The Gatekeepers: Canada’s Original Drama Heads: Playback asksŠ

The art of Canadian drama production....

The art of Canadian drama production.

Even with the input of the new $100 million from the ctcpf, budgets over and above the $1-million-per-episode mark, and the ever increasing number of broadcast windows for Canadian productions, dramatic series stamped Made In Canada are still the most arduous of the program genres to sell and finance, not to mention produce.

How well it’s working is cause for speculation, but the bottom line after year one of the ctcpf is evident if only in the oversubscription tally and the frenetic union crews in the major centers. At the end of the summer there will be more Cancon programming in the offing than ever before. It’s a buyers’ – the broadcasters – market.

With that in mind, Playback went to the heads of original drama production at the six major networks to discuss the evolution of the flagship Canadian product on their 1997/98 schedules. How program strategy has evolved at their respective nets, the best means of reaching new audience, and blue-sky plans for drama production are all fodder for conversation in interviews with Loren Mawhinney, vp Canadian production for CanWest Global; Baton Broadcasting’s vp dramatic programming Bill Mustos; CTV Network’s group vp programming Gary Maavara; Dale Andrews, executive vp for WIC Entertainment; Andre Provencher, vp programming at TVA Network; and the cbc’s Susan Morgan, creative head of dramatic series.

See p. 34 for case studies on Alliance Communications’ Once a Thief (ctv), the Keatley MacLeod Productions and Atlantis Communications coproduction Cold Squad (bbs), Altantis’ Traders (Global), Donkey Kong Country from Nelvana and Medialab of France (wic), the Chris Haddock and Lazlo Barna-produced DaVinci’s Inquest (cbc), and Diva, produced by Productions Sovimage (tva).

* * *

- Bill Mustos

vp dramatic programming, Baton Broadcasting

Cold Squad

A team of police detectives solve Vancouver’s unsolved crimes.

Producers: Keatley MacLeod Productions, Vancouver, and Atlantis Communications, Toronto

Executive producers: Julia Keatley, Matt MacLeod, Anne Marie La Traverse, Seaton McLean.

Playback asks: How did this show come about, was it pitched or sought? If sought, why? If pitched, what made you grab it?

Keatley MacLeod struck up a relationship with Atlantis when the latter distributed the Keatley-produced mow Trust in Me in 1994. Cold Squad captured the interest of Lifetime in the u.s.; Baton came in on development in November 1995. In mid-1996, Lifetime backed out after a change in management, ‘which was good because we weren’t completely in sync with where they wanted to go creatively.’ The series is slated to air on Baton in January 1998.

How d’es it fulfill programming strategy/net branding aspirations? How d’es it stand out from the clutter?

Creatively, it’s a cop show with a twist. It plays to both the new Baton identity, which is mainstream with quirks, and the need to attract an audience skewing slightly younger than the Baton norm. The program offers a bit of the moral gray zone, the aspect of crime solving that is about peeling back the layers rather than solely about the act itself.

What was the degree of creative input from the broadcaster?

High. Involved from the ground up including input into the pilot, helping shape story ideas, reading every draft of every script, participating in casting call of hundreds, hands on with directors and seeing dailies every day.

‘Sometimes you have a debate, but everybody’s after the same thing which is the best product possible.’

Let’s talk money. Did any creativity come into play in dealing with budget constraints/financing competition for the show? What was the scope of your financial involvement?

Budget per episode is $900,000-plus. Negotiations with Telefilm have pushed the series from 13 episodes down to 11. Funding has been reoriented with both Baton and Atlantis putting more in. Baton started out with a piece of equity in the production but now is operating only as the Canadian broadcaster.

The copyright is owned 75% by Keatley MacLeod, 25% by Atlantis. Keatley MacLeod has u.s. distribution rights. Atlantis owns the rest of the world.

How many series did you seriously consider this year – and how many did you pass on? What did the choice of this show eliminate? What are the consequences down the road of picking this one?

