Stepping out with a Canadian film legend

Alum James Shavick was an unusual candidate to become one of Canada’s top film and TV producers and head of OUTtv
January 25, 2017
By Richard Burnett

The plan for young Montrealer James Shavick, BA (hist.) 72, LLD 16, was to inherit the Shavick family business, the high-end department store chain Holt Renfrew.

Instead, Shavick discovered his love for filmmaking while attending Concordia. He went on to become a legendary Canadian film and television producer who has worked with some of the biggest names in show business.

James Shavick James Shavick gave a guest lecture at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema on December 5, 2016. | Photo credit: Melodie Le Siege

Shavick has made over 200 movies and some 800 hours of network television, including such number-one American series as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The New Addams Family — as he calls them, “schleppy series.”

Along the way Shavick married Joy MacPhail, former leader of the British Columbia New Democratic Party, and blazed new trails as president and CEO of OUTtv, Canada’s only LGBTQ television channel.

Vancouver investment firm Stern Partners won permission from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to buy OUTtv in late December 2016. Shavick will stay on as a board member and chair of the board. He’s also the founder and president of Shavick Entertainment, based in Vancouver.

Since graduating from Concordia in 1972, Shavick has maintained a strong relationship with his alma mater. The James Shavick Award in Film Programs presents two $5,000 scholarships per year to film students, and Shavick received an honorary degree from Concordia in 2016.

James Shavick James Shavick, BA 72, LLD 16, chair of the board OUTtv, received an honorary degree from Concordia in June 2016 | Photo credit: Concordia University

He also recently returned to the university to be a guest lecturer at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema.

Before Shavick met with the film students in December, he sat down for a lengthy, candid Q&A.

Is it true that you were expected to go into the family business, Holt Renfrew?

James Shavick: “My father [Lenard Shavick] was the president of Holt Renfrew, as was my grandfather before him. We held majority control and I was destined to be the first grandchild to go into the business. People think, ‘Oh my god, his family was involved with Holt Renfrew, he had it easy.’

As a teen I worked summers and holidays. In the store I did everything from working in the garage area to preparing deliveries. At Christmastime, I worked as one of the wrappers on the floor. My father’s attitude was, ‘If you want to be in this business, you got to work at the bottom for a long time.’

Once I left Concordia, my film career got up and running. I had to break the news to my family several times. My parents and grandfather were very angry. Careers are not a straight-on trajectory, so every time I’d stumble, they’d say, ‘See, now why don’t you come into the business?’

I had a father who was a good man but stern. He loved my success but always thought I worked in a hit-or-miss business. Whereas in the retail business, as long as you survive Christmas, you’re fine.

When my grandfather died, in those days inheritance taxes were huge, and they had to pay the inheritance tax. Had I been in the business, I suppose a decision would have been made, does the next generation borrow $6 million and buy control? Holt Renfrew was a public company as well, and is now owned by the Westons, who are doing such an incredible job.”

Then you came to Concordia.

JS: “I was a history major, had taken all the history courses I could, and there was this History of Film course taught by Judith Buckner. She showed us a great movie every single class, like Citizen Kane. I had never seen a lot of these films and it was an eye-opener. I sat there, watched this stuff and went, ‘Wow!’ I fell in love with the movies.

For a kid who was dyslexic in elementary and high school, to be able to tell a story was an accomplishment. I sold my second film, Mundon Barnes of Tibbits Hill, to the CBC, which bought it for more money than it cost me to make. Then I was off!”

Is show business a nice business?

JS: “There is a very famous producer from Toronto, who I will not name. His secretary said to him, ‘Why can’t we work with any nice people in the film business?’ And he looked at her and said, ‘If we had to work with nice people, we’d be out of the business.’

For every mensch, you have five SOBs whose job is to try to put you almost into bankruptcy. They give you a movie, you agree on a star, then suddenly they say, ‘We need a second name.’ There’s another $30,000 you don’t have. Then they say, ‘We’d really like to have a pre-title sequence.’

Their job is to get the best film possible for Showtime, HBO, Fox Family, ABC, all the people I worked with. And the agents used to dive me crazy! Like the late Sue Mengers, who I dealt with many times.”

Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers was even portrayed on Broadway by Bette Midler in I’ll Eat You Last. You can’t drop Sue Mengers name without telling a story!

JS: “I was doing a movie called Final Assignment [released in 1980] and we were looking for a leading lady. I made a million-dollar offer to Jane Fonda and she wasn’t available or didn’t want it. Then we made a million-dollar offer to Faye Dunaway. All these people were represented by Sue Mengers.

Finally we decided instead of having the woman as an American we’ll have her as a Canadian, because in those days one of the two highest-paid actors in a Canadian-made film had to be Canadian. Then we got Michael York and Burgess Meredith, so the female lead was going to be Canadian.

So we went with Genevieve Bujold. But we still ended up paying a million dollars, because Sue said to me, ‘F--k you, you’re starting production in a few days, you already made two offers, I’m not going back there.’

She played me beautifully. Years later we had coffee together and she was laughing hysterically.”

You learned how to swim among the sharks…

JS: “I was very fortunate that when I went to Hollywood 28 years ago this [past] Christmas, I had Stacy Keach as a best friend. On my second or third movie there, Danny Sarnoff became my associate producer on Wishful Thinking [released in 1990]. Danny, it turned out, was from the Sarnoff family [of RCA and NBC fame], and there wasn’t anybody Danny couldn’t get to.”

