Hollywood on The Rock. Lights, cameras, codfish. Well, actually Newfoundland films aren't so much about codfish, any more, thank the Lord Almighty!
Independent film production in Newfoundland has come a long way since Joseph Harvey (my father) set up the province's first full-fledged film production company. Anchor Films was established 23 years ago and did more to boost filmmaking in Newfoundland than any government official toting a suitcase stuffed with subsidiary grants could ever dream of.
My father fought to keep film production in Newfoundland, to have all government promotional films made here, by Newfoundlanders. Prior to this the government flew in crews from "away," underlining its belief that its own people were inferior and incapable of such worldly acts as filmmaking. My father made it known that Newfoundlanders were ready, willing and able to produce, direct, shoot and edit as fine a piece of work as any mainland crew could manage. He set the groundwork for filmmakers to their trade. And ply their trade they did.
There's been a virtual truckload of feature films produced in Newfoundland. Unfortunately, chances are you haven't seen or even heard of them because they can't get screen space in Canadian cinemas.
The latest picture to wrap up filming in St. John's is Rare Birds, from the hilarious book by Newfoundland author Edward Riche. The film stars Molly Parker (who kissed the dead guy in Kissed) and William Hurt (who kissed the cocaine in The Big Chill).
Rare Birds might make it to a screen near you because it has star power. Hurt's name (not the fact that the script is wonderful) might coax theatre owners to give it a chance on their screens.
With 99 per cent of Canadian screens dominated by American films, attaching a big star to a locally made movie is the industry's latest desperate attempt to jam their foot in the cinema door. Producers hope a star's name will cast a spotlight on the movie and thus glorify the Canadian actors and crews. A smart move, but one that is viewed by many as insulting to Canadian talent.
Another major motion picture shot in Newfoundland, The Divine Ryans (released in 1999), starred brilliant British actor Pete Postlethwaite (everyone's favourite persecuted dad in In the Name of the Father). Jordan Harvey (everyone's favourite son -- well, mine actually) played the lead alongside Postlethwaite and Newfoundlander Robert Joy.
The Divine Ryans garnered great reviews and won a best-actor award for Jordan at the Atlantic Film Festival. It opened in 18 theatres out of a possible 500. Stephen Reynolds, gifted director of The Divine Ryans, says this is almost double the number of screens made available to the average Canadian feature.
In addition, Extraordinary Visitor, written and directed by John W. Doyle, was released in 1999 and was distributed by a small company in Montreal. It played in seven Canadian theatres. The Bingo Robbers, which recently won three awards at the Atlantic Film Festival, was co-written and co-directed by Lois Brown and Barry Newhook. There are no big stars, just superb local actors, so its chances are slim of making it onto more than a handful of Canadian screens.
Violet, produced by Mary Sexton and starring Mary Walsh, was to be distributed by Alliance Atlantis, the kingpin of Canadian film distribution, but when the big shots declared they weren't going to release it theatrically, Sexton wasn't having any part of it. She vowed to distribute the film herself. As we say in Newfoundland, she's a brave soul.
According to assorted industry personnel in Newfoundland, ensuring screen space for Canadian films should be the prime objective of the Canadian government. And yet rather than implementing screen quotas for Canadian films, insisting that 10 or 20 per cent of Canadian screens show Canadian films, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps has just announced another $50-million grant package for further film production -- another bag of money to make movies that won't get seen.
When imports are killing a local industry, a responsible government usually does something about it, and that entails limiting the influx of products in that sector.
In 1971, Canadian radio stations were told that 30 per cent of the music they played had to be Canadian. Record companies, who would rather have continued using Canada as a dumping ground for American albums, had to put money toward developing Canadian musicians. But, most importantly, through these means, Canadian musicians were guaranteed a voice in their own country, a presence in the Canadian psyche, something the Canadian film industry is entirely without.
At the moment, the music industry is the only cultural industry in Canada that is thriving.
The next feature film slated for production in Newfoundland is The Shipping News, the bestseller Newfoundlanders loathed but everyone else seemed to love. No doubt you'll hear all about it. It has big American stars (Kevin Spacey and, possibly, Paul Newman). It's a big American movie and they're bringing in almost all their cast and crew from the mainland. In other words, it's destined to play at a theatre near you. Kenneth J. Harvey's latest novel is Skin Hound (The Mercury Press).