This article was originally published in 2013
Rock Demers’ life and career is a powerful reminder that film producers in Canada and elsewhere can be wildly successful commercially while maintaining high ethical standards. Demers’ website proudly claims: “La Fête, a company involved in quality youth productions.”
That statement would have been just as accurate in 1984, when he launched Les productions La Fête with a remarkable film, La guerre des tuques (The Dog Who Stopped the War), which turned a story about two gangs of boys in a Quebec town staging a huge snowball fight into an effective anti-war statement.
But Demers wouldn’t have been satisfied with that achievement; he is, after all, a producer and wants to see an audience respond to his films. Talking about La guerre des tuques now, he is still proud that it won the Golden Reel Award – awarded annually to Canada’s top-grossing film – taking in well over $1 million box office dollars in Canada alone.
La guerre des tuques launched the genial and erudite French-Canadian on a career path that has led to many awards. As his vision of children’s programming expanded, Demers went from triumph to triumph. La grenouille et la baleine (The Tadpole and the Whale, 1989, pictured in main photo above) trumped his first film at the box office, winning another Golden Reel and garnering nearly $2 million dollars in Canada alone.
The range of Demers’ prizes is impressive. His films have won awards in Egypt (Reach for the Sky, 1992), Algeria (Bach et Bottine, 1987), Australia (Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller, 1988), Germany (Madame Brouette, 2003) and Italy (Daniel and the Superdogs, 2004). Demers admits to being particularly proud of the Emmy he received for Vincent and Me in 1992, but he cites the Lifetime Achievement Award at Banff in 2001 and being received as a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2007 as being his signal recognitions up until now.
Demers vividly recalls what inspired him to create his Contes pour tous (Tales for All) back in the mid-’80s. “I read an article in [Montreal newspaper] La Presse about the high number of kids that commit suicide. I said to myself, ‘what can I do?’ I know life is difficult, but it’s so worthwhile. After that article, which was a shock for me, I took six months to develop the concept of Tales for All.”
Demers determined that he would produce poignant, yet funny, family films with kids as the leads.
“I decided that the main characters would always be boys or girls between 11 and 13 [years old]. They would always be in contemporary stories. Nature would always have an important part in them. There would be a lot of laughter and tenderness. No animation, no science fiction. And a certain number of animals would have an important part in each one of the films.”
A proud French-Canadian and “citizen of the world,” Demers decided that he could reach a global audience if he shot some films in French and others in English while occasionally co-producing features abroad in their languages. His formula proved wildly successful – and kept the dubbing industry happy.
“I took six months to develop the concept. Then, I informed people around me – writers or directors or scriptwriters, National Film Board, Radio Canada, Telefilm – that I would be interested in producing films or receiving projects along those lines.”
One of the first proposals Demers received was unique; it was a short story by Michael Rubbo, then a highly respected NFB documentarian. It would become the foundation of a dynamic partnership.
“I heard nothing for quite a while,” Rubbo recalls, “and then one day, I got a call from Rock. ‘Michael, I want to make your story. Perhaps you could write and direct it.’
“What an astonishing offer! It was so courageous and trusting, as I’d never directed fiction before.”
Demers arranged for Rubbo to read his story at Grade Six classes in Montreal schools; they workshopped it for months. “One crucial day, Rock sat at the back of the class at Roslyn School in Westmount whilst I told the story for the umpteenth time. Not saying a word, he just sat there, studying the kid’s reactions and then also watching keenly as they clustered round at the end, bubbling with excitement, acting as if they’d actually already seen a movie. When the bell rang and the horde was gone, Rock simply said, ‘I think we’re ready to go. Now, I’ll try to get the money!’”
Not only did Demers get the money, The Peanut Butter Solution (1985) became an international success, the second in a string of Tales for All that now stretches for almost three decades and over 20 films.