Big Picture Thinker: William Vince

The Hollywood films and Vancouver legacy of the late film producer William Vince.

Vancouver film industry

The Hollywood films and Vancouver legacy of the late film producer William Vince.

Every Saturday night on a desolate downtown stretch of Vancouver’s Main Street, District 319 casts a ray of light and movie magic. The newly refurbished movie house, just a few rundown, gated storefronts away from the itinerant souls huddled around the Carnegie Community Centre at Hastings Street, still features the Chinese lettering of the Golden Harvest movie theatre – the building’s previous incarnation – on its facade. Its backlit awning glows an ambient rosy red. Through the front windows, where movie posters might generally be displayed, a film can be seen playing on two screens tucked inside the lobby. Outside, speakers broadcast the film’s audio, and passersby stop to watch and listen. “Sometimes we just play music out there. Or we’ll put the news on,” said film producer and District 319’s owner William Vince back in the spring. Vince’s production company, Infinity Features, has offices in the theatre and the building next door at 323 Main Street.

The locale – and the complimentary screenings – are unexpected, perhaps, for one of North America’s most successful independent film studios. But Vince was never a fan of the obvious. “It’s just to make the area feel alive again. It frustrates me that there’s no pride in the area,” he noted, adding that his theatre still had no bars on its windows. “Not having bars is a statement. We’re saying, ‘You can go bust our windows if you want and break in. But we’ll still be here.’ ” I spoke with Vince in April – two months before he died of cancer, on June 21, at age 44. He didn’t mention the disease, which he’d been fighting for a year and a half, in our conversation, and there was no misty-eyed, valedictory tone in the way he talked about past triumphs. Rather, he continually spoke about the future – the next big project, this up-and-coming neighbourhood and the yet-to-be-tapped Canadian talent in the film industry. For two decades, the movie maverick avoided typecasting by producing and financing more than $500-million worth of feature films that run the stylistic gamut, from the broad Ryan Reynolds crowd-pleaser Just Friends to The Snow Walker, an adaptation of a Farley Mowat adventure novel, to Saved, a satire starring Mandy Moore and Jena Malone that generated controversy in the U.S. with its portrayal of Christian teens. Along the way, Vince nabbed an Oscar nomination for best picture with his most successful, both financially and critically, project to date: 2005’s Capote. (The dramatization of Truman Capote’s writing of the true-crime story In Cold Blood also earned Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film’s star, an Oscar for best actor.) As for Infinity’s most recent project, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, it’s now back on track after the death of the film’s star, Heath Ledger, in January. Ultimately, that film will be a tribute to two men gone too soon. “Everyone told me not to do Capote, not to do Saved,” Vince said when we talked about his company’s most recent successes. “The movies I do aren’t conventional.” Ian Caddell, editor of the B.C.-based film magazine Reel West, agrees. “Vince was definitely a risk taker,” says Caddell. “His strength as a businessman and producer was in being someone who believed in his instincts and stuck with them. That’s what has made him one of the more important people on the Canadian scene.” “Bill changed cinema in Western Canada,” adds Tony Pantages, an actor and filmmaker who knew Vince from high school. “He allowed us to be world-recognized, instead of just regional players.” Vince’s appetite for risk was what took him to the Downtown Eastside, with the bright lights of District 319 (originally named Cinema 319) paying homage to the area’s not-so-distant past. For the better part of the previous century, the Downtown Eastside was the city’s main entertainment and shopping district, anchored around the Woodward’s building, Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret and Pantages Theatre (which has been renamed several times since it was built in 1908). But as the city’s downtown core shifted westward, the dynamic, neon-lit concerns that filled the street with families gave way to pawnshops, dive bars and boarded-up entrances. It was midway through this transition that the Golden Harvest opened in 1973 on the edge of a friendlier, livelier version of today’s Chinatown. Living with my grandmother as a 12-year-old in the summer of 1987, I remember snuggling down in the theatre’s dusky interior to savour John Woo’s operatic and bloody crime drama A Better Tomorrow. Though