Can-do attitude: Why Canada’s drama sector looks healthy

Can-do attitude: Why Canada’s drama sector looks healthy

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
June 10, 2016

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT

DQ speaks to broadcasters and producers about the state of the Canadian drama industry and finds a sector in positive mood when it comes to its place in the international market.

Stepping out of the shadow cast by the US, Canada has emerged as a powerful player in TV drama. From Orphan Black and Rookie Blue to Motive and Murdoch Mysteries, series produced in Canada are now on air around the world.

But amid a changing regulatory landscape, what domestic challenges are now facing broadcasters and producers – and what opportunities are they taking advantage of?

“There’s no question the Canadian industry, as is the case worldwide, has undergone a profound transformation due to changes in technology. But the good news is the industry overall is very healthy,” says Tracey Pearce, senior VP of specialty and pay at broadcast group Bell Media.

“We’re spending a lot of time thinking and talking about how TV is alive and well in Canada. Television continues to be very powerful but that’s not to suggest we don’t understand the importance of being in the digital space. We do, but we do ourselves a disservice as an industry by forgetting how powerful television is.”

Christina Jennings
Christina Jennings

Like broadcasters around the world, Bell Media looks to homegrown drama series to help define its channels, from general entertainment CTV (Motive, Saving Hope) to cable channels Space (Orphan Black, pictured top) and Bravo (crime drama 19-2).

But while Bell can enjoy the success that comes from airing some of Canada’s biggest original dramas, Pearce says she recognises the “nervousness” currently found within the production sector.

“That’s understandable given the technological changes worldwide and the new regulatory environment we are now in. People wonder what impact that will have on production,” she explains. “But we are as, if not more, committed to Canadian programming as we look to sharpen up our brands in this ‘pick and pay’ environment. While we recognise it’s always been a challenging production environment for independent producers in Canada, we’re still in it with both feet.”

The new regulations to which Pearce refers came into force on March 1, when TV providers in Canada were forced to introduce ‘skinny’ cable bundles for consumers, priced at C$25 (US$19) or less. This followed a ruling by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) last year that consumers should have a greater choice of – and access to cheaper – cable and satellite packages.

Viewers can now pick and pay for their own channel packages or opt for the basic bundle, which must include broadcast networks CBC, Global and CTV as well as certain regional channels.

As a result, questions are being asked about the future of some Canadian speciality channels and whether, like in the US, smaller networks will begin commissioning original drama in a bid to find their defining series – think AMC and Mad Men – in a bid to stay on the air.

“It’s certainly a changing landscape,” says Melissa Kajpust, head of creative development at pay TV network Super Channel. “We don’t anticipate this will affect our subscribers but it’s a landscape where no one can predict what will happen. Certainly people are going to be looking for good content, and that’s what we’re focused on finding.”

But according to Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO at prodco Shaftesbury, drama producers shouldn’t be worried. “There’s no question that it’s going to affect non-scripted factual and lifestyle producers, and it will also affect those broadcasters – but as drama producers it doesn’t affect us.

“What does affect us is the culmination of several years of consolidation, which means on the drama side we’re now down to just a handful of buyers. The uncertainty when you have so few buyers makes it tougher but, on the plus side, Canada has two new OTT services, Shomi and CraveTV.

Omni Television’s Blood and Water
Omni Television’s Blood and Water

“We’ve only seen one original commission from either (Bell Media-backed Crave’s comedy LetterKenny, which has been renewed for a second season) and it’s early days but, as they build their subscriber bases, we’re hopeful they’re going to become buyers of content.”

Shaftesbury’s slate includes CBC’s long-running crime drama Murdoch Mysteries, Super Channel’s original drama Slasher and period supernatural procedural Houdini & Doyle, a coproduction with the UK’s Big Talk Productions for UK commercial network ITV, Canada’s Global and US network Fox.

“The other slight concern,” Jennings says, “is there are so many channels, so many options, how do you cut through? It helps to have a big brand or comic book, a big star or a big showrunner. We’ve had great luck with (House creator) David Shore joining Houdini & Doyle. David coming on board got the show made, no question. But will everything soon need one of these big auspices to get a commission? Not every project necessarily needs them.”

Breakthrough Entertainment may have found another way. The Toronto-based producer was behind a new adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables, which starred Martin Sheen and aired on YTV in February. But it is another of its productions, Omni Television’s Blood and Water, that proved to be an interesting experiment when it premiered last year.

David Cormican
David Cormican

The eight-part cop drama aired in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Cantonese and featured a cast that was 80% Asian-Canadian. It has now been renewed for a second season of eight half-hour episodes, written by Diane Boehme, Al Kratina, Dan Trotta and Simu Liu.

“Because of the plethora of great dramas, you have to find new ways to cut through,” says Ira Levy, partner and executive producer at Breakthrough. “It starts with a great director or writer and a wonderful script, but the good news is there’s a voracious appetite for drama from around the world. The golden age allows for new models of content because there’s such a demand for stories.”

Of Blood and Water, he adds: “There’s a market of ex-pat Chinese and hundreds of millions of people (around the world) interested in seeing contemporary drama in a language they can relate to. That’s part of our strategic positioning but, first and foremost, it’s a great story that hasn’t been told in this way. You do something not because it’s different but because you believe in the story. If it has other elements that can cut through, that’s just a smart thing to do.”

A glance at the schedules of Canadian broadcasters – both free-to-air and pay TV – shows that US series are still widespread, but there is now a growing belief that homegrown series can go head-to-head with imports.

“They’re a little late but broadcasters are coming around to the idea you can have a pretty good Canadian drama slate now,” says David Cormican, executive VP of business development and production at Don Carmody Television. “So you’re seeing an influx of Canadian dramas taking off, doing multiple seasons and finding US buyers themselves.

“What’s more interesting is the Canadian consumer is watching these programmes without necessarily realising they are Canadian shows. Whereas before we had this negative stigma attached to Canadian dramas, the comment now is, ‘I didn’t realise it was Canadian,’ which we take as a compliment. It’s been tricky for many years because our largest trading partner is immediately to the south.”

Super Channel has, Kajpust notes, raised the bar in terms of its own original drama aspirations, leading to horror series Slasher and Van Helsing, a modern-day take on Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter starring Kelly Overton.

“The US will always influence Canada but it has changed,” she says. “Canadians are watching more Canadian programming and the other broadcasters are commissioning more Canadian series, so it’s a good time for writers and producers.”

But it’s only by partnering with US outlets, such as Chiller for Slasher and Syfy on Van Helsing, that Super Channel is able to do more expensive dramas.

Sci-fi drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix
Sci-fi drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix

Don Carmody is also building its US relationships, most notably with Freeform (formerly ABC Family) fantasy Shadowhunters, which has been renewed for a second season, and science-fiction drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix in partnership with Canada’s City.

Described by Cormican as “Lord of the Flies meets The Walking Dead – but without zombies,” Between is set in a small town where everyone over the age of 21 dies from a mysterious disease. Looking to build its coproduction slate, Netflix came on board after reading the first two scripts, and a second season is due to drop on July 1.

“Netflix was looking to explore this coproduction model and we were the guinea pig, but where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Cormican says. “Both Netflix and City are taking pride and ownership of the project. We have two very strong partners. They’re not always on the same page but we manage to find middle ground that works for everyone.”

Muse Entertainment has also built strong partnerships in the US, leading to its slate of TV movies for Hallmark Channel (including the Aurora Teagarden and Gourmet Detective franchises), Egyptian drama Tut for Spike and The Kennedys for Reelz. A sequel to the latter, called After Camelot, will see Katie Holmes reprise her role as Jackie Kennedy when shooting begins in May. Friends alum Matthew Perry has also been cast as Ted Kennedy.

“Most Canadian consumers are watching American programming most of the time anyway,” CEO Michael Prupas says. “The CBC is focused on doing programming that is distinctively Canadian and, as such, it tends to be a turn-off for most international broadcasters, with Canada not being the hottest girl at the dance.

“CTV and Global are happy and interested in programming sold to the US but they tend to put in the lesser part of the financing, which means the show is American-orientated and the driving force behind it is often the US company.”

Muse is also looking further afield, with projects in Germany and ambitions to work in the UK and France. Shaftesbury, too, is well placed internationally and Jennings says coproductions are now more important than ever to piece together financing.

“When you have fewer buyers in Canada, unless you’re going to pack up your tent and go home, you have to find other ways to raise finances,” she says. “But for many years, we’ve all taken advantage of Canada’s government support, tax credits and the Canadian Media Fund, so Canada took an unreasonable amount of the burden of financing shows. We’re going to start seeing coproductions where more money is brought to the table and Canada is the smaller piece of the puzzle.”

Fellow producer Incendo is also focusing on international coproductions. It’s currently in production on season two of Versailles, the English-language series produced with Capa Drama and Zodiak Fiction for French pay TV network Canal+. The period drama, which airs in Canada on Super Channel and recently debuted on BBC2 in the UK, is set in 1671 and follows France’s King Louis XIV during his first years in power when he made the decision to move his court to Versailles and construct the largest palace in Europe.

It is also developing Ice, in which a suburban woman turns to diamond theft following her divorce, for Bell Media. Writer Katie Ford (Miss Congeniality) is attached.

“I’ve been doing coproductions here and there for 25 years and now, over the past few years, the world has discovered coproduction,” says Incendo president Jean Bureau. “It’s great because minds are opening up to sharing ideas and having discussions on creative issues between two or three producers. When we talked about coproductions 10 years ago, people would freak out. Everybody wanted control. Now it’s very different. We’re competing with the very best productions from around the world, so Canadian producers must create compelling drama if we want broadcast partners to participate. It pushes us to be the best.”

Montréal producer-distributor Attraction Images’ forthcoming projects include crime drama Séquelles (titled McDougall in English), which is based on novels by Johanne Seymour and will air on Series+ in April. Among its other credits is medical drama Au Secours de Béatrice for TVA.

“Broadcasters want fiction because that’s the most addictive programming for viewers,” notes Louise Lantagne, the firm’s VP of fiction. “But here in Québec, they don’t really look for procedurals. They want character-driven stories over multiple seasons. It’s really tough.

“Coproduction in French is also more difficult than in English,” she adds. “In English, it’s organic to coproduce with the US, England or Australia. But here, if we’re not going to work with France, there are no opportunities for coproduction, which makes things difficult.”

However, there may be a solution in the form of rights exploitation. Attraction is producing a French-language version of US series Web Therapy, which starred Lisa Kudrow as a therapist who treats her clients via webcam. And it’s by selling rights to its own original formats, in lieu of coproduction, that the producer hopes to bring in extra income to devote to new series.

“If we’re looking for additional money, coproduction might not be the first option for us,” admits Chrystine Girard, Attraction VP of content rights management and international relations. “But we have dramas that have quality scripts so we can talk to other parties about producing remakes in English or other languages. This is where you can finance additional series, and it’s why I believe there will be more emphasis on exploitation of original content than ever before.”

The challenge going forward, then, is winning commissions from a select number of buyers while building the budgets modern audiences demand to see on screen. Muse’s Prupas admits he’s “nervous about what the future is going to bring. There’s too much supply coming down the pipeline but, at the moment, there’s a lot of demand as well.”

Don Carmody’s Cormican agrees Canadian drama is in a “huge boom cycle,” but warns producers shouldn’t get accustomed to the good life: “You have to practice some restraint and not expect the good times to roll all the time. And we have to be incredibly supportive of our government to ensure we have a strong incentive front.”

As for the broadcasters, Bell Media’s Pearce is just looking for the next Orphan Black: “That show was a huge risk – but what I remind myself is that the next Orphan Black is going to be nothing like Orphan Black. So we have to ask what the next big story is. You feel emboldened by success, and it has energised the Canadian production community to find the next big hit.”

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