A monk seeking solitude can scale the slopes of a lonely mountain, or he can fork over 10 bucks and head into a theatre showing a Canadian movie.
The movies of the Great White North have been a tough sell ever since Ten Years in Manitoba failed to lure audiences away from the gramophone craze of 1902.
About 100 years after that early Canadian film shone its light on empty seats, Lynn Valley resident Anita Adams raced to the movies to watch the Vancouver premiere of The Rhino Brothers.
By the time the projector whirred to life and the familial hockey drama skated across the celluloid there were only five people in the theatre - and one of them was Adams' mother.
"How does that happen?" Adams recalls thinking. "Where are all the actors in the film? Where's the director? It's opening night!" Far from an anomaly, the aspiring actress discovered that fanfare-free premieres are the plight of many Canadian movies.
"So what's the problem with Canadian film? We are. We don't watch them," writes film critic Katherine Monk in her book Weird Sex and Snowshoes and Other Canadian Film and Phenomena. "Canadians have grown to respect the rhetoric of self-loathing more than the language of love."
Adams decided to change that. The intrepid organizer used her Gastown script-reading series to make a case for Canadian film. Shortly afterward, The First Weekend Club was born.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the seven-member organization has a singular mission: finding audiences for Canadian movies.
FWC has promoted movies ranging from It's All Gone Pete Tong to Shake Hands with the Devil to The Trotsky and American Mary.
While the subjects are wildly disparate, the stories tend to be united in their telling.
"When you're looking at a Canadian film versus an American film, just as an example, I think our stories are more character-driven than they are anything else," Adams says.
Whether the plots circle around vengeful medical students, high school communists, clueless headbangers, or headbangers with sociology degrees, the movies tend to be modestly budgeted pictures with deliberate pacing and patient editing.
"We're just really looking at the quality of the storytelling and the film," Adams says.
With a recently reduced annual budget of $106,000, FWC isn't in a position to rent towering billboards or to saturate television screens with 30-second spots.
Like the films they promote, they need to be just a little different.
In the spring of 2003, 10,000 Vancouver drivers found tickets tucked under their windshield wipers advertising the comedy The Delicate Art of Parking.
That movie found an audience. In certain cases, FWC's online marketing, wine receptions, special events and industry contacts are all that stand between a movie and oblivion.
After spending 15 years as a stunt double, Kirk Caouette moved behind the camera to make his debut film Hit 'n Strum, a story about an uneasy relationship between an office worker and a homeless busker living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Caouette wrote and directed the film, starred in it, and composed the music.
The production was challenging. "The first failure was in fundraising," Caouette recalls. "Basically we just bit the bullet, realized if we wanted to do it we had to fund it ourselves, and so I cashed out some RRSPs."
Without enough money to pay the crew properly, Caouette says he relied on workers with "good souls."
He also relied on good luck. When Caouette needed to shoot inside an airport, the crew told security they were making a wedding video.
But while the movie came together over nearly two years, Caouette watched his health deteriorate with overwork and stress.
"There are so many bad movies made. It really did look like I was going to make a bad one," he says. "You're at a risk of losing a year of work and all of your money."
Despite some good responses at test screenings, the movie seemed destined for the same fate as Ten Years in Manitoba and countless forgotten Canadian films.
"We were rejected by everybody," he says. "We were stunned when not a single festival, even Vancouver, would program it."
The movie was brushed off by about 40 different film festivals.
"We hit rock bottom. I couldn't believe that we could have a film that was an eight out of 10, a four-star movie, that could not even get into a festival," he says. "I wasn't expecting it to get distribution, but I was expecting to get into the Calgary Film Festival."
While the movie didn't make it into the Toronto International Film Festival, a smaller festival in Toronto mercifully accepted Hit 'n Strum.
"At the end of the film we got a standing ovation. In Toronto. And the First Weekend Club was there. That's how it started.. .. They started championing it across Canada."
The Whistler Film Festival had already rebuffed the movie, but FWC were able to persuade the festival's new programmer, Paul Gratton, to give the movie a look.
"He actually went to his hotel room and watched it at TIFF. Which is just incredible. I don't know what the First Weekend Club told him."
At the time, Caouette had no idea FWC had interceded on behalf of his film.
"I got forwarded an article in the paper where Paul Gratton was talking about programming our film. It was like, 'What the hell? We've already been rejected from Whistler, how can the programmer be raving about it?'" he recollects. "That was completely the First Weekend Club."
