Thursday, December 8, 2011

Canadian Irony

"In Canada when I did strange things, people looked at me. In the U.S. when I did the same, they paid me."
                         - Michael J. Fox

That quote from Michael J. Fox has more to it than one would really think. While the true north, strong and free remains my home country it also presents some contradictions in the world of writers in particular.

In the 1980's, I was at the early stages of what now is a booming business in Canada which got it's big push when Americans began to come to Canada during the booming tax shelter days. Money was everywhere, and so were lawyers and accountants with schemes that would find ways to hide money in a 100% tax shelter. Eventually the government caught on and ended it.

But the Canadian crews had learned from the U.S. crews and it wasn't long before writers emerged on a whole pile of series the likes of which had never been seen before. With new networks, Canadian series took off. And not just the kid shows.

Like the U.S., the industry was primarily centered in Toronto and Montreal, and after a few years, in Vancouver. And that was about the time I left the country.

I had made a movie in Calgary, Ghostkeeper, and finding work in Calgary was hard. There was none. I didn't want to move to Toronto or Montreal. So I got a Green Card through a lottery way back in 1989 from the U.S. government.

And a funny thing happened when I moved to the U.S.

I got more jobs in Canada.

Now this could be defined in a few ways, but mostly, it was the identification of being in "L.A." and actually living there. The same people in Canada who wouldn't hire me because I wasn't from Toronto, suddenly took interest in me.

With the premise that because I lived in L.A., I must be good. Of course, that's ridiculous, but a job is a job.

I'm not the only one who thought this, I have a half dozen writers and directors who agree with the idea that having an LA address ironically made us more employable in Canada. In one year alone I wrote 2 screenplays and rewrote 4 screenplays of other Canadian writers, which took me too Luxembourg, Winnipeg and Mexico. My best year.

But it did not sit well with Canadian writers living in Canada.

I belong to two guilds, Writer's Guild of Canada and Writer's Guild of America, commonly referred to as WGC and WGA. They have mutual agreements so that Canadians living in the US can still work in Canada and vice versa. It's got some complicated wording but essentially all is happy within the two guilds.

But some writers in Canada began to complain. "Why should he/she take away Canadian jobs when they live in LA".

The answer was, to my mind (and others) because I am Canadian. In the first years,70% of my work was done for  Canadian productions from 1990 to 2000 while living in LA. In that time I worked on 4 Canadian series in Canada and 1Canadian/French show (Highlander) in the U.S.

Then I got into a little dispute with the head of WGC when he wrote an editorial in the WGC magazine about the carpetbaggers stealing Canadian jobs. It wasn't in exactly those words, but the intent was there.

I wrote him a letter saying that I'm just as employable as anyone else.  But I'm leaving out some crucial details. His answer was that I and any other Canadian writers who betrayed our country, should not be let back in.

One big reason I and other Canadians in the US got work was particularly upsetting to the head of WGC.

The big advantage we had was that US Companies doing movies and series in Canada received tax credits for having Canadians on the crew. And tax credits meant they got more money.

In a weird formula, the federal government said any company who wished Canadian financing must have this; 6 out of 10 points in "above the line".

There were 2 points for the following; Producer, director, writer, star, and 1 point for editor, production designer, cameraperson.  So a company could have a U.S. star and then mix the above labels to at least 6 points.

And to make it more confusing, not only did the feds ask for this, so did the provinces. If you wanted to make a movie in Vancouver, you had to go by the same formula, more or less, except everyone had to be from British Columbia. Same as Ontario and Montreal.

It then became harder for people like me to get work in Canada because of my LA address. But it also became harder for a Canadian in Ontario to work anywhere else in Canada too.

In my letter to the WGC head, I said I have as much right as anyone in Canada to work there and not only is the system unfair to me, it's unfair to every writer in Canada.

Eventually the system was altered but by then I was working on US productions so it wasn't as important. My last movie in 2010 was with WGC and I  never left L.A. even though it was filmed in Ontario.

But I don't deny that it gives Canadians living in the U.S. a bit of an edge on both U.S. and Canadian writers working and living in Canada.

And if you can understand all of this in one reading, I have the greatest admiration. Like this business, it's all a little crazy.

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