Canadian Dreams & American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry

Manjunath Pendakur

The first thing that might be said about this well-researched, important book is that its title and cover art (in which the titles of well-known Canadian films unwind from a Maple Leaf ) are misleading. Canadian Dreams & American Control is not a cultural history of the Canadian cinema, and the real or desired qualities of Canadian-made films are not its principal focus. Rather, Pendakur's book is an account of the ways in which other cinemas (most notably, and unsurprisingly, that of the United States) have maintained their dominance of the Canadian film industry, principally through their long-term stranglehold on the distribution and exhibition sectors of that industry. Some readers have complained that Canadian Dreams treats Canadian films themselves as little more than commodities, but this is, in my view, the source of the book's strength. By steering clear of long-standing debates about what a truly Canadian cinema might be, in cultural and aesthetic terms, Pendakur invites us to look in the most basic of economic terms at the conditions which are required in order that a national film industry might generate and reinvest the revenues upon which film production depends.

Pendakur tells us in his introduction that his study is based in the tradition of "radical political economy," an allegiance underscored in the preface by Dallas Smythe and by the frequent references to the work of Herbert Schiller. His book takes as its point of departure John Kenneth Galbraith's description of modern capitalist economies as shaped by the tension between a powerful, monopolistic sector whose interests are defended by public policy and a smaller, competitive sector more responsive to the market. That the first of these sectors has been dominated by U.S. interests, and that Canadian public policy has defended these interests against a small, competitive sector which has often been Canadian-owned is the scandal which Canadian Dreams recounts. Summarizing his central argument, Pendakur writes: "The struggle waged by the competitive sector against a foreign-controlled monopoly attempting to influence public policy deserves careful examination. This is the dialectic that historically has shaped the Canadian feature-film industry and reveals the future course that industry might take" (p. 42).

This dialectic has played itself out most symptomatically in the area of film exhibition, and it is as a history of the theatre chain industry in Canada that Canadian Dreams is most useful. In large measure, this history is that of the Famous Players chain, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Paramount Pictures, and of its efforts over 50-plus years to acquire and maintain a virtual monopoly over film exhibition in Canada. While, from the 1920s onwards, virtually all the major U.S. film producers maintained separate distribution organizations in Canada, the growing power of Paramount's exhibition arm was such that these distributors, who competed vigorously with Paramount in the U.S. market, collaborated with its Famous Players subsidiary in denying films to Canadian-owned exhibitors and driving them out of business. Canadian Dreams offers many examples of the well-known duplicity of the U.S. film industry, whose platitudinous defenses of open competition within the U.S. have always been accompanied by cartel-like behaviour in other national markets.

Canadian Dreams follows the structure of many recent books on Canadian cultural policy by moving, in its second half, from a narrative of conquest by foreign interests to an account of the public policy initiatives set in place since the late 1960s. As has been the case with the broadcasting and recording industries, forms of public support for the Canadian film industry have been directed to producers of cultural commodities largely, one suspects, because there has not been the political will to confront U.S. interests in the area of distribution. Pendakur's book provides a valuable survey of the tax incentive, direct subsidy, and co-production initiatives instituted over the last 25 years. As well, it extends the story of film exhibition in Canada to the present, tracing the transformation of Cineplex from potential saviour of the Canadian film industry to a conduit for further domination, by multinationals, of the domestic film exhibition sector.

There is something perversely refreshing about a book-length study of Canadian cinema which has so little to say about the National Film Board. Peter Morris' newly reissued Embattled Shado ws and Peter Harcourt's Movies and Mythologies continue to stand as foundational works in the attempt to define the cultural specificity of a Canadian cinema. Pendakur's book complements both of these very nicely, and points toward a variety of fruitful directions for future research. In particular, and following the lead of much recent work in U.S. film studies, we would benefit from detailed investigations into the historical role of theatre chains in the growth of Canadian cities, and in the shaping of patterns of amusement and consumption. The scandal of U.S. control over our cinemas, and of governmental and industrial complicity in this control, should not be forgotten. What might be recovered, however, at this point in the development of a Canadian film studies, is something of the communal, ritualistic experience of movie-going in Canada over the last hundred years.



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