Putting Bums On Seats

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Wed, 12/22/2004 - 16:00

There is no red carpet or flashing cameras, and the Cinemark Tinseltown in Vancouver is quiet on a wet Friday night. Another Canadian movie is taking the fast lane through movieland's calendar, and by the end of the film you can count the audience left on two hands. Some walk out early. Two leave midway and a couple in the back row spend the whole film giggling and talking loudly.

A few of us are here after receiving an email from the First Weekend Club asking us to come and support a new Canadian film. We don't know if it's good or bad, we're just here to be here. As the First Weekend Club's slogan, "See it first, make it last" implies, the aim of the non-profit organization is to get as many people out to see Canadian films on the critical first weekend so the movies stay on theatre screens for a longer period of time. In spite of Vancouver's position as one of the top movie production centres in North America, only three per cent of films shown in anglophone Canada are Canadian. In contrast, with the media blitzkrieg that accompanies Hollywood films as they open on thousands of screens across the continent, home-grown films tend to be slipped almost anonymously onto a screen or two on a Friday night. First Weekend Club is trying to change that.

Tonight's film is a teenage girl's coming-of-age story, ironically called Some Things That Stay. It won't stay. Not necessarily because it's bad: film reviewers liked its handling of its loss-of-innocence theme.

Tonight though it's just another Canadian film that's looking for an audience and the cinema-going public appear to have abandoned this corner of town for the release of the new Disney animation The Incredibles.

"It's disappointing," admits Anita Adams later at a post-screening get-together in a bar across the road from the cinema. Adams, the driving force behind First Weekend Club, has seen much better days of close to or near capacity audiences on the first weekend for films like Touch of Pink, Flower & Garnett, The Delicate Art of Parking and The Snow Walker. The organization has been so instrumental in raising awareness that when you mention its name to people in the film industry they are full of praise.

"It's tough sledding for building audiences for Canadian films," says Rob Egan, president and CEO of British Columbia Film. "First Weekend Club has really made a difference in bringing profile and awareness of the films that are out there."

Adams is nervous that the novelty of the First Weekend Club, launched in February 2003, may be wearing off. This is the first film that First Weekend Club has promoted since launching its new website (www.firstweekendclub.ca), and only one email was sent out a few days in advance of the film's release. Usually, the organization does more promotion, so it may be that the 3,000 club members in Vancouver didn't get word soon enough.

There's a tinge of embarrassment, too, for Adams because the effervescent teenage star of the film, Katie Boland, has come from Vancouver Island where she is working on a television show to meet the audience. The daughter of the director, she is here with her dad. With so few people, we have a question and answer huddle with Boland. She responds to our queries with infectious enthusiasm.

The film leaves the cinema a few days later.

A week later, the turnout is better for comedy satire Wild Guys. Although Bridget Jones Diary sequel is pulling in huge crowds tonight, Cinemark Tinseltown's 124-seater cinema four, where Wild Guys is screening, is two-thirds full. The story makes light of four West Coast male characters as they face their inner demons and a grizzly bear on an outdoors adventure trip. The movie was shot in Vancouver and B.C., which always helps get local interest. Writer and star Jackson Davies, director William Gereghty and producer Robert Frederick get a warm response when they step up to field questions at the end. The weekend's box office proves to be enough to carry the film another week, albeit in a smaller cinema in Tinseltown. Frederick is also considering re-releasing Wild Guys in January, once the Christmas blockbuster season has run its course.

Adams is relieved: First Weekend Club is back on track.

The First Weekend Club is an offshoot of a script reading series called Alibi Unplugged launched by Adams in 1998. The forum for reading screenplays by local writers to a live audience was proving highly popular, and the organizers decided to expand their objectives. One of those goals was helping directors and producers publicize their completed films.

Even films that do well at the theatrical box office rarely recoup their budget. The more box office buzz a film generates through the media and word of mouth, the more it helps sales further down the line, where production costs are eventually raked back through television, DVD and video sales, or a distribution deal in the U.S. or Europe.

Someone at Alibi mentioned they had heard of an organization called the First Weekend Club in the U.S. that was successful in raising the profile for black American filmmakers.