Baton seriously considered two other series. Both are still in the running for potential new bbs product, but creatively Cold Squad stood apart.

Also working for it is the longevity factor. With story material based on real unsolved cases, there’s a plethora of product available from across the country giving Cold Squad ‘a built-in regeneration element.’

- Andre Provencher

VP Programming, TVA Network

Diva

An original one-hour drama series (22 episodes) set in the world of high fashion.

Producer: Productions Sovimage, Montreal. The show emerged from a discussion with the producer, Vincent Gabriele, who heard the network was interested in a drama set in the world of fashion. Several of the lead roles feature young women aged 14 to 17, and aggressive show-biz moms pushing them forward.

Playback asks: How did this show come about, was it pitched or sought? If sought, why? If pitched, what made you grab it?

‘In Quebec there are so many models who became actresses – Marina Orsini, Macha Grenon, Linda Malo, Audrey Benoit,’ says Provencher. ‘So what I wanted to do was to offer something to those people who dream of a modeling career and of becoming actresses.’

How d’es it fulfill programming strategy/net branding aspirations? How d’es it stand out from the clutter?

Provencher says the series fulfills the network’s branding strategy in that it is original, modern and audacious.

What was the degree of creative input from the broadcaster?

tva’s contribution to the show in creative terms is considerable, says Provencher.

Firstly, in production terms, he says 22 hours is a new format in this market, apart from lower budget teleromans. Diva will be sold to export by mgc and also serves to break the ‘unique event’ mold.

Let’s talk money. Did any creativity come into play in dealing with budget constraints/financing competition for the show? What was the scope of your financial involvement?

Diva is currently being taped on location on digital videotape. The series represents a relatively new approach in drama production; it’s less costly than ‘la fiction lourde’ in that it is not shot on film, but more expensive than a teleroman. ‘And we will do it for $500,000 instead of $900,000,’ says Provencher.

Funding sources include both tax credits, exporter mgc and Telefilm Canada.

Provencher and his staff had a close look at some 40 drama series proposals for the 1997/98 season. Two are committed, Paparazzi and Diva, with options on three additional series.

How many series did you seriously consider this year – and how many did you pass on? What did the choice of this show eliminate? What are the consequences down the road of picking this one?

Producers have been told that tva wants to develop new approaches to drama. The network specifically wants some mileage from its drama investment, making the 22-hour proposal attractive.

‘High-budget series are really risky in the French market,’ he says, adding that there has been a surplus of $1 million per hour series for a market with a population of only 5.5 million.

And because tva has opted for contemporary drama with Diva, historically based series such as Rosemonde, set at the time of the Acadian deportation, have been pushed back, says Provencher.

- Susan Morgan

Creative head of dramatic series, cbc

DaVinci’s Inquest

A one-hour drama out of Vancouver based on the adventures of a coroner. Will go into production at the end of this year or the beginning of next.

Producers: Vancouver-based producer/creator/writer Chris Haddock and Toronto producer Laszlo Barna.

Playback asks: How did this show come about, was it pitched or sought? If sought, why? If pitched, what made you grab it?

‘We were looking for something that was urban West Coast,’ says Morgan.

A number of proposals were fielded and three were chosen to develop: ‘Everyone knew we would only be able to do one,’ says Morgan. Three scripts were developed for each show, and DaVinci emerged as the best of the best.

How d’es it fulfill programming strategy/net branding aspirations? How d’es it stand out from the clutter?

A pitch-seeking trip to CBC Vancouver was prompted by an acknowledgment that West Coast-originated programming was in short supply, and the network’s strategy has been to represent the country as a whole. With the Canadianization of the schedule, a new drama series was needed.

What was the degree of creative input from the broadcaster?

‘Creatively we are typically very involved and we certainly were with this particular contract,’ says Morgan.

Scripts were developed and submitted, followed by meetings between the network and the show’s creators, with critical feedback from the cbc. Much ‘talking, arguing, agreeing and laughing’ ensued, followed by the writers undertaking a second draft, and so onŠ.