Did you ever meet Hollywood legend Garry Marshall, who died in 2016?

JS: “I met him twice, and he was more than a mensch. He exuded warmth, he was unbelievable. You couldn’t help but love Garry.

Burgess Meredith was the same way. I did that Genevieve Bujold movie with him, Final Assignment. Burgess is dead now, so I can tell this story: after the film is shot, the Toronto International Film Festival is doing an homage to [director] John Huston. I’m a history student and love film, so I saw a lot of John Huston movies.

Burgess says, ‘My friend John is being honoured, could you bring me some weed?’ I go into the room, it’s a big suite, and at the other end, low lit like a film noir, is John Huston. I could paint that night frame by frame.

It was an extraordinary evening. They told me wonderful stories about making movies.”

Is it true the smaller the star, the bigger the ego?

JS: “No. I think people don’t change, they just get more so. They must have been that way all their lives.”

What do you think of Canadian film crews?

JS: “I have made a number of movies where I had extreme difficulty with a couple of actors. But the crews I always loved. I never had a bad crew. I like to pick a film location based on crew availability. But what really drives movies-of-the-week now are tax credits and costs.

It’s difficult to make films in Toronto and Vancouver right now because they’re busy, so there aren’t a lot of good crews around. As for Montreal, it is a unique location — it is the only city in North America really that can pass for Europe, and the crews here are great.

Montreal and Toronto can also pass for New York, Boston and Philly. Vancouver can’t. I remember Jackie Chan was shooting Rumble in the Bronx in my makeshift Vancouver studio, and I said to him, ‘You’re shooting it here? Every long shot you see the snow-capped mountains!’

He said, ‘We shoot a lot of alleys! If they get in the shot, they get in the shot — people look at my movies for a lot of action!’”

James Shavick James Shavick is pictured with writer Richard Burnett, BA 88. | Photo: Melodie Le Siege

How does a straight man buy an LGBTQ television network?

JS: “With the help of Ken Popert of Pink Triangle Press. Of all the people I have met in the business, he is the real deal and a real friend. We received a phone call that PrideVision was going to go dark, lose their license — a difficult license to get — and it was a [CRTC] must-carry.

I ended up in a room with a bankruptcy judge and the then-owner, and Ken and I were bidding on it. At some point we said, ‘Why are we both doing this? Why litigate and give lawyers tens of thousands of dollars that we could put into programming?’

That’s how I ended up with the network [in 2006]. Ken was the minority partner and I was the majority partner. And Ken wanted to make sure we didn’t turn OUTtv into ‘Gay Lite.’

My wife is a long-time champion of LGBTQ rights and she told me, ‘This is the right thing to do. You’ve made a good deal of money in this business, you’re on the side of the angels here.’

On a personal note, my best friend growing up in Montreal during my college years was gay. And I grew up in a household where there was no difference between gay or straight. Many people who worked for my father in the fashion business were gay, such as Yves St. Laurent, whom I met when he was a young man and slept at our home when he came to Montreal.

It was part of the business. People being gay was just a part of life — a good part of life.”

Do you see the digital world eating up television the way it has newspapers?

JS: “Right now we are beta-testing OUTtv Go, which is basically OUTtv on the internet, and it is currently available to Canadians for $4 per month. It’s the future.

The way cable TV works now is a fraction of subscriber money goes to the actual network, the rest pays for the pipes. It works as long as there are bundles, but as we go to skinny basic — which is mandated by the CRTC — you will see a number of channels go dark. You’re going to see seven or eight channels go dark in the next eight months.

The future is over the top, and it includes Netflix.

Couple of stories: People watch OUTtv because of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is a phenomenon and we’re an early investor in it, so we have it in perpetuity; as long as she is making it, we got it.

The other story: When my mother passed away, her rabbi told me he was a subscriber to OUTtv. I waited a beat and said, ‘Rabbi, you’re a married, conservative guy, you’re not my target audience. I’m thrilled you’re a subscriber, but why?’

And he replied, ‘I’m a voracious watcher of movies and OUTtv has new movies that I can’t watch anywhere else.’”

What kind of viewer mail is OUTtv getting since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States?

JS: “We have received more hate emails since Trump was elected than we have in the last two years. These are dangerous times. We need to embrace and protect our LGBTQ communities.”

What do you hope to get out of your lecture at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema?

JS: “I learn as much if not more from dealing with young people. One of the things you learn, which is forgotten, is the raw excitement of being in the film and television business.

I am now sitting on the other side of the desk, where I can make some people’s dreams come true [with programming on OUTtv] as long as they are about the LGBTQ community.”

How did your time at Concordia help shape you and your career?

JS: “I came in as a history major and was going to be a retailer, and went out a committed filmmaker. I stayed an extra year after I could have graduated because Concordia had really good equipment [an ARRI 35mm BL2 camera and Steenbeck editing machines] and I could make my movies.

I met people who changed my life: [film history professor] Judith Buckner and CBC producer Mark Blandford, who taught a film production course. He took me aside and said, ‘You’re probably the best young producer I have ever met, stop trying to direct and start producing.’

I would be a retired Jewish schmata guy living in Daytona Beach six months of the year if it wasn’t for Concordia.”

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