"After researching it, I thought, wow, this is phenomenal," says Adams. "How simple is that? We could take that model and plug it into Canadian film."

She sent an email to 1,200 people on the Alibi Unplugged listserv inviting them to sign up for the new First Weekend Club. "Four hundred responded instantly," she says.

Adams launched The First Weekend Club with the release of Guy Bennett's pugilistic drama-comedy Punch, packing the house on the opening weekend and managing to extend the film's life for a further weekend.

With the release of the B.C.-made Flower & Garnet a month later, they threw their first party. The film stayed in cinemas for 11 weeks.

"There was a real excitement and a buzz and there was something more here than I initially thought," remembers Adams of those first few weeks.

The organization is barely two years old, but the film industry is behind it, offering technical and publicity services, glitzy prizes, office space (First Weekend Club is moving out of Adams' North Shore home to free office space in Vancouver Film Studios) and volunteers have put in hours of their time.

Telefilm, the federal cultural funding agency, has provided a much-needed grant to support the organization's growth across the country and First Weekend Club now has chapters from Vancouver to Halifax, including Calgary and Toronto, the latter of which opened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. They are still looking to open in Quebec, although its film industry is already doing disproportionately well at the francophone box office (up to 20 per cent of provincial ticket sales) compared to the rest of Canada.

Adams sees her job as taking the risk out of a night out at the cinema. "The reality is that it is not cheap to go and see a film and if you don't know anything about the people in the film, the actors, the director and you haven't heard about it on TV or radio_ Why would you take a chance?" she asks.

Having originally set her sights on a career in acting and filmmaking-she made her own short film and had a part in an episode of The Dead Zone-she has happily slipped into the role of host and executive director of Alibi Unplugged and now First Weekend Club. With her combination of easygoing self-confidence, passion for film and desire to be at the centre of things, the role suits her. Marie Medeiros, who volunteered for two years for Alibi Unplugged and who helps with the daily running of the organization, feels Adams is a great motivator. "She has great intuition and gut feeling," says Sedeiros. "She is a great leader."

Creating a friendly, social atmosphere at openings is part of the First Weekend Club's success. Adams also provides extra "grassroots marketing" for those filmmakers that have the budget for it. Adams says it can take many forms: postering caf‚s, bars and other hot spots, handing out publicity material, hosting parties and planning canny marketing campaigns.

Many will remember the campaign for locally made mockumentary The Delicate Art of Parking. Borrowing an idea from Adbusters, First Weekend members distributed fake parking tickets on parked cars. "The media ate that up. They thought that was hilarious," says Adams.

Rather than rent the theatre, which can typically set a producer or distributor back $500 to $600 dollars for tickets, The Delicate Art of Parking filmmakers offered free admission to any matinee show to anyone who brought an outstanding parking ticket to the box office. Adams says only about 80 people brought in their tickets, but people were talking about the offer at evening and weekend screenings.

"There were stories on the television and the radio: they were announcing if you have a parking ticket bring it to Fifth Avenue cinema for the matinee screening. So there was just a real buzz and that really carried a long way."

They also got an email out to the hundreds of parking attendants in Vancouver inviting them to see the film and have a beer with the filmmakers. "We had a massive turnout," says Adams.

Adams is quick to point out that First Weekend Club was only part of the overall equation. Good word-of-mouth came from a good working relationship between publicist, the producers, the distributor and a supportive exhibitor. "I think it was so successful, and it was almost combustive, because everybody was communicating, everybody was going with the same message, but from different angles," says Adams.

In the end, The Delicate Art of Parking, which just came out on DVD, laughed its way through 13 weeks at the cinema. Unfortunately, the success did not help the flagging fortunes of its Montreal-based distributor Cinema Libre, which shut down last month, returning the rights to the 1,000 titles in its library to the filmmakers.

The recent demise of Cinema Libre and other small distributors accentuates the risk involved in the industry. "There are literally thousands of good films out there that aren't saleable enough to make a go of a theatrical prospect," says John Fulton executive director of distribution at TVA films in Toronto, whose films include Guy Maddin's demented black-and-white comedy The Saddest Music in the World and Childstar, Don McKellar's comedy about a young Hollywood brat, scheduled for release next month.