Let’s talk money. Did any creativity come into play in dealing with budget constraints/financing competition for the show? What was the scope of your financial involvement?

‘On any major production today the people putting financing and contracts together have to be very creative.’

How many series did you seriously consider this year – and how many did you pass on? What did the choice of this show eliminate? What are the consequences down the road of picking this one?

In the past two years the network fielded 150 proposals annually. Morgan gathers with other execs and the group pitches properties they have read. The ratio of series in development to those produced is about one to five. ‘Now it’s probably not the development hell it might have been before when there were many more projects in development,’ says Morgan.

The network has instituted a training program, run by Richard Rogers, for newer producers, writers and directors.

- Loren Mawhinney

vp Canadian production, CanWest Global System

Traders

Behind the deals exploits in the commercial corridors of stock market trading in Canada.

Producer: Atlantis

Executive producers: Alyson Feltes, Seaton McLean; co-executive producer Hart Hanson. ‘Rogers had just gone public, a lot of production companies had just gone public. We thought this was an interesting world so we asked a number of people to give us pitches and we liked Atlantis’ the best.

Playback asks: How did this show come about, was it pitched or sought? If sought, why? If pitched, what made you grab it?

‘More people are following the stock market and equity funds than ever before, and with Bre-X happening it’s just become a lot more sexy to be involved in this world than it used to be.’

How d’es it fulfill programming strategy/net branding aspirations? How d’es it stand out from the clutter?

‘It’s a high-quality, edgy show. We think it’s a very unusual show; it’s got an interesting look, a lot of moving cameras, nice editing, a terrific cast – I think our cast is going to go on and do really wonderful things when our run is finished.’

What was the degree of creative input from the broadcaster?

‘It’s a give and take. Generally, once you’ve agreed on the basic parameters, you have to let the creative producer run with it and then come back to you with something they are passionate about and hopefully you’ll just buy into their vision, because you can’t be all over them every step of the way.’

But, ‘we are not a passive broadcaster. We go over every script and every rough cut.’

Let’s talk money. Did any creativity come into play in dealing with budget constraints/financing competition for the show? What was the scope of your financial involvement?

‘Sublicensing to the cbc enabled us to raise our licence fee which allowed the producers to go from a six-day to seven-day shoot. We had to make sure the quality stayed high and went higher if possible, so that’s a way it was possible to do that. The producers also put up their own distribution advance, a generous one.’

Mawhinney describes Global’s involvement as ‘substantial.’ There’s flagship sponsorship from Cooperators Insurance – Direct Protect.

How many series did you seriously consider this year – and how many did you pass on? What did the choice of this show eliminate? What are the consequences down the road of picking this one?

Mawhinney says when a really good show is pitched, Global tries to do a development deal so that when it’s ordered it can go right into production. It also ‘ties up the producer so they don’t want to go elsewhere, you want to keep good talent associated with you.’

- Dale Andrews

Executive vp, WIC Entertainment

Donkey Kong Country

A 26 half-hour, 3D animated series about the antics of Donkey Kong characters debuts on teletoon in September

Producers: Toronto’s Nelvana and France’s Medialab in association with wic Donkey Kong was originally brought to wic at MIP-TV ’94 and concluded at MIP ’96, with wic sharing ownership with Medialab and Nelvana.

Playback asks: How did this show come about, was it pitched or sought? If sought, why? If pitched, what made you grab it?

Donkey Kong was originally brought to wic at MIP-TV ’94 and concluded at MIP ’96, with wic sharing ownership with Medialab and Nelvana.

Selling points: a world-recognized franchise property (from the $500 million in global game sales), new 3D technology and fits wic’s strategy to engage international partners.

‘This is a strategic move. We’re getting more involved in international coproductions.’

How d’es it fulfill programming strategy/net branding aspirations? How d’es it stand out from the clutter?

Andrews says the series gets wic involved with international coproductions, fulfills Canadian content needs and fits a variety of broadcast windows: specialties, over-the air.

