Jon Slan remembers well the day an unknown director named Guy Ritchie burst into his Soho office in London, talking excitedly about a film project he was desperate to finance and dying to tackle. The low-budget flick, called Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, would be Ritchie's directorial debut. And Slan, who by then had been making TV shows and movies for close to 25 years at his Toronto-based company, Paragon Entertainment, was duly impressed with the young Brit's cinematic fervour.
"It was 1996, and we had just bought HandMade Films," Slan recalls, referring to the company co-founded by ex-Beatle George Harrison. "Ritchie had already given us his script, and we'd read it. When he walked into my office, he literally laid out every shot in the movie. Every pan, every freeze frame. There are very few times you just get bowled over, and say, 'This is a director,' " says Slan. "But it happened with Ritchie."
When Lock, Stock was released in 1998, Ritchie's breakout crime caper -- which Paragon had financed to the tune of $2.5-million (U.S.) -- won praise from audiences and critics alike, who were smitten by the brutal comedy.
But Slan, who executive-produced the indie film, never got an ounce of credit.
It was a case of bad timing. Ritchie's meteoric rise (he's now also known as Mr. Madonna) happened to coincide with the meltdown of Paragon. The months immediately following the company's bankruptcy in the spring of 1998 were painful, says Slan, a circumspect kind of fellow, who has wise but weary eyes and a tentative smile. "It was a very difficult time in my life. Personally, I lost a small fortune," he says ruefully. "It didn't ruin me financially, but I took a pretty big hit. It was the emotional stuff that was harder."
Given the scorching he received from the media when Paragon's troubles surfaced, Slan was understandably tentative to do an interview. But he's here, sitting at a table in a trendy new wine bar, because he believes he has put the worst behind him, and he wants to talk about his personal reinvention -- at 56.
This time, his primary focus is books: For months now, he's been quietly buying film options -- which cost between $1,000 and $10,000 on an annual basis -- on Canadian books, which he's banking will get made into feature films or TV movies.
Indeed, four of the books he has optioned have recently received the green light for development, including the cop thriller City of Ice by the pseudonymous John Farrow (Alliance Atlantis did the deal); the Governor-General's Award-nominated novel Charlie Wilcox by Sharon McKay (for CBC); another Governor-General's Award nominee, The Taste Of Metal: A Deserter's Story by Montreal journalist Jack Todd (CBC); and Alison Shaw's A Friend Of The Family: The True Story of David Snow, about Canada's antique-dealing serial rapist and murderer (CTV).
Slan, who has a PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto (his thesis adviser was Northrop Frye), says books were his first love. He reads three a week on average. Most of the properties he has optioned have been books he's read in galley form, hoping to be the first to get his hands on the best of Canada's homegrown tales.
Louise Dennys, executive vice-president of Random House Canada, is also working with Slan, who recommends the publisher's titles as potential film projects to Endeavour, a production house and film agency based in Los Angeles, with which Slan has had long ties.
"I think the opportunity for the book market is definitely in Canada," says Slan, whose new company is called Sammat Entertainment (so named for his children, Samantha and Matthew). "In the States, you can be sure that every book that's published has been gone over by all kinds of studios. In Canada, there's not the same feeding frenzy. I read probably 75 per cent of all books that come out in Canada before they're published. It's an untapped market with a great upside, given the calibre of authors we have."
Slan isn't naive to the risks of such a business venture, which depends on the fickle whims of network and studio heads. But he's confident he's got an eye for salable stories. And he plans to protect himself on the back end this time around. "The prior flawed strategy of Paragon and all the other movie companies in Canada was to fund the deficits involved in the productions, in return for expectations of future revenue," he says. "My new plan is to make the money on the creative side -- by developing and selling film projects, and then retaining producer's fees and, hopefully, significant profit participation."
Over the years, Slan's name has been linked to a number of high-profile shows and stars. In the early days, he hustled alongside the likes of Garth Drabinsky, Robert Lantos and Robert Cooper. Slan's first bigger-budget flick was 1978's High-Ballin',starring Peter Fonda. Soon after, he produced Threshold,with Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum. Later, he did the Western epic Wyatt Earp (1994), with Kevin Costner, and The Wrong Guy (1997),with David Foley (1997). On television, some of his more successful ventures included Lamb Chop's Play-Along with Shari Lewis, and the children's wildlife show, Kratt's Creatures. Slan also made a mint from his early stake in Canada's first pay-TV operation, Superchannel, and he was a founding partner in YTV. In 1986, he began a stint as chairman of the Toronto International Film Festival.
