Letter to Norstar Entertainment re Invisible Darkness
March 5, 2021
Mr. Peter Simpson
Dear Mr. Simpson:
Re: Invisible Darkness
I have followed the controversy resulting from your decision to make a movie about Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka based on the book Invisible Darkness. As you've probably discovered by now, that old adage that any publicity is good publicity doesn't apply when it comes to this particular case.
Your movie will cause distress to people who have already suffered more than most of us can imagine, a fact not lost on either politicians or the public. That type of disastrous publicity is anything but good, Mr. Simpson, especially for a fledgling company like Norstar Filmed Entertainment that cannot survive without generous handouts from the taxpayer, handouts that over the years will total hundreds of thousands -- or more probably millions -- of dollars.
Norstar has already received government funding for at least three movies, Pale Saints, Regeneration and The Highwayman. Considering your callous comment (that you could "get more money" out of Manitoba and Quebec in you took the movie there) and determination to proceed with this project in spite of political and public opposition, it would be completely inappropriate for your company to be awarded additional public funds for any project, either direct funding or through federal or provincial tax credits. I hope the politicians receiving this letter will take the action necessary to ensure that Norstar does not continue to feed at the public trough, and that you are forced to find funding in the private sector.
In the event that you are not aware of it, a similar, ill-advised decision by Lions Gate Films to turn American Psycho -- one of Bernardo's favourite books -- into a movie, not only met with costly problems during the filming in Ontario, but also set in motion a series of events that have the potential to affect the entire Canadian film industry. The following information probably won't change your mind about proceeding with the movie, but it might be of interest to investors and possibly your insurance company. I started all of these initiatives as a volunteer with Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment (C-CAVE), so please feel free to contact me if you require additional information ([email protected]).
Problems encountered in filming American Psycho in Toronto
The following appeared in articles published in April 2000 when American Psycho was being released to theatres and illustrate just how close the production came to being shut down due to protests.
New York Times
On the morning the [Toronto] Sun article appeared, we were on our way to do a technical survey of our main location, which was to represent the office where Patrick Bateman works. Ten minutes after 9 the producer's cell phone rang with this message: "Don't bother showing up." The Sun article had reported that street protests against the film were being threatened, and the bank that owned the office building was scared of the potential bad publicity. It refused permission, as did all the rest of Toronto's financial institutions.
We were never able to find another office, and ended up shooting the scenes on a sound stage. Over the next two weeks, we fought to preserve the rest of our locations as restaurants and nightclubs began having second thoughts at the prospect of screaming demonstrators. We were nervous enough to take the film's title off the call sheet and parking permits."
The victory party ended quickly, however, when an initial protest over the film's violence came frighteningly close to shutting down production.
Lions Gate soon had a bloody mess on its hands, as the first week's locations -- bank buildings serving as Bateman's Wall Street office -- declined the production access.
"It was like dominoes," says [Michael] Paseornek [Lions Gate Productions president]. "All of a sudden every place our location manager had started to book was calling with whiny little excuses. Our lawyer contacted every person who signed an agreement and said 'We're not letting you out' -- because we would have just had to fold the film." Though the media soon lost interest in C-CAVE's campaign, the picture immediately went over budget: Lions Gate had to build the office set in a week. "You could estimate that all these problems cost us close to $700,000," says Paseornek. "The initial damage was done."
Elm Street Magazine
There were companies that did not want their brands to appear in the movie; a Toronto bank that had agreed to serve as a location backed out. "I ended up having to build the offices where Bateman worked in five days," says production designer Gideon Ponte.
You told reporters that you absolutely want to shoot Invisible Darkness "... in Southern Ontario and Greater Toronto, the petri dish that bred Paul and Karla." However, the film you propose to make, Mr. Simpson, is much more offensive to the public than American Psycho, and it seems entirely possible that you will encounter even worse problems.
Potential problems with insuring Invisible Darkness
As you may be aware, several civil lawsuits are ongoing against entertainment companies in the United States. For example, the family of Frank Tyne, the doomed skipper in the film The Perfect Storm, has filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros., claiming the movie "falsely depicted'' Tyne as "emotionally aloof, reckless, excessively risk-taking, self-absorbed, emasculated, despondent, obsessed and maniacal". The family is seeking undisclosed compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction to stop further distribution of the film.
Another lawsuit seeking damages of $130 million has been filed against 25 entertainment companies by the families of three girls killed in one of the school shootings in Paducah, Kentucky, while the suit against Oliver Stone over the film Natural Born Killers continues. Not surprisingly, these lawsuits have caught the attention of insurance companies.
The Globe and Mail recently ran an article on the topic that seems particularly appropriate to Invisible Darkness:
... broadcasters won't buy a film or program unless it's insured against errors and omissions. E&O, as it's referred to in the trade, has grown into the most catastrophic of the risk categories, particularly in the United States where litigation is ubiquitous and damage rewards are ever greater.
For this reason, E&O premiums are linked not to a production's budget but to the number of people the story may offend. A low-budget docudrama based on real-life incidents is much more of a risk than a $70 million (U.S.) sci-fi spectacle -- unless of course someone else claims to have written the script.
"Film insurance is a very small world, says Dowling. There are only three insurers actively writing in Canada, Fireman's Fund, Chubb and Premier Insurance, a subsidiary of Travellers. "We're all hooked up electronically and we all hear everything."
Hmmm. A low-budget docudrama based on real-life incidents is much more of a risk than a $70 million sci-fi spectacle. I'm no expert, Mr. Simpson, but low-budget docudrama seems like a pretty good description of Invisible Darkness, which brings me to my next point.
Civil lawsuit forum held in Toronto, November 1999
In November 1999, I organized a forum to examine the American strategy of filing civil lawsuits against entertainment companies. Jack Thompson, a Miami attorney who represents the families in the previously-mentioned Paducah lawsuit, came to Toronto to share his knowledge with Canadian lawyers, victims' advocates and activists.
The purpose of the forum was to determine whether Canadians could file similar lawsuits. The legal panel included Tim Danson, lawyer for the Mahaffy and French families, Steven Sofer, a civil litigation lawyer with Toronto law firm Smith, Lyons, Scott Newark, Special Counsel, Office for Victims of Crime, and Jack Thompson. The conclusion reached by these legal experts was that Canadians could, indeed, file this type of lawsuit.
An article in the Toronto Sun reporting on the forum stated:
Lawyer Tim Danson, who represents the families of Paul Bernardo's murder victims, was there too, and ventured that his clients might consider suing the publishers of American Psycho, the horribly violent book found at Bernardo's bedside and said to be his "bible."
"It's something worth pursuing. It's a question of accountability," said Danson.
If it hadn't been for Lions Gate's American Psycho project, I wouldn't have met Jack Thompson, and he wouldn't have brought this lawsuit strategy north of the border. Lions Gate thought they were just making money, but what they actually made was trouble, which brings me to my final point.
Changes to federal tax credit policy
I wrote to Heritage Minister Sheila Copps about Lions Gate applying for federal tax credits for American Psycho which prompted the government to initiate a review of the criteria for productions receiving tax credits. When the changes become law, this could mean some film and television production companies will be prohibited from receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax credits.
Norstar probably won't be getting tax credits from the Ontario government even if you film in this province, plus I wouldn't be surprised if Invisible Darkness inspires a similar review of the criteria for productions receiving Ontario tax credits.
As I said previously, I don't expect this
information to influence you, but it might be of interest to others. Have
a nice day.