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Ernest Shipman

(b. December 31, 1969 Gloucester Township, Ontario - d. August 7, 1931 New York City, New York)

It is difficult to decide whether Ernest Shipman was a rogue or a genius. Perhaps like all great entrepreneurs he was a little of both. A typical example of the kind of opportunistic promoter who flourished in North America in the late nineteenth century, he went through two fortunes and five wives during the course of his chequered career. Nell Shipman, the fourth Mrs. Shipman and herself a talented producer, actor, director and writer, described him affectionately: “Men like Ernie Shipman made the nineties gay. A vanished breed. He had the bounce of a rubber ball, the buoyance of a balloon… He was one of the great cocksmen of his time, not immoral but amoral, not lascivious but lusty. If they named him dishonest he was always in the law’s fences contractually and the ten per cent he required of his minion’s wages he considered a fair return for his efforts on their behalf.”

Canada’s most successful film producer during the period of expansion between 1914 and 1922, Shipman was a vocal exponent of an indigenous feature film industry. He was educated at Ryerson, became interested in promotion and publicity and, by 1912, had built a successful career promoting theatrical stock companies, first in Toronto, then in New York City. He became involved in film in California in 1912, initially as a publicist and then as a promoter and representative for independent producers.

It is possible to dismiss him as an opportunist who used the lure of Canadian film production during a period of heightened nationalism to extract money from naive investors in cities across Canada. Indeed, he had a remarkable talent for separating Canadians from their bankrolls. But he did, after all, produce seven feature films in Canada in three years and in achieving this he stands alone. He realized his films had to be seen in the American market if they were to be financial successes, and he paid strict and efficient attention to the marketing and promotion of all of them (with the sole exception of Blue Water, which was never released).

In 1918 he signed a contract with James Oliver Curwood to produce films from his stories that would star Nell. The first was made in Calgary by a Shipman-promoted company, Canadian Photoplays. Titled Back to God’s Country (1919), it was a great success, returning a three-hundred-per-cent profit and becoming the most successful Canadian film of the silent era. On the strength of that success, Shipman set up similar production companies in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Saint John to produce films based on the novels of such Canadian writers as Ralph Connor and Alan Sullivan.

His basic theory – that films should be produced directly in the locations with which they dealt – was faithfully practised on all seven films. “Telling the Truth in Motion Pictures,” he called it. This in itself was something, given the misrepresentations of Canada that were being perpetrated in contemporary Hollywood films. The content of the films was nothing if not Canadian: the life of Bay of Fundy fishermen, the Glengarry lumber industry, Russian immigrants on the prairies and, of course, the adventures of the North-West Mounted Police. What’s more, there was something about his approach to the film industry that seemed rather especially Canadian.

Shipman’s formula was to find a Canadian story, raise money for its production in the locale in which it was set, excite community participation in the production, and promote in-kind assistance in the form of locations, facilities and personnel. The lead actors and technicians, though imported, were often Canadian-born. He spoke many times of repatriating – permanently – the many Canadians working in movies in Hollywood. He prophesied that new Canadian actors and technicians would not have to leave the country to find work in movies, and promised the production of permanent, regional production centres across the country.

For a country in the first flush of discovering its identity as a nation following World War I, Shipman’s words were heady stuff. Investors were ready to believe his prophecies. But then, of course, he had an amazing talent for promotion, especially self-promotion. His advertisements were highly imaginative and visually striking – and Shipman’s name was itself always prominent. But his son, Barry Shipman (who became a Hollywood scriptwriter), recalls that Ernest “was not a businessman.” His penchant was for promoting schemes that remained just on the right side of the law. Out of them, he took his cut, as he did from the theatrical stock companies he managed earlier in his career. Hence the nick-name “Ten Per Cent Ernie,” which stuck with him throughout his life.

Shipman had none of the hunger for power and control that motivated the Adolph Zukors of the film industry. Though he liked money, he lost it almost as quickly as he made it. His methods and peculiar sense of independence were out of date in an industry already falling prey to the thrust for massive centralization that characterized so much of American industrial development. And it was the new tycoons of that industry – Zukor, William Fox, Marcus Loew and Joseph Schneck – who were eventually to force him out into the cold.

Film and video work includes

The Rapids, 1922 (producer)
Blue Water, 1923 (producer)
The Grub Stake, 1923 (producer)

By: Tom McSorley