the neighbourhood still had an edge, there wasn’t enough grit back then to keep a family from walking there at night. But the steady diffusion of the local Chinese population, from Chinatown to other parts of the city and its suburbs, helped bring about the theatre’s closing in 1994, contributing to the area’s decline. A dispute between the theatre’s co-owners in Hong Kong and Canada subsequently left the building rundown and almost unsalvageable. In fact, when Vince first inquired about purchasing the theatre, the realtor insisted it was a teardown and tried to prevent him from stepping inside. And when Vince and Pete Valleau, the Infinity project manager who would eventually oversee District 319’s restoration, gained access, they saw what resembled the set of a post-apocalyptic zombie flick. “There was mould on the front of the building, paint was peeling outside, the roof had been leaking,” says Valleau. “Upstairs, light was coming into the manager’s office; grass and mushrooms were growing on the floor.” Undeterred, Vince bought the property for $280,000 in 2004, then worked with his wife, designer Cynthia Miles, and architect Martin Nielsen of Busby Perkins + Will on the renovations, sandblasting the walls, deepening the lobby area and converting the balcony level into office space. The producer estimated he spent $1.7 million on the makeover. “I didn’t do it in a cheap way,” he explained. “You couldn’t just sweep it and throw some carpet on it.” Modelled after the Electric Cinema, a multi-purpose venue in London, the theatre’s current incarnation is a cross between your typical art-house screening room and a high-end steak house. Its lobby features a full-service bar as a centrepiece. Miniature replicas of Qin Dynasty terracotta warriors line a shelf encircling the bar’s counter: a tasteful touch of chinoiserie that acknowledges the space’s past as a screening room for hundreds of kung fu flicks, many of which remain in storage at the theatre. To one side of the reception area, goldfish swim in an aquarium framed in red tile. In the theatre itself are both film and digital projectors, a Dolby THX sound system and 150-plus red club seats – with footrests – that can be carted around to suit the event. Life-size versions of the lobby’s terracotta warriors stand, bottom-lit, on platforms along the outer walls. [pagebreak]

Infinity isn’t the only big name to have taken renewed interest in the Downtown Eastside. Other recent arrivals include the multi-purpose Woodward’s complex, condo marketer Bob Rennie (who’s refurbishing the old Wing Sang Building at 51 East Pender St.), financial bigwig Milton Wong (who’s converting the Chinese Freemasons Building at 1 West Pender St. into a seniors housing complex), and Marc Williams and Alberta-based developer Worthington (who plan to restore the Pantages Theatre at 150 East Hastings St.). And while it has been a challenge to lure moviegoers from tonier areas, District 319 has found itself well used by prominent groups such as the Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee and a long list of community events, including a feel-good awards ceremony hosted by Corner Gas star Gabrielle Miller for Hope in Shadows, a Downtown Eastside photography contest, in October 2007. The original hope, from Vince and others, was that the theatre might help craft a Hollywood ending for the neighbourhood. “To run a business in this area is pretty pioneering, to say the least,” Vince noted. With his passing, that hope lives on – and despite his many accomplishments in the movie business, the success of District 319 could yet prove to be Vince’s greatest achievement. Raised in West Vancouver, where he lived until his death, Vince was anything but a cinephile as a kid. Born severely dyslexic, Vince only learned to read and write through his mother, Elizabeth, a schoolteacher. (Though Elizabeth has already passed away, Vince’s father, Dennis, who was the head of cardiology at Vancouver General Hospital for 22 years, still lives in West Vancouver.) The affliction forced Vince to rely on his instincts and work harder than others – qualities that would define his professional career. Rather than sneaking out of school to attend matinees, he abandoned West Vancouver High before graduation to play major-junior hockey for the Western Hockey League (WHL) then signed on as a minor-league pro with the International Hockey League. Playing alongside NHL legends Mike Vernon and Ron Hextall, Vince was a winger with a scoring touch and an abrasive edge to his play. At one point, Vince was on the Billings Bighorns, a WHL team, with his older brother Robert. Robert recalls taking a stick in his eye from an opposing player during one game. “The next shift, Bill jumped off the bench, took a stick to the guy’s cheek and took out all his teeth,” the older Vince says. “He came back to me and said, ‘Sorry, Bob, I missed.’ It was going to be an eye-for-an-eye thing. What defined Bill was his warrior spirit.” When we toured his theatre back in April, the producer limped about on a wonky ankle, which I assumed to be a sports injury; it was only later that I learned that his sarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer of the connective tissue, had started with his leg. As he talked, he leaned forward on a raised platform area at the back of the theatre’s screening room, fingers jabbing the air, while a DVD copy of Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American played onscreen. With his clean-shaven head and small, stubby nose, it was easy to see the terrier Vince had been on ice. “Some people would say he was a bull in the china shop,” recalls Bill Sheppard, a long-time collaborator and another high-school friend of Vince’s. “But he was also super sweet and very generous.” After his NHL dreams ended with a blown knee, Vince briefly sold Xerox machines before being introduced to the movie-producing business by Robert, who had left hockey earlier and had entered the film industry through a girlfriend’s producer father. It was 1992 and the brothers were 29 and 31, respectively, when they released their first feature, Café Romeo – a locally made mob comedy costing $1.5 million. “Corey Feldman was supposed to be in it,” recalled William. “But two weeks before shooting, he was arrested for drugs and couldn’t cross the border, so we had to recast it.” Through the first half of the 1990s, the Vince brothers produced a dozen more films under their Keystone Pictures brand, primarily thrillers – including Bulletproof Heart, starring Anthony LaPaglia and Mimi Rogers, and Underworld, with Denis Leary, Joe Mantegna and Traci Lords. “There really wasn’t a film industry when we started,” says Robert about their earliest projects. “We used to literally blow up buildings, do car chases and shoot guns around Vancouver without permits. It was the Wild West of filmmaking.” But it wasn’t until Robert ran into the owner of a basketball-playing golden retriever in a casting agency office that the brothers made their first big splash. Viewing that first video of a dog shooting hoops, William remembered saying to his older brother, “I can’t believe you want to do it. ” At the time the pair weren’t producing family-oriented films, and he felt it was a terrible idea. “But I’ll give Robert that one,” he said about the film that would finance the start of his independent filmmaking career. Produced for just $5 million, Air Bud has since grossed more than $100 million in box-office and DVD receipts and spawned more than a half-dozen sequels and spin-offs. For the most part, the movie business has been kind to fraternal relationships. On the creative side, there are Oscar-winners Joel and Ethan Coen and Matrix creators Larry and Andy Wachowski; on the business end, Miramax co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein. But for the Vince brothers, the success of Air Bud in 1997 drove them apart. Robert was more interested in family films while William hungered after a broader audience. Having a hit also changed the brothers’ working relationship. “When you’re struggling and just trying to survive, you focus on making the company work,” he said. “But success causes conflict, as people’s personalities and their ideas change.” So, shortly after Air Bud, William Vince founded Infinity. Originally, the company was affiliated with Los Angeles-based Infinity Media, a company owned by German businessman Michael Ohoven, who was a co-producer of Capote. The partnership ended in 2006, and in March 2007 Ohoven sued, alleging that he didn’t receive his rightful share of Capote’s profits. (When we talked, Vince declined to comment except to say that the matter was “being settled.”) At Infinity Features, Vince worked, until his death, with another sibling – sister Lyn, the company’s CFO – and producers Rob Merilees and Dave Valleau. This time he kept control. “My producing partners own stakes in certain aspects of our movies. They own stakes in real estate. But I’m the sole proprietor,” he told me. Though he travelled regularly to Los Angeles, Vince preferred being based in Canada. “L.A. is a very difficult place to survive,” he observed. “Living in Canada there’s a lot more flexibility and forgiveness. Not many countries have the opportunities that Canada offers its producers and crews. Lots of people have had chances to get movies made – chances they would never have in the real world.” Vince’s goal for Infinity was for films with cross-border appeal. And according to Erin Haskett, the company’s director of development, it’s Infinity’s