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Friday, June 12, 2009

I came to the Banff festival with a chip on my shoulder about Generica. Generica is a mysterious yet blandly familiar country somewhere in North America. Its mailboxes are blue, but it's not anywhere in the United States, at least nowhere identifiable. In fact it has no landmarks whatsoever. On the other hand, it is not anywhere in Canada, that's for damn sure -- no one has the telltale dipthong, or says "sore-ree" instead of "sah-ree," and you'll never see a bilingual sign or a maple leaf that's not on a tree. It is anywhere and nowhere.

Generica is Everycity, North America. It is the place that some US execs insist you set your movie or tv series, instead of setting it in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, because supposedly American audiences would never watch a show if they knew it took place in Canada.

(To be clear, Generica is not where you shoot RUDY: THE RUDY GIULIANI STORY. That was set in New York City. It was shot in my neighborhood in Montreal, sure, but I'm sure the movie had a real New York feel to it.)

I have issues with Generica. It is a boring place to shoot. Expensive and time-consuming, too. The effort you would usually spend trying to make each shot distinctive and special -- can we get the Jacques Cartier Bridge at dusk into the background of this shot? -- goes into making sure no shot has a red mailbox, or an "ARRET" sign, or the CN Tower.

Also, as a native New Yorker who spent a decade in LA, I don't believe American audiences care where their TV series are shot. I think some people would think it was neat that they were watching a show set in sexy Montreal. Most people simply wouldn't notice where the show was set. How many people could tell you that HOMICIDE was set in Baltimore?

Does any hockey fan in New York turn off the game because it's the Habs beating the Rangers yet again? Any American well-traveled enough, or cosmopolitan enough, to recognize the CN Tower, won't mind, or would even dig, that the show was set in Toronto. The only guys you have to worry about, the real Red State America-first-and-only people, if they have any geographical opinion at all, probably think it's the Seattle Space Needle. I doubt 50% of the American audience could tell you what country Vancouver is in.

FLASHPOINT is not set in Generica. It is set in Toronto. Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis, co-creators of the show, talked a bit at their panel about how they have red mailboxes and say the names of streets and parks, and make Tim Hortons references. Stephanie told an amusing story about an actress who was saying "sah-ree" on set; Stephanie whispered in the director's ear, "Tell her it's okay for her to say "sore-ree."

Go Stephanie and Mark!

I chatted with Christina Davis, FLASHPOINT's CBS exec. She said it was fine with her network that FLASHPOINT takes place in Toronto, "so long as you don't make a meal of it."

(It's okay to make a Timbit of it, I guess.)

She said that so long as you have a reason why your show needs to take place in your city, you should be able to convince your exec to let you set it there.

But here's the thing. CBS also bought THE BRIDGE, now shooting in Toronto. On THE BRIDGE, they are swapping out mailboxes and license plates, and ruthlessly eliminating any Toronto references. You can't even say "Yonge Street," I'm told by people on the show.

THE BRIDGE is based on the experiences of the guy who ran the Toronto Police union. So there are good reasons why you'd need to set it in Toronto.


Now here's my question. If I have a choice, I'd rather set my Montreal-based show in Montreal, because I know it and love it, and I want to wring every bit of local color out of the city. I want the Jacques Cartier Bridge at dusk. I want the illuminated cross up on the Mountain. I want the Old Port. I want Ciné L'Amour.

If I can't do that, I'd rather set the thing in New York. We'll shoot the Old Port for The Village, and send a truck down to New York for some authentic garbage to strew, and maybe digitally add the Washington Square arch in a park shot somewhere.

I can't do the latter because you can't get CTF funding if your show is set outside of Canada, as I understand it.

Yet, irritatingly, the CTF does not require your show to actually be set in Canada. Just not outside of it.


I think the US network prejudice against Canadian shows is nothing more than a prejudice that LA network executives have. I don't believe it's a prejudice that Americans actually share. Personally I think if anything Americans are tired of all the shows set in LA and New York, as if those are the only two cities in North America that matter. I think we'd all rather see a cop show set in New Orleans, or Toronto, or (setting aside the language thing) Montreal, than another SOUTHLAND.

I think all that's needed is for the CTF, and/or the Canadian networks, to simply refuse to fund any shows set in Generica.

Canada is providing the lion's share of the money for all these shows. On shows like THE BRIDGE and FLASHPOINT and COPPER, I don't believe the US partner's contribution cracks 20% of the financing. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've heard numbers going down to 10%.)

American network execs are prejudiced, and they don't give a damn about Canadian cultural sensitivities. But why should they, if we don't stand up for ourselves?

They do, however, understand money. On my show, NAKED JOSH, we had French signage, and landmarks all over the place, and more French signage, and Eric lived above Ciné L'Amour, and Josh's sex-crazed landlady had a strong French Canadian accent because, you know, sexy French landlady. We told Oxygen that we just couldn't afford to swap out all the ARRET signs on the money we had. They understood that completely.

We simply didn't use the "M" word. NAKED JOSH doesn't necessarily take place in Montreal. It could take place in any French-English-bilingual North American city.

All that's needed is for the CTF to declare that shows have to be identifiably Canadian. I'm not saying make a meal of it. Just don't shy away from where you are. Then when you're selling your show to CBS, you can say, "sore-ree, our mailboxes are red."

It won't stop bizarre choices like shooting just-outside-Vancouver for Toronto (I'm looking at you, BLOOD TIES). But it will put a stop to Generica.

