Pulp Non-Fiction: On the History of Paper

paperBlitz Magazine, March 2001

 

 

Imagine life without paper—no post-it notes, toilet tissue, espresso-to-go, plane tickets.

But it’s so commonplace, we never think about how it got here. It’s just here.

It’s been here for 2,000 years—a Chinese invention. In 105 AD, Cai Lun, an imperial inspector of workshops, returned from a papermaking research trip around China. When he presented the results to the emperor, he was dubbed the Inventor of Paper. But the oldest piece of paper extant, found in Shensi Province, dates from 140 BC, and we know that the Chinese began making paper in 200 BC.

The first paper was coarse and thick and was used to wrap parcels; a special thick, pleated paper was even used for armour. By 93 BC, it was clothing. In 110 AD, people started writing on it then, in 589 AD, they started using it for, er, personal purposes.

The word ‘paper’ comes from the word papyrus. But papyrus is different from paper. The Egyptians flattened stalks of the papyrus plant and stacked them in layers. When the stalks dried, they formed a flat material, perfect for writing on.

The Chinese used bamboo, hemp, rattan, straw or mulberry bark. They soaked pieces in water, along with lye or potash, for 70 days, then beat and boiled the mixture into pulp. They added water and a fibre-lubricating solution taken from a type of birch tree found only in Sichuan Province. The fine screen was dragged through the pulp; when pulp is collected, the fibres become attracted to each other and mesh to create a strong bond. The resultant net-like sheets were peeled off and stacked. The stack was pressed to remove excess water, then the damp sheets were stuck to a heated wall to dry.

Today, paper-making is a high-speed, high-tech form of this method, and wood chips are the base ingredient. The chips are steamed and stripped of lignin (the natural glue that holds fibres together). The fibres are cleaned and mixed with water, pumps spray pulp and water onto fast-moving screens, the water drains away, and the fibres join together. Vacuum pumps drain the water; large rollers squeeze the fibre, heated rollers dry it further. Starch or clay is added for an improved surface; a calender acts like an iron to polish it. These 100 metre-long papermaking machines have more computer controls than a 747. The romance is gone.

But you can now see the ancient method, in action, at Vancouver’s Science World, which hosts China! 7000 Years of Innovation, a celebration of Chinese inventions that changed the world.

 

 

The BC Film Commission: Location, Location, Location

Blitz Magazine, May 2000

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was rare for a Hollywood producer to consider British Columbia when choosing locations. If they wanted a mountain, a bear, a Mountie, a Mountie on a bear on a mountain, only then BC was the obvious choice. A few well-known films were made here—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Carnal Knowledge. The skill was here; Canadian broadcasting and film talent has always had an excellent reputation. But, by 1975, although there was a lot of television production going on, BC had gone five years without seeing a complete Hollywood feature shot here and the province’s craftsmen were leaving to work elsewhere. Finally, in 1978, the Social Credit government stepped in and created the British Columbia Film Commission.

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With that came people who were actively marketing BC as a location. By the end of that year, BC went from having no business to enjoying production spending of $38 million. In 1979, it was $55 million. Producers, directors and production designers started to talk to their peers about BC, and there were people here following up. This meant cold-calling producers who, often, had to consult a map to find Vancouver. It was sometimes a tough sell, but the commission staff concentrated on building relationships and providing ever-better service.

While the cost of shooting in Los Angeles continued to escalate, BC was enjoying watershed moments. There was Year of Rambo (1979). 21 Jump Street showed producers that you could happily shoot an episodic series here. Then came MacGyver, and Wise Guy. In 1987, after the provincial government made a substantial investment to up-grade the Bridge Studios, Stephen J. Cannell and Paul Bronfman teamed up to build Lions Gate Studios (now North Shore Studios). The list of hit features continued to grow. The Canadian dollar stayed low, the tax advantages piled up.

