Hollywood North: Creating the Canadian
Motion Picture Industry

Review by James Forrester

James Forrester
orks at the Ontario College of Art & Design
 as a systems librarian
Has been writing about Canadian film
 since graduating in Film Studies from Queen's University
  Is convinced that a BMW K100 motorcycle is the 'perfect vehicle'

©Photo by Lois Siegel
Michael Spencer, 2003

In my mind “Hollywood North” is synonymous with the phrase “runaway productions” which the new governor elect of California has sworn to terminate. The British Columbia film industry is firmly convinced that it has an exclusive license to the name, and that it should only be applied to Vancouver. Mike Gasher’s 2002 book (published appropriately by University of British Columbia Press) was the first to use the title for a publication, and it had the subtitle “The Feature Film Industry in British Columbia.” They’re welcome to it.

©Photo by Lois Siegel
Richard Dreyfuss, 1972

As catchy as it may sound, I wouldn’t use it in relation to government sponsored Canadian film production. Alternate titles might include: Gimme Shelter, Porky’s and the Pork Barrel, or Night of the Living Tax Crazed Dentists & Doctors. Something more creative like Katherine Monk’s wonderfully irreverent 2001 title Weird Sex and Snowshoes; anything but Hollywood North.

©Photo by Lois Siegel
Mordecai Richler, 1972

Putting this quibble aside, Michael Spencer, with Suzan Ayscough’s assistance, has written a very readable memoir. There is undoubtedly no other Canadian film executive who is in a better position to tell the story of the peaks and valleys on the road to creating an indigenous film industry. Michael Spencer got his start in film working for the Canadian Army Film Unit and Crawley Films during WWII, before joining the National Film Board of Canada in 1945. He moved rapidly through the Film Board’s senior ranks; becoming the head of Studio “D” in 1950 and Director of Planning in 1960. Spencer was the author of a brief memo to Jack Pickersgill (minister of the day responsible for the NFB) on September 11, 1963, which launched the legislative mechanism that lead to the establishment of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada) on March 10, 1967. He started as  the acting secretary of the newly minted government agency and subsequently became its executive director from 1969 - 1978.

©Photo by Lois Siegel
Claude Jutra, 1979

Professor Peter Morris, in his 1884 directory The Film Companion, states that “opinions differ markedly about the quality of his contribution at the Canadian Film Development Corporation, but it is indisputable that, during his tenure, the film industry in Canada was irrevocably transformed.” Following his retirement, a lively roast was given by the film industry at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto. Spencer recalled an early encounter with pioneer independent producer Budge Crawley: “When I was making only twenty bucks a week, I asked Budge Crawley for a raise, and he gave me the classic response: ‘Do you want to make money or make films?’”

©Photo by Lois Siegel
Harold Greenberg, 1980

In the following years Spencer took on other roles as a producer, Cannes Festival juror, president of a Quebec production association, consultant, and for many years a completion bonder for Film Finances Canada. He became a member of the Order of Canada in 1989.

©Photo by Lois Siegel

Michel Brault, 1986

The style of Hollywood North is informal and anecdotal with many stories about film shoots, which provided an opportunity for Spencer to realize one of his personal passions - bird watching. The double forwards to the book by Donald Sutherland and Carole Laure speak well of the respect that Spencer received from the acting community in Canada. The photographs of notable Canadian film industry figures by director/photographer Lois Siegel add greatly to the overall publication. Like Osmond Borradaille (author of Life Through a Lens) Michael Spencer began writing this work in his eighties, and the span of his observations from WWII army films to current productions like Mambo Italiano is unparalleled. Throughout the book he addresses the underlying problem for Canadian features - the lack of space on the nation’s cinema screens. I’m sure that many readers will find his reflections on the development of a feature film industry very revealing.

©Photo by Lois Siegel

Andre Forcier, 1985

The book: Hollywood North: Creating the Canadian Motion Picture Industry
by Michael Spencer with Suzan Ayscough
232 pages, 2003, ISBN: 2-89594-007-X ($29.95 paper)

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