The Triumphs and Defeats of the Bronfman Who Carved His Own Path

Monday Sep 19th, 2016



It seems at first a cruel irony that one of the linchpins of Canada's motion picture industry is a man who can hardly move at all. Yet somehow Paul Bronfman, the irrepressible optimist, has not let multiple sclerosis slow him down. 

Bronfman, 59, has battled MS for more than 20 years, and no longer has the use of his arms and legs. He relies on personal assistants to feed him, dress him, blow his nose, drive him and fly him around in his private jet. 

Still, in his corner office at William F. White International Inc., a sprawling former Mattel distribution warehouse in the west end of Toronto that now overflows with lights, generators, high-speed Cinebot cranes and camera cars, Bronfman bubbles over with youthtful enthusiasm, and makes up for his motionless hands with animated facial expressions. 

Separated three years ago from his wife, Bronfman lives in a condo in Toronto's trendy Yorkville district. He speaks excitedly of his new girlfriend, workout routine, recent Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, new hobby - skydiving - and, oh yeah, his company's great good fortune in supplying equipment to Canada's fast-growing film and television industry. 

"White's Vancouver is doing more business this year than White's Toronto," Bronfman says. "We are smoking. And White's Toronto, we have never been this busy."

If you enjoyed the crazy camera angles in Suicide Squad, shot in Toronto, thank White's technocranes. The firm also supplied the cranes and all-terrain camera cars that crews schlepped through Alberta's Bow Valley to film The Revenant. White now employs 330 full-and part-time staff at offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Sudbury and Halifax. To put its size into context, its main competitor, Production Services, employs about 130.

Bronfman, who is also chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, which opened in 2007 in Toronto's port, the continent's biggest purpose-built film studio, was born into a storied Canadian business family. His late father Edward and late uncle Peter's Edper Investments controlled $100-billion worth of assets at one point, including the Montreal Canadians and Toronto Blue Jays.

"If your name is Bronfman, it's very difficult not to do well," says competitor Peter Lukas, founder and owner of Showline Studios in Toronto, presently home to the TV show Big Brother.

Still, Paul Bronfman carved his own path, first in rock music, then in a Vancouver film studio, and now in the movie equipment business. He has taken risks and lost money, some of it in his hometown, Montreal. "He blew his brains out in Montreal," Lukas says. "It was a substantial financial loss."

In fact, while Bronfman is philosophical about MS, he is downright bitter when he speaks of Montreal.

"For years we had an office in Montreal. We shut it down in '03. Corruption, bribes, payoffs, threats. A bunch of gangsters ran the studio and equipment business in Montreal. La vie est trop courte (life is too short) to put up with the bullshit in Montreal," he says. "I was born and raised there. Beautiful city, beautiful women, great restaurants, and a shit-ass place to make movies. Terrible. We will not have a grip clamp or a sandbag crossing the Ontario-Quebec border."

Instead, White two years ago invested in Sudbury. Thanks to a 40% provincial tax credit for Canadian content filmed in northern Ontario, plus Northern Ontario Heritage Fund grants, Sudbury has hosted dozens of film and TV shoots in the past few years. 

David Anselmo, a former actor, has opened Northern Ontario Film Studios in a former hockey rink he leases from the City of Sudbury; White, two years ago partnered with Anselmo to open a film equipment house there.

"I see him as a mentor to help us grow the film industry in northern Ontario," Anselmo says. "Paul is always available if we need guidance or help with anything."

Pinewood Toronto, meanwhile, is full and earning money, but not for Bronfman.

"Pinewood is the single worst investment I have made in Comweb (Bronfman's holding company) in 28 years," he says. "Too much money was spent on it. My shares from 2007 today are worth 30 cents on the dollar. With zero returns for nine years. That being said, I am committed to this project's success. I should be committed to an insane asylum."

White, meanwhile, struggles to burnout, not of its thousands of light bulbs, but of staff, given the hectic pace. Film and TV producers have lured away a number of White's younger employees. White has poached staff too, adding key talent as it returns to the film camera rental business, a unit it sold to Panavision in 2004. "We hired the right people," Bronfman says of his new venture.

Bronfman, who sits on four industry boards, says Vancouver's film industry is far ahead of Toronto. He says Ontario must promise not to make any surprise adjustments to its tax credit rate, and loan money to new film studios. 

"Whether he's speaking to a parliamentary committee about the vitality of our domestic product, or to the Premier about the importance of our tax credits, he doesn't pull punches," says Jim Mirkopoulos, whose family owns Cinespace Studios in Toronto and Chicago. 

"He's in remarkably good spirits," Lukas adds. "Being philosophical is the salvation."

Bronfman speaks enthusiastically about his three children, who all work in the film industry in Toronto. He also praises the new women in his life. "I have a girlfriend. I'm very happy. I met a woman. We have connected." He asks his assistant to show me photos of the couple on his mobile phone. He also enjoys his time spent at the Toronto International Film Festival. White hosted a party on the roof of the Bell Lightbox and each year he leads partygoers in an AC/DC song, and this year it was no different. "For Those About to Rock, We Salute You."

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