Is it a Navy SEAL Drop or a Schmooze? Two Tales of A Festival

Banff diaries

27 mins read

By Debra Felstead
Born and bred in Ontario, I am startled by the raw beauty of the Albertan Rockies. They will probably always throw me into a state of I-am-a- teeny-tiny-being-in-a-vast-beautiful-universe shock, today being no different. I am traveling to attend the 2005 Banff International Television Festival, where I have never been. Unashamed, I stare with open-face wonder, my nose pressed against the glass of the shuttle bus that takes me deep into the heart of wilderness. Whether it’s the elevation sickness, the ‘exposure’ (a nippy 10 degrees, a 30 degree drop from the Toronto swelter), or the sudden breathtaking vision of the Banff Springs Hotel, I’m giddy.

The giddiness quickly turns to anxiety. I think, please don’t drop me off first, please don’t drop me off…“Anyone for the YWCA?”

The only one, I humbly amble off the shuttle and pause to watch it peal away to the grandiose Banff Springs with its more fortunate passengers. Picking up my bags with a sigh, I realize the only hiking I’ll be doing in one of the most beautiful places on earth is the fifteen-minute one from the ‘Y’ to the conference centre. But I’m not here to hike; I’m here to make television.

Last year, due to an atrophying and financially debilitating acting career, I decided to listen to the chirping advice of my peers and get into film so I could both write roles that I liked and direct myself the way I wanted to be directed. I enjoyed making films; it injects lifeblood into my anemic creativity, but it took me from poverty to destitution. The next set of chirps told me the only place to make money in Canada is in TV. I thought, Hey, I watch TV, and unlike many, I actually like TV. I could make better Canadian TV! With that, I rolled up my sleeves and stepped into another career.

Armed only with a CTV fellowship (a generous if somewhat feckless grant for up-and-comers), my incredibly original yet completely commercial one- pagers and my charmingly smooth naiveté, I descended into the dark and mysterious mountains of the Canadian Television Industry. Immediately upon hitting the Banff Conference Centre, however, I learned that no broadcaster would see me because I’m a Toronto producer and—in theory— we could meet “back home”.

My mission/quest now becomes one of reconnaissance: What is this place? Who are these people? What does one do here?

I quickly learn that Banff is all about the schmooze. Feel free to go to seminars or master classes or keynote addresses, but all of your “business” will be conducted on the patio, at the social events, or in the infamous St. James Pub. As one seasoned producer tells me out on the patio “Banff is all about golf, cocktails and mealtimes. “ No actual business is conducted at Banff—and I hear this phrase repeatedly—it’s all about relationships.

The need to pitch is strong, but also strongly dissuaded in some circles. Broadcasters hear so many a day that yours will likely never be remembered as the encroaching days turn the besotted ones into glassy-eyed zombies. Pitch etiquette is therefore crucial, and I learn three points. One, keep the pitch concise, clear and deeply researched (I begin to mentally change my one- pagers already). Two, do not pitch anyone at the BBQ since this is the last event where everyone is meant to relax, have fun and get hammered under the unspoken protection that the conference is over. And three, do not pitch anyone in the bathroom as in the case of one CTV exec, who had a one-pager slid to him underneath the door of his stall.

I am a good girl. I do not pitch but attend seminars and master classes, happily observe cocktail hours and dinners, and forge as many relationships as I possibly can, making my experience one giant networking wash.

Dissatisfied and bemused, yet dutifully having drinks at the Pub, I run into a documentarian friend who is coincidentally shooting in the area and he’s only here for a drink. He’s never been to the Banff Festival before, had only ‘sort of’ heard of it and, with a touch of confusion, exclaims, “What is this? It has the weirdest vibe.”

I look around and can’t disagree. Here was a room full of producers and writers, savvier than I, all carrying the weight of experience, cynicism and frustration. Yet all were looking for the same thing I am: the elusive key to creating Canadian Culture while paying the rent.

