How Alliance Films gave Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob an entry-level job

Series exec producer Thomas Howe tells Playback Daily about the latest addition to the Canadian business reality TV genre: W Network's Undercover Boss Canada.
EllisJacob

Imagine the surprise at approaching the concession counter at your local Cineplex multiplex and seeing company CEO Ellis Jacob serving up giant tubs of popcorn or nacho platters to hungry patrons.

But that’s exactly what could be in store when W Network in February starts airing Undercover Boss Canada, from first-time TV producer Alliance Films.

The format, based on the international format from Studio Lambert, a division of the All3Media group, is simple: Jacob and nine other top dogs from companies like Molson Coors Canada, Pizza Pizza and The Toronto Zoo don disguises and trade the boardroom for the bottom rung – while their workers wonder who latest entry-level hire is.

And as with any reality TV show, the “reveal” has employees discovering who they’ve been working alongside all along, and with surprising results.

But key to the execution of a Undercover Boss Canada, executive producer Thomas Howe tells Playback Daily, is striking an emotional tone mid-way between the original Channel Four series, where uptight Brits typically only hint at emotion, and the far more exuberant CBS version of Undercover Boss that aired on CTV and which Canadians may well have seen.

“People in the U.S. are more inclined to be demonstrative and wear their emotions on their sleeves. In the UK, they are more reserved,” Howe observes.

The result is the Channel Four version tends to focus more on the businesses themselves, how they are run and can be improved.

Conversely, the emphasis with the U.S. Undercover Boss series is establishing an emotional connection between the bosses and their employees.

“We wanted to make sure our series has a sensibility that falls in between the two nations. We like to think we have the best of both worlds,” Howe says.

After all, Undercover Boss Canada is at root an emotional journey for the top executives, as they climb down the corporate ladder to see their businesses from the bottom up, and unsung workers in their midst.

“When they discover that they’ve been working with their boss, and the boss goes down to their level, it can be quite moving,” Howe insists.

The Alliance Films exec remained tight-lipped about what happens in Undercover Boss Canada before the reality TV series goes to air on W.

But in one episode, an employee at an unnamed company who had gone for an MBA and endured a series of low-level jobs manages to impress the CEO in the normal course of their work.

So much so, that the top executive will now mentor the employee set for a job at head office.

“It’s a profound moment,” Howe recalls.

In another episode, a member of a company’s cleaning staff still grieving inside for a daughter she lost years ago finds an emotional connection with a CEO who recently lost his father.

“Now there’s a moment between two people about their lost ones,” Howe recounts.

The logistical challenges of how to find CEOs who could commit precious time to taking part in a demanding Undercover Boss Canada shooting schedule, or maintain their disguise and composure in the midst of their workers, had to be overcome with the Canadian version, as in the U.K. and the U.S.

But the result, Howe insists, is an antidote to the current criticism of company bosses for being overpaid and distant from their workforce.

“You get to see them [top execs] in a different light, and learn about them as people,” he adds.

What’s more, buying popcorn at your local cinema may never be the same again.