Saturday, January 23, 1999

by Greg Quill, Arts Writer
Toronto Star

When Russell Floren was young, he spent his summers exploring Georgian Bay and listening to the old stories about working and living on the Great Lakes. They were stories bound by the parameters of peculiar, land-locked maritime experiences, unique geography and weather conditions. The lore stretched across centuries, separating the ways of fresh-water folk from those of people who live with the sea.
Russell Floren and Andrea Gutsche Andrea Gutsche, Russell Floren and Barbara Chisholm -Toronto Star photo
That summer-time fascination with lakes and rivers- and with the people who ply their trades on them and make their homes on their shores- led almost without Floren’s knowing to his career as a writer, publisher and filmmaker.
With his partners- writer/photographer Andrea Gutsche and writer/editor Barbara Chisholm- Floren runs Lynx Images, a Toronto enterprise that publishes books on Great Lakes’ history and produces high quality, feature-length documentaries to accompany them.
The three partners do all their own researching, writing, editing, filming, marketing and distributing.You may have seen a couple Lynx documentaries on television- Superior: Under the Shadow of the Gods or Enchanted Summers: The Grand Hotels of Muskoka, which was co-written and co-produced by Cameron Taylor.
In bookstores, gift shops and specialty video outlets, you may have come across other Lynx titles- Alone in the Night: Lighthouses of Georgian Bay; Ghosts of the Bay: A Guide to the History of Georgian Bay; or The North Channel an St. Mary’s River, about the north shore of Lake Huron.
As independent publishing/production concerns go, Lynx Images is in a league of its own, producing work of exceptional vitality, originality and quality for a surprisingly large number of readers and viewers who otherwise might never have stumbled upon Canadian history."I think it’s the way we tell it," says Floren, 33. We collect all the stories ourselves, do all our own research, shoot our own pictures, find photographs that have never been published before."There’s something fresh about it because we’re passing on things we’ve just discovered ourselves."
That’s not to say the Lynx titles lack academic weight. In fact, much of the material- in the books, particularly, since the video format is necessarily less exhaustive- is the first on these subjects ever collected and packaged.
These are quite rewarding historical constructs, expertly researched and cross-referenced, annotated and often backed by firsthand accounts, documents and photos retrieved from village archives, farmhouse attics and barns or safe-keeping trunks of long-time Great Lakes’ residents.Self-sufficiency, Chisholm says, is the cornerstone of the trio’s business, which started out at Ryerson

Polytechnic University’s film school as a distribution/promotion operation specializing in short films made by students and independent filmmakers.
Commercial video stores were indifferent to Lynx’s wares, which nonetheless found their way into libraries, film schools and alternative bookstores. When the company switched to distributing only non-theatrical documentaries- perhaps the narrowest of niches in the movie business- Floren noticed they fared better in bookstores than anywhere else. "Canadian films and local history books aren’t found in most bookstores, which are supplied by major distributors of best-selling titles," he says. "We thought if we could package books and videos together, and control the distribution ourselves, placing them in tourist venues and outlets in the areas in which the books and videos are set, we might be on to something." "We had to be in control of our own destiny. We’ll do anything to place and promote our books and videos- by word-of-mouth, at craft shows, via catalogue mailings. If we handed this over to a publisher, we’d get maybe 10 per cent of the profits."Doing things their own way, the Lynx partners have managed to sell 16,000 copies of the Ghosts of the Bay book/video kit (at $50 apiece) and thousands of copies of the Superior package (5,000 in December alone) and of the Georgian Bay lighthouses and Muskoka hotels kits.
American mega-chain Barnes & Noble has sold twice the number of Superior kits in the U.S. as Chapters has in Canada, convincing Floren, Gutsche and Chisholm that even their wildest expectations had been exceeded by the demands of an audience outside Canada.
The company recently signed a deal with the History Channel to produce three full-length documentaries in the next three years- on Ontario’s islands, about the history of Canada’s grand hotels and the third set in Newfoundland.
Floren is a licenced small-craft captain, which enables him to get to places (such as decommissioned lighthouses) in the Great Lakes that are off-limits to commercial boats and ferries. Sometimes, however, he and his partners end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. "We’ve been all over Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and Lake Superior in all kinds of weather," says Gutsche, 34. Russell spent one whole day hanging on to the cowcatcher of the Algoma Central locomotive to shoot a track-level sequence for the Superior video. "And during the lighthouse documentary, we were moored at an island, sleeping on land, when a midnight gale snapped the boat-lines and waves about 15 feet high picked it up.We managed to jump aboard and get the motor’s out-drives down into the water, but only with seconds to spare. We thought we’d lost the boat and we’d be stranded there in a decommissioned lighthouse that no one ever visits."

Film Production, Book Publishing and Distribution
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