Why Hot Docs is pushing business prowess to produce Canadian content

Producers that long depended on government largesse heard in a workshop Wednesday a better way to grow as filmmakers is to make content audiences want.

Around 15 filmmakers are in a University of Toronto classroom, divided into five groups, each charged with imagining and mapping out a new business idea.

For a second, you’d think this was the Harvard Business School and dressed-down filmmakers with Apple iPads are training to run hedge funds or venture capital firms.

One group has an idea for an exclusive martial arts school to appeal to fans of Jackie Chan and Jet Li by offering designer black belts, while another is streamlining a concept for a high-class bomb shelter with haute cuisine for billionaires and politicians most likely to survive a nuclear attack.

Being an indie film darling in this enterprising crowd just won’t cut it.

“Survival of the Finest,” Carmen, one of the Let’s Create My Business Model Canvas(es) workshop participants, proudly tells the classroom as she explains the business venture.

But these are filmmakers, and after more discussion, they return to their seats, and their introduction to next-generation Canadian film-making that lives or dies by its ability to spot and engage audiences continues.

Ana Serrano, chief digital officer at the Canadian Film Centre, tells the Hot Docs workshop that, in an age of dwindling government subsidies and expanding digital platforms, finding a successful business model that appeals to a key comic book fan base, for example, may well be crucial to your future success as a content producer.

“If you think of this as something you do when your film is made, you’re dead,” Serrano insists.

But that’s precisely what Canadian filmmakers have done in the past, dependent as they have been on government supports now falling away as the CBC, the National Film Board of Canada and Telefilm Canada undergo deep budgetary chops.

“We’ve learned how to finance films, but we’ve never learned how to make money from them,” Serrano told the Hot Docs workshop.

That stops now, she added, as content producers now learn to live in a world of Kickstarter and digital media projects that have mobile apps or thumb drives to snag and engage audiences.

Serrano insisted Canadian doc makers traditionally haven’t thought much about where their audiences are, precisely because they mostly aligned their projects with viewers of a particular broadcaster.

But now that a fragmented TV landscape and the internet is disrupting the traditional broadcast model, uncomfortable doc makers are left to ponder who their target market is as they envision Sergey Brin or Mark Zuckerberg as potential backers.

“That’s a strategic point that needs to be considered: which are the customers I’m targeting, who has a particular need we’re trying to solve,” Serrano said of questions that need to be answered by Canadian doc makers looking to develop, finance and produce their next project.

“And once you start asking who do I want to talk to, the next question is do they want to hear what I’m trying to say,” she added.

Suddenly, the posters on which the five groups were earlier scribbling become clearer.

Each represents a business model canvas, or a tool for content visionaries and producers in today’s digital age.

And each has nine building blocks that the workshop participants over three hours on Wednesday afternoon were left to ponder, including which are their customer segments, what is their value proposition and what are the key resources required to make a documentary.

As the workshop participants returned to their classroom drawing boards for more blue-sky discussion, Serrano told Playback Daily that this new business orientation for doc makers springs as much from ongoing government cuts as  the new digital space everyone is playing in.

“On the one hand, doc producers are most explicitly up against the wall,” she argued.

But at second glance, documentaries are ripe for treatment as transmedia projects that find and bring audiences along from the earlier stages of development, right through to execution and distribution.

“The doc story already has a call to action embedded in it. So call it cross-media or transmedia, but this lends itself really well to being explored by doc makers,” Serrano said of Canada’s next generation of content producers stretching the frontiers of digital media.

But key to the future success of Canadian doc producers, she added, is no longer thinking of pursuing passion projects without a business model firmly in mind.

“That’s the only choice we have, really. Governments won’t give us money for that. Broadcasters won’t give us money for that,” Serrano argued.

What’s more, audiences want to help spawn cross-platform media, as evidenced by the growing phenomenon of crowd-sourcing.

“It’s about the personal transformation of the content creator, to someone more open to what they do by allowing audiences to participate,” she added.

Expect to see more business idea creation workshops aimed at digital media documentary producers in the near future as the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab partners with Hot Docs and other industry forums to encourage private investment in Ontario’s media industry.

The Hot Docs festival continues to May 6.