The Evolution of Ivan Reitman
By Wyndham Wise
All of the images used below were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection.
(July 19, 2010 – Toronto, Ontario) In exactly two short, hot months, the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival will end and the success of the new permanent home for the now venerable organization will have been judged. The Bell Lightbox, as it is called, could not have happened — at least not in this location — without the support of Ivan Reitman and his family. With this in mind, Contributing Editor Wyndham Wise thought it was time for an in-depth look at the career of one of Hollywood`s most successful producers.
Filmmaking is primarily a business and, when business allows, an art.”
Ivan Reitman, Mclean’s, 1979
“I knew my films were good because the audiences told me.”
Ivan Reitman, Toronto Star 1981
Two billion and counting. And that’s only the domestic gross from the 48 movies Ivan Reitman has either produced or produced and directed over a career spanning 42 years. Two billion dollars buys a lot of respect, and with the fall opening of the Bell Lightbox – the high-rise condo-cum-corporate headquarters for the Toronto International Film Festival Group built on land in Toronto he owns with his twin sisters – Ivan Reitman surely must, finally, feel the love and respect from his notoriously prickly hometown critics.
Forty-two years ago it was a completely different narrative, and one that did not appear headed for such a happy ending, accept, perhaps, in the mind of the man writing the story. Ivan Reitman’s life began October 27, 1946, in the medieval town of Komarno, now in present-day Slovakia. His parents, Klara and Leslie, were prosperous, middle-class Hungarian Jews. Komarno, which is situated on both sides of the Danube River, was literally divided in two after the First World War, the southern half belonging to Hungary and the northern half in the artificially created state of Czechoslovakia.
Klara was rounded up and shipped off to Auschwitz in 1944, while Leslie went on the run, some say fighting with the Czech resistance. He was captured and escaped seven times. Remarkably Klara survived the horrors of the death camp, and Leslie managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. They found each other after the war, returned to Komarno, and gave birth to their first child, Ivan. Leslie was working as a chemist in a factory when, in February 1948, the Communist Party staged a coup in Czechoslovakia, bringing to power the Stalinists. Selling everything they owned, Leslie and Klara made a dramatic escape, hiding Ivan in the bottom of a tugboat bound upriver for Vienna, arriving – via Pier 51 in Halifax – sometime later in the more hospitable environs of Toronto, where Klara had a sister.
Penniless and speaking no English, Leslie found employment briefly as a day labourer at $30 per week and soon had enough capital and connections to buy into a dry-cleaning business on Avenue Road, near Cottingham Street. The young family lived above the shop, and Klara worked as a seamstress. They saved enough to move to a nicer home further north on Avenue Road with Ivan and his sisters, Agi and Susan, who were born in 1953. In 1969, Leslie heard about a partnership available in a successful business called Farb’s Car Wash, located at corner of King Street West and John Street, now in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district. As with the dry-cleaning business, Reitman senior soon owned the business outright and began purchasing property surrounding the site.
His timing could not have been better. At the time a rundown area of Toronto, in 1962 ‘Honest’ Ed Mirvish purchased the Royal Alexandra, a jewel of an Edwardian theatre on King Street West, and was committed to restoring it to its former glory. Not only did Mirvish pour money into the restoration, he developed a series of up-scale restaurants running west on the north side of King towards John. It didn’t take Leslie long to realize that parking cars was more lucrative than washing them, and his property became a fortune-generating parking lot.
Meanwhile, Reitman junior was enjoying all the benefits of a Canadian middle-class life. He attended Oakwood Collegiate Institute, just down the road from the dry-cleaning business, sang in the school choir and learned to play the guitar. He attended summer music camp, and at 15 he formed his own folk music group, The Twin-Tone Four, performing at bar mitzvahs, weddings and coffee houses. Although by his own admission he was not academically inclined, in 1965, he was accepted into the music program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
He became actively involved in campus theatre and film, and for a couple of years was the head of the McMaster Film Board (MFB). His fellow classmates at McMaster read like a who’s who of Canadian comedy – Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Dave Thomas and the magician Doug Henning. In 1968, following a summer course with the National Film Board of Canada, he made a number of shorts, including a 20-minute film about campus life, Orientation, which he was able to sell to the CBC and 20th Century Fox.
