Innovative and nimble media companies adapt to changes in Canada’s regulatory framework
As co-founder of the Toronto-based kids-TV production company Sinking Ship Entertainment, J.J. Johnson has already weathered more than a decade of tumultuous change in the industry, albeit with the help of a genderless robot and some pint-sized math fans. So what if they’re only the characters on his shows Annedroids and Odd Squad? They’re still bound to be helpful.
Nevertheless, the pace of that change continues to accelerate as new players, new distribution and financing models, and new regulations push content creators and broadcasters out of their comfort zones, thereby increasing uncertainty levels in a business that’s anxious at the best of times. Yet somehow Johnson is not alone in his belief that there have never been more opportunities for Canadians to make the programs that many people – including The Honourable Melanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage – believe the whole world ought to be watching.
“I would say that this is the dream period – no one can be complaining,” Johnson says. “You just have to go out there and push things that people haven’t seen before and be daring. I don’t think this is a time for the meek.”
Even a little optimism can feel like a powerful tonic in these times. Whether their outlook is rosy or bleak, people across the sector would agree that things are far from uneventful. Domestic TV production numbers are on the rise again after declines earlier in the decade. New homegrown shows and co-productions are competing for crews and facilities with American shows attracted by the low loonie, tax credits and other incentives.
Like their TV industry counterparts across the globe, Canadians who want the best outcomes for their shows face a complicated mix of new and familiar factors. Incursions by the American entertainment industry’s two most aggressive new players are having a major impact, with Netflix remarkably busy making alliances north of the border. After partnering with CITY on Between, Discovery on Frontiers and Showcase on Travelers – originally developed in the CFC’s Bell Media Prime Time TV Program – the streaming service virtually guarantees an illustrious year for the CBC thanks to its backing of the Anne of Green Gables revamp, Anne, and Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace.
The introduction of Amazon's Prime Video service in Canada in December 2016 follows the ubiquitous online retailer’s earlier forays into the industry with series like Sinking Ship’s Annedroids. There’s also the continuing proliferation of partnerships between Canadian production teams and American cable networks and other national or global networks (Orphan Black, which begins its fifth and final season on June 10, and was also developed by the CFC's Prime Time TV Program) and Syfy (Dark Matter, Aftermath, Killjoys).
Meanwhile, the impact of cord cutting, declining TV ad revenues and the proliferation of OTT services all continue to complicate matters. Though Rogers and Shaw’s SVOD, Shomi, bit the dust in 2016, Canada’s few major media companies are still trying to develop programming that suits the new reality. BellMedia’s homegrown slate for CraveTV is led by the comedy hit Letterkenny and will soon get another boost with Russell Peters' The Indian Detective, a new small-screen vehicle for the hugely popular comedian. Rogers and Viceland also launched its first scripted production: Nirvanna The Band The Show, a mock-doc comedy series by Can-film enfant terrible Matt Johnson.
Canada’s private broadcasters and the CBC – newly resurgent thanks to a far kinder set of feds – have also benefited from a robust community of production outfits that includes Shaftesbury Films (Murdoch Mysteries, Carmilla), New Metric Media (Letterkenny, What Would Sal Do?), Thunderbird (Kim’s Convenience) and Boat Rocker Media (Orphan Black, Killjoys). Their continued health will be key to the mission of the mission of The Honourable Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly: to re-brand Canada as a “creative country” with a steady flow of high-demand cultural exports. If that sounds like a perennial pipe dream for TV and film producers here, the music-world dominance of Drake, The Weeknd and Justin Bieber suggests it’s not entirely implausible.
New factors are compelling content creators in Canada to shift away from a more traditional mentality about development and pitching. Magnify Digital‘s founder and CEO, Moyra Rodgers is a Vancouver industry veteran who has spent more than a decade helping storytellers optimize their marketing and audience-building strategies. Set to launch in the next six months, ViewerCentric is Magnify’s new interactive system that offers tools to help producers assess their projects and locate their audiences. Rodgers laments the many clients who respond to the question, “Who is your show for?” with: “CTV primetime on Wednesday nights.” As she says, “You can still make a lot of money if you’re successful serving that audience or market, and that’s why it’s hard to change.”
Rodgers likens the state of the Canadian industry to a perennial situation for Wile E. Coyote in countless old Looney Tunes cartoons. “We have one foot on the cliff and we’re leaning forward. We’re leaning out and we don’t really know where that other foot is gonna go. But there’s no going back, even if there are people grabbing onto that scrawny ankle.”
Indeed, the pace of change is not as dramatic as some pundits predicted at the start of the decade. “I’m not seeing such a huge drop-off in cable and satellite that everyone expected,” says Slawko Klymkiw. “I’ve always believed that there’s a certain inertia when it comes to what audiences are prepared to do or not to do in terms of programming their own stuff and making their own choices. So in some ways, the change itself has actually been more modest than you would have predicted because of the changes in technology.”
He notes that one reason for that may be Canada’s unique regulatory framework for the industry, though that will inevitably require its own overhaul due to these new pressures and variables. “The question is how quickly do you want to get to something that’s market-driven, and when do you let go of the policy reins, which essentially you want to hold in order to create and hone Canadian series and businesses? What is the rate of that kind of change so you don’t have chaos?”
New realities of the business are already dictating decisions for large and small media companies alike. “Emerging companies are for the most part are not going to have much investment to begin with, so they’re going to live on their wits’ ends,” notes Klymkiw. “It’s a fundamentally different world than if you tried to start a company 20 years ago. There’s something good about that because it keeps you pretty nimble and reminds you that the most important thing is the creative – it’s gotta be good, right!
Another new change is that productions no longer need the backing of a licensed broadcaster to trigger funding. That reflects content creators’ newer “platform-agnostic” attitude – in the words of producer John Barrack in a recent story by Playback Online on these changes – to the matter of where exactly their shows end up, be it a conventional broadcaster or an OTT service.
Others hope that all this change may prompt a more fundamental reconsideration about public versus private financing for television in Canada. Though J.J. Johnson is certainly grateful for all the public support that Sinking Ship has received, he felt no small amount of pride when a major PBS deal for Odd Squad made his company far less reliant on that system. “We became exactly what this system was designed to do,” he says, “which is to get you to a certain place, to build you so that you are drawing in international resources and can then go even bigger. We want to continue to do that.”
He hopes for a shift in attitude about who should get that precious funding. “What I would hope is that eventually these dollars that exist to support Canadian content do get shifted to new and emerging producers so that they have a shot, too. If you’re an established producer who’s been around for 12+ years and you can’t finance a show now using international dollars or pulling together interesting deals, then you shouldn’t be around anymore."
“The new talent deserves access to these resources and to take risks. Maybe they get extra money because the network knows this is a bigger chance – who knows? But this is the only way we’re going to see new talent and new techniques break into the system.”
Jennings also sees opportunity on that level. “You can shoot content so cheaply now. I couldn’t do that when I started. We were still working on film and big expensive equipment and I needed editing facilities. If you just want to tell a story and get your web series or whatever up, then there are way fewer blocks to you proving yourself than when I started.”
TV’s new innovators and disruptors may be further emboldened by how it’s easier than ever to get Canadian work out into the world, thereby encouraging the “creativity brand” that Minister Joly seeks – and which the world seems to want, too.
As this new landscape takes shape, older questions inevitably arise about how best to facilitate the making of great Canadian TV – and what makes it Canadian in the first place. These questions become more pressing for Canadian creators as the CRTC pursues changes to funding requirements and we near the end of the multi-million-dollar benefits packages that arose out of the media mega-mergers of the last decade. Circumstances grow even murkier when we consider the potentially devastating effects of the unbundling of cable packages – which could lead to an annual $400 million loss for the industry by 2020 according to a report by the Friends of Canadian TV, published before “skinny” packages became available in December – not to mention the perpetual struggle to monetize digital content that exists across the board.
Worries persist, but Christina Jennings (president of Shaftesbury Films and chair of the Canadian Film Centre’s Board of Directors) strikes a note of measured optimism. “On every level, we’re in this huge place of change. Yet content is still king or queen – there’s no question. If you’ve got some good content, people will want it and you’ll figure out it a way to finance it and sell it, too.”
New Metric Media’s Mark Montefiore (an alumni of the 2006 CFC Producers’ Lab) is similarly optimistic, having seen a spike in orders for six- to eight-episode seasons. Despite the demands this places on Canadian producers, he believes it prompts bolder moves, too.
“The challenge is [that] we can spend so much time trying to find a diamond in the rough to have one series but we’ve got to do it three times as much and be able to maintain a real business model,” he notes. “The onus is on you to work harder and find greater, different stuff – and just more of it. The benefit of that is because they need more content, they’re more open to risk – it just doesn’t cost as much.”
“This is an interesting thing that came out of the Can-con and CRTC conversations,” says Montefiore. “While we may not be getting a huge amount of numbers of Canadian audiences watching our shows, it’s offset by non-Canadians watching our shows because they’re getting out there more easily. We can see the numbers for Letterkenny on YouTube and Facebook and see who’s watching and where – our numbers in Australia and the U.S. are insane and we haven’t even made a sale there yet.”
For Jennings, the fundamentals remain the same. “For all the change and all the things going on,” she says, “it just comes down to a good story. And have you got that creative instinct to find that next great story?”
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