international profile that sets it apart from other Canadian film production companies. “While Canada has an excellent system that’s very supportive of emerging talent, it can be tough to get out of the Canadian marketplace,” she says, adding that this is why Infinity has always made films for the world. For example, the company specializes in partnering with Hollywood studios to nurture and produce films at relatively modest budgets, such as Saved, which had a US$5-million budget but earned US$28 million in worldwide DVD sales. “Vince became one of those guys who chases after stuff that a lot of people are nervous about,” notes Reel West’s Ian Caddell. “He worked with directors like Terry Gilliam, for example, who a lot of people were shying away from because his work wasn’t paying off. And nobody thought of Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote.” Owning a chunk of its films also distinguishes Infinity from other production companies working for a fee on big-studio projects. Rather than letting these heavy hitters finance a film’s entire budget, Vince insisted on putting his own money on the line. Of the $7-million budget for Capote, for instance, Vince was at risk financially for $750,000 while leveraging an additional million in tax breaks by filming in Manitoba; MGM funded the remainder. In return, Infinity was able to negotiate a 10 per cent take on the gross up to $1 million. (After that, Infinity still receives a cut, but at a lower percentage.) The film made $28 million in U.S. theatres alone and, in Vince’s estimation, between $100 million and $120 million in worldwide receipts. “If I didn’t take those risks,” he said, “I wouldn’t get the return on my investments.” The same mindset brought him to 319 Main St. “Banks don’t understand film companies,” he said. “It was hard to borrow money against scripts, so I knew that having assets that I could leverage or use for security would be good for the business in the long run.” Despite his growing success in recent years, Vince was never keen to predict box-office champs. “I don’t have expectations for my films because I don’t want to get disappointed. There’s a lot of luck involved, there’s a lot of timing.” Still, as with all his projects, it was his passion and faith in a creative vision that gave him the confidence to take chances. In fact, his biggest creative and financial success, Capote, was also his biggest gamble. [pagebreak]

In 2004, just as the fledgling project was getting underway, another production company, Manhattan-based Killer Films, announced it had a Capote biopic in the works. “Killer Films is a very successful film company. And they wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to stop working on our movie and work on theirs,” recalled Vince, chuckling. “So another of our challenges was to get into production before the other film. Once we were in production, I didn’t think they’d go forward. But they did.” Killer Films’ Capote flick, Infamous, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Sandra Bullock and British actor Toby Jones in the starring role, was released later in 2006 than Capote and grossed a paltry US$1 million. “The reality is that Philip Seymour Hoffman was so good they couldn’t compete.” Critics overwhelmingly agreed. “The mesmerizing performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the celebrated writer dominates every scene,” wrote David Rooney in Variety. “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s precise, uncanny performance as Capote doesn’t imitate the author so much as channel him, as a man whose peculiarities mask great intelligence and deep wounds,” Roger Ebert exclaimed in the Chicago Sun-Times. Others cited the direction of Bennett Miller, who’d never directed a feature film, and the script by Dan Futterman, whose previous film experience was solely as an actor. As for his role as producer on set, Vince joked with me that it was “to listen to everybody complain: how there’s not enough time, not enough money and how you should have done it this way or that way. A producer’s job is to deal with problems, and when you’re spending $40 million, it’s $40-million worth of problems.” But primarily, he said, movie-making is all about finding scripts and people you can believe in. Working on Capote, he took a chance on a green director and a first-time screenwriter. And when Saved lost its original funding two weeks before shooting started, Vince stepped up and relocated the film to Vancouver. “We had just hit an iceberg. I was in a lifeboat, and the voice of Bill Vince was our salvation,” producer Sandy Stern says in the film’s production notes. “He has an entire Vancouver-based operation that seamlessly pulled together the production in record time.” “Bill found people and he really