This article was originally published in 2010
Paul Bronfman’s 30-plus years of industry service have garnered plenty of kudos lately. This month will see him inducted into the Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame, and later receive the DGC’s Honourable Life Member Award. He says he’s flattered, but doesn’t want anyone to think he’s slowing down.
“When you get these things, you’re either retiring or dying. I can’t retire. I don’t want to retire. My wife says my work is my mistress. She’s right,” says Bronfman, topper of conglomerate Comweb Group and equipment house William F. White International, and chair of Pinewood Toronto Studios.
There have been personal and professional ups and downs, but the Toronto-based Bronfman has been remarkably resilient and remains bullish about the production business. While his path has taken a number of turns and detours, his primary interest in production technology was established early on. But that was only after a teenage stab at rock-’n-roll glory, fronting a band called The Lords of Power, which covered Iron Butterfly, Jimi Hendrix and Santana.
“I was the singer on all this stuff, so you could imagine how bad it was,” recalls Bronfman, 53. “But it was a gas.”
It’s not what you would expect from a member of his dynastic family, but he has always been somewhat of a black sheep. Bronfman’s father Edward – nephew of former Seagram owner Samuel Bronfman – and his uncle Peter launched the once-mighty conglomerate Edper Enterprises and owned the Montreal Canadiens for most of their 1970s Stanley Cup-winning heyday. So for which club did Bronfman cheer growing up in Montreal in the 1960s? The Toronto Maple Leafs, of course.
“The Leafs won the Cup; my favorite color was blue. I ended up being a Leafs fan. It’s just that simple. I stuck with them and I’m loyal to them,” he says. As innocent as it sounds, it was also an early indication that Bronfman’s ties would ultimately be stronger to Hogtown than his hometown.
He gave up his rock-star dreams in late high school, after which his entrepreneurial chutzpah kicked in. He and his young associates took his band’s amplifiers, built a homemade light system, bought some turntables and bubble and fog machines, and dubbed the whole setup the Music Machine Mobile Discotheque, which kept them busy blaring “danceable classic rock” at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and sweet sixteens.
In the mid-’70s he was hired by legendary promoter Donald Tarlton (aka Donald K. Donald) as a roadie for the band April Wine. Even back then, he felt he had something to prove. “I had to win the crew over, because I came into that hired by Donald, and I’ve got the curse of the last name,” he says. “Everybody’s sort of gunning for you. You have to really exceed expectations, which you do just by trying to work hard and treating people well.”
He was promoted to assistant production manager on a Supertramp tour, but given the political turbulence in Quebec at the time, saw more opportunity in Ontario. From summer jobs at an Astral photo shop he knew Astral Bellevue Pathé head Harold Greenberg, who hired him as a studio coordinator at his Pathé Sound post facility in Toronto.
By the late 1980s, he had worked his way up to VP business development at Astral, which was the Canadian distributor for Stephen J. Cannell, the powerhouse TV producer who co-created The A-Team and The Rockford Files. In a prescient move, Cannell wanted to open a production studio in Vancouver, and was looking for a partner. Greenberg sent Bronfman to scope it out, but Astral ultimately did not want to get involved. So Bronfman decided to pursue it on his own.
“[Cannell] wanted to find a Canadian partner who was going to roll up their sleeves and put their life on the line and really dive into it,” Bronfman recalls. “He took a chance on me, because even though I had been in the business for 10 years on the film part of it, I really wasn’t proven on my own. It was just a real stroke of luck. It was a tough deal to do, because for me I was literally mortgaging the farm.”
And thus in 1988 North Shore Studios was born, ushering in the era of Vancouver as a major production centre, boosted immeasurably when a new paranormal drama called The X-Files set up shop there five years later. (Comweb sold the facility to Lionsgate in 1996.) About a year after the studio opened its doors, Bronfman bought into William F. White with Bill White and his family. He assumed the role of chair, adding the CEO title a few years later. But just a few months after he came on board, the company was frozen.
“His family got very concerned I was moving too quickly,” Bronfman explains. “I ended up buying Bill’s family out. Bill took a bigger piece of the equity and Bill and I were partners for 16 years.”
The service industry’s phenomenal growth in the mid-1990s led to the temptation to expand. Today, WFW also has regional offices in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Halifax, and Budapest, the latter through a partnership in Sparks Camera and Lighting with legendary director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond. Some experiments didn’t pay off, however. “We got involved in some businesses we should not have gotten involved in,” Bronfman acknowledges.
For example, instead of just renting cranes, WFW figured it would also make them, and so bought Cape Town manufacturer Filmair International and brought them to Toronto, which Bronfman calls “an unmitigated disaster,” since WFW misjudged other rental shops’ willingness to buy from a competitor. And then there was an attempt to crash the Los Angeles market at the beginning of the last decade. “L.A. nearly brought down this entire company,” he says. “We had the wrong business model. We just didn’t manage it properly. Basically, we lost millions and millions of dollars.”
Other ventures yielded happier memories, such as Comweb’s 1993 branching-out into production with the launch of Protocol Entertainment. Most notably, the prodco created kids show Goosebumps, based on the horror books by R.L. Stine. The show was a massive hit for YTV and Fox Kids, and distributor Saban International sold it in more than 100 countries. He eventually lost his passion for the producing side, however, and Comweb and Protocol went their separate ways in 2005.
WFW has gone through upsizing and downsizing, yet remains one of the country’s two biggest suppliers of gear and onset expertise, servicing countless local productions as well as Hollywood shoots such as The Dark Knight and The Incredible Hulk. Bronfman himself has barely slowed down, even in the face of MS, with which he was diagnosed in 1995.
“At the time I really didn’t know what it was or what course it was going to take,” he says. “When I started to limp, I started to lie my ass off: ‘sore ankle,’ ‘sore knee.’ I really didn’t want to tell anybody, because I didn’t want to be treated any differently. I didn’t take it all that seriously, but the thing continued to slide down. I started using a cane, so I told people.”
He remains a fixture at industry events, getting around in the custom-built scooter he now requires to keep mobile. And he has turned that into a plus. “It’s a great promotional vehicle because I’ve got the WFW logo on my scooters. It’s like free advertising,” he says.
When Queen Elizabeth toured the Pinewood facility this summer, Bronfman felt he had to apologize after the requisite pomp and circumstance. He told her “Sorry, Your Majesty. I couldn’t stand up during ‘God Save the Queen’ because I have multiple sclerosis,” to which the monarch replied, “That must be rather annoying.”
In addition to the recent Royal Visit, Bronfman is excited about a fresh affiliation with digital-camera shop Sim Video and the William F. White Centre, where the company will locate its head office in December, just blocks away from its current home in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. But, he insists, these developments always run a distant second to the human element.
“I love this business for the people,” he says. “It is a collection of black sheep, and that’s what makes it fun and interesting and quirky. It’s the greatest collection of people of any business anywhere.”