Producer of the Year: Paperny Entertainment

From Playback magazine: For the Vancouver-based prodco - now owned by eOne - a strategy to produce series set in extreme locations has resulted in a record-breaking 2014.
Paperny Entertainment

This article originally appeared in Playback‘s Winter 2014 issue.

For Paperny Entertainment, a strategy to produce series set in extreme locations has resulted in a record-breaking 2014.

While the 20-year-old, Vancouver-based company had been producing documentaries and male-skewing shows for years – such as the 2009 Discovery Canada series Combat School – its principals noticed a growing appetite in the market for series like Raw TV’s Gold Rush and Original Productions’ Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.

All featured dramatic characters working in volatile environments and were earning audiences like crazy, explains David Paperny, the company’s namesake, president and co-founder. “We saw an opportunity to develop that genre and become one of Canada’s top producers in that area,” he says.

The company’s first move into the space was gold-mining reality show Yukon Gold, which has been the number one Canadian docu-series on History for two years running.

Newfoundland fishery reality show Cold Water Cowboys earned an average audience of 325,000 (2+) for its first season on Discovery Canada, and was the channel’s top new show for the 2013-2014 broadcast year.

The “extreme” strategy is paying off.

Even more stunning was the success of Paperny HGTV Canada reality show Timber Kings, the highest-rated series ever to air on HGTV, averaging over 406,000 viewers (2+) over its 10-episode run this winter. The series, Paperny says, represents the positive outcome of two parties taking equal risks on an unconventional idea.

When the concept was first pitched to Shaw Media, it was deemed a fit for History, explains Christine Shipton, Shaw’s SVP of content. But HGTV programmers were looking to expand the channel’s target demo outside of its core female demo, and soon, a light went off: what if the series featured the experiences of the homebuyers, as well as a rough and tumble work crew?

That was exactly what HGTV was looking for, Shipton says. Timber Kings was then developed to fit HGTV’s storytelling conventions: who wants this home, why do they want the home, and how do they feel after they get the home?

“We [said] think of it as HGTV, but don’t take away the great authenticity of who these people are,” Shipton says.

Victoriously, the series’ Jan. 5, 2014 premiere pulled an AMA of 414,800 (2+) viewers and won the male 25-to-54 demo in Canadian specialty for the 10 to 11 p.m. timeslot.

“[We] teamed up with a broadcast partner who was willing to take some risks along with us and it paid off,” Paperny recalls.

These shows have also seen success on the sales front, with Cold Water Cowboys landing on National Geographic International and The Weather Channel in the U.S. and Timber Kings sold in global markets including Australia, China and Europe.

And while shows set in extreme locales are more expensive to make than traditional reality series, and are more challenging to produce, the payoff in international sales and ratings hits has been worth it, Paperny says.

The company has also had success with formats. In 2011, it pursued the rights to Scripps Network’s Chopped cooking competition format.

It took two years to make the deal happen, but the persistence paid off: Paperny was the first prodco to acquire Chopped format rights outside of the U.S., and Chopped Canada became the highest-rated series premiere in Food Network Canada history, with 477,500 viewers (2+).

Paperny’s success comes after a few bleak years during the 2009 recession, a difficult time for independent Canadian production. Despite few prospects with recession-wracked Canadian broadcasters, Paperny pushed his company to keep developing new shows and did what was perhaps unimaginable for many during the recession, opening a new office stateside in 2011.

“We realized that we had to diversify our company by moving into the U.S. so that we weren’t completely and utterly dependent on Canadian buyers,” Paperny says.

The strategy worked. Chow Masters, the first series to be produced out of the American office, aired last spring on Travel Channel in the U.S., with production currently underway on a second U.S.-based series, 2Fat2Fly, for OWN. The New York office is also currently shooting a pilot and two proof-of-concept sizzles, all paid for by U.S. cable networks, Paperny says. Overall, the company produced over 80 hours of TV in 2014.

Paperny Entertainment’s international exposure is set to expand again following its acquisition by Entertainment One in July 2014. The principals of the company stayed on through the acquisition deal, including Paperny, co-founder and EVP Audrey Mehler and Cal Shumiatcher, EVP.

Paperny Entertainment’s diverse slate, along with its strong management team, made the prodco an attractive acquisition for eOne as it aims to broaden its reach into the factual entertainment space internationally, says Margaret O’Brien, EVP, corporate development, eOne.

“They have real variety in their programming and if you look at our landscape, they are really delivering across very different verticals for the broadcasters,” says O’Brien. “They have shows on Food, they have shows on History, they have shows on Discovery. They are creative, and they are diversely creative.”