The Rise and Fall of a Canadian Film School

21 mins read

When I organized my first filmmaking workshops in 1981, I didn’t plan to create a national film school. I did it so I could become a professional screenwriter.

It all began in 1980. I had recently been fired as a screenwriter for the feature film The Hounds of Notre Dame (which later went on to win a Genie award). I took my wounded ego and attended an inspiring three-week screenwriting workshop in the only place I could—the U.S.

Shortly afterwards, I wondered why I had to travel all that way to learn how to be a screenwriter. I decided then to run my own professional-level workshops in Canada, so I could attend.

As a teacher of Canadian film at Ottawa’s Algonquin College, I knew the worldwide reputation Canada enjoyed in animation and documentary filmmaking, but it was hard to find good homegrown dramas to show my students. Years earlier, I had seen Mon Oncle Antoine. It changed my life. For the first time, I saw the landscape of my imagination—my own cultural story—on the screen.

I offered my first five-day workshops as the Summer Institute of Film and Television in June 1981. There were four workshops in English and two in French, taught by some of the best professionals in their fields. In English, we employed Anna Sandor, TV screenwriting; Bill Gough, producing; Bill Mason and the legendary Donald Brittain, documentary; and John Kent Harrison, feature film screenwriting. On the French side, Jean-Pierre Lefebvre led the directing workshop while Micheline Lanctôt taught screenwriting.

This would become our standard for the next three decades: teachers and day guests had to be fully employed in the screen industry. Sixty-five people from eight provinces and two territories registered. I was totally blown away. In our first year, we were already a truly national institution.

Unfortunately, I was so green at organizing and had so little seed money that it quickly became a family affair. My wife, Gloria, prepared supper at our house for the teachers on opening night and the food for the first post-film reception for the students. (This she did ‘voluntarily’ for the next 10 years.)

The first film screened at the Summer Institute was a future Genie Award winner, Ticket to Heaven. Ralph Thomas, writer and director, and his producer wife brought the film, still damp from the lab in Montreal. It was the first in a line of more than 50 of our avant-premieres (named so the Toronto International Film Festival would allow us to show films before they ‘premiered’ there).

Director Francis Mankiewicz heard about us and volunteered to premiere Les bons débarras, one of the most powerful dramas ever made in Canada. I didn’t have enough money to book a hotel room for him, so he offered to sleep on our living room couch.

I was determined to make the week of training so packed with experience and information that the participants would have enough to gnaw on for a whole year. I had them stay at the same place, eat together, travel on the same buses, and spend as much time as possible with each other. There were workshops from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., screenings at lunchtime, a panel or industry presentation at 4:30, and one or two evening screenings, finishing late. People seemed to love it, no matter how exhausted they were.

Since I was too busy organizing, I couldn’t take a workshop that first year. I was determined to offer even more workshops the following year (with one ideal for me). To raise our profile, I invited Canada’s most honoured filmmaker, Norman Jewison. Not only did he come and present his Oscar-winning film, In The Heat of the Night, but he also gave me some excellent advice: “Tom, this industry thrives on sizzle—big names. Then students will come and you can feed them the steak.” As well, he gave me inside information on how to get to world-renowned filmmakers. I was on my way.

Years later, Norman suggested publicly that his visit to my workshops inspired him to create the Canadian Film Centre.

In 1984, we begged funds to bring in three high-profile international guests: Eleanor Witcombe (My Brilliant Career) from Australia; June Roberts (Experience Preferred But Not Essential) from England; and Daniel Petrie, Jr. (Beverly Hills Cops) from Hollywood. Other than getting tipsy together before a scheduled presentation, they were terrific teachers. To my surprise, none of them would take any payment, a trend of generosity that continued with international heavyweights throughout the school’s life.

Thankfully, the media noticed, and we became national news, appearing in the Globe and Mail, on CBC Radio and TV, and in a series of in-depth articles in the Ottawa Citizen.

Even though I knew that attracting headliners was important to attract private industry and government funding, the emphasis at the Summer Institute was on creating distinctive Canadian stories. The films we presented were from this country and the key teachers remained Canadian screenwriters, producers and directors. I invited only international people who I felt could help our filmmakers create better Canadian films.