The most successful student film ever made in Canada, Orientation was shot for $1,800 using MFB equipment. It’s the story of a freshman during his first week at university, and it earned $15,000 in theatrical rentals, playing ahead of a Dustin Hoffman/Mia Farrow romantic comedy, John and Mary. He was 21 years old. Toronto Telegram film critic Clyde Gilmour wrote in Maclean’s magazine, “an amateur moviemaker has perhaps one chance in 10,000 of doing a student film that is not only acceptable for commercial distribution but also runs for two months and wins audience applause at one of Toronto’s major theatres. But young Ivan Reitman has done it, and he’s only starting.” A promising start, but then the shit hit the fan.
Reitman followed Orientation with the sex farce The Columbus of Sex based on the notorious Victorian sex novel My Secret Life. With former McMaster student John Hofsess directing, the film was produced by Reitman and his friend Dan Goldberg (the “star” of Orientation) in the summer of 1969. Hofsess wanted an artistic film that would push the boundaries of respectability. Reitman and Goldberg anticipated soft-core porn. The film was dual screen – two 16-mm images projected side-by-side. There were two private screenings organized by the MFB, and during the second screening the film was seized by the vice squad. The three were charged with making and showing an obscene film; as producers of this epic, Goldberg and Reitman were convicted, fined $300 each and put on probation for a year. As the director and writer, Hofsess got off on a technicality. It was the first Canadian film to be banned by the Ontario Board of Censors. Eventually Reitman and Goldberg re-cut the footage and sold it to an American distributor. The Columbus of Sex was released in the U.S. under the title My Secret Life. Goldberg later told the original Take One magazine, “It died because the month it opened in New York theatres went hard core. And our movie was really soft. On top of being soft, it was boring.”
Humiliating as this whole episode was for a nice Jewish kid from Toronto – he had to report to his probation officer once a month for six months – it didn’t diminish Reitman’s fierce ambition; however, he would never fully be able to shake it off either. He had to carry the can for The Columbus of Sex debacle for years to come. The high-profile trial, which became a full-blown art-vs.-obscenity controversy, took a year out his young life and as he told Maclean’s magazine in 1970, “I don’t know whether to regard my criminal record as a ‘red badge of courage’ or the ‘scarlet letter’ of filmmaking.”
After a brief internship with Alan King and Associates, running King’s distribution arm out of a tiny office on Yorkville Avenue, Reitman founded New Cinema of Canada, a distribution outfit specializing in art-house films by the likes of Jean Luc Godard and Peter Watkin. But he wanted to make films, not distribute them, and he eventually sold New Cinema to friends. During his year-long obscenity trial, he put together another deal, this time to direct and produce Foxy Lady with money from Cinépix of Montreal and distribution guaranties from Famous Players of Canada, which secured it a theatrical release in Toronto in late 1971.
His next film, Cannibal Girls, which was produced by Goldberg, was shot and re-shot over many months in 1971, and finished in the spring of 1972. It starred future SCTVers Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. Goldberg described it as being a horror spoof about “girls who eat men,” but the financing was the real nightmare. By sheer tenacity, Reitman and Goldberg managed to screen the film in the market place at the Cannes Film Festival and sell it to Sam Arkoff, head of American International Pictures for $50,000, plus a sliding percentage of the profits. One of Arkoff’s associates told Reitman prior to the sale, “Although it’s a piece of shit, I think it will probably make a fortune.” Cannibal Girls was released in Toronto at the Coronet, a grindhouse on Yonge Street, and it eventually earned a gross in excess of $300,000. The review in Variety called it “a mishmash of confusion and a sterling example of complete lack of production know-how.”
Back in Toronto and $100,000 in debt – owing money to friends and relatives and every film lab in town – Reitman took a proper-paying producing job at the newly launched Citytv, which is where he first met Dan Aykroyd. They worked together on a primetime live variety/game-show parody called Greed. However, Reitman’s tenure at City was short lived because station owner Moses Znaimer fired him during his first year; again, a mere bump on the road to prosperity, leading to bigger and better things – and a great deal more unintended controversy.
Before all hell broke lose over his next film, Reitman was approached, while still at Citytv, by Doug Henning. Reitman had directed Henning in the first play he had ever been in, a student production of the musical Li’l Abner. The hippie magician had an idea for a large-scale concert act that would combine magic with rock music. Reitman thought it was a great idea, but Henning already had a producer on board and only wanted him to help raise the money. Meanwhile, John Dunning and André Link of Cinépix in Montreal asked Reitman to come on board to produce a low-budget horror film that the neophyte Toronto director David Cronenberg had pitched them. While Reitman was working with Cronenberg to move the project along, Henning approached him again when his first producer dropped out of the show.
Reitman raised the necessary $40,000 and produced and directed Spellbound, with illusions by Henning, music by Howard Shore and Jennifer Dale as the magician’s assistant. The show opened during the Christmas season at the Royal Alex to positive reviews. Two producers from New York purchased the rights to move it to Broadway in the spring of 1974, with a new storyline and new music, and Reitman was brought along as co-producer. It ran for four-and-a-half years as The Magic Show and was nominated for a Tony Award for best musical. It gave Reitman a foot in the door on Broadway while he was preparing to produce the film that would launch David Cronenberg’s career, originally called Orgy of the Blood Parasites, a title that would be changed to Shivers in Canada and the U.K., Frissons in Quebec and They Came from Within in the U.S.
John Dunning and André Link had been in the business of producing soft-core porn for the Quebec and European markets since their success with Valérie in 1969. Shivers was to be their entry into the U.S. market with the tried-and-true formula of combining sex with violence and horror. Reitman had a relationship with them dating back to Foxy Lady, and at 28 years old, in many was the more experienced director of features than Cronenberg (who was 31 at the time), something he acknowledged later in Cronenberg on Cronenberg. “Ivan was invaluable; he’d been the low-budget route and knew what we had to do, knew the craziness,” he wrote. “And he was very forceful. He was nothing but astonishing, and always knew what he wanted. I wavered at a certain point. He never did. He knew entertainment, commercial filmmaking.”
Shivers was shot over 24 days on the old Expo site in Montreal, in one apartment block, on a budget of $115,000 that rose to $179,00 by the time post-production was complete. Reitman kept Cronenberg focused and held rigorous production meetings after each shooting day to keep the film on schedule and on budget. Of the $179,000, $76,500 came from the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC, now Telefilm Canada), and that’s where the controversy started.
Shivers was released in Montreal in October 1975. Cronenberg arranged a private screening for Robert Fulford, an influential film critic who wrote under the pseudonym Marshall Delaney. Fulford was also the editor of Saturday Night magazine, a venerable institution dating back to 1887, and he had taken a keen interest in Cronenberg’s films from the earliest days when he made the mini-features Stereo and Crimes of the Future fresh out of the University of Toronto. However, the over-the-top gruesome tale of a sexually transmitted disease that literally drove people crazy was simply too much for him, and the cover of the October 1975 edition of Saturday Night screamed “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is — You Paid for It.” Calling Shivers “repulsive” and “sadistic pornography,” Fulford fumed, “The Parasite Murders, written and directed by David Cronenberg and produced by Ivan Reitman, with $70,000 of the Canadian taxpayers’ money, is an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it.” He claimed wrongly, as it turns out, that the film would be a flop and was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Actually, Shivers made a tidy profit, anywhere from $3 million to $5 million in gross revenues depending on the source, and it became the first film in the short history of the CFDC to return its investment in full.
The controversy made the film infamous in Canada and sparked a furious debate in the House of Commons about the wisdom of public funding for the fledgling indigenous film industry. The CFDC took a lot of heat for Shivers and came under intense, unwelcome scrutiny. Fulford called for “a high-level inquiry into the CFDC and its future,” and concluded “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.” Cronenberg was actually asked to leave his rented apartment in Toronto when the landlady read about what he did for a living.
Ivan Reitman, however, came through relatively unscathed. From Dunning and Link’s point of view, Shivers was a huge success and they offered him a more secure working relationship. But the impression in the popular press and the Canadian intelligentsia came to be that Ivan Reitman was a tasteless vulgarian. At the time all this was going down, David Cronenberg protested to Michael Spencer, then head of the CFDC, that “only 100 people read Saturday Night.” To which he replied, “yes, but it’s the wrong 100 people.” Meaning, of course, that Cronenberg and Reitman had managed to offend the very powerful governing culture elite, and it would take decades for the establishment to comfortably embrace them.
National Lampoon’s Lemmings college tour – a “satirical joke-rock mock-concert musical comedy semi-revue theatrical presentation” starring John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Zal Yanovsky (formerly of the Lovin’ Spoonful) and Christopher Guest, directed by Belushi and Chase – passed through Toronto in 1974, and Reitman caught their act at the El Macombo nightclub. Impressed by the talent he saw on stage, he proposed to the show’s producer and National Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons that they make a movie together. Simmons initially turned him down, but his tenacity once again paid off. Three months later Reitman got the go-ahead to produce his own version of the National Lampoon stage show.
This led to a very busy period for Reitman, producing The National Lampoon Show in 1975 starring Belushi, Guest, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, while at the same time producing William Fruet’s Death Weekend, starring Brenda Vaccaro, for Cinépix. This was quickly followed by Cronenberg’s second feature, Rabid (1976), with the notorious porn star Marilyn Chambers (Rietman’s choice according to Cronenberg; he wanted Sissy Spacek, who was hot after her impressive performance in Badlands), Ilsa: The Tigress of Siberia (1977) and the Canada/France co-production Blackout starring Ray Milland (1978; although he only had time to work on the script for that one). It was during this hectic period he was also overseeing the script development for what would become National Lampoon’s Animal House.
At the age of 32 Retiman was on the cusp of Hollywood greatness. He might be regarded as a vulgarian on his home turf, but south of the border he was building a reputation as a hard-working producer to be reckoned with and a visionary showman who had a deep and abiding understanding of his target Baby Boomer audience when it came to comedy, much like his American contemporaries George Lucas and Steven Speilberg did when it came to fantasy adventure. He re-invented the low-budget teen comedy from the 1950s and 1960s and made it mainstream and big budget, and he reaped a fortune. He was able to capitalize on high-concept films with low-IQ content and bawdy humour, dedicated to the proposition that any lazy, wiseass loser could get the pretty girl in the end and be a hero.
Animal House took 15 drafts and two years to come to fruition. The writers were Ramis, a former Playboy joke writer and Second City alumnus from the Chicago branch who would become a mainstay in Reitman’s films, Douglas Kenney, editor-in-chief of the National Lampoon magazine, and National Lampoon contributor Chris Miller. Reitman desperately wanted to direct but was blessed with enough business savvy to realize that his track record, which consisted of three dreadful low-budget exploitation films now six years old, was not enough to impress the suits at Universal who agreed to pick up the film for distribution. So John Landis was hired based on his work on Kentucky Fried Movie, which was a modest hit in 1977.
It’s unnecessary to go on about the success of Animal House upon its release in July 1978; it’s well known and well documented. The film’s ironic, defiant, foul-mouthed, frat-boy humour was just right for its time and it made more money at the box office than any comedy in the history of moviemaking, $141 million worldwide. It made John Bulushi an unlikely movie star, and despite some early negative reviews for its gross-out humour – The Globe and Mail’s Robert Martin called it “gross and tasteless” and Clyde Gilmour called it “nauseating,” referring to Reitman as a “garbage-vendor” – it’s now considered the turning point in the “dumbing down” of American film comedy, ushering in countless imitators. Its status was official confirmed in 2001 when the Library of Congress deemed the film culturally significant and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The success of Animal House gave Reitman the opportunity to take the director’s chair again. He had been developing a summer-camp comedy in tandem with Animal House, with a script by Ramis, his old McMaster buddy Dan Goldberg, Len Blum and Janis Allen. John Dunning and André Link raised the money, $1.6 million, including $200,000 from the CFDC, Goldberg was the producer, and Paramount Pictures purchased the distribution rights. Meatballs, shot in Haliburton, Ontario, and starring Bill Murray – then an unknown movie quantity despite his regular appearances on Saturday Night Live – was released almost exactly one year after Animal House, June 1979. While not doing the same business, it made the tidy sum of $43 million and Reitman could quite justifiably claim by the end of the 1980s, after only 12 years in the business, that he was by far and away the most successful producer/director in the history of Canadian moviemaking.
Not unlike the old Rodney Dangerfield joke, however, Reitman could still get “no respect” in his own country. His success was characterized as rather less of an artist than a businessman; a laudable distinction in the U.S., but a sign of spiritual bankruptcy in Canada. Interviewed at the time by the radio talk-show host Larry Solway, he was questioned once again about the type of films he made, referring back to the Columbus of Sex and Shivers controversies. Bristling, Reitman shot back that he was in the business of making films that made money – a very un-Canadian notion. He told Ron Base of the Toronto Star in 1981, “I think I’ve always had a better perspective than critics. I realize that most of them don’t know what they’re taking about. Even when the reviews are good, I take it with a grain of salt. Shivers, for its money, was one of the best horror films ever made. I knew my films were good because the audiences told me.”
Needless to say, shortly after the release of Animal House, he relocated his family – his wife, the French-Canadian actress Genevieve Delor, whom he married in 1976, and son Jason – permanently to Los Angeles to continue his career, which by now was jet-fueled. No longer the target of the slings and arrows of the Canadian press, he could be safely dismissed as an “American” director; a purveyor of low-brow “popcorn movies.” When it came to compiling names for The Film Companion, a 1984 initiative by the TIFFG (then known as the Festival of Festivals) to celebrate 650 Canadian films and filmmakers and edited by noted film historian Peter Morris, Ivan Reitman’s name was notably absent, apparently unworthy of an entry.
Safely ensconced in Hollywood, there was no turning back. He oversaw the production of the Canadian animated X-rated feature Heavy Metal (1981) and served as executive producer on the ill-fated Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone 3D (1983), but apart from those two films, he ceased to have anything to do with the movie business in Canada for the next 25 years. During those years, 1980 to 2005, he directed/produced 12 features and served as producer or executive producer on 13 others, establishing himself as Hollywood’s top dog when it came to churning out popular comedies.
It’s perhaps fitting that his American successes are listed here not by their critical acclaim — or lack thereof — but by their box office receipts, which is more in keeping with Reitman’s business-like approach to filmmaking (all figures are in U.S. funds and based on domestic grosses, which includes Canada): Stripes, $85 million; Ghostbusters, $239m (the highest-grossing comedy of all time until Home Alone); Twins, $112m; Ghostbusters II, $112m; Kindergarten Cop, $91m; Beethoven, $57m; Beethoven’s 2nd, $53m; Dave, $63m; Space Jam, $90m; Six Days, Seven Nights, $74m; Road Trip, $69m; and Old School, $76m. Of course there were the misses — Big Shots, $3m; Feds, $4m; EuroTrip, $17m — but the hit-to-miss ratio for Reitman is as good as, if not better, than any other producer working in Hollywood today.
Stripes, released in 1981, and Ghostbusters, released in 1984, were both made for Columbia Pictures, but with Legal Eagles, released in 1986, he began to produce under his own banner, Northern Lights Entertainment, a company he formed with Daniel Goldberg, Joe Medjuck, a former University of Toronto film professor, who also served as an associate producer on Stripes and Ghostbusters, and American graphic artist and former art director at National Lampoon magazine, Michael C. Gross, who created the signature Ghostbusters logo. In 1998, Reitman joined forces with producer/entertainment lawyer Tom Pollock, formerly with MCA, to form the Montecito Picture Company. Apart from producing one of Reitman’s least successful films as a director, 2006’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend (and also, for the record, Atom Egoyan’s 2010 box office flop, Chloe), Montecito is the company behind such hits as Disturbia ($80 million), I Love You, Man ($71 million), and more recently, his son Jason’s Up in the Air ($84 million).
The long-awaited rehabilitation of Reitman’s reputation in Canada began with the turn of the century. As early as 2002, Ivan and his sisters were in discussion with the Toronto International Film Festival Group about a joint venture with the Daniels Corporation to transform the family parking lot into a condo tower, five stories of which would serve as the headquarters for TIFF. In 2005, he acted as executive producer on Trailer Park Boys: The Movie and made a personal appearance at TIFF, promoting the film and talking up his new business venture. In 2007 he was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame, and in 2009, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, “for his contributions as a director and producer, and for his promotion of the Canadian film and television industries.”
After much hand-wringing and financial hassles during its fund-raising stage, the Bell Lightbox triumphantly opens for business at the corner of John Street and Ivan Reitman Square (just north of King Street West) in September, and Reitman’s contribution to Canadian cinema is set firmly in stone — concrete, glass and steel. His youthful transgressions have been washed clean, if not entirely forgotten, and the evolution of Ivan Reitman from “tasteless” vulgarian to honoured patron of the cinematic arts is now complete.
Wyndham Wise has been writing about Canadian film for more than 40 years.