"Jon was one of the early guys, one of the pioneers in film in this country," says Helga Stephenson, who became TIFF's director while Slan was its chair. "They were all smart, but Jon was the most literary of the group. He's a clear thinker and he has a wonderful sense of humour. Things would be getting out of hand for one reason or another, and he'd always calm things down with that kind of laconic air he has."
In the late 1980s, Slan and his wife, Hannah, moved to Los Angeles to open a Paragon office. They were heady days, living in beautiful Encino, hanging out with the likes of Robert Redford and Broadway producer David Merrick. Slan left the reins of control of Paragon's Toronto head office with a young lawyer named Richard Borchiver. (The two no longer speak).
The company had lots of TV-production deals (series like Forever Knight and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, movies like Kissinger and Nixon). But the company was burning through cash. Unlike other entertainment enterprises that turned to the public trough, Paragon raised a grand total of $20-million, a fraction of what others were taking in.
Then, in the summer of 1994, Paragon bought Harrison's HandMade Films, whose library included such acclaimed titles as Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and Withnail and I. And not long after that, Paragon bought a small, Ottawa-based animation company, Lacewood. At its peak, Paragon employed 75 people in three countries. A series of bad financing deals and personality clashes within the company left many in the film community leery of dealing with Paragon. After a while, the company seemed directionless.
Looking back, Slan says the Lacewood deal was probably the final straw. "It was proving to be an unmitigated disaster," he says with a shake of his head. In 1995, his board called him back in the hopes of steadying the sinking ship. But it was too late. He resigned. Eventually, the board bailed too. Borchiver continued to run the place for a few months. In the end, the HandMade library was sold for a pittance, and the premium kids' shows Kratt's Creatures and Zoboomafoo were sold to Cinar in Montreal.
Slan, who's now a teetotaller, was wrestling with personal demons. He retreated into his library to lick his wounds, read his books and re-think his life and career. He blames the demise of Paragon on many things, but ultimately holds himself responsible. "We did some bad deals," Slan says. "Our reputation in the industry suffered. But at the end of the day, I was CEO and I signed off on everything. It was my responsibility."
Stephenson, now a consultant, acknowledges it was difficult for Slan to start over. "But that's what he did. No moaning, no groaning. He has that wonderful Jewish philosophical shrug. He took the fall, but he did it with grace and dignity, never pointing fingers. He just kind of buckled down and got back to work."
Slan grew up in Toronto. His dad, Leon, now 86, owned the Dominion Luggage Company and was the Canadian amateur heavyweight boxing champion from 1935 to 1937. His 84-year-old mother, a former concert pianist, smokes three packs of cigarettes a day, eats only licorice, and works out at the gym six days a week. Says Slan, "I hope to God I have her genes."
After studying at York, Slan did his master's in English at Columbia, and his PhD at U of T, and went on to teach at both Toronto and the University of Western Ontario in London. When the academic job market dried up, Slan supported himself by doing some TV and magazine work, before stumbling into the world of film. At that point, he says, "The history of film in Canada was mainly documentaries through the National Film Board." Soon after he left the cloistered world of the campus, Slan started Paragon.
Entertainment types say that Slan's academic-cum-entertainment background gives him the ideal credentials to successfully marry books with the big screen. Bill Mustos, senior vice-president of dramatic programming at CTV, started talking to Slan about a year ago. Says Mustos, now involved in early development on A Friend of the Family, "A lot of producers in this country will say, 'I read the galleys for this book, I've checked with the agent that the rights are available.' But only if the network says yes will the producer negotiate the rights.
"Jon has just gone off and done this himself, with his own money. He has a conviction about the creative material."
Adds Mustos, "Everyone in this country who works in TV has recollections of the Paragon days and the Paragon saga. But what I've been really impressed with is Jon's astuteness regarding up-and-coming writers and directors. He's effectively a one-man band, who has managed to put these deals together and also involve himself with some very interesting talent in this country at the grassroots level."
Between his book reading and deal pitching, Slan not only reads a heck of a lot -- he also sees virtually every new movie, from blockbuster schlock to the indies made on a shoestring.
"I'm mainly looking for actors," he says, "people who seem to be good and breaking."
Adds Slan, "I don't feel like I'm starting a new career. It's the same thing I was doing. I think I have a good nose for material, and the ability to find things that will sell and get made. And with any luck, one or two will be hits."