As well as attracting well-known names, we tried to identify Canadian up-and-comers and give them a national showcase. Luckily, some of the nation’s best filmmakers were beginning to make their mark.

In 1984, a then little-known film writer/director Atom Egoyan presented his first feature, Next of Kin. His distributor later told me the enthusiastic reaction convinced him that the film could find a considerable audience. Over the next several years, Atom taught and premiered his films Family Viewing, The Adjuster and Calendar to Summer Institute audiences.

In 1987, Patricia Rozema’s seminal movie, I Heard the Mermaids Singing, and its writer/director came directly from an incredible success in Cannes to the Summer Institute for its first North American screening.

Not all ‘star teachers’ were unadulterated blessings. In the late 1980s, we brought Danny Simon to the Summer Institute several times. Danny was one of the most talented comedy teachers of all time. He was Neil Simon’s older brother, and the real-life inspiration for the fastidious, totally annoying Felix Unger of The Odd Couple. He was also Woody Allen’s comedy teacher (a fact which he would remind you of ad nauseam). True to his reputation, he drew me into a series of unforgettable comedic scenarios: hanging his six suits (for a five-day stay) at 2 a.m. on fresh newspaper-covered hangers; cajoling a pharmacist to pretend he knew Danny was a ‘big star’ so we could replace the heart medicine he had left in L.A. and so on.

The majority of our guests proved to be some of the most giving human beings I’ve ever met. In 1990, Anthony Minghella taught an advanced workshop in screenwriting, and arranged the North American premiere of his masterpiece Truly, Madly, Deeply. Anthony was the epitome of giving, sharing and inspiring. Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) not only volunteered to pop into workshops in his downtime, but he also hawked our anniversary T-shirts.

However, getting these filmmakers and raising the funds took its toll. My full-time job, which I loved, was as a teacher and head of a department at a community college. As a result, I had to run the Summer Institute during the evenings and on weekends. For several months leading up to the workshops, I was a non-person at home. My wife had to put up with an exhausted husband who constantly had a ‘doughnut sleep’—several hours asleep, getting up to scribble down important ideas for several hours, then back to sleep. However, through it all, my family supported me.

In 1993, after a protracted struggle to operate the Summer Institute within Ottawa’s Algonquin College, I decided to make the Summer Institute independent. I collected a group of friends and we created a non-profit corporation, the Canadian Screen Training Centre (CSTC). Most of those people stayed active and loyal to me until the final days.

Initially it was difficult, but the funders must have believed in what we were doing as many increased their contributions to the CSTC that year, and supported us for more than 20 years.

In 1997, Anthony Minghella returned, having just earned nine Oscars for The English Patient. He arrived bearing a cheque for $10,000 that he had wrangled from a Toronto financial heavyweight, and a commitment of $10,000 to follow the next year. Then Anthony and The English Patient author, Michael Ondaatje, headlined a very successful fund-raising gala at the National Arts Centre. (Anthony remained the titular head of the Honourary Board of CSTC Directors until his heartbreaking death at age 54 in 2008.)

In 1998, our national image changed remarkably. The federal government’s Department of Communications agreed to fund the CSTC as one of four national film and television schools. However, we were offered a paltry $15,000. Two of our more persuasive board members, Catherine Mensour and Sharon Buckingham, convinced the head of Telefilm to raise our share to $175,000, bringing us in line with the other schools. Those annual funds guaranteed our role as a national school for the next two decades.

The years 1997 through 2000 were turbulent. I nearly died (twice) in hospital from kidney infections, took an extended break from the CSTC, helped fire three executive directors, and retook the reins as ED three times. I was the hands-on leader for 20 years, with very little remuneration. Over the next decade, I remained active on the board of directors.

In the 1990s we began to see proof of the Summer Institute’s success: our alumni—as heads of TV series, producers, writers and feature-film directors—started returning to teach. Denise Robert, who attended the first workshops in 1981, won an Oscar for producing Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions in 2004. Over the years, she came back to present several of her films, including the opener for our 20th-anniversary celebrations.

As the cost of travel rose, I felt that we should bring workshops closer to people’s homes. Stories are the gift of all Canadians, not just those from big cities. One year, we had more than 700 participants attend a series of 55 workshops, held from the Maritimes to British Columbia.