The litany of depressing comments I hear throughout the days now comes flooding back. A creative producer says of the launch of mini films for PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), “I think it’s disturbing we’re making product to enable access to TV for every waking moment. But how else am I supposed to get my stuff shown?” Another confides that, “We wanted to go union for a quality series but that ate up most of our budget. We’ve been lucky though. Having two major broadcasters, we might make some money to live on this year.” The show is in its third season.

Or yet another, perhaps most succinct, “I’m getting out of this business. Life’s too short for this bullshit. I’m going to garden for a living.”

As a rookie, I can say that on Monday I’m deeply moved by General Romeo Dallaire’s speech, on Tuesday I have a run-in with a randy German doc distributor, or that on Wednesday I finally find myself next to the broadcaster who I’d been stalking… in a bathroom. But all I’m thinking is how would I, with no experience, no executive producer and no broadcaster make even the slightest dent in an industry that is so desperately under-funded, under-appreciated and lacking in vision? Maybe Banff is all about relationships. It sure didn’t seem about the ideas; it was about the last one standing who could still make it to the bar.

On the last day I ditch the seminars and breakfasts, and do what Banff is made for: strolling under the vast Alberta sky. I ponder my no-longer- green glimpse into the world of Canadian Television, and think, What have I gotten myself into? Am I embarking on yet another career with little hope of producing quality programs and feeding myself?

I’ve never harbored intentions to move to the States, but it suddenly becomes clear why L.A. is the fourth largest Canadian city. In L.A. there’s at least the dream that you might succeed.

In the end, I sit on the hillside feeling the breeze, soaking in the sun, watching the prairie dogs run around their holes, calling to each other beneath the imposing mountains and I begin a familiar dance. Maybe I’m being too dramatic, maybe I’m just looking at it the wrong way. Maybe I will make a difference. Maybe. I don’t know.

But one thing I do know now, and am pleased as punch to have learned: Prairie dogs make chirping sounds. I had no idea.

By Ryan J. Noth
As a filmmaker solely—if not sanely—financing my own projects to date, I’ve become rather thrifty with any bit of money I can scrape together. Normally then I could hardly justify paying for a flight to Banff alongside the TV festival’s registration fee and the general accommodation prices just to pitch _Spokes_, a sitcom/drama about a Toronto bike joint that I’m writing with Joel McConvey. And considering my application for a CTV Fellowship to attend the 2005 Festival was completed at the 12pm Alberta deadline in a last minute, wine-induced dash, I didn’t hold much hope for relaxing in the Banff hot springs this year.

But here’s where I should probably admit my television bias as an industry veteran, now in my fourth year toiling as an assistant (mostly editor, but also director and PA). And though I’m a classically elitist cineaste, more often than not I “pay my dues” (a.k.a. bills) by working on sludge I recommend most Canadians don’t watch. So it feels slightly ironic that while all those arts council applications have gone awry, I find I’ve been knighted a Fellow, and stipended off to Banff for a week.

Two days before I arrive, a woman out jogging with her two friends is killed by a bear who drags her down from the tree into which she attempted an escape. Alongside weather forecasts of rain, this fact somehow does not dissuade me from my plan to do Banff on the ultra cheap and au naturel, by setting up offices at Tunnel Mountain Campground. When I wake at six a.m. on my first morning to the sounds of something sniffing, shambling, and shoving garbage around outside my tent, though… you can understand how I might think I was about to die. At a TV Festival. Before I even had a chance to pitch my project!

After an hour levitating on adrenaline while waiting for a bear to methodically unzip my tent and calmly swallow me, I hear fellow campers nearby. Other than the giant crows landing on my tent, I think the coast is clear.

Almost being eaten takes a lot out of you. I swear I’m munching the best scrambled eggs I’ll have this year at a welcoming CBC breakfast buffet for the New Media Festival, which piggybacks Banff for the first two days. Morning panels are suffused with advanced Euro cell phone mavericks offering tantalizing glimpses into a Canadian videophone future. By the afternoon their vision degenerates into the heart of the matter: exploiting new cell phone markets. The reality-TV zebra mussels have already latched onto cell phone content in Europe, so get ready for an exciting slew of interactive programming you can vote on.

