Michael Donovan’s epic odyssey: from accidental filmmaker to Order of Canada

Michael Donovan’s epic odyssey: from accidental filmmaker to Order of Canada

IF you want to know where today’s vital Atlantic Canadian film industry really began, you could do worse than start on a train travelling through Europe in 1981. If this was an actual movie, we might begin with a close-up of a stack of film cans and then pull back to reveal a tall, thin sleeping man seated beside them.

The sleeping man, who looks a little like a young Canadian actor Colm Feore, was Michael Donovan. Today, you may know Donovan as an Academy Award-winning documentary film producer, a Genie-nominated screenwriter, the executive producer of ground-breaking television series like CODCO and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the creator of a Halifax-based company that became the world’s largest independent provider of children’s television programming and, oh yes, a freshly minted member of the prestigious Order of Canada.

But back then, he was earning his living by … well, sleeping on trains.

He and his brother Paul had done what was almost unprecedented in Atlantic Canada at the time. They’d made a feature film. It was an unlikely satire called South Pacific, 1942, which followed the crew of a Canadian submarine in World War II as they fought the Japanese Imperial Navy.

We’ll come back to the story of how it got made. For now, let’s follow that train.

Michael Donovan was in the midst of a six-month odyssey, train-hopping from European city to city—or, more accurately, from film rights territory to sub-territory—trying to interest foreign distributors in paying to acquire the rights to show South Pacific in theatres there. His goal: two meetings a day in each city he visited. He would show up lugging his 45 kg cans of film, set up in their small screening rooms and play—or try to play—the movie for each would-be customer.

But South Pacific was an impossible sell. Their movie, Michael acknowledges now, was “unwatchable.” So he eventually “began to play a game with myself.” He’d try to figure out the exact moment when his hoped-for buyer would turn off the projector and declare he couldn’t imagine anyone anywhere would ever pay to watch his awful film.

Two things kept him going.

The first was practical. Thanks to a federal program designed to expand international trade and reduce our dependence on the U.S. market, Ottawa was subsidizing expenses for international selling missions like his to the tune of $150 a day. Donovan, who’d only recently completed a post-university year abroad on five dollars a day, knew a thing or two about saving money, including sleeping on trains. So, while he didn’t succeed at selling his film, he earned good money each day just for trying—and sleeping on the train.

The second thing? Donovan had become obsessed with figuring out how he could turn filmmaking fantasy into career reality.

“OK,” he would respond into the silence after his host had shuttered his film and shattered his sale dream, “what kind of film would work for you?” Perhaps surprisingly, “everyone was eager” to describe that kind of film: revenge, soldier of fortune, war games… in short, genre movies.

When he finally returned to Halifax—he had made only one sale, to a West German distributor—Michael sat down with his brother and his partner of the day. “Well,” he began, “the film didn’t sell, but I can tell you what will.” Paul and his partner went away and returned with a plot for a new, commercial genre-based movie. And the rest…

Not quite yet.

A little backstory.

Michael Donovan is an accidental filmmaker. So, in truth, is his brother.

They were the second and third of eight children in an Irish Catholic Nova Scotia family. Michael was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1953. Coming of age in Halifax, Michael dreamed of becoming a doctor. “I wanted to help people.” During university, he landed a part-time brawn-work job in the Victoria General Hospital’s emergency department. Since no one else wanted to work weekend overnights, Michael volunteered for what were inevitably the week’s busiest, craziest shifts.

Although his interest in helping people didn’t wane, he discovered he no longer wanted to be a doctor. He’d become fascinated instead by stories of the social problems that brought most of the patients to the ER in the first place. So he switched from pre-med to politics and then studied law. He spent a year articling at Dalhousie Legal Aid but found it depressing, frustrating. “Nothing was ever solved.”

So he took time off to travel, returning to Halifax still uncertain what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He could go back to law, but not poverty law. Corporate? Or maybe he might return to school, get his MA, become a teacher…

He was still pondering options when his younger brother Paul returned home from England. Paul had originally gone to Dalhousie University to study physics. In his final year, he discovered he needed one arts credit in order to graduate. Michael suggested a film studies elective he’d heard was interesting. That course changed Paul’s life course.

