Celebrating a decade of service

Launched a decade ago with a deal from U.S. cabler Showtime Networks, Dufferin Gate Productions rode the wave of Hollywood MOW shoots to become Canada's biggest service provider. It subsequently saw the MOW bubble burst, yet lived to tell the tale. Today, the Toronto prodco marches on - more healthy than ever, according to founder and president Patrick Whitley - but in a radically reimagined form.

Launched a decade ago with a deal from U.S. cabler Showtime Networks, Dufferin Gate Productions rode the wave of Hollywood MOW shoots to become Canada’s biggest service provider. It subsequently saw the MOW bubble burst, yet lived to tell the tale. Today, the Toronto prodco marches on – more healthy than ever, according to founder and president Patrick Whitley – but in a radically reimagined form.

Many of the American TV movies Dufferin Gate has produced – mostly for Showtime, but also for the likes of Paramount, Viacom and Columbia TriStar – may not be familiar to Canadian viewers, but numbering more than 100, they feature an impressive array of talent. Titles include: Beyond the Call (1995) with Sissy Spacek; Free of Eden (1997) with Sydney Poitier; Murder in a Small Town (1998) with Gene Wilder; Harlan County (1999) with Holly Hunter; Rated X (1999) with Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen; Possessed (1999) with Timothy Dalton and Christopher Plummer; and Last Call (2001) with Jeremy Irons and Neve Campbell.

While Duffern Gate has no financial stake in its productions, its contribution to its projects is inestimable, with services including everything from overseeing preproduction and cash flow to handling labor issues, planning travel arrangements, location scouting, managing the hiring of creatives and crew and providing studio space.

Meanwhile, Temple Street Productions, its sister, was launched in 1997 to deal only in proprietary work. Its most notable project has been drama series Queer as Folk, about gay relationships, which it coproduces with Cowlip Productions and Tony Jonas Productions for Showtime and Showcase. The program is gearing up for production on its fifth season in the fall.

When the prodco was born in 1994, it was located on Dufferin Street, just up the block from the Canadian National Exhibition. Showtime executives, on a conference call with Whitley, asked what he was going to call his new enterprise. The producer got up from his chair, wandered over to the window and looked down the street, only to see the 1959 arch at the entrance of the CNE grounds.

Handshake deal

‘I jokingly said, ‘How about Dufferin Gate Productions?’ and they went, ‘Oh, that’s classy,” the 58-year-old Whitley recalls, seated in the boardroom of Dufferin Gate’s present location, which it shares with Temple Street in a suburban industrial pocket of west Toronto.

With a team of four, the newly minted Dufferin Gate had a one-year deal with Showtime whereby all MOWs the net would shoot in Toronto would be handled through the prodco. ‘It was a handshake – I prefer it that way,’ Whitley says. The caster looked to take advantage of the exchange rate, the labor tax credit and Toronto’s quality crew and infrastructure. It felt comfortable entrusting five movies to Dufferin Gate that year, after previously having used Whitley as a line producer on several projects.

Another aspect that has continued to make Toronto a popular destination for Showtime is its diverse locations and Dufferin Gate’s knack for exploiting them.

‘We’ve done Moscow here, we did Vietnam, we did 1800s New Orleans – we built this incredible set at the harborfront,’ Whitley explains. ‘We’ve got some very talented people in the way of film production designers.’

Dufferin Gate’s value to Showtime only increases over time, facilitating the overall production process.

‘This is a turnkey operation,’ Whitley says. ‘We still have the accounting files from their very first movies 10 years ago. For a network to have that kind of a satellite is very beneficial to them. It’s been good for both sides.’

By 1998, buoyed by Showtime’s commitment to air one original movie per week, the service provider’s volumes had skyrocketed. Whitley subsequently opened a Dufferin Gate branch in Vancouver, run by producer Rose Lam. Last year, Whitley handed off the B.C. Showtime work to Lam and her own newly formed prodco Coast Mountain Films, which has worked on projects for the cabler including the series The L Word and the mini Out of Order.

Whitley recalls telling Showtime, ‘There’s the person; you’re happy; let her run her own company. So I extracted Dufferin Gate and she segued into Coast Mountain. I think it worked out very well for all of us.’

Dufferin Gate’s peak came in 1999, when it handled 23 MOWs and three series – about 90% for Showtime – with budgets totaling $250 million – $150 million of which stayed in Canada, Whitley proudly adds.

The company found its Toronto studio space stretched, however, when it had to accommodate seven concurrently shooting productions in the peak time. That, and an unfavorable real estate deal on Dufferin, necessitated the prodco’s acquisition of its current facility, which offers 16,000 square feet of studio space. Whitley invested substantially in the building, making it as film-friendly as possible.

‘It was probably the most horrendous and stressful thing I’ve ever gone through – dealing with banks… But I’m glad I did it,’ he says.

In 2003, to better accommodate filming of Queer as Folk, the company opened a nearby 30,000-square-foot studio and office space called, aptly enough, Queensway Studio.

But the company’s incredible volumes could not be maintained, as the international sales potential of TV movies shriveled. Last year, it handled just two MOWs for Showtime, accounting for $18 million in budget volume, as the net focuses more on series.

‘That’s not a reflection on Showtime. It’s just that not many TV movies are being made,’ Whitley explains. ‘I think it’s on a bit of an upswing now, but the days of doing 17 to 20 movies [per year] are over.’

Dufferin Gate will be along for the ride on Showtime’s forthcoming series initiatives, including a pair of pilots that go to camera in the fall. The first is Hate, set in an NYPD hate crimes division, while there is less information available on the other show, except that it is a drama taking place in Providence, RI.

Whitley has put his extensive experience towards activity in lobby groups, including the CFTPA, for which he is vice chair of the board, FilmOntario (co-chair), and as chair of the Canadian Film & Television Industry Council, announced at the recent Banff Television Festival. While he speaks for the production community as a whole, Whitley has often spoken out in favor of service producers, whose value he thinks is underplayed. One such occasion was his acceptance speech for the entrepreneur of the year award, presented at Banff in 2003, in which he lambasted Playback’s coverage of the service sector.

Temple Street takes over

But, as service production in Canada has shrunk from its heady days of four or five years ago, some might see some irony in that, in 2003, production volumes for Temple Street ($40 million) surpassed Dufferin Gate for the first time. And that would seem to be where the future lies for the organization, which today employs a baker’s dozen of full-timers.

‘I can’t completely rely on the service business anymore,’ Whitley says. ‘It’s just not there. If we have other things [of our own] going, then, first of all, that makes things interesting, and it keeps the company going. Right now there’s a nice balance that I think we can maintain.’

Among Dufferin Gate’s principals are John Weber, VP finance and production, and Stacey Knocker, production services coordinator. Over at Temple Street, Whitley is president, Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier are co-presidents, and David York is executive producer, factual. Whitley credits Sheila Hockin, VP, for bringing in well-known local feature directors, such as Bruce McDonald and Jeremy Podeswa, to helm episodes of Queer as Folk. A recent development sees Canadians also representing half of the show’s writing staff.

‘Although it’s not ‘Canadian content,’ it’s more Canadian content than a lot of stuff out there,’ Whitley says of the Pittsburgh-set series, which airs in nearly 20 territories. He also believes the show’s subject matter has helped knock down some barriers on TV. ‘I can’t imagine a better city [in which] to have produced that show than Toronto, a very gay-friendly city. And the city, Church Street [in the gay neighborhood] in particular, has been incredibly supportive and helped us with locations.’

In addition to Temple Street’s Queer as Folk and its doc series Blueprint for Disaster, Whitley is excited about the commencement of shooting on the children’s series Darcy’s Wild Life, which he describes as ‘take Lizzie McGuire and move it to the country.’ The show begins production this month for Discovery Kids and will air on NBC Saturday mornings.

Whitley had been stoking the Temple Street braintrust for concepts. ‘I said, ‘Boys, we’ve got to do something. Remember, don’t do a show that has kids and animals.’ First show – kids and animals!’ Whitley recalls with a laugh.

As Dufferin Gate blows out 10 birthday candles, Whitley is optimistic that a decade from now his company will still be alive and kicking, and that he will be at the helm – provided he has more time to pursue his golf game.

‘There’s a whole new energy around here,’ Whitley says. ‘These are all young people who will be able to move the company forward, which, for me, is important. I have put in my hours, but I still really like coming to work, and I think everybody here does, too.’