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So has the work. In 1998, 28 features, 26 TV series, 15 animation projects, 59 documentaries and 43 MOWs, mini-series and pilots were produced in BC, for a total value of $808 million (CAD). In 1999, there were 54 features, 30 TV series, 6 animated projects, 48 documentaries and 60 MOWs, mini-series and pilots, for a total value of $1.7 billion. That doesn’t include the $500 million non-theatrical ‘broadcaster bucks’ and television commercial expenditures. And conservative estimates place the spin-off economic impact at $3 billion.

The BC Film Commission (BCFC) is a branch of the Ministry of Small Business, Tourism & Culture and relies on the government for all of its funds. It employs just 10 people and has seen its budget regularly slashed in recent years, to the point where it currently operates on a stunningly low annual budget of $875,000. (This, while Montreal just received a $300,000. injection to its promotional budget alone.)

The BCFC mandate is to market, promote and facilitate film and television production in BC, and to market the services of BC production, post-product and ancillary service companies to the international film and television industry. It has four tasks: international marketing, location scouting, location services and community relations.

These days, the marketing function is restricted, to say the least. “Seven years ago, I had a $250,000 print advertising budget,” says marketing manager Alice To. “It’s now $50,000, including creative. We’ve gone from placing 45 ads a year to placing five. Those five are saved for when there’s a BC production that needs to be congratulated in the trade press. Now, we don’t have campaigns, we have reminders. We stand out by using illustrations—other film commissions run location shots. We used to advertise to the European and Asian markets, we used to publish a newsletter for schools and libraries, and we used to do a lot of media relations. But we don’t have the resources for that any more.”

The commission used to have an advertising agency (Campaign Communications, now Saatchi & Saatchi). It also used to host the extremely successful Friends of BC reception in Los Angeles—a party to thank people for filming in BC. The commission still goes to Cannes and is hosting a Business in BC conference in London this year, but the once all-important trade shows are now also a thing of the past.

“We used to do Location EXPO,” continues To. “You’d have all the film commissions under one roof and everyone competed to attract people to their jurisdictions—we’d pass out BC apples, water, salmon. And we used to exhibit at Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival. Now we don’t do that, not so much because of budget cuts, but because people aren’t interested in trade shows any more. They know about the commissions and they can get the information they need off the Internet.”

For the past two years, the BCFC has had a very effective web site (www.bcfilmcommission.com). It’s strictly for information dissemination and doesn’t carry advertising, but it is well-visited to the point of the occasional crash. On it, visitors find film lists, statistics, quick facts, news items, maps and information on customs, taxes, unions, equipment rental, studios and services.

To, who compares her job to doing the limbo under an ever-lower budget bar, maintains a large photo library and has managed to produce excellent location brochures showing various BC locations—not just deer in the woods, but alleyways, warehouses, docks, residential areas. There’s the occasional marketing project with BC Film (the non-profit society responsible for marketing completed made-in-BC projects) and, twice a year, the commission’s director, location and production services managers go down to Los Angeles to meet with film industry executives and engage in some good, old-fashioned product touting.

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The product is a region which has evolved from being a location to being a production centre. BC’s craftspeople are as good as, if not better, than those anywhere else in the world. We have 67 state-of-the-art sound stages, the best post-production facilities in the business, and we’re capable of having 35 A-list crews working simultaneously. All facilities and amenities are here; producers don’t have to bring anything with them. BC has architectural diversity, ethnic diversity and geographic diversity (it has nine of the globe’s 12 climates, lacking only arctic, tropic and sub-tropic).

“We used to just market locations, now we market Vancouver as a production centre,” says acting BCFC director Mark DesRochers. “We have the complete package now—the pitch to the popcorn. People have put a lot of money back into the business here, so everything’s up to date and the quality of the facilities here has been well attested to by the most grizzled of Hollywood veterans.”

But if there’s no marketing budget, no events budget and no media relations budget, how has the BC Film Commission succeeded?

Strategy, service and more service.