Depressed by this corporate turn of events, I begin cutting sessions and listening to Of Montreal’s disco-y “The Sunlandic Twins”—a recurring iPod soundtrack for my festival experience.

Sunday evening inaugurates a series of nightly receptions at the Banff Fairmont Springs Hotel. At $250 a night, I suppose most of the well-heeled crowd stay here. Even as I approach it from the wrong direction, literally passing the garage and ‘servant’s quarters,’ I have to admit that at some point in my life I wouldn’t necessarily mind waking up in a place like this.

At the first few receptions I’m flying solo, but I soon meet festival goers from Vancouver and kids—younger than me—from Edmonton who also hang out on the fringes. At one point, in a genuine attempt to make sense of the situation, I talk to two Mounties who rhetorically answer my basic question “Why are you guys here?” with “What better venue to showcase Canada’s finest?” I still don’t get it, but they were nice enough folks. It’s a shame they were kept needlessly around the next day to serve as stage banter for former pop sensation turned Rockies Awards host, Mitsou.

While waiting at one of two Banff transit transfers, I realise the marriage of Banff itself, an absolutely stunning park turned tourist/convention town, and the TV industry (insert your own dig here) creates quite a surreal atmosphere. Often I feel like someone is randomly flipping channels on me: the opening morning address—at a TV Festival—is by Romeo Dallaire. At least he’s imploring positive moral action on the documentary/art front, and his passion is heartfelt—something TV typically can’t say for itself in this country.

Down to business. I’m worried that I’m not talking Spokes up enough to the right people, and I do want to take advantage of this scene, so I start to follow specific broadcasters in and out of rooms in the hopes that we may just happen to accidentally run into one another. Whenever this happens, or when I receive messages back from my primary targets, it turns out they’re all based in Toronto and too swamped to meet in Banff anyway. Fellow attendees let me in on the secret that deals are more likely set-up at Banff and finalized elsewhere, so I feel less pressure to make something happen here. Though I’m an outsider by nature, by the second day I definitely feel I might not fit in with all these industry folks. I just never spot anyone else from the fest relaxing, enjoying the view, or taking digital photos for/of tourists from Minnesota.

My demographical low point at the festival comes the second night, when I leave the St. James Pub. Hurtling through pitch-blackness only broken by head lighted wolf crossings, my cabbie guesses I’m a writer, cranks U2’s faux anthem “With or Without You”, and informs me “Banff is a great place to hang out and fuck when you’re young.”

At their breakfast in the Banff Spring’s Courtyard the next morning, Alberta Film has people with slight accents and cowboy hats serve flapjacks, sausages, boxed OJ, and hand out free t- shirts featuring their appropriately ambiguous slogan, “People. Locations. Expertise.” The most irritatingly insincere country band I’ve ever seen (and would most like to punch) headlines the show, prompting my Edmonton friends to affectionately identify this general motley collection as ‘hick stampeders.’

Over the next couple of days I score some ten-minute meeting sessions with folks from as far away as South Africa and The Netherlands; I take in a pitch session, panels on Corner Gas and Robson Arms, and I sit in on a question and answer period with Patricia Rozema. She recommends filmmakers pursue immediate artistic goals by cutting back expenses in favour of more personal time, rather than develop projects for money ‘in the meantime.’ With that in mind, I head off for a walk along the Bow River to contemplate a warped time-lapse installation project that has no hope of ever recovering a useful demographic. First, though, the closing night BBQ in the mountains beckons, along with a final swig at the St. James, a moped jaunt to Lake Louise, and some quality time in the hot springs.