Starting with the first workshops, I was determined to have the French and English participants experience one another’s culture through a series of bilingual screenings and demonstrations. I remember a session with Jean-Pierre Lefebvre working with actors being projected on a large screen; his personality, sensitivity and brilliance transcended language.

A huge part of the Institute was the personal interaction. You can’t bring up to 225 people for an intensive week without the full tapestry of human nature revealing itself. Two couples who met at the first Summer Institute got married and carried on their production businesses as a team. One woman surreptitiously slept in the bushes outside the school because she couldn’t afford a room (sadly, she never made a film). One student wrote a script in a workshop in which a character with his name murdered his teacher, named after the real scriptwriting teacher. The teacher remained guarded in his hotel room until I had the student escorted to the airport and safely put on a plane home. The stories go on and on.

The reason why most of these people came was excellent word-of-mouth. (We had a surprising number of attendees from Canada’s South, Los Angeles.) Most were first-timers trying out the industry; many were people currently in the biz but hoping to change professions; and some were experienced professionals who wanted to work with our outstanding guests. A number took several or more workshops; a recent winner of a Telefilm screenwriting award had attended the Summer Institute eight times.

When I reflect on the people who attended, I admire the depth of their commitment. They gave up work or a week’s holiday; some travelled the length of the country and paid their own way to improve their craft. We dedicated some of our revenue for scholarships and kept the workshop fees very low. The participants, I determined early on, had to be the central focus of whatever we did.

And that focus paid off. What kept me going in the hard times were the stories from participants telling us how the workshops had helped their careers. Oneof many examples is Lynn Tarzwell, now head of Algonquin College’s Screenwriting programme, who quit teaching high school to become a successful screenwriter after attending the Summer Institute.

The same commitment happened with our instructors. From the beginning, when Anna Sandor and Bill Gough came back six years in a row, many instructors asked to return, in spite of the very low pay. One of our most dedicated instructors, Leon Marr, returned 21 consecutive years. Murray Battle taught nearly 20 times and claims that his teaching there prepared him for his current position as commissioning editor for Knowledge Network. The instructors became part of the extended Summer Institute family, and I still number many of them among my good friends.

All of this good work ended without warning. In the spring of 2008, the Conservative government decided—against the recommendation of a cultural review committee—to cancel the federal funding of all four national film schools. In spite of a nationwide outcry, the cuts remained in place.

As the CSTC had depended heavily on federal funds, we tried to become more entrepreneurial and seek out new sources of revenue. In late 2009, I reluctantly reassumed the executive director’s role one last time for the final six months. Despite our best efforts, both the political and economic tides ran against any replacement funding.

The Centre officially closed on May 1, 2010, one month short of our 30th anniversary.

My daughter Micheline, who had been the assistant director for six years, and I cleaned out the office. More than once, seemingly insignificant things—a letter of thanks, a quote from a teacher or participant, a faded photo—brought us to tears. My team and I had done something significant here, and going through all those items seemed proof of that. This last task was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever had to do in my life.

Some of those feelings were assuaged by the fact that nearly 7,000 people attended over the years. Our 400 workshops—introductory and advanced, traditional and emerging media, one-day to long-term mentorship—filled a key niche in screen training.

We made a difference, too. Our alumni continue to make their marks in the Canadian screen industries. Lixin Fan, associate producer of the 2008 Genie-winning documentary, Up The Yangtze, credits us with launching his career. Denise Robert was recently named 2010 Canadian Producer of the Year. Michael Dowse, director of FUBAR I and II, is one of the hottest directors in the country. I hope they, and other alumni, will fight for stories about Canada, for domestic and international audiences.

The closure made me angry. Our current government doesn’t see, or doesn’t seem to care, that without adequate funding, our stories will be lost in a tsunami of global media. They deny the importance of national funding for screen training that we need to invest in future Canadian storytellers. Yet even casual observers realize Canadians have to keep producing stories that reflect our distinctiveness.

The CSTC has been closed for six months now. I’m determined to keep fighting the good fight, though on a more modest scale. I continue to teach screenwriting workshops across Canada and to spread the gospel about the importance of Canadian stories for our screens.

I never did get to take my workshop.

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