After playing in Whistler, Caouette's movie made it to Fifth Avenue Cinemas in Vancouver.
Hit 'n Strum packed them in for five weeks.
"If First Weekend Club had not been at that little Toronto film festival where we got the standing ovation, than my film would've been shelved and it would've never seen the light of day. Right now it's playing on Super Channel and we're going to be on iTunes," Caouette says.
The director is nearly fully recovered from the production, he says, discussing his ordeal during a break from overseeing editing on a monster movie called To Hell in a Handbag.
"This is a fun vampire/zombie/werewolf movie, but that's really all that the market can bear," he says of the flick.
"I'd like to create our own industry here where we have our own star system. If we could take what Montreal has done and do that across Canada we would have our own industry, we would have our own movie stars, we would have our own directors."
Since 1986, six Quebec films have received Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. The province has its own movie stars and iconoclast directors.
"We've spent a lot of energy building that star system," remarks Françis Macerola, the former head of Telefilm Canada.
Macerola currently serves as president of SODEC, a crown corporation that reports to Quebec's Minister of Culture and Communications. He's enjoyed a front row seat to the benefits of cultivating local talent.
"We know that with Michel CÃ´tÃ©. .. that if he plays in a film, that film will automatically gross close to $2 or $3 million," he says. "The Quebec government has always been there to help, to invest, to subsidize, to finance."
Quebec's approach to supporting film is distinct from the methods used in Englishspeaking Canada, according to Macerola. "In English Canada it's a bit different," he says. "There's a question of commerciality. We don't have that in Quebec."
The debate over when a business-friendly tax incentive becomes an obscene corporate subsidy has taken centre stage in Victoria recently, as the B.C. Liberal government has elected not to match the incentives offered to film crews working in Ontario and Quebec.
Efforts by Premier Christy Clark to establish a uniform system of tax credits are controversial in Quebec, according to Macerola.
"I would not recommend to the minister. .. reducing the tax credit for foreign films," Macerola says, discussing the importance of the incentives.
While B.C. and Toronto are Quebec's main rivals, Macerola says he's keenly aware of similar tax credits employed south of the border; as well as the lure of Eastern Europe, where pitiable wages can translate into major savings for a film studio.
While B.C.'s labour tax credit may not be as attractive to producers as the deals offered by Quebec and Ontario, the province does boast skilled workers.
B.C. lost out on the mega-budget Fantastic Four reboot, but the Matt Damon science fiction film Elysium was almost entirely made in Vancouver.
"It's a huge showcase of what we can do in this city with the talent we have," says colourist
technician Andrea Chlebak, speaking on the eve of the movie's premiere.
Chlebak spent weeks refining the movie's colour palette with director Neil Blomkamp.
Blomkamp, the director best known for mirroring apartheid through the travails of aliens in District 9, has established Vancouver as his base of operations, according to Chlebak.
"There's a lot of people in town that are thinking of new ways to keep productions here, like Neil."
Asked if he would make another movie in Canada, Caouette sighs.
"Yeah. I'm gonna try to make another film in the next 12 months," he says, discussing a mixed martial arts picture called A Puncher's Chance.
"It's important to create a real industry here," he says. "We've been servicing Hollywood blockbusters for 15, 20 years now. We have incredible know-how and the
ability to make great films here and we don't."
The commitment of First Week's Adams to Canadian film is more philosophical.
"They are unique stories told by Canadians," she says, referring to the movies as a reflection of Canada's national identity.
While FWC has supported some wellknown pictures, it's the films that would otherwise fall through the cracks that get the most promotion.
"If there's another smaller independent Canadian film that doesn't have the same distribution machine behind it. .. that's a really great little gem of a film, then we'll put our efforts into that one," Adams says.
FWC sometimes deals with internal disputes about which movies to back.
The recent horror film American Mary provoked considerable debate, Adams says.
"I ended up getting into a big debate with one of our First Weekend Club members, because she's like, 'I really don't think your organization should be promoting horror films,'" Adams says.
While the member made a fair point, Adams ultimately threw the organization's weight behind the film, which is the rare horror story in which women are both victims and monsters.
"I'm happy to continue to promote American Mary, I think it was a damn good film and that's what we were set up to do," Adams says.
In the near future, FWC is looking to move into the domain of video-on-demand, streaming Canadian films.
For Caouette, the existence of the FWC is the difference between a pulse and silence.
"Help keep them alive because they're giving a life to filmmakers like me."
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