“The second part of our mandate—location scouting—can be challenging,” continues DesRochers. “If someone needs the Texas panhandle, we’ve got a problem. But maybe we can get that script rewritten for Montana. Double Jeopardy was originally supposed to take place in Boston. Then Bruce Beresford thought ‘Why am I trying to cheat this for Boston, when I can rewrite it to take place in the Pacific Northwest?’

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“We have to get in at the contract-signing stage. After that, there’s not much we can do to change their minds. So we look at the trades, track production, call people up. The key is to get producers to think of BC first. A producer will send a script to a dozen locations and his concerns are budget and what a location offers. They come up here and I show them around and say, ‘We can do it for this much here and it’s going to look good. But then I may take them to the Okanagan and show them the perfect location for the script and say ‘If we do it here, for this much, it will look fabulous’. Then they’ll go back and fight for that location. It may cost them a little more to go up to the Okanagan, but they’re still saving money by filming in BC, and they don’t have to compromise on the creative side.

“Also, since 1995, we’ve had the Regional Film Commission of BC, a network of regional film offices that helps us give people exactly the location they want. Production budgets are shrinking and it’s expensive to send location scouts everywhere, especially in a region the size of BC.

“We know how thin the margins are on these shows and we have to service that margin. If a producer needs a mountain and he can get great shots on Grouse Mountain, we’re not going to have him drag his crew over to Mount Robson. If he wants the Queen Charlotte Islands and we know he can’t afford it, we’ll find the alternative.

“We learned a long time ago to never bullshit the customer. If someone needs tundra and musk ox, I’m going to tell we don’t have it. We don’t want to screw up or disappoint our customers, because some of our customers are people who would go out of their way to tell their friends what a bunch of wankers we are. If you market yourselves as being something, that’s what you have to deliver.”

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Once a project has been landed, the third part of the BCFC’s job— location services—kicks in. The BCFC takes a hands-on approach, walking producers through the hoops and ladders of immigration, customs, tax credits, Canadian content issues and union agreements.

The latter, as has been well publicized, used to be a major bugaboo. “People want to come here and make movies, not learn labour law,” explains DesRochers. “There was a time when people considered the possibility of union problems if they came to BC. That may or may not have cost us business—and it did get to the point where the whole thing could have gone down the toilet. But out of that came the opportunity to figure out how to make it work. And we did. Now, unlike any other jurisdiction in North America, all of the unions and guilds have long-term agreements with the employers, and the union agreements are much more straightforward than they used to be. We now have labour peace.”

More recently, there was the issue of unrest among members of the Los Angeles film industry, many of whom were furious at the amount of business coming up here.

“This is a cyclical business, and the growth in production in LA has been more rampant than any other place on the planet,” says DesRochers. “But if there are impracticalities which cost money, and producers want to make a profit, they’ll go where they can get the biggest bang for their buck. Anyway, we haven’t heard much from them lately—the guy leading the charge had to resign to go work on a feature in Toronto.”

Delivering that bigger bang also means competing with 260 other North American film commissions—and with Toronto, Vancouver’s main competitor, whose film commission also gets way more support from its provincial government. Toronto also has location advantages that BC doesn’t have.

“The competition has to do with location-driven pictures,” explains DesRochers. “Toronto is always on the producers’ shopping lists. If you want that eastern city look—if you want New York, Toronto is more logical. But there’s the weather to consider. And we are chameleons.”

The BCFC’s final mandate component is community relations. This area is absolutely essential, given that, not too long ago, the goodwill and hospitality of British Columbians—Vancouverites in particular—was starting to run a little low.

“Vancouverites are easy to get along with, considering the amount of production going on in a relatively small inner city,” remarks DesRochers. “But we had to start spending more time making sure the neighbours were not going to lynch the next show. Now, the municipal and city fathers are educated on what all of this filming means to the economy. People get advance letters, friendly production people knock on their doors and answer questions. It may just be a courtesy or—if you want to land a helicopter on someone’s street at 2:00 a.m.—it may be crucial.

