BC and Yukon Book Prizes Shortlist

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Pitching “The Corporation” in Banff

August 07th, 2012

In 1999, Joel Bakan attended the Banff Television Festival with Mark Achbar, information pills one of the makers of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, to propose a new documentary series about the history and nature of large corporations. From his perspective as a neophyte in Television Land, here is Joel Bakan’s report on pitching The Corporation to television executives from around the world.

The film The Corporation was released in 2003.

Pitching The Corporation often seemed futile. After two days and a dozen pitches, I felt like Sanchos, with Achbar playing Don Quixote, tilting at satellite dishes. During each pitch we had to convince a distracted and over-booked broadcaster representative that our show was more exciting than all the others she or he had been pitched about. The problem for me, an academic non-fiction writer, was that most television people don’t get turned on by ideas and analysis. Even the documentary side of television often seemed to be driven by entertainment concerns, with ideas taking a back seat or having to stand in the aisle. “That sounds like a great book idea”, was a typical response. “But who are the characters? What are the stories? Where’s the drama?” I quickly learned to adjust the pitch, trotting out interesting stories and characters first, and then, slipping in an idea, an analysis, maybe even a statistic, as though it was an afterthought . The academic in me bristled. But this was showbiz.

Some television people seemed almost hostile to thought. Accepting his award for Ally McBeal, David E. Kelly told the adoring crowd how unfair it was that people criticized him for the show’s portrayal of women. “It’s just a story about a woman”, he complained, “it’s not meant to say anything about what women are or should be”. Semioticians be damned! During this event I saw the back of Michelle Pfeiffer’s head. In one session a big wig American producer snorted that the key-note address of the Festival, a graceful and constructive critique of television delivered by Mark Kingwell—-Canada’s hippest intellectual—-reminded him again why he abhorred intellectual analyses of TV. Such anti-intellectualism is a strong voice in TV land, but not the only one. Some pitch sessions—-such as ours with TV Ontario, the National Film Board, Vision TV and BBC, to name a few—-were thoroughly engaging. In them I met TV people who were deep thinkers, and more intellectual fun than most of my academic colleagues. Perhaps the greatest frustration for me as a writer in TV land was the apparent irrelevance of writing—-at least when pitching. Achbar and I brought a twenty-five page treatment document to Banff, a model of concision. Few wanted to read it. “Get it down to two pages”, was the straight-faced advice from one Canadian broadcaster heavy. That seemed generous compared to the high-brow BBC, which wanted only one page. Television people want to hear you, not read you.

There was a certain irony in pitching The Corporation at Banff. Banff, after all, is hyper-corporate. Corporate logos, corporate sponsorships, corporate people were all over the place. At one event, Michael MacMillan, head of Atlantis Alliance Inc., was treated like some kind of demi-god, escorted to the stage by four Mounties (their appearance licensed by corporate rival, Disney) and a piper, to receive an award. Many of the people I spoke with seemed concerned about television’s increasing corporatization. Partly to blame, according to some of them, is the Canadian funding structure. Outside of the slashed and burned CBC, private sector corporations, driven primarily by their—-and their advertisers’—-bottom-lines, decide what we see on TV, and make lots of money for showing it. Public agencies subsidize the system by providing taxpayer cash, and the use of the publicly-owned air waves. To take one example of the absurdity of this system, Atlantis Alliance, touted as a Canadian private-sector success story, and the eleventh largest production house in the world after Time Warner, felt compelled to kill Justice, its flagship show for next season, when public money from Telefilm Canada did not materialize.

Despite its dependence on public subsidies, Canada’s TV industry, along with the rest of the corporate media, gripes constantly about government’s overbearing presence. Saltspring denizen Mort Ransen, who made the critically acclaimed film Margaret’s Museum, told me a chilling tale about his own experience with the media’s bias against anything public. Ransen got his start in film at the National Film Board, but eventually left to make his own films. After his departure from the NFB, a reporter asked him what it had been like working there. He spoke briefly of some of the frustrations, but then went on at length about what a great institution it was. The resulting story – Ransen Criticizes the NFB. Twenty years later Ransen was again asked about the NFB, this time by a reporter from a major Canadian newspaper. He told the reporter about his previous experience, and said he did not again want to be misrepresented. The reporter told him point blank that if he were to write anything positive about the NFB, or any other public agency, it would not get printed. And if he persisted in such writing, he would be fired.

But its not all gloom and doom in television land. The independent television artists I met are reason for a cautious optimism about television’s future. These mainly young writers, directors and producers are creative and tenacious, intensely committed to making challenging and edgy TV. Despite all its warts, television is pretty tempting. When I finally got him to stop schmoozing and sit down, Vancouver’s own Mark Leiren-Young (now living in Toronto) summed up television’s lure: “Television is incredible fun—it combines the adrenaline of journalism with theatre, and it’s mindboggling to think of the audiences you can reach.” But, he added, you can’t be just a writer in television land. “Frustrating as it may be, if you want to write your own stuff, you have to declare yourself a ‘writer-producer’.”

Some great projects were being pitched at Banff by BC filmmakers—a vegan docu-comedy cooking show, a historical documentary about a Chinese leper colony on one of the Gulf Islands, a humorous magazine show dealing with social issues and a sit-com about temp work. The team responsible for this latter one wore hard-hats to their pitch sessions as “protection from falling interest” and cordoned off their sessions with yellow emergency tape. Even I-—a mere tourist in TV land—-was tempted to stay at Banff. I was transfixed by one session, titled “Two in a Room”, a cross between the one-day novel writing contest and Wheel of Fortune. Two executives, each representing a different broadcaster, one Canadian, one foreign, sit on a stage and negotiate criteria for an international co-production in front of 500 people. Once the criteria are set, audience members are given two days to write up and submit proposals. The winning proposal gets a $10,000 development deal and a shot at having the show produced. After much drama and suspense, the two executives agreed the show should be about music, related to youth, entertaining, interesting and highly visual. My idea was Hoof Dreams, a documentary about the resurgence of tap dancing among African-American Youth. I think I could have smoked the winning idea, Piano Lessons, a film about the relationship of pianists to their pianos, but I never got around to writing up my proposal. I was too busy pitching.

Essay Date: 1999

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