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Who Said Americans Are Denied Work in Canadian Film Productions?

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Some while back a post of mine resulted in a comment in the comments section claiming the Canadian entertainment biz "discriminates" against American talent. I didn't give it too much thought (assuming the poster had an agenda). But recently I've stumbled upon similar comments posted on the IMDB. Posts lamenting the "bigotry" of evil Canadians for depriving honest Americans roles in Canadian productions in stark contrast to the open-armed welcome Canadians receive in Hollywood.

That's the nature of the internet. Something gets posted and soon it's repeated as gospel. It can be a rumour. It can be a failure to grasp the broader context, like the blind man presuming he knows an elephant by feeling its trunk. And it can be deliberate propaganda. Kind of like how people repeated the myth that the 9/11 terrorists came through Canada.

So for the sake of getting another POV out there, here's a quick delving into the question of if, and who, gets discriminated against.

Perhaps one point to make is the difference between the largely privately financed Hollywood system and the way other countries (including Canada) subsidize their film and TV productions with public funds and tax breaks. If a producer wishes to avail himself of public money specifically intended to encourage domestic productions then it's asked the producer provide some opportunities for Canadian talent. But you, I, or your dog Fluffy could drum up private funds and make a movie in Canada starring whomsoever we wanted and no one could -- or would -- say "boo."

Is financial incentives that Canadian talent receive consideration discrimination? Or is it affirmative action designed to counter the discrimination Canadians themselves experience?

Because for years, even with such funding, it was almost obligatory that Canadian movies (and internationally syndicated TV series) feature imported "stars." Things have started to shift within the last few years, to be sure, but I glanced at the cast lists of the last ten recent Canadian movies I've seen -- a random (and admittedly unscientific) grouping of theatrical and TV movies, B-horror flicks and serious dramas.

Of those ten -- seven gave top-billing to an imported (usually American) actor. We should all be so discriminated against, eh?

So what are we talking about with this new mythology about Americans being denied work on Canadian productions?

When Canadians (or whoever) land roles in American productions, it's usually because they've moved to the U.S. and acquired a work visa. Even those who get homesick and move back to their native lands continue to employ an American agent and make the effort to retain ties to the Hollywood community.

Likewise there are American actors (and other nationalities) who move to Canada (that's not even counting foreign-born Canadians). People move to Hollywood hoping to become wealthy stars. People move to Canada because they like it as a place to raise kids and are just looking for steady work. Some of these people think of themselves as Canadian. Some regard themselves as ex-pats, but nonetheless have made themselves a part of the Canadian industry. Some even move back to the States but continue to work in Canada because they maintain ties.

Are these the people meant when posters bemoan the "discrimination" against Americans? I'm guessing no.

So who exactly is being "discriminated" against?

The Americans who stayed home? The Americans with no interest in the Canadian entertainment biz? Does that mean Canadians are discriminated against because Italian producers aren't scouring Toronto's Little Italy for the next big Italian movie star?

Besides, looking at various Canadian TV series -- some made primarily for the domestic market, some distributed internationally, some co-productions with American (or other) partners -- it's not hard to find casts mixing imported actors, Canadian actors, and foreign-born Canadian actors (The Murdoch Mysteries, Motive, Republic of Doyle, Continuum, Being Human, Haven, Vikings, etc.). While (deep breath) Rosie O'Donnell, Russell Crowe, Linda Hamilton, Luis Guzman, Joanna Cassidy, Ed Asner, Jerry O'Connell and others have all guest starred in recent Canadian TV series.

Canada's talent base itself is so multinational I'm sometimes amused to stumble upon wikipedia or IMDB entries for some veteran Canadian actor which lists him/her as American -- because that's where they're from originally.

The irony is one of the TV series which had a message board thread touching on this topic was the crime-drama, Motive. Yet even a cursory glance at the cast would've revealed that one of the regulars is Lauren Holly, an American actress with a successful Hollywood career long before she moved north. While the current season has seen a distinct trend toward American guest stars, such as Jennifer Beals. And many others in the cast, though Canadian-raised, count such diverse locales as Portugal, Jamaica and Ireland among their birth places.

Sometimes I wonder if these outraged posters suffer from a sense of entitlement -- and a subconscious contempt for Canadians. They can't believe a Canadian movie or TV show could legitimately be made without importing American talent. Do these same commentators complain the British don't hire more Americans for Doctor Who? Or do they lament the way Canadian films "discriminate" against Swedes? (I can only think of two or three Canadian movies that starred a Swede -- but Sweden has plenty of fine actors).

A big difference between casting in American and Canadian productions is this: when a Hollywood production casts a Canadian it's in spite of the fact that the actor is Canadian. Yet often when Canadian productions import American actors, they do so because the filmmakers were told they had to have an American lead.

Sometimes the American casting is entirely warranted. James Cromwell won Best Actor at the Canadian Screen Awards for Still Mine while Danny Glover was excellent in Donovan's Echo -- to name just two.

But with some actors -- well, let's just say sometimes discrimination favours Americans. Not that I begrudge the actors. The entertainment biz is a tough nut, and any advantage an actor can exploit is fair game, even if it's having an American passport.

The best way to explore the question of who gets what roles in Canadian productions is not by paying attention to message board rumours promulgated by people who might only have ever watched one Canadian program in their life (and are defining an elephant by its trunk), nor by reading blogs by someone like me.

Simply watch a few Canadian productions, look at cast bios, and decide for yourself what's the reality.

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