Fulton says that the art or speciality tag that many Canadian films have works against them, even if local critics back a film.

"It's rolling a rock up a hill trying to build awareness for a film that has no genre hook, marketing hook or recognizable cast out there-a completely review-driven film."

While distributors and exhibitors balk at the idea of a film being "unique," Adams, undaunted, sees uniqueness as a selling point. "We're trying to change the stereotype," she says. She hopes that First Weekend Club can increase the profile of local talent and filmmakers in B.C.'s 30,000-strong film industry.

So what does make a film a Canadian film? And does it matter? The industry definition of a Canadian film is when the copyright is owned by a Canadian producer. In theory, it could have an all-American cast but still be called Canadian, says Rob Egan. Many bigger "Canadian" films are co-productions like Being Julia, which stars an American (Annette Bening), an Englishman (Jeremy Irons) and a Canadian (Vancouver's Bruce Greenwood) and had funding from all those countries. Adams, who is funded by Telefilm, naturally accepts the industry definition and if it's a Canadian release, an email notification goes out to First Weekend members.

There is also a big question mark about whether being a Canadian film is necessarily a good thing. At a forum at the recent Vancouver Film Festival, one young director's first memory of watching a Canadian film on television was when his mother recognized a sign in the film, said, "Oh, it's Canadian" and got up and turned channels. Rightly or wrongly, that feeling still permeates some theatre-goers who perceive a Canadian production as being somehow inferior and characterized by anemic production values.

"You can survey a million Canadians and find there is a percentage of them that are supportive of Canadian films because they are Canadian," says Fulton. "And you find the other end of the spectrum that have just had a bad experience with films that they've identified as Canadian and tend to avoid them because they don't think they are as good as other films."

But some Canadian films do well at the box office, even if they are not clearly Canadian to filmgoers. Fulton cites spine-tingler White Noise, which TVA is releasing next month. It's another co-production, between the UK, U.S. and Canada, and stars American Michael Keaton alongside Canadian actors Chandra West and Vancouver-born Deborah Kara Unger. "I don't think it would satisfy any of the public policy mandates of reflecting Canadian culture or history, but it's a Canadian film," says Fulton.

It's Saturday, Dec. 4, on the first weekend for Vancouver-shot See Grace Fly, which is opening at Tinseltown. The film is without question 100 per cent Canadian, shot guerrilla-style in the streets of Vancouver by first time writer-director Peter McCormack with his own money and the sweat and tears of a talented local cast and crew. A character-based drama about a schizophrenic woman (Gina Chiarelli) who has an uncanny ability to predict the future, it is a tough sell by any standards. Yet the 180-seater cinema is sold out. The previous night it was a virtual sell-out too.

The succession of advance First Weekend Club emails reminding us to come and join the award-winning filmmakers for their opening weekend seems to have done the job.

At the cinema lobby, the high-energy director and his crew are out in force with friends and family. Adams is at the Whistler Film Festival this weekend, but she might as well be in the room for the number of times McCormack and his team thank her and the First Weekend Club for getting the word out. During a lively question and answer session, they urge everyone in the audience to spread the word and join the club's mailing list.

After the film, the Honey bar in the Downtown Eastside is thrumming. I join artist Greg Freedman and actress wife Marilyn Norry, who sat beside me in the cinema, in a conversation with one of the film's producers and main actors from the film, Paul McGillion. "So often seeing a Canadian film is an act of penance. But this was very much not the case," Freedman tells McGillion, reflecting the largely positive audience response.

McGillion is fairly sure they have done enough to get the film through to the next weekend. Originally the film was programmed for the smaller 124-seater but Tinseltown's manager Todd James was persuaded they had done enough advance publicity to move the film to a bigger screen.

It's only the first weekend though and organizers were lucky See Grace Fly didn't open against any of the big Hollywood films. A week is a long time in cinema and McGillion knows Christmas blockbusters are just around the corner. He, and filmmakers like him throughout the industry, will need all the First Weekenders they can get if they want to make a run of it.

First Weekend Club web site