Bronfman keeps lights on for Ontario's Film Industry
“It’s not like we were expecting you,” the film mogul joked when Kathleen Wynne finally crossed the red carpet unfurled in her honour to begin a tour of the facility.
Bronfman’s eagerness belied the strength of his position. As chairman and CEO of Comweb Group Inc., he oversees a multimillion dollar operation that contributes either equipment, services or studio space to about 60 per cent of all film and television work shot in Canada. This past summer he was inducted into American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and as an academy member will vote on this weekend’s Oscar nominees.
The high tech wares — lights, dollies, off-road cameras — at subsidiary William F. White International Inc.’s Islington-Evans Aves. complex, have been utilized by films like RoboCop and Pacific Rim.
In a political climate that demands fighting against the erosion of jobs, Bronfman, 56, knows Comweb’s 227 employees and its role in Ontario’s billion dollar film and TV production industry are worth underscoring.
“We would like the Ontario government not to touch the tax credits,” he told The Star later, referring to the 2009 film subsidies credited to attract more American productions and which enabled White to move into this $20-million, 338,000 square foot facility in 2010.
“We, the industry, are not asking to go back for handouts; we’re asking to be competitive. I don’t think we should be depending on the government to make our businesses healthy, but you’ve got over 40 American states that are providing incentives.”
The 25 per cent tax credit on all spending hasn’t been threatened, but this reminder visit demonstrates the foresight that’s made Bronfman a player over three decades. After all, he said, some “people just think we rent lights.”
Anyone thinking that, hasn’t been paying attention.
Since establishing Comweb in 1988, the Montreal native has forged a collection of seven related companies.
His first blockbuster effort was a partnership with Hollywood producer Stephen J. Cannell in Vancouver’s North Shore Studios where The X-Files was shot.
His biggest comeback was an investment in Pinewood Toronto Studios which initially floundered as Toronto Filmport Studios during a spending drought, but is now home to big-budget films like Carrie and Total Recall.
His enduring franchise has been William F. White, one of the top three suppliers of production gear and services in North America, with locations in six Canadian cities and a partnership in Budapest.
And battling multiple sclerosis for the last two decades seems only to have motivated him more. Unable now to use his hands or legs, Bronfman relies on assistants and a scooter, but gets on his private jet two weeks a month to meet with employees and clients in L.A. or at regional offices.
“He still works an astonishing amount of hours a day at his company and personally keeping it under control,” said producer Don Carmody, a longtime friend. “He does a 100-minute workout every day, which is really hard, I’ve seen him do it. But he’s the same as he’s always been: driven.”
Bronfman’s explanation is simple: “I am a stubborn, old Jew. I’m not going to let multiple, effing sclerosis beat me.”
The disease has made him a better listener, with “less tolerance for small minded crap,” he said. A rare complaint is about the national lack of accommodation in Canada for people with physical disabilities.
“I can get in anywhere,” he said of the ease of traversing the U.S. which he lauds as the “barometer of accessibility. They have proper bathrooms that are all standardized. The Americans make Canada look like a banana republic. If I was an advocate I would do something; but I’m not; I don’t want to be defined by my MS.”
Bronfman describes himself as “tough, but fair;” a non-conformist who always speaks his mind.
Those close to him see through the brash exterior.
“Paul is, in my opinion, far gentler and more politic,” said Carmody with whom he sits on several industry boards. “He is without fail polite and supportive and positive.”
Eldest son Jonathan concurred: “He might seem to some as though he is intense, or focused, or the businessman Paul, but he’s really just a big softie.”
Given his lineage, Bronfman’s ascent may appear inevitable. Great-uncle Samuel founded Seagram Company. Father Edward was a real estate baron who once owned the Montreal Canadians.
“When I first met him my assumption was — ‘He’s a young rich kid whose gotten this job through connections,” recalled Carmody who initially encountered Bronfman in the ‘70s at Astral Bellevue Pathé (now Astral Media).
“I did everything I could to torment him and he did a great job, despite my unreasonableness. He impressed me then as somebody that was really not interested in being a dilettante.”
The eldest of three boys, Bronfman never wanted any part of his family’s interests. He cut his teeth as a roadie for rock bands, such as, Supertramp and April Wine before joining Astral.
Although his three children are ensconced in the field, they’re not necessarily poised to assume dad’s mantle.
“I want to use him for his experience and his knowledge and what I do for myself is my own prerogative and I’ll carve my own way,” said 25-year-old Jonathan, who works at Prospero Pictures and just launched his own JoBro Film Finance Ltd. “I’m lucky to have him as a pillar and someone to lean on for advice and experience. He’s always a call away.”
Alexandra, 26, did a four-year stint at White before joining Phase 4 Films’ leader-in-training program. “As a kid I idolized this world he had built for himself. It was motivating to me and my brothers. It gave us drive and gave us motivation to find ourselves on our own.”
Youngest Andrew is at film school in New York. Pleased that his offspring have inherited the passion for film, Bronfman hopes they learn from him; even if it’s what not to do, in the case of his own dad.
“My father was a very trusting man and he got used by people,” he explained. “He was far too vulnerable to people’s manipulations; that really hurt me to watch. I used that as an example of how not to be pushed around.”
Comweb couldn’t be better today. Even the declining Canadian dollar is good for business.
“For years, everybody’s been budgeting at par,” said Bronfman. “Now, the American clients are bringing (up the exchange rate). Ten per cent puts us back in the league with New York, Louisiana, Atlanta; they’re our three main competitors.
“The good news is we don’t need it to be healthy financially. Canadian clients are two-thirds of our business; ten years ago it was one-third.”
And this year, the film magnate, whose companies have provided equipment, space or expertise to award winners like Titanic, Chicago and Brokeback Mountain gets to vote for the Oscars, having been inducted into the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences last summer in recognition of his “contributions to theatrical motion pictures.”
“It’s a tribute to his passion and his stature in the industry,” said Helga Stephenson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, of the unique inclusion of a Canadian executive into the U.S. organization.
“Obviously you have the Norman Jewisons and people who have made their lives in Los Angeles, but it’s very rare for somebody who made their life in Canada, but still has a very strong input into the industry.”
Having seen most of the Best Picture nominees long before Academy screening copies arrived, Bronfman is delighted to have a say, even though he didn’t make the ticket lottery to attend this year’s ceremony.
“I’m going to vote for 12 Years a Slave, as gut wrenching as it was,” he said prior to the ballot deadline.
With his core businesses stable and his wealth assured — having realized a big payday two years ago when BCE Inc. paid $3.38 billion for Astral Media of which he was the second-largest shareholder — Bronfman has an eye on the future.
Last year White launched an education and training arm. The company sponsors several college and university film programs and is big on mentoring.
“I want to bring in young people,” he said. “I want to have them have the opportunity to work with our professional managers here, and our great people so we can build the next generation of filmmakers and technicians and cinematographers and directors.
“That’s the legacy I’d like to leave: one of a good name and one of helping young people, because it was done for me. I feel a responsibility to give back to our industry, to make sure we have a strong, healthy industry. The Canadian film industry has been really good to my family.”
He sold 17 per cent of his holdings in 2003, but has no plans to retire or offload more of the business. In the midst of a divorce from his high school sweetheart, Bronfman has left their Forest Hill mansion for a swank downtown condo.
He’s a movie buff, yes, but music, specifically classic rock, is his escape. Carmody, who has attended more than a dozen concerts with Bronfman, loves seeing his friend in the zone; “All he can really move is his head, but it’s moving like mad and he’s singing along and he’s having a good time.”
For the original article, please see the Toronto Star.