But after graduating from film school in the UK, he too found himself at a future-facing crossroad. Having heard vaguely about a Canadian government tax scheme that would fund feature films as a way to goose the development of a Canadian film industry, he returned to Halifax with a plan. “Why don’t we work together?” he suggested to lawyer-brother Michael. “I’ll make the films and you do the business.”

And so it began. Michael figured out how the tax program worked—high-income earners like doctors, lawyers, accountants and others could deduct 100 per cent of their investment in Canadian feature films from their taxable income—and raised $300,000 to make South Pacific.

So they made the film and—did I mention?—it was an utter failure. Except as way to learn what might work. That was Siege. It told the story of a night of lawlessness in Halifax in the midst of a police strike. A group of vigilante cops take advantage of the occasion to attack patrons in a gay bar. One escapes, seeks refuge in an apartment and… well, let’s not spoil it.

When Michael and Paul went back to local investors with their new, improved plan, however, they discovered “the landscape had changed.” While Ottawa’s initial tax shelter program had worked—77 Canadian feature films were produced in 1979 compared with just three in 1974—most of them were bad. One review of later-to-be-famous David Cronenberg’s first feature, Shivers, for example, called it “an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it—including the taxpayers… If using public money to produce films like this is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry.” Ouch.

To make matters worse, many financial analysts also derided the generous tax treatment as a loophole, a scam and worse. There were stories in the press. Ottawa drastically scaled back the incentive. So, when Michael and Paul went looking for funding for Siege, the investors they’d originally tapped to make South Pacific took a pass, “most rudely,” remembers Michael.

When the brothers arrived at the office of Bill Ritchie, a prominent Halifax stockbroker who’d been one of the investors in their first movie, they were on the verge of moving to Toronto or abandoning their filmmaking dream altogether. “We mainly went there,” Michael explains today, “to give him the opportunity to say no.”

But Ritchie said yes! He even picked up the phone and called the CEO of one of Canada’s large chartered banks. “I was sitting opposite him when he called,” Michael remembers, “and I could hear the CEO yelling… words like ‘scandal’ and ‘stupid.’” But Ritchie refused to be dissuaded and later convinced another financial institution to back their project.

“I can say as an absolute fact that Salter Street [the film company he and Paul created and named after the street where they then lived above a pornographic bookstore] would not have come into existence if Bill wasn’t willing to take that initial risk,” Michael later told the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

The brothers shot their film in just 10 days for only $250,000. In a review, Canuxploitation: Your Complete Guide to Canadian B-Film, claimed “few Canadian films are as unrelentingly gripping as Siege, a lightning-paced shocker that somehow manages to be both incredibly sleazy and charmingly benevolent at the same time.”

Whatever the movie’s merits, it made money for everyone concerned. When Donovan returned to Europe, he was able to sell foreign rights much more easily because he’d given the distributors a film they could sell to audiences. And that is the real origin story for what is now a thriving film and television industry in Atlantic Canada.

The Donovans’ success, of course, has since inspired generations of savvy filmmakers. Like Marc Almon, a Halifax-based producer Hollywood Reporter called one of the 20 “young stars on the rise” in the Canadian industry. “It’s hard to imagine the success we’ve had without his pioneering work,” Almon says. He had the foresight to understand the importance of raising private capital and using it to help foster innovation and growth.”

The Donovans’ immediate future did not unfold as quickly—or as smoothly—as they’d hoped.

Their original budget for Siege included $100,000 for post-production—editing, effects, sound design, colour work, music, etc.—but they’d overspent shooting their film, leaving just $50,000 for post-production.

Not to worry, said the owner of a Toronto-based post-production facility who had Cape Breton roots. “We’re all family here.” Michael and Paul spent weeks of long nights inside his facility, beavering away, getting the final version just right.

One advantage to working overnight—though they didn’t realize it at the time—was that they had the run of the building. They knew where the keys were kept, and “we knew when the watchman would leave to go the bar.”

That came in handy after the job was done and their former Cape Breton buddy suddenly refused to release the film until they paid him another $50,000. “What about family?” What family? So, in the middle of one night, the brothers slipped into the building, “recovered” their film and made a dash for the border.