Debra said:

Oh, ok—so you want a nuts and bolts instead of a depressing, angst-ridden diatribe on the television industry from a nihilistic idealist. Right. So… my room at the Y was way better than I thought it would be, the weather was schizophrenic (sunny, cloudy, rainy, sunny & rainy, windy, cold, sunny, cold, sunny—the usual for Alberta) and I found everyone friendly and helpful (even the broadcasters!), although their reactions to me were coloured by a noticeable rise and fall in my “stock” depending on who I was with. Anthony Zuiker was studiously humble, Jeremy Podesewa said to shoot every chance you get and the _Corner Gas_ crew didn’t have much to say except for cute prairie anecdotes mixed with an aw- shucks-tickled-pinkness about how great it was to be there and ‘gosh can you believe our show is such a hit’?!

I noticed that Toronto people almost never talk to anyone outside of Ontario except to have a break—not out of snobbery but more out of a calculated ‘how will it help me to talk to someone from Vancouver?’ attitude, which, now that I look at it, is pretty awful. I saw some serious sycophantism towards a reluctant Don McKellar, some dangerous hormones jumping about all sorts of places they shouldn’t and a had-to-have- been CGI’d (computer generated imaged) view out of a Banff Springs hotel room (and no, those hormones jumping about were not mine).

At the end of the day the question is, should a young up-and-comer go to Banff? If you can go for free like I did then definitely do it. It’s quite an experience and you learn a ton about what you’re getting into; just don’t expect to get many tips from the CTV fellowship, as it’s less a mentoring program and more a navy seal drop. If you have to pay, it’s better if you’re not from Toronto so you can get full access to the people you need—but then again, although I wouldn’t break the bank for it, if you have the money it’s a great place to learn a ton about what you’re getting into.

And be prepared to eat a lot of meat.

Ryan said:

As a fellow life-long Ontarian, and a flat, humid, corn belt Southwestern one at that, I wholeheartedly agree that Banff as a space is simply awe-inspiring. And of course now that I’m back in Toronto, I can’t wait to leave—hopefully to, amongst other places, Banff in the near future.

As for attending the TV fest while in Banff, well… yes, I’m relatively happy with my new awareness of how to tailor projects for a particular broadcaster’s desires, and I’ve gained confidence from finally putting some faces to the names of those who are, ultimately, amongst a fairly small number of decision makers. It’s also safe to say I now loathe the concept of ‘the pitch’ more than ever, and consequently I daily take a vow never to reduce my ideas to such a crass level, then wonder if I’m really just acting the rebel without a cause (maybe that’s just the way of the TV/cinema scene). And now that I do know these preliminary rules, I admit I’m also scheming more demographically oriented, schticky one- line projects that are also creatively fulfilling—no easy task.

One pitch I really refuse to buy is producers and broadcasters crying poor. I feel that most of the Banff Springs crowd make rather obscene salaries relative to both my life and filmmaking style, and I rarely hear anyone, in any realm of filmmaking, ever stop complaining about money. While everyone may wish for more cash in the system, the answer, from a non-zombie perspective, is simply to stop funding and producing low quality, high quantity reality product and focus more on reflecting and addressing contemporary Canadian lifestyles. Compared to working on an automobile assembly line, TV may actually be a great place to make money in Canada, but right now I’m not sure how much wiser an investment of new ideas (and time) it is than a feature or experimental project.

While hospitality and access at the fest were top notch—the closing night BBQ at Mt. Norquay was a genuine feast— ultimately I doubt I’d recommend the festival to emerging filmmakers without the financial aid of the CTV Fellowship. While I might have appreciated a more personal briefing on how to set up meetings prior to the fest itself, I’m also glad there was no real structure attached to the grant. My Banff experience would have been a lot less exciting if I’d been forced to take in too many seminars and events.

In the end, whether they were Vancouver folk flattering me that I’m too laid back for Toronto, Mounties in need of some respect, or prairie dogs making bear noises outside my tent, if Banff was all about the schmooze, I’m pretty happy with the great folks I met there. So yes, I’m looking past my current gig on a reality series to next year in Banff, where, in a land of authentic Canadian souvenirs and my first ever bear scare, the grass will always be greener. I think it’s the altitude.

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