Welcome to Hollywood North, Canada: A World of Stand-Ins, Tax-Breaks, Studio Expansion, and Cultural Erasure/Reinscription

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Mapping Cinematic Norths: International Interpretations in Film and Television, edited by Julia Dobson and Jonathan Rayner, published by Peter Lang, 2016

In a 2011 article entitled, ‘Vancouver movie magic captures the world’, Gordon Hardwick of the British Columbia Film Commission enthusiastically exclaimed: ‘We market under “A World of Looks”, because of the diversity of our geography. We have about nine bio-climatic zones […] That diversity is really what we promote when we’re engaging with our clients.’ By clients, Hardwick principally means the ‘runaway’ Hollywood productions that since the early 1970s have been attracting funding from American studios, and have elected to spend a substantial proportion of their budget in Canada before releasing the film to domestic and international audiences. This system perpetuates and sustains the modern ‘Hollywood North’ film production cycle. Although it is certainly a salient part of the process, it would be disingenuous to credit geographical heterogeneity as the sole motivating factor in this industrial and cultural agreement. Through looking at the development of the ‘special relationship’ between the Canadian and American film industries, and in examining a number of significant ‘runaway’ case-studies such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), the X-Men film franchise (Bryan Singer/Brett Ratner, 2000-2014), and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Joel Zwick, 2002), this chapter will explore how the Hollywood North exploits Canada’s ‘World of Looks’, and how it is also an evolving world of stand-ins; a world without studio restrictions; a world of tax-breaks; and a world of cultural erasure and re-inscription.

A World of Stand-Ins

Whilst spectacular CGI-laden products such as the X-Men films could be considered a constituent factor in the recent iteration of the Hollywood North phenomenon, as Jim Leach suggests, the term was originally ‘used by those lobbying for the formation of what became the CFDC [Canadian Film Development Corporation], simply to designate the goal of establishing a Canadian film industry.’ However, formed in 1967, the national business model was not functionally created to suit its own field of cultural production. Instead, the CFDC borrowed from their southern counterparts. This version of the Hollywood North was ‘not [to be] a location, but a concept: that the success, glamour, and All-American dream of the motion picture company can be recreated in Canada.’ Yet, this ideological repatriation made an error, in that the appropriated ‘All-American’ dream was modelled on the less dynamic model of generic mass production that Hollywood itself was turning away from in the late 1960s. Consequently, from the mid-1970s through to the end of the 1980s, Canadian film policy appears to have shifted away from cultural and artistic goals, supportive of an indigenous independent film industry, and embraced commercial imperatives as a measure of ‘success.’

From 1974 to 1982, the Capital Cost Allowance Act allowed for a 100 per cent tax deduction of film costs. It helped initiate the career of Canadian director, David Cronenberg, but Geoff Pevere offers that ‘some argue this initiative derailed the careers of many Canadian filmmakers who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.’ As David Spaner concludes, the CCA did not greatly improve the quality of Canadian Cinema to match Hollywood standards, but motivated ‘starstruck dentists and accountants to invest in a spate of bad movies aimed at the international market.’ The effect of targeting the international market was that Canada’s unique geography and native culture became further flattened, whereby the majority of the films could have been made anywhere, and were deliberately constructed as such, to increase profitability.

However, the CFDC and the CCA were not without precedent in the construction of a Hollywood North, and it is useful to understand how the difficult movement towards international credibility and viability, was not just undertaken in imitation of an aged Hollywood system, but can be seen to be a reactive attempt to take ownership of, and move away from, Canada’s own generic portrayal by Hollywood in the past.

In 1927, the British government attempted to boost its own ailing film economy by introducing a quota system. In order to encourage robust figures, the quota extended to include the British Empire, and with the passing of the Cinematograph Films Act in the same year, screen time was guaranteed in the cinemas of the United Kingdom. As such, Hollywood filmmakers were quick to cross the border into the Dominion of Canada and take advantage of the situation with numerous low-budget productions, many of which were purposefully of a poor quality. The loophole was closed in 1938, but by this point Hollywood had become financially invested in stereotypical depictions of the ‘North.’

From 1931 through to 1951, Hollywood made 108 films about Canada. The 1948 Canadian Co-operation Project between the Canadian government and Hollywood aided this cross-national endeavour by encouraging in-film references to Canada, mainly for tourism purposes. However, this boom shrank exponentially, as from 1952 to 1972, Hollywood made 31 films about Canada, reducing to approximately one film a year since 1960. With little attempt at variety, nearly all of these films present Canada within the framework of the Western genre. As Pierre Berton explains: ‘Hollywood preferred to stick to that vast, mythical region, never geographically defined, which it invented and called the Northwoods.’ Ironically, after 1938 several of these films were not actually shot in Canada, as the cheaper tourist mythology was more saleable than expensive geographical fidelity to American audiences who failed to recognise their own ‘stand-in’ country on the screen.

Berton found that from 1907 to 1975, ‘American film companies have produced 575 motion pictures in which the plot has been set entirely or mainly in Canada.’ However, unlike the American Western, which in the 1960s was beginning to be dismantled and reassessed from within itself, Hollywood’s tired construction of a generic Canadian North Western had not developed or evolved since the 1920s. Therefore, as the country had become synonymous with a dated myth, Canada and the ‘Canadian Film’ were no longer appealing to the evolving cultural tastes of audiences. One might conclude then, that a Canadian film industry that took ownership of its own capacity for ‘success’ and ‘glamour’ in the 1960s, with the CFDC and CCA, would be able to reinvent itself by consciously looking outwards and avoid becoming typecast. However, through creating a Hollywood-lite film service industry replete with fading American movie-stars, favourable tax rates, and demonstrating that a ‘World of Looks’ is a useful synonym for cheap ‘stand-in’ locations, American Hollywood investors eventually returned to join the ‘starstruck dentists’ and create the modern iteration of the ‘Hollywood North’…


The full 6,800 word version of this article is published in Mapping Cinematic Norths: International Interpretations in Film and Television, edited by Julia Dobson and Jonathan Rayner, published by Peter Lang, 2016.

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