believed in them. I was totally one of those people,” says Bill Sheppard. A sound engineer, Sheppard worked with Vince on most of his later films, including Café Romeo and Capote. It was Vince who encouraged Sheppard to open his own post-production facility in Vancouver and backed him financially when he decided to go through with it. “A lot of people couldn’t figure out why he helped me,” Sheppard recalls. “Post-production isn’t the biggest money-maker, especially when everyone wants to be down in Hollywood. But he always stuck by me.” This same belief in the potential of people, which many friends believe stemmed from his struggle with dyslexia, also shaped Vince’s views on how the Canadian film industry should be funded. While most of his films, including Capote, have received assistance from national funding agencies, he believed such moneys would be better spent developing scriptwriters and directors. In Vince’s opinion, the $2 million or $3 million that Telefilm puts into the budget of a $40-million movie is not substantial enough to affect its outcome. “The infrastructure of developing a script, which takes two to three years, costs about $600,000 to do properly, and that’s where we’re weak,” he said. Many Canadian production companies are content to do service work, handling only the logistical and organizational tasks involved with production and having no creative input. While Vince was sympathetic with the need to create jobs, he lamented the fact that “no one wants to be the creator or the person who puts the package together.” His passion for developing new talent was one reason that Vince supported Intersections, a film and video mentoring program that works with youth, aged 18 to 29, with limited resources and “multiple barriers” (poverty, addiction, homelessness). The program, organized through District 319, pays participants a living wage to learn film and video skills while making a short film, followed by a work placement initiative that provides work experience in the industry. One student even landed a job on the Parnassus set. “Here’s a company that’s putting its own time and resources into working within a community, as opposed to just plugging themselves in and doing business,” says Alanna MacLennan, a project director with Intersections, who works out of the Infinity building. “I think [Vince’s] approach set a precedent.” Working with Infinity has also given MacLennan access to his talented team of film professionals. She says the group Vince has assembled “gave him the confidence and ability to manage the risks.” She adds, “I think that’s an indication of a good producer.” As with Capote, which evolved out of Vince’s faith in Dan Futterman’s script and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s talent, the film producer’s gamble on District 319 was inspired by his vision of the neighbourhood revitalized. “It’s real life. It’s the diversity of Gastown, Chinatown, the city’s original heritage,” said Vince, when asked what fascinated him about the area. Newly obtained liquor licence in hand, his hope was that the theatre would evolve into a trendy option for functions and corporate events. Pete Valleau suggests the screening room will one day be used for film festivals. “Access to talented and creative people is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore was to steelmaking,” wrote University of Toronto professor Richard Florida in his influential 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida argues that cities need to attract artists and bohemians in order to remain economically viable. With its blend of heritage and grit, high ratio of artists per capita and central location, the Downtown Eastside is, Vince fervently believed, fertile ground for just such a shift. With similar optimism, Jessica Chen, the City of Vancouver’s senior planner for the neighbourhood, sees arts-based enterprises such as District 319 as a way to transform Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in a politically sensitive manner. “We all want to see more businesses occupying vacant storefronts and the retention of existing business,” she says. “But it’s important how you do it. We want to welcome the new but without displacing the existing assets and people.” The reopening of District 319 didn’t come without controversy. The local Carnegie Community Centre Association opposed the theatre’s application for a liquor licence. Among the concerns cited in a city council report were “increased sound levels” and the feeling that “big money has bought into the neighbourhood.” New developments such as the proposed restoration of the Pantages – a $26-million undertaking that includes an adjacent residential tower with 136 social housing units – and nearby condo projects might be what the area needs to revitalize itself. But according to Chen, community activists worry that gentrification will deplete the neighbourhood’s low-income housing stock. [pagebreak]