“Like any business, once you’ve done your marketing and landed the business, your future success lies in how efficient you are at servicing that business. We have a multi-tiered client base and we don’t want anyone to feel used and abused.”

In 1995, the BCFC needed someone to deal only with community relations. It didn’t have the money to pay that salary, so it went to those with a vested interest—lawyers, accountants, post-production facilities, unions etc., and had them each chip in $4000. to pay 75% of the salary for a community relations person, something which most film centres don’t have.

The BCFC’s community affairs manager, Gordon Hardwick, is responsible for working with production companies and helping them deal with municipal administrators, Crown corporations and the private sector—helping them cut the red tape.

“I’m currently trying to organize municipal administrators to discuss ways of standardizing things,” he says. “The Greater Vancouver Regional District has 21 municipalities, all with different application and permit processes. Each year, filmmakers make 1,250 applications to the City of Vancouver, which has 400 files open at any one time. So things can become quite complex.”

Hardwick is also working on a marketing plan aimed at raising public awareness of the industry’s fiscal benefits.

“The film community supports a lot of charitable and service organizations, and there are many good-news stories to be told. We have a very low complaint level, but sometimes people get this idea that they’re being exploited by Big American Film Companies. Once they realize that a lot of the productions are Canadian, and that the guy next door makes his living this way, they understand. So the goal of the marketing plan will be to get the good news stories and the economic information out on as localized a level as possible.

“My job is to find ways to accommodate everyone and communicate with businesses and residents so that they can plan their lives around what’s going to be happening. Without that communication, communities would get fed up with the road blocks and noise and racing vehicles and say ‘forget it’. That’s what happened in some communities in the Los Angeles basin, which simply no longer allowing filming. Collectively, our locations are a resource that needs to be managed, with an eye to preservation for the future, just as the fishery or forestry resource does. This is a resource that needs to be both promoted and protected.

“The film industry here grew as a location-based industry—it was never about studios and back lots. We’ve always needed public support and understanding and the willingness to accept inconvenience once in a while. This industry employs 25,000 people—you don’t want it to go away just because it occasionally blocks your driveway.”

Perhaps the human element complicates things more than in this industry than in other sectors. But the other key to the BC Film Commission’s success is that it has been very good at forging solid, long-lasting relationships.

“We’ve developed a great rapport with the decision-makers in this industry,” says DesRochers. “When I go down to LA, I meet with people and find out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. We stay abreast of their desires and wishes and respond quickly. People there know we’re open to suggestions and that we’re committed to delivering the goods. That confidence is better than any advertising you could run.

“This is show business—a mix of creativity and fiscal responsibility. You can’t separate money from the other benefits. You can’t put a dollar value on knowing that you’re going to get the product you want, on time and on budget. And those relationships may save money in the long run, even if the up-front cost is a little higher. So you’ll get producers who come here again and again, no matter what company they’re working for.

“Sure, there’s the exchange rate and the tax advantages, but it’s also the people. Producers know they can depend on our people. We’ve earned the respect of our community on both sides of the border—from studio guys, to unions, to composers, to the guys renting cell phones. We’ve done a good job in forging relationships and keeping those warm and fuzzy feelings about us.”

 

On Bad Websites by the People Who Should Know Best

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Blitz Magazine, November 2006

I admit to an obsession with the Blitz mailing list. It has to be perfect and up-to-date. To achieve this, though, I have to spend endless hours surfing the Net. I’ve now visited thousands of web sites and the fact is that most are just plain awful. The surprise is that some of the worst offenders are ad agencies.

Let’s say that I’m a French manufacturer. I have decided to launch my product in Canada, and I need a Canadian agency. So I start surfing.

Site #1: The first thing I see is that this agency has the gall to greet me with the words ‘Patience Please’. This is followed by animation. Lots of it. I’m thinking:  When I want an animation company, I’ll look for one. Do I want to work with an agency that thinks nothing of wasting my time? Non.