They ended up in LA where they learned yet another lesson in Moviemaking Life 101. “Everyone lies, so the goal is to figure how to get to the truth.” They shopped their film to potential American buyers, dropping it off with projectionists and then returning days later to learn the verdict. Luckily, they’d gotten to know some of the projectionists who actually screened the movies for their bosses and received an advance heads-up on what their bosses’ really thought of their movie.

When the brothers showed up for their own meetings with the decision-makers, however, the response they heard often seemed at odds with the enthusiasm the projectionists reported. After a perfunctory “good try,” the potential buyers would pivot and say, Let’s be honest … “Lies always follow that,” Donovan says today. “One hundred per cent.”

“This film doesn’t work,” they’d say, “but don’t worry, we’ll take it off your hands. And really, come to us with your next project. Because we care about you…”

Which gave Donovan the chance to demonstrate just how well he’d learned his Hollywood lesson. “We care about you too,” he would parry. “And that’s why we have to tell you that X has already offered…” The offer from X, of course, was one Donovan had just made up.

“Don’t take that cheque,” the decision-makers would counter. Then they’d do some faux mental calculating and come up with a “generous” offer of their own.

“I’m afraid that’s not enough,” Michael would answer.

“So, how much did they offer?”

“It wouldn’t be right for me to tell you that…”

Michael laughs. “And we ended up walking out with a big cheque.” 

LA was fascinating and fun… until it wasn’t. Which didn’t take long. The film parties were all about hustling, the friendships about making it. LA itself was a boring industrial town. “I was dismayed,” Michael remembers. And he was about to turn 30.

His disaffection came to a head when Michael suddenly realized there wasn’t “a real bookstore” in all of Los Angeles. “I’ve always been a reader; my brother’s a reader.” On a bet, he drew a grid encompassing iconic place LA names like Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica and then wasted a day driving around looking for a bookstore that was not a specialty film bookstore. He couldn’t find one.

While Paul stayed behind, Michael returned to Halifax to try his hand at producing Canadian television instead. He began by trying to identify “the most talented people in the region I could work with.” Quickly zeroing in on the Newfoundland comedy troupe, CODCO, he flew to St. John’s to meet them. They agreed to come up with a sketch comedy TV series; Donovan agreed to pitch it to CBC Toronto.

It didn’t go well. When he met the CBC’s head of scripted TV, the man cut him off before he could begin with an out-of-nowhere question about whether Donovan’s goal was to make art or make money. Taken aback, Donovan finally answered: “Clearly, money.

“‘Get out,’ the man shouted, ‘and don’t come back again’.”

Donovan shakes his head, smiles. “I began to realize this might not happen. The CBC was deeply, crazily political.”

Luckily, a month later, he ended up in a casual conversation with the “absolute head” of the CBC. “He asked me why I wasn’t making shows for CBC.” Donovan told him. “And he said, ‘Come to my office tomorrow’.” Nine months later, CODCO was on the air.

By then, Paul had returned to Halifax, and the brothers rejigged their Salter Street collaboration. Paul would focus on creating movies; Michael would do TV.

What followed, in fact, was close to two decades of creative and commercial ferment.

It didn’t quite work out that way, but it worked out well enough.

Paul made pet-project films like Paint Cans and Conclave, and cult TV series like Lexx, a four-season German Canadian co-production named one of the “25 Greatest Sci-Fi TV shows” in a 2009 SciFiNow poll.

Michael’s CODCO, meanwhile, morphed into This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the long-running weekly news-parody/sketch-comedy/political-ambush/satirical-editorial program that’s now in its 27th season, has won more than 40 major TV and comedy awards and spawned the careers of Rick Mercer, Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones and others.

“We play the role of the fool and we constantly remind ourselves of that,” Michael once explained to the Globe and Mail. “But the fool plays a vital role in the policy of the country, and that role doesn’t diminish over time.”

In 1993, Michael produced Life with Billy, a very different “disturbing, difficult,” fact-based CBC-TV movie about an abused Nova Scotia woman acquitted of murdering her violent husband. It won three Gemini awards. “It was hard to make,” Michael says now. “The politics were difficult, but I’m very proud of that movie.”

In 2002, he teamed up with controversial U.S. filmmaker and political activist Michael Moore to produce the Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine, a provocative dissection of the American gun culture.