Others insist that talk about the Downtown Eastside as a cultural hub is merely a marketing gimmick for developers hoping to lure bohemian professionals. “One of the persistent realities in redeveloping a ghetto is that programs and initiatives that make the area more attractive for investors make it less affordable for residents,” notes Nicholas Jacob in Fearless, a magazine published by the Downtown Eastside Community Arts Network. “Critics need only reference the experiences of European and North American cities where local residents have been displaced by the rise of the creative class and gentrification.” For Vince, though, it wasn’t an either-or argument; both business and residential have to return to the area. “You can’t just put in low-income housing,” he said. A block down the street from District 319, Solder and Sons, a used bookstore and coffee house, is set to be a key part of a Downtown Eastside comeback. Owner Robert Pedersen ran another bookstore further north on Main Street, in the trendy Little Mountain neighbourhood, until rising rents led him to relocate. And today the literary venture – which hosts experimental music performances on weekends – is among a new crop of small businesses and art galleries opening in the area, including a bike store, Super Champion, next door and the Chapel, a performance space just off Main and East Cordova streets. “I’m really happy about the theatre,” says Pedersen about District 319. “I notice funny little things like valets out there when they have a screening and how the [audience members] don’t look like they usually hang out in this neighbourhood. It’s nice. A neighbourhood shouldn’t just cater to one type of people: there should be a mixture of activities and buildings.” In early 2007, the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibited a selection of local photographer Fred Herzog’s richly hued shots of the city from the 1950s and 1960s – an opportunity for younger Vancouverites to see the city with fresh eyes. Among the most striking photos was a 1950 shot of Hastings Street in its heyday, when well-attired men and women made their way through the street’s neon jungle. The contrast between then and the street’s current condition was both breathtaking and depressing. In fact, it’s that image of Vancouver’s neon-soaked past, says Chen, that has the city planning department working to improve the ambient lighting in the Downtown Eastside, to make it “a more interesting place to hang out.” But it’s a chicken-egg situation, she adds. “Do you bring people in so businesses can open late, or open businesses late so people can come in?” If all goes well, though, the Downtown Eastside may well be heading back to the future – even if District 319 is right now the only festively lit business on the block. True to form, Vince seemed more than happy to be at the forefront of yet another change. “I see huge potential for the theatre,” he said. “I’m very stimulated by the area. I like to be in a neighbourhood as it’s changing, as opposed to coming in because it’s the new place to be.” Sadly, now he won’t be around to see it. When Vince died in June, only a small group of family and associates knew about his struggle with sarcoma. Bill Sheppard recalls getting a phone call from Vince a week before his death. “It was all about work,” he says. “Getting the theatre going, finishing up Parnassus, getting his cellphone back.” We spoke only a few days after Vince’s death and Sheppard was still in shock. “Having him calling me every day, sometimes three times day, pushing me, motivating me to do more – fly down south, go to London, talk to this person,” he says. “I almost don’t know how I’ll go to work tomorrow morning.” “There’s nobody who’s made a movie in Western Canada who’s been nominated for an Academy Award,” says Robert Vince, about his brother’s legacy. “He was better known in L.A. than he was in Vancouver, and he single-handedly affected the lives of thousands of people.” One of Vince’s associates at Infinity, Rob Merrilees, says that while it was too early to decide what changes Infinity will be making in Vince’s absence, District 319 is still part of the plan. “Only Bill would do something like this,” he says. “But he made believers of us all.” For a man who lived such a truncated life, Vince’s impact is both notable and likely enduring. An entire shelf can be filled with DVDs of the 38 movies he’s made, all fulfilled by a creative vision and a belief in the unrecognized talents of others – a vision that continues to shine as brightly as one lone movie house in the middle of a dark, shuttered block.