, Gilles Carle, Paul Almond, Donald Shebib, Robert Lantos – couldn't have made their first films without his help.

Mr. Spencer died on April 20 in Montreal, of old age according to his wife, Maqbool Spencer. For the past three years he had been wheelchair-bound because he suffered from peripheral neuropathy, a condition that affects balance and leads to falls.

"Michael Spencer was the kingmaker of Canadian film," recalls Mr. Lantos, now owner of Serendipity Point Films, whose first film was In Praise of Older Women. "As the head of what was then called the CFDC, he was the one who could pull the trigger or the plug on the financing of a movie. The $300,000 that his CFDC invested in In Praise of Older Women [30 per cent of the budget], made it all happen. For some reason, Michael decided to have faith in a 26-year-old aspiring filmmaker without real production experience."

The CFDC never provided more than a small portion of the total amount needed to make a picture. A couple of weeks before principal photography was to start, Mr. Lantos recalls that he lost a large part of the rest of his funding. "Michael stuck by me while my partner Stephen Roth and I stitched the pieces back together. He was a cultured nationalist with major cojones."

Michael Desbois Spencer was born in London Nov. 9, 1919, into a well-to-do family, the son of Maurice Charles and Helen Beatrice Spencer. His father was a partner in Price Waterhouse and young Michael grew up with chauffeurs and maids. He was sent to Rugby School and then St. John's College, Oxford.

At 19, he went to visit his aunt and cousins on Quadra Island in the passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

While he was on this island idyl, on Sept. 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Looking for a fast route home, he went back to New York, where his ship had landed a few months before. Since all sailings had been cancelled and his father advised him to stay put, he spent the winter in New York, working part time at the Museum of Modern Art.

Story continues below advertisement

Here he heard that John Grierson had recently arrived in Ottawa and was setting up the National Film Board of Canada. Mr. Spencer immediately decided to go back to Canada in search of employment.

He became an editor and cameraman, at a salary of $25 a week, and worked on several documentaries before enlisting in the Canadian armed forces; he was sent to England where he was appointed to the army's film unit, whose purpose was to show the Canadian army in action in Britain, Italy and Germany. The Canadian material was sent to New York to be added to the U.S. newsreels.

During this period, he met and married Jean Holland Shum, of the Canadian Women's Army Corps. They had two daughters but the marriage ended in divorce. Ms. Shum died in 1995.

Back in Canada after the war, he restarted his documentary career at the NFB but his mentor, Mr. Grierson, was gone and things had changed. The NFB moved from Ottawa to Montreal, where it became evident that the solemn documentaries Mr. Grierson championed had had their day.

A new generation of talented young Canadian filmmakers wanted to make story films, if only they could find the money. He was on a committee of the National Film Board that met every month for two years and finally resulted in legislation, introduced by secretary of state Judy LaMarsh in 1967, to establish the CFDC with an initial budget of $10-million.

The younger generation of Canadian directors and producers were euphoric, but neither they nor the politicians had reckoned with the power of the Motion Picture Association of America, and its head, Jack Valenti, who saw his job as squashing any attempt at creating a local film industry in countries where Hollywood movies were distributed.

Story continues below advertisement

The theatre chains were linked to the major Hollywood studios, which sucked all the profits made from screening films out of the country. Screen time for showing Canadian films was difficult to obtain, as were profits.

Throughout his career, Mr. Spencer kept trying to persuade whichever secretary of state he worked under to introduce a quota for screen time allotted to Canadian films, but none agreed to such legislation.

In 1972, after the end of his first marriage, he met Maqbool Jung, a young Indian journalist from Hyderabad, at a Toronto dinner party. In his memoirs, Hollywood North: Creating the Canadian Motion Picture Industry (written with Suzan Ayscough), he wrote that when he began talking to Maqbool, the communication was electric, "and I've been talking to her ever since."

But in his working life, things were bumpy.

In the House of Commons questions were raised accusing him of funding Quebec filmmakers to make pornography. In English Canada, David Cronenberg's first feature, Shivers, in 1975, about an epidemic of parasites that transform people into sex fiends, made critics ask if we needed a Canadian film industry to make such a repellent work.

Mr. Spencer refused to play the censor, pointing out that every province had a censorship board.

Story continues below advertisement

Canadian films were expected to return some of their profits to the fund, to keep the CFDC going. By 1975, there were 75 titles that were returning money but only an average of $50,000 each. It was not enough to sustain an industry.

The film fund's budget rose steadily, in large part owing to his persuasiveness. By 2003, when Mr. Spencer wrote his memoir, Hollywood North, the industry received public subsidies of $300-million each year. "This is the price of keeping Canadian culture alive," he argued, "and it's worth every penny."

After he'd put in 10 years at the helm, the axe fell in 1978, when then secretary of state John Roberts decided to replace him with Michael McCabe, a man with no film experience.

Though no longer head of the CFDC, Michael Spencer continued his association with the industry as the owner of Film Finance Canada, a completion bonding firm, which insured producers against catastrophic events that could result in a film not getting finished. He was a member of several industry associations and his advice and experience was sought by both government and industry.

Paul Gratton, now director of programming at the Whistler Film Festival, recalls that Mr. Spencer served with him on the board of the Academy of Canadian Cinema in the 1980s. "He seemed to enjoy regaling me with stories of the early days of the CFDC. [He was] a gentleman, who always seemed quietly bemused by the political shenanigans that he had lived through. I believe he was a true pioneer, and the spiritual godfather of the much larger and much more successful Canadian film industry that we have today."

Many honours came Mr. Spencer's way, including the Order of Canada in 1989, a Genie Award for lifetime achievement, an honorary doctorate from Concordia University, and induction into the Canadian Film and TV Hall of Fame.

A birder who made lists of feathered creatures beginning at age 14, he was director of the Quebec Society for the Protection of Birds. He supported the publication of the Bird Atlas of Canada, and before his death, completed the memoir The Accidental Bird Watcher.

He leaves his wife, Maqbool, and daughters Christina Ruth and Theresa Jane Spencer.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter