Arts & Icons

Stepping out with Canadian film legend James Shavick

Richard Burnett
James Shavick

I recently sat down for a fun—and rare—interview with Montreal native James Shavick who was groomed to inherit the Shavick family business, the high-end department store chain Holt Renfrew before it was bought by the Weston family. It was while attending Concordia University that Shavick (who graduated in 1972) discovered his love for filmmaking and instead became a legendary Canadian film and television producer.

Shavick talked candidly about everybody from French couturier Yves Saint Laurent to his best friend Stacy Keach (of the legendary Keach acting family), playing hardball with Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers to scoring “some weed” for legendary film director John Huston at TIFF, and explained why he—a straight man—bought Canada’s trailblazing LGBTQ television network OUTtv. 
Were you not expected to go into the family business, Holt Renfrew?
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.  
You have made over 200 movies and some 800 hours of network television. You have met or worked with everybody. Is show business a nice 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 drive 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!
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, ‘Fuck 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…
I was very fortunate that when I went to Hollywood 28 years ago, 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?
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?
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?
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!’”
You blazed new trails as president and CEO of OUTtv before Vancouver investment firm Stern Partners bought OUTtv from you in December 2016. You are staying on as a board member and chair of the board. How does a straight man buy an LGBTQ television network in the first place?
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 (Joy MacPhail, former leader of the British Columbia New Democratic Party) 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?
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.
Talk to me about RuPaul…
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.
What kind of viewer mail is OUTtv getting since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States?
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. 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at