A look back at Genies’ best films

In 1980, Canada's burgeoning feature film industry announced its intention to become a world-class force in cinema with a record number of entries at the Cannes Film Festival - 24 - and the first installment of the Academy of Canadian Cinema...

In 1980, Canada’s burgeoning feature film industry announced its intention to become a world-class force in cinema with a record number of entries at the Cannes Film Festival – 24 – and the first installment of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television’s Genie Awards to honor excellence in Canadian film.

The first film to win a Genie for best motion picture was Peter Medak’s $7.5 million feature The Changeling – a haunted house thriller with big American names attached to it – starring George C. Scott and coproduced by Garth Drabinsky and his Hollywood partner Joel Michaels.

The Drabinsky/Michaels team had produced The Disappearance in 1977 and The Silent Partner in 1978, and would go on to produce Tribute in 1980 and The Amateur and Losin’ It in 1982.

The following year, Les Bons Debarras, directed by Quebec’s Francis Mankiewicz, written by novelist Rejean Ducharme and produced by Claude Godbout and Marcia Couelle, won eight Genies, including best motion picture.

Set in a small town in the Laurentians, the film relates the saga of a mother and daughter relationship, and because of its universality – the characters are not victims of fate, not villains – it is considered ‘one of the great quebecois films of all time,’ says Don Haig, executive producer Studios B and C at the National Film Board.

Ticket to Heaven

In 1982, the Genie for best motion picture went to Ticket to Heaven, Ralph Thomas’ look at religious cults. Thomas created the For the Record series for cbc, and Ticket to Heaven was his first feature film after leaving the cbc. The film featured relatively unknown Canadian and American actors Nick Mancuso, Saul Rubinek, Meg Foster, Kim Cattrall and R. H. Thomson, who would all go on to very successful international careers.

Based on the book Moon Webs by Josh Freed, Ticket to Heaven was shot as a ‘dramatic film based on reality,’ says Ronald Cohen, who coproduced the film with Vivienne Leebosh.

Although Ticket to Heaven met with critical acclaim, it did not reach a lot of screens in Canada. In the u.s., however, backed by United Artists Classics, it did manage to do better at the box office.

Recalls Cohen: ‘Ticket to Heaven reached up to 22 to 24 screens in New York alone. It never did get the equivalent to a major release because it was categorized as a `classic’.’

The Grey Fox, 1983′s best motion picture starring Richard Farnsworth and Jackie Burroughs, marked the feature film directorial debut of Philip Borsos, who had already made a name for himself in the industry with his acclaimed documentaries for the nfb such as Spar Tree and Nails.

The $4.3 million film tells a story that is, says Haig, ‘uniquely Canadian’ – the tale of Bill Miner, Canada’s first train robber.

Despite great reviews, The Grey Fox was still a Canadian independent film and as such a financial risk. In his acceptance speech at the Genies, producer Peter O’Brian thanked Miner ‘for robbing the train in the first place. As an independent producer in this economy, I can relate to that.’

The Terry Fox Story

The next year’s best picture winner, The Terry Fox Story, had a brief theatrical release but found a true and steadfast audience on television, says Tom McSorley of the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa.

Directed by Ralph Thomas and produced by Robert Cooper, The Terry Fox Story starred American film veteran Robert Duvall and unknown athlete/actor Eric Fryer as Canadian hero Terry Fox.

In 1985, The Bay Boy, Daniel Petrie’s coming-of-age story set in Cape Breton in 1937, won six Genies including best picture. The picture starred Liv Ullmann, Peter Donat and Kiefer Sutherland in his first major role.

The picture was coproduced by France’s Hachette and Antenne 2. For their contributions to Franco-Canadian coproduction, the Canadian producers, John Kemeny and Denis Heroux, received the first Prix France-Canada Award, created to acknowledge the Canadian and French creative talent involved in film and audiovisual projects produced under official coproduction treaties between the two countries.

My American Cousin, the 1986 Genie Award winner for best motion picture, was produced by Peter O’Brian and written and directed by Sandy Wilson. Although My American Cousin was Wilson’s first feature, she had been writing and directing documentaries since 1969.

Set in the Okanagan Valley in 1959 and featuring performances by Margaret Langrick, John Wildman and Richard Donat, the $1.2 million film only opened on four or five screens across Canada, but pulled in close to $1 million at the box office, says Wilson.