I hate Generica, partly out of patriotism (yes, I get to be patriotic about both my countries), but mostly out of creative rage. Generica turns your locations into tofu. You can spice them up all you like, but you'll never get them to crunch.



Great post. Cases like The Bridge is where you lose taxpayers on the argument that we have to support the Canadian TV industry - when the primary audience seems to be non-Canadian, and the idea of "telling our stories" succumbs to "making our stories as unidentifiably ours as possible." As I said on Twitter, it won't make me like the show less, but it makes me resent having to pay for its production.

By Blogger Diane Kristine Wild, at 12:27 PM  

I completely agree.

I remember years ago seeing Egoyan's "Exotica." When it became clear it was set in Toronto, I perked up. I'd never been to Canada, so I valued this window into an exotic setting. (Having lived in Toronto now, I feel misled by Egoyan about its exotic nature. [joking]) I had a similar reaction when watching "Smilla's Sense of Snow." I thought I was getting a window into Cophenhagen, an exotic setting, until the movie turned into a weird adventure film.

I think your point about executives' prejudice is particularly true. It strikes me as a fear based thing. That is, if an LA- or NY-set show tanks, no one's going to get blamed for setting it in those locales. But if a show with a less conventional setting tanks, the green-lighting exec will likely be afraid that they'll get attacked for the setting, even if the setting had nothing to do with it.

By Blogger David, at 12:27 PM  

My comment about "Exotica" calls to mind another film, "The Score," set in Montreal.

In both cases, their unconventional settings were assets. The fact that I knew little about them pulled me into the story. Whereas conventional settings typically do nothing for their films; they're just background noise. (There are exceptions, of course.)

By Blogger David, at 1:10 PM  

You're making your tofu wrong.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:20 PM  

I agree with your "don't make a meal of it" approach. My thought is that the execs are worried about it being "relate-able." I personally think that starts with characters and not setting, but hey - I'm a bastard.

To be honest, I have never seen a blue mailbox anywhere in America. I have seen black and decorated ones with color and additions (A particularly well done Cow mailbox comes to mind)

The fact that someone thought it was a good idea to pay someone to swap out mailboxes because they were the wrong color shows just how skewed the priorities are in this business. I don't care if the mailbox is red or the sign is bilingual (a staple in my community here in Hollywood with Armenian, Thai, Korean and Spanish being the 2nd languages) if there's a dead body on the concrete...

By Blogger Cunningham, at 1:30 PM  

Absolutely. I'm reminded of the new Batman movie, where parts are set in a Hong Kong that really feels like Hong Kong. Most of the audience won't know Hong Kong from New York City, but they will notice that the atmosphere is both different and true. It's the same reason why good sf sets are hard to create: it takes a lot of work to make a fake place seem real.

Although I'd also prefer it if one could make a Canadian show that is shot in Canada (so Canadians work) but set in London, Chicago or anywhere else that a Canadian city could be made to resemble. Who, after all, says a story must be set in Canada to be Canadian? Just don't round off the corners of real place, please, and I'd be happy.

By Blogger Unknown, at 3:19 PM  

I now see what you mean by Blue boxes and red boxes (didn't show up in Google Reader).

I call those Post Office boxes. To me, a mailbox is at my front gate.

Ah yes, separated by a common language we are....

By Blogger Cunningham, at 3:24 PM  

Bottom line: do you want your show to get made? That is sometimes the determining factor in the argument about red or blue mailboxes.

Secondarily, I support those who believe that a story does not have to be set here to be Canadian. Look at the Brits making Rome, I Claudius, the Maigret series - they make things that they believe are good television. And I won't even get into the sci-fi argument.

By Blogger deborah Nathan, at 3:56 PM  

Hill Street Blues is a great example of well done Generica. I like the idea of inventing a totally new city.

If you approach it creatively you can have a lot of fun with it.

By Blogger Michael F, at 10:00 PM  

I agree. Imagine Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, Seinfeld, Mad Men, etc., without specific New York locations and references. The upcoming HBO show Treme is specifically set in New Orleans, because no other location would do. The specificity of locations function almost like a character in the show.

Maybe procedurals can get away with generica -- when there's a dead body, no one is looking at the mail boxes -- but shows about daily life need, well, daily life.

American shows have always had specific locations, even 3-camera comedies shot in a studio. Lucy Ricardo lived on East 68th Street in Manhattan; Mary Richards lived in Minneapolis; Mork from Ork resided in Boulder, Colorado; Happy Days was "set" in Milwaukee. Even if you don't show locations, American audiences want to know WHERE it's supposed to be.

By Blogger Unknown, at 11:27 AM  

Network executives are feeding you a line about people in the states not wanting to watch anything based in Canada. I live in Florida and that's almost as far south as you can go in the States. I love Flashpoint and I loved Blood Ties. I fought/campaigned for almost 2 years to try to keep Blood Ties from being canceled by that foul excuse of a network called lifetime.

I, for one, think the films/showing coming out of Canada are much better than what we have in the states here. We have idiotic network executives here such as Andrea Wong (lifetime) who think that we want nothing more than mind-numbing reality shows. GIVE ME A BREAK!

I love shows set in Canada as your scenery is beautiful up there. So when the next network executive tells you we won't watch things from Canada without you Americanizing the scenery, tell him/her that he/she's full of crap. I don't care as long as it's a good show.

By Blogger maggiemay, at 9:52 AM  

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