‘We’ve grown dramatically in the past five years,’ he says. ‘And with the competition from Global and Baton, it’s important to have wic-branded product. We’re much more than a Western Canadian presence.’

What was the degree of creative input from the broadcaster?

According to Andrews, wic’s creative input was minor. ‘With the right producers, we’re hands off.’

Let’s talk money. Did any creativity come into play in dealing with budget constraints/financing competition for the show? What was the scope of your financial involvement?

The first season is an expensive $15.6 million. wic is a minority partner with Canadian rights and an investment in world rights. ‘Canadian drama is one of the leading sales generators in the international market,’ says Andrews. The only financial challenge, he says, was to figure how to split up the pie.

How many series did you seriously consider this year – and how many did you pass on? What did the choice of this show eliminate? What are the consequences down the road of picking this one?

It wasn’t a matter of choosing Donkey Kong over another project, says Andrews. ‘We are material driven, licensing and investing in shows that will attract an audience [rather than just fill a time slot]. We’re constantly looking for opportunities.’

- Gary Maavara

Group vp, programming, CTV Television Network

Arthur Weinthal

Group vp, creative director, ctv

Once a Thief

Young, smart, cool. International crime meets a triple threat triumvirate that forms an elite law enforcement agency to battle threats too powerful, protected, or unique for regular cops.

Producer: Alliance Communications

Executive producers: John Woo, Terence Chang, Glenn Davis, William Laurin; director: John Woo

Playback asks: How did this show come about, was it pitched or sought? If sought, why? If pitched, what made you grab it?

Weinthal: ‘Alliance made a deal on this one to do a pilot with CanWest Global. Sometime after the pilot was shot and its disposition was known, particularly in the United States, the deal with CanWest Global came undone.

‘Alliance approached us and asked us then if we were interested. I looked at the pilot and examined what the prognosis was for this particular kind of show and decided that it looked good.

‘It’s good action-adventure, it’s got good personality, young people in it. It has sold very, very substantially all around the world and it’s also in the u.s. now.’

How d’es it fulfill programming strategy/net branding aspirations? How d’es it stand out from the clutter?

Maavara: ‘Once A Thief is an excellent program. Every aspect of it is great: it’s well written, well directed, well acted, well cast.

‘Monday night a lot of men are going to be watching football, and this show is going to appeal to people who don’t want to watch football, who want to watch a solid drama. There are strong men and women characters in the show. I think it’s going to have broad appeal.’

What was the degree of creative input from the broadcaster?

Maavara: ‘We have a number of standards and practices that we require or adhere to. We look at the original concept, and I suppose the first creative input we have is whether we want to take the show or not.

‘I’m a little bit uncomfortable telling producers, writers, and directors what to do. We give feedback, but my own personal bias is to let people be creative.’

Let’s talk money. Did any creativity come into play in dealing with budget constraints/financing competition for the show? What was the scope of your financial involvement?

Weinthal: ‘We’re putting up more money for the show than certain other shows in the schedule, but hopefully we will have more broadcast rights to it over a longer period of time.

‘Buying anything becomes as much a matter of value as it d’es of cost. So we’re looking for good value on the show and we think it will do well and run for awhile and be a successful action-adventure show.’

The pilot will run probably in August, with the series premiering in the middle of September.

How many series did you seriously consider this year – and how many did you pass on? What did the choice of this show eliminate? What are the consequences down the road of picking this one?

Maavara: ‘I get five proposals a week. We have five series in production right now.’

What other series did you consider?

‘Alliance is producing Fast Track that we were unable to pick up. There’s a producer called Danny Sugar doing a series on the West that I think is on Showtime, I’m not sure if they have a Canadian window for that. We’ve been pitched a lot of stuff and it’s all good.’

In conclusion, Maavara adds: ‘Documentaries deserve more regulatory and government attention, we have amongst the best documentary makers in the world, and Canadians tend to watch them.’