Donovan’s response to Columbine’s Oscars’ night moment highlights Donovan’s still sometimes schizophrenic sensibility about what he does and its impact. “I just knew the box office was going to go through the roof,” he told the Globe after hearing the standing ovation at the announcement followed by the boos during Moore’s anti-Bush acceptance speech. And he was right. The film became, at the time, the top-grossing documentary in history, was seen by a million people and made more than $60 million at the box office. And yet… “It didn’t change anything,” he tells me, shaking his head. Americans are still killing each other in greater numbers every day.

Shake Hands with the Devil, his film adaptation of Romeo D’Allaire’s heart-wrenching book about the Rwandan genocide—for which Michael was nominated for a Genie for best adapted screenplay—registered “almost zero” at the box office, he acknowledges. But he is as proud of it as any of his commercial successes. “It’s a universally important story,” he says, and even though it was “just” a film, “it was important to make it as accurate as a film can be.”

There are also small satisfactions in doing what Donovan describes as “the worthwhile.” One of his daughters, who is studying in the U.K. and taking a course on contemporary African issues, called her father recently to say that her professor had announced to the class the best film depiction of the genocide in Rwanda is Shake Hands with the Devil.

“Did you tell him your father made it?” Donovan asked his daughter.

“No.”

He smiles. “Still, it was very, very satisfying to hear.” He pauses, then repeats one of the contradictory mantras he learned back in his South Pacific days: “One shouldn’t make a film with no audience.” Unless…

During his 40-year career, Michael Donovan has found ways to make more than his share of what he calls “worthwhile, or at least entertaining” projects. And to make money in the process. He succeeded creatively and commercially while successfully navigating the always treacherous, shark-infested waters of the entertainment industry.

By the late 1990s, the Canadian film and TV business had morphed again as Salter Street’s competitors became deep-pocketed public companies.

To get the capital they needed to do what they wanted, Salter Street went public in 1998. “It was a point of survival,” he tells me. The problem was that becoming publicly traded made the company vulnerable to a takeover. In 2001, Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis offered $82.3 million to acquire Salter Street. The deal was worth so much, Michael says now, his legal and ethical obligations to his shareholders meant he had no choice but to sell.

Just two years later, Alliance shuttered its Halifax operation. “I was depressed for a few months,” Michael says, but adds he hadn’t really enjoyed his time inside that large corporate culture anyway. “At the earliest opportunity, I started another company.”

This time Paul decided he didn’t want to join him, so Michael founded The Halifax Film Company with Charles Bishop, a former Salter Street executive. One of their first moves was to buy back the rights to Michael’s flagship 22 Minutes franchise and build their new company around it. But build what?

By 2004, Michael was married and a father of young children. “Everything is personal and so you live where your heart is,” he explained at the time. “I could see that what [my kids] were watching on TV was often way too violent, and I thought we can do better, and I got motivated to do so.”

His personal interests combined neatly with the existence of a huge talent pool of world-class Canadian animators—spawned by Canada’s National Film Board animation studio—in search of projects to make. And The Halifax Film Co. soon became home to successful children’s series like Poko, “a stop-motion animation show for young children which deals with simple strategies to help them cope with everyday childhood frustrations and mishaps (while laughing out loud),” and Bo on the Go, “an animated series about a girl and her dragon best friend,” for which Donovan is listed as a co-creator.

In 2006, recognizing the game-changing possibilities of streaming services, especially when it came to evergreen genres like kids’ programming, Donovan merged The Halifax Film Co. with Toronto-based Decode Entertainment—“one of the world’s leading producers and distributors of television programming and interactive content for the children, family and youth markets”—to form DHX Media, and went public again.

Once again, Michael had to become laser focused on shareholder value. “That’s the job that I have, and I work on it as assiduously as I can,” he told a journalist at the time. “If I actually go and engage in the creation of the products, that would distract me from the core job, so I can’t do it. Do I miss it? Yes, at some level. But this is what I’m doing.”

Hold that thought.

The reality is he did the job he did very well. In 2012, DHX gobbled up Cookie Jar Entertainment for $111 million, instantly making it the largest owner of children’s programming in the world. DHX kept grazing and gorging: Family Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Peanuts, Teletubbies, Strawberry Shortcake, Caillou, Inspector Gadget, Arthur, Caillou, Franny’s Feet, George of the Jungle, Yo Gabba Gabba!, the Degrassi franchise…

In 2014, Donovan, who was by then 61, decided the time was ripe to step back from his CEO role to become DHX’s executive chairman— “I work twice as hard for lower pay,” he joked—and focus on big-picture stuff. But four years later with the company trying to climb out from under with a mountain of debt, he returned to the helm. His new mandate this time included nitty-gritty business decision-making—overhauling DHX’s executive team, beefing up its YouTube Network, developing more premium content for streaming services—while overseeing a top-to-bottom strategic review, streamlining operations and reducing debt, including—possibly—by selling the company.

With much of that agenda ticked off, Donovan announced last May he was ready to return to his role as executive chair, and the board launched a search for his successor as CEO. The universe unfolded quickly after that—and not necessarily as Michael would have hoped.

In August 2019, the board named Eric Ellenbogen, the former president of Marvel Enterprises, as DHX’s new CEO. Michael Donovan was suddenly no longer listed as CEO or even executive chair but given the vague title of “founding chair.” Within a month after that, DHX announced it was rebranding its entire enterprise as Wildbrain, taking its new name from its advertising-based video-on-demand business.

A month later, Wildbrain—in what the Halifax Herald called a “surprise but not necessarily unexpected move”—announced that Michael Donovan had “resigned” from the company he had founded and built into an international children’s entertainment behemoth with a vault stocked with 13,000 half-hours of programming, shows seen in 150 countries on 500 broadcasters and streaming platforms with more that 109 million subscribers for its YouTube network of children’s channels and, not to forget, a corporate annual report for 2018-19 that showed $440 million in revenues while “improving our cash flow and strengthening our balance sheet.”

“On behalf of the board,” the company’s new chair said in a blandly revealing/unrevealing goodbye announcement/benediction: “I would like to thank Michael for his many years of leadership and vision as a founder, director and officer of the company. We wish Michael well with his future endeavors.”

And so it was done. But is Michael Donovan?

We agree to meet in a coffee shop near Michael Donovan’s home in south-end Halifax. It is late February, a few months after whatever happened at DHX/Wildbrain happened and a few months before Donovan’s life’s work is to be recognized with his induction into the Order of Canada at a ceremony in Ottawa.

Michael was not sure he wanted to do the interview—he doesn’t do interviews, he says, unless he’s promoting a project—but I used the leverage of his upcoming Order of Canada recognition to convince him it was time to talk about his historic role in the evolution of the Atlantic Canadian film industry.

He agrees but says he won’t talk about how his time at DHX ended. Which is OK because, well, you can probably read between those lines to conclude it wasn’t a gold-watch-and-champagne-celebration moment, and that there may be a dramatic series-worthy storyline lurking under all the corporate bafflegab.

What he will talk about, is happy to discuss, is his future.

He is reinventing himself and ready to “create product.” Again. He has launched a new company called Oakland Road Films, which—as with Salter Street—is named after the street where he lives. And—as happened in the transition from Salter Street to Halifax Film Company—Michael has managed to hang on to the rights to the iconic 22 Minutes. Wildbrain officially sold the show to a company owned by Dana Landry, an original DHX executive who’d served as the company’s CEO during the years Donovan stepped away from its day-to-day operations and remains a Donovan ally. After all the paper-shuffling was shuffled, however, it seems Donovan is once again the show’s executive producer and, with Landry, its co-owner.

Two years ago, Donovan told the Globe and Mail he wanted 22 Minutes to supplant Front Page Challenge—which ran on CBC for 37 years—as the nation’s longest running TV series. “After season 38, we will have a wrap party.”

What will he do between now and 2031? Not kids’ programming. “Been there, done that.” He says he will probably focus on developing political satire programming—still locally and culturally-based but targeted at a global audience.

He wants to keep doing what he describes as those “worthwhile things, or at least entertaining things. Entertaining,” he adds, “is surprisingly satisfying.”

Retirement? He may have just turned 67, but he isn’t doing retirement. “Ever.” Given his chronological time of life, he admits he gets frequent invitations to attend friends’ retirement parties. “I won’t go.”

Instead, “I want to keep working for as long as I can keep on creating things.”

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