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Michael MacMillan credits UCC with kindling passion for filmmaking

Co-founder of Atlantis Films and former executive chairman of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. Michael MacMillan.

Courtesy Michael MacMillan

When Michael MacMillan was a Grade 10 student at Upper Canada College in Toronto, he and his friends made a little super-8 short for English class. Other kids in the class made films too, but it was different for Mr. MacMillan, co-founder of Atlantis Films and former executive chairman of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc.

Throughout the next three years, Mr. MacMillan spent "an inordinate amount of time" playing with the bits of filming equipment the school provided, encouraged by a supportive teacher, Michael Carver, who shared his interest. It ignited a passion for filmmaking that would shape his life.

"I was addicted right from the start," says Mr. MacMillan, 56, whose first efforts included The Torontonian Polar Bear and Gun Blob, an animated short that used plasticine models. "The place tolerated it; they let me do my own thing and that made all the difference. It allowed me to find out what I wanted to do."

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While still in high school, Mr. MacMillan simultaneously enrolled in a cinematography course at Ryerson, attending at night after his day classes. By the time he graduated from UCC in 1974, he was truly committed to the idea of studying film and filmmaking.

"More than 40 years ago, that was really unusual," Mr. MacMillan says. "It's far more credible today to have filmmaking as an idea of what you want to do but it was a really wacky idea back then. It's still kind of crazy today, but was even crazier then. The fact that Michael Carver didn't think it was mad or an odd hobby to have was a big deal."

Pursuing his goal to be in the world of cinema, Mr. MacMillan went to Queen's University to study film. Although the courses focused mainly on theory, there were facilities where he and his film student friends were able to produce several 16mm films. One of those was The Academic Cloister, a general criticism of universities that pointed out how everything from the lecture hall to examinations discouraged original thought and investigation.

As co-head of orientation week in 1976, Mr. MacMillan showed his movie to small groups of freshmen – with a discussion following – before being shut down by Queen's administration. But the end result was that the university hired him and his friends to make promotional films pointing out the other side.

"We were lucky, lucky, lucky to be at Queen's," Mr. MacMillan says. "I'm a huge believer in classic liberal arts education. I see that as a primary role of universities today, not as a job factory. They can be that as well, but the most important thing is encouraging curious, caring citizens with a capacity to question and express."

While still in fourth year, Mr. MacMillan and his friends, now partners, incorporated Atlantis Films in 1978. With $300 among them, they arrived in Toronto that spring, renting a little house on Church Street to live in and use as an office.

The next 29 years is a tale of the company's survival, first by making documentaries as a hired gun, then shifting in the late seventies to creating dramas as a film and television production house. In 1984, Atlantis won an Oscar for its short film Boy and Girls.

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The company then moved into international distribution. When American broadcast and production rules changed, Atlantis became a broadcaster in 1993, launching its first specialty channel, Life Network (now renamed Slice), and many others.

Ultimately it purchased Alliance Communications, a television specialty company, in a reverse takeover to create Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. in 1998. The merged company operated numerous Canadian specialty stations including History Television and Showcase Television as well as continuing to distribute and produce movies and TV programs such as the hugely successful co-production of the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise.

"The biggest achievement was being able to ride through enormous change," Mr. MacMillan says. "When we started Atlantis, everything was on film. The portable video camera had not been popularized, there were no video cassettes in regular retail use, and most international television networks were owned by governments, not the private sector. There weren't any satellite and specialty channels or pay TV being delivered to Canadians, let alone DVDs or Internet. So our success was in adapting quickly to hugely changing circumstances – and in some cases guessing luckily in advance – and radically changing our business activities to suit that world."

Since selling Alliance Atlantis to CanWest Global Communications in 2007 for $2.3-billion, Mr. MacMillan returned to Upper Canada College after being elected to serve as chairman of the board of governors (from 2007 until December of 2010). In 2009, he co-founded Samara, a charitable organization with the purpose of improving political and civic engagement in Canada.

"I've always been interested in public policy, politics and social action since I was a kid," Mr. MacMillan says. "My parents subscribed to Hansard [the official record of debates in the House of Commons] for me and we had that delivered to our house. I've always known that I wanted to do more and that one should. Have I ever done enough? No."

Last year, after four years away from the media world, Mr. MacMillan launched a new Canadian-based company, Blue Ant Media, to create content and programming to serve specific niche communities of interest and to deliver that content around the world.

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"I missed the cut and thrust of business and the camaraderie of the media world," Mr. MacMillan says. "So here I am back in media with old and new colleagues and a new set of evolving challenges. It turns out that maybe you can take the boy out of the media but you can't take the media out of the boy."

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