Site #2:  No introduction. I’m right in. But, huh? Its homepage has light blue type on a yellow background. The next page has red type on a dark green background. I’d need a new prescription before I could read this stuff. Ciao.

Site #3:  Ease of access, easy to read, well organized. I read about the company’s service offerings and awards. Bon. Now I want to find out who’s running the show. After some searching, I find the name of the president. But that’s it. I can’t find the name of the creative director. The agency says it has a media department, a production department and PR expertise. But there’s no listing of names. It seems to me that this is a one-guy agency. If it is, non merci. If it isn’t, do I want to do business with someone who won’t reveal the names of his staff? Adieu.

Site #4: This is a full-service ad agency in Alberta. The site is easy to use and well-designed. I want to find out who the president is and click on ‘Who’s the Boss?’ I find this: “Our Lord Jesus is the Boss!” Mon Dieu!

Site #5: This agency’s site has a staff listing. And look! Employee pictures! But the agency couldn’t afford a professional photographer—the images are low-res and grainy. One employee didn’t bother to wash her hair that day; another is wearing a dirty shirt, another looks like he slept in his suit. One has submitted a baby picture. Sorry, but I’m looking for grown-ups who bathe regularly. Nettoyer.

Site #6: This one looks OK. I think I’ll contact this agency. Oh—in order to do that, I have to fill out a Needs Assessment Form. Fill out this.

Site #7: Oh this is nice. Looks professional. Tres bien. I will write to this agency, and send it some information on my company. But what’s this? No address! Do I want to do business with an agency that doesn’t tell people where it’s located? Non.

Site #8: This one looks good. But look at all this copy. Pages and pages of copy, all written by a PR person, who says everything and nothing and who wants to fully enlighten me on the elements of successful marketing. What’s with all this ‘outside the box’ and ‘synergy’ stuff? Au revoir.

Get the picture? If a company is in the business of supplying perfection for clients, and if said company would never dream of producing promotional material for itself that is anything less than perfect, why would it mess up what is, in this day and age, its most important marketing tool?

The same applies to other companies who should know better. The sites for many PR firms don’t include client lists. Photographers either don’t put any work on their sites, or they include every shot they’ve ever taken. Graphic designers often use so much visual gunk that you forget why you went to the site in the first place. And a lot of sites for web designers painfully illustrate that they are not, in fact, designers.

The problem, it seems to me, is that many people still haven’t wrapped their heads around what websites are for. Websites (e-comm sites excluded) are meant to put out, to a worldwide audience, the facts about a company and its activities. They are marketing tools and should, therefore, be clear, concise and easily accessible. And as I head back for another round of surfing, I’m wishing that people would quit with the bells and whistles, think about what their visitors actually want, and just get to the point already.


On the Value of Advertising

Blitz Magazine, March 2000

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As soon as the first issue of Blitz came out, back in 1997, I started getting calls asking, “Do you know what the Canadian advertising industry is worth, or do you know anyone who does?” Ever the professional, my response was always “Nope”.

Now we know. The Institute of Canadian Advertising finally had KPMG conduct a study (based on 1997 stats). The results surprised everyone, including industry insiders.

The study reports absolute expenditures of $14.5 billion. This is over 1% of Canada’s GDP and comes from industries and organizations that use advertising, the companies that create it, the media that carry it, and related industries.

As Institute of Canadian Advertising president Rupert Brendon notes: “This is a lot of money circulating through the economy, especially when you add the multiplier effect that kicks in as advertising helps businesses grow.”

The advertising sector accounts for 212,000 jobs, or 1.7% of all jobs in Canada—139,000 in direct employment, 73,000 in related services. The value-added to the Canadian economy is $11.4 billion—$7.5 billion in employment income and $3.9 billion in business income (direct and indirect). This is greater than the financial contribution from such sectors as insurance, real estate, accounting and legal services.

“It also matters where the money goes,” says Brendon. “For a lot of Canadian industry, a high proportion of the money leaks off-shore. In the advertising sector, 80% stays at home. Advertising is a driving force in the economy. This news, from respected and independent sources, shows that advertising is far more significant and positive than some detractors would have us believe.”

Note the qualifier. It’s funny how people in the ad biz are always on the defensive, apologetic for a whiff of shadiness hovering over their industry—the perception that there’s something low-rent about the business.

At a school reunion a few years ago, I asked someone what had become of a classmate. She replied: “Oh, he did really well at Yale, but then he went into advertising.” You tell someone you’re writing an annual report, they say ‘Oh!’. That you’re working on an ad campaign for toilet paper, they say ‘Oh.’ As if you’ve fallen from the rank of Chief Surgeon to that of Hospital Janitor. 

Advertising is essential—businesses can’t compete, or survive, without it. But it is interesting to note that even those in the industry don’t understand how important it is. You would be astonished if I told you who has told my sales staff that they never advertise and that they rely on word of mouth to generate new business and stay ahead of their competition. These are people whose incomes, and those of their employees, are derived solely from creating or selling advertising and related services. It’s inexplicable. A head-shaker.

Perhaps KPMG should study this perception—that advertising is somehow inferior as a career choice, a communications medium and a business practice. Clarity would be helpful.

 

 

On Advertorial

Blitz Magazine, July 1999

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I’m standing in line behind two women; mid-30s, middle-class. One reaches into her bag and retrieves a magazine article. She presents it to her friend and says: “Look at this article on cellulite-reducing cream. It says it works.” We all look at the paper. The word ‘Advertisement’ does not appear, but it is clearly advertorial. The friend replies: ‘It’s not an article. It’s advertising made to look like editorial. You can never believe that stuff.’

                Most people know the difference between editorial and advertorial. The ploy works with some consumers but most, when they see the telltale conflicting fonts and absence of by-lines etc., know that the piece was written by the firm’s marketing department or agency. A well-designed ad with some creative juice behind it is much more effective, for the simple reason that advertorial has no credibility. If people know you paid for it, they don’t believe it.

                I’m not talking about contract publishing, which is OK because readers know, when they see a show guide or catalogue, that the enclosed editorial is meant to be self-serving. But it disturbs me to see publications which purport to be journalistic in content print glowing pieces about companies which have paid for that editorial, without telling readers that it’s advertising.

                Another, similar, practice has lately been growing at an alarming rate. A publication says to a corporate president or marketing director: ‘You give us your client list and we’ll do a feature on you. We’ll approach all of your suppliers and sell advertising around your story. We’ll supply the writer, or you can write the article yourself. Either way, you’ll have editorial control.’

                I used to write for a company whose business was based on this practice. The parameters were simple: Say nothing negative or controversial. Speak only to the people on the pre-approved list. Send the article to the client. The client will remove anything objectionable.

                There are three reasons why this practice is disturbing. First, the subject sells his supplier list to the publication. Those suppliers are approached by the publication’s sales reps. While the suppliers may not be overtly pressured, they may feel that they’ll insult the client if they don’t advertise. Their marketing budgets are reduced by what it cost to advertise in a vehicle which may be inappropriate for them; they wind up resenting both the client and the publication.

                Secondly, publications involved in this practice lower themselves to a decidedly unattractive level. When a magazine or newspaper slaps its logo and journalistic reputation onto editorial which it has sold, it receives a short-term profit and a long-term loss of respect amongst both advertisers and readers.

                Finally, today’s savvy readers are not fooled by these artificial ‘articles’. The pieces are not read. The ads are not read. The featured subject loses credibility. The publication loses credibility. People do not read publications which they do not find credible. No readers, no revenue.

                There’s a lot of doom and gloom now about the publishing industry. It seems to me that if newspapers and magazines focused on providing readers with useful and accurate information, rather than on generating short-term monetary gain, everybody would be a lot happier.