Winner of the Toronto Festival of Festivals’ International Film Critic’s Award of 1985, the film is still invited to festivals around the world, says Wilson. ‘The appeal of the film is timeless. Whenever I’m in the video stores I check, and it’s usually out.’

Denys Arcand’s 1987 Genie winner, Le declin de l’empire americain (The Decline of the American Empire), produced by Rene Malo and Roger Frappier, was a breakthrough film in that it transcended traditional boundaries of language, says McSorley.

By the time the English version of the film opened Toronto’s Festival of Festivals in September 1986, it had played to sold-out Montreal audiences for 11 straight weeks and averaged more than $50,000 in its first eight weeks, beating Out of Africa at $43,000. Its theatrical run continued for three months after its release on video.

In English Canada, Decline grossed $523,188 in its first 13 weeks, with more than half that earned in Toronto. At the end of its run in English- and French-language markets in Canada, the film had grossed $3.6 million.

In the u.s., box office numbers were impressive – by March 1987, Decline had 23 screens and would gross $2.5 million.

Oscar nominee

The film was also nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as best foreign film of 1986. Paramount Pictures optioned the film for an English-language version, to be written by David Geiler of Aliens fame.

The 1988 best picture winner, Jean Claude Lauzon’s first feature, Un Zoo la Nuit, examines the relationship between father and son, a theme that is not commonplace in Quebec cinema, says Pierre Gendron, who coproduced the film with Frappier. Marked with the European stamp of approval – earlier in the year the film had the honor of opening the Directors Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival – Un Zoo opened to rave reviews at home. It did ‘so-so’ in English Canada, but in Quebec, box office receipts hit about $1.8 million, says Gendron.

David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers won the 1989 Genie for best pic. On this film, Cronenberg continued his relationship with coproducer Marc Boyman and 20th Century Fox that began in 1986 with Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Budgeted at approximately $10 million, Dead Ringers was based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, and starred Jeremy Irons and Genevieve Bujold.

Jesus de Montreal, the $4.2 million Canada-France coproduction between Max Films Productions and Gerard Mital Productions, picked up the 1990 Genie honors for best film. The Denys Arcand-directed picture also landed a slew of international awards, including the Special Jury Prize and Ecumenical Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Two days after its official screening in Cannes, UGC-France launched Jesus on nine screens in Paris. The film had a limited Quebec release on two Montreal screens starting May 15. In all, 25 copies were in circulation within a few weeks of the Cannes festival.

During its first 10 weeks in release in Quebec, Jesus averaged $100,000 a week. Gendron, who coproduced Jesus with Frappier, says the film did about $2.5 million at the Quebec box office.

Black Robe

The first Canada-Australia coproduction, Black Robe, won for best picture in 1991. Directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and produced by Alliance’s Robert Lantos, Sue Milliken and Stephane Reichel, the $13.6 million movie was based on the novel of the same name by Brian Moore and starred Lothaire Bluteau.

With 62 prints released in Canada, the box office gross for English and French markets was $2,884,293.

In Australia, the film did $1 million in its first three weeks, and by April 1992, international box office earnings for the film hit the $11 million mark. Black Robe had a Canadian home video release on April 9, 1992 with more than 12,000 home video units being presold in English and French.

Writer/director David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, the 1992 Genie winner for best film, featured an ensemble cast that included Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider and Julian Sands. Cronenberg worked with English producer Jeremy Thomas on his ‘free adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ literary classic’.

Naked Lunch grossed $602,413 in both English- and French-language markets in Canada, with 32 prints released in all markets.

Glenn Gould

Last year’s winner for best motion picture, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, starring Canadian actor Colm Feore and shot on a budget of $1.8 million, successfully merged talents from English Canada – producer Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media, Toronto – and French Canada – Montreal-based director Francois Girard – in a ‘true independent film that says things in new ways and was successful in the u.s. market,’ says McSorley.

Rhombus head of business and legal affairs, Daniel Iron, adds the film proves that ‘an avante-garde movie can find a place theatrically and became a good commercial venture.’

The film was launched in all major Canadian markets on Feb. 11, 1994 and was distributed in the u.s. by Samuel Goldwyn. It opened in New York City and Los Angeles on April 15, and by mid-May was on screens in 50 major u.s. markets.

In total, Thirty Two Short Films reached about 70 screens in the u.s. and had box office earnings of approximately $1.5 million.

The 1994 winner for best motion picture went toÉ