Skip to main content
at the top

He was born into one of Canada's most powerful families, but Paul Bronfman has never coasted on his bloodlines. He is a survivor in a punishing industry, as owner of a leading supplier of production gear (lights, dollies, trucks) for the volatile film and TV industry - as well as shareholder in a new film studio in Toronto's Port Lands.

This son of the late business leader Edward Bronfman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-1990s, but the illness has not impaired his passion or drive for his company and his industry.

What has happened to your business?

Canada is becoming much less competitive in attracting American film and television. It's a combination of factors - the currency for sure, but the Americans are also taking our tax model and in many cases making it a lot better than what we had going previously. The Americans are unbelievably resilient.

What has the economic crisis meant?

It's been tough. Independent producers have had a much tougher time getting financing. Credit for the industry is substantially tightened. People say the entertainment business is recession-proof. It's a bunch of nonsense. The entertainment industry is subject to the same pressures as other businesses.

What would you say to policy makers?

You hate to go cap in hand to the government. This industry does have an image - wrongly, I think - of being fat cats. Sure you have Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise making $20-million but most people in this industry are working hard and not living high on the hog. The one thing we really need right now is for the federal government to step up their tax credit. It's been sitting at 16 per cent for years and it is just not competitive any more.

How do you describe yourself?

I'm a member of the family of black sheep we call the film industry in Canada.

We are people who didn't want to, or couldn't, conform to normal businesses and normal jobs, so we all ended up in this industry. Most of us fell into it by accident.

I was a roadie for April Wine and I worked as an assistant production manager for Supertramp and the Stampeders. Then a job opened in Toronto at Pathé Sound in film sound post-production. I figured, "Film, sound, music, it's got to be all related." Of course, it's not related at all. But I started 32 years ago.

Some might say you were a kid born with a silver spoon, playing with music and movies.

To me it is the curse of the last name. People have preconceived notions about you, good and bad. It is one of the reasons I left Montreal [at age 20]to get out of that little glass bubble there. I loved Toronto the day I got here. People like me for what I am, and I have always wanted to make my own name, my own place in life.

How did you get your tenacity?

It was probably the combination of a very dysfunctional family growing up, and the fact I just had to step away from that and go make my own life. I had to prove my own worth, and I probably took it to the extreme. As you get older you get a little more comfortable in what you've done and your record speaks for itself. With the MS thing, from the moment I get out of bed to the moment I get into bed, it doesn't leave you - it's always there. I just have to keep going. I have a great wife, great kids, great colleagues at the company who help me out. They build me scooters. These people will walk on coals for me. I am so blessed.

What kind of education did you get?

I graduated from University of Toronto with a commerce BA, but not until I was 25 because I was in such a rush to start my career. Honestly, there is not one thing I would draw from that commerce degree that I use now. But it does teach you deadlines and how to deal with the pressure of doing things that you have no idea how to do - statistics and calculus, for example. And as I told my father at a young age, "Dad, I love you but I don't want to do what you do." I had no interest in pushing paper and playing around with that stuff.

You are a shareholder and chairman of Pinewood Toronto, the city's hope for a major movie-TV studio. How is that going?

The money pit. It's better. Things have stabilized, we have new management and some new shareholders. I had a choice of getting out or moving forward with the new group. I chose the new group because I really like these people. I think they are good for the business. There are only two constants in the entire business - change and uncertainty. I think the future is good but it will take time to get our feet on the floor. What we really need down there is a hit show.

Nobody knew about North Shore Studios [a Vancouver studio co-developed by him] until 1992-93. Then this show came along and nobody gave it a chance. They asked: "What is this X-Files thing?"

How long do you plan to do what you are doing?

Forever. The brain is a muscle; I like to go to the gym five days a week but your brain needs exercise too. If it doesn't get exercised, it atrophies. Look how many people retire and they go downhill mentally and physically. As long as I have the passion. That's what I tell my kids, "Guys, don't worry about the money, the money will come but find something you are passionate about."

You work out five times a week?

At least. My wife says I am a little obsessive about it, but it is one of the things I can still do that hasn't been taken away from me.

What have you learned about the business?

People are the biggest assets. You treat your employees like gold and they will treat customers like gold. It's not rocket science and we try to treat our employees like gold.

We employ about 150 [at William F. White International]but it used to be 350. We downsized - either you do that or you die. We had to leave the Bay Street law firm; we had to leave the Bay Street accounting firm. We don't need fancy addresses. We just need good legal and accounting and we have smaller groups to work with.

Thank God, I sold my Maple Leaf tickets [for this season]at face value in September. When times are tight, Maple Leaf tickets are frills, and we are old Maple Leaf fans.

I know now why you had to leave Montreal.

Exactly. I was going into the Forum with a Leaf jersey on and my father even owned the team for seven years in the 1970s.

What do you tell your own children about getting into the business?

This is the type of business where you don't leave it at work, I think about it; I dream about it on a regular basis. It keeps me up at night. I wish I could pull that chip out of that little brain of mine so I can get a restful night's sleep.

I worry about my employees. But I stay awake even when things are good. It's not as if I am always up at night worrying. I'm planning, I'm doing.

How long have you had to deal with MS?

I was diagnosed with it in June, 1995, and I've been on a scooter since 2001. I've done everything possible. I've been a guinea pig for two stem cell transplants, one in Ottawa seven years ago, and one in Israel last year. I've done all the drugs. Meanwhile I've got a life to live - to travel. I am very excited because this is the first winter I am not dreading. My wife and I bought a condo in South Beach [Fla.]nearly four years ago and we just moved in last February-March.

At first, I was a bit shy about the MS. I lied a lot, and said my ankle was sore, my knee was sore. It's pretty normal because you don't want people to feel sorry for you. You don't want people to treat you differently. But now, it is what it is.

Life goes on?

It does, because the alternative is not pretty. You know what gets me to the gym every day? Fear. It's a great motivator. Fear of not doing it.

I've been doing weight training since I was 20. Thank God for that. Later in life, when I was diagnosed, I was in reasonable condition and already used to the fitness program. If you are diagnosed with a chronic condition where you have to start a program, it is hard. But if you are in the groove already, you just modify the program.


Paul Bronfman

Title / Chairman and CEO, Comweb Corp.; CEO of William F. White International Inc.; chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, Toronto.

Born / May 28, 1957, in Montreal.

Education / BA in commerce, University of Toronto

Career highlights

Mid-1970s: Roadie and manager for rock bands such as Supertramp and April Wine. Late 1970s: Moved to Astral Bellevue Pathé (now Astral Media), where he held several management jobs. Founded Comweb, which co-owned and managed Vancouver's North Shore Studios. Sold its interest in 1996.

1989: Acquired control of William F. White International Inc., a leading provider of lighting, camera support and other film and television equipment. 1993: Formed Protocol Entertainment Inc., which developed, financed and produced TV series and movies. Comweb sold its interest in 2005.

Interact with The Globe