Playback’s 2016 Hall of Fame: Michael MacMillan

For his work raising the bar of political discourse by encouraging everyone to get involved, the Blue Ant CEO is awarded the Humanitarian HOF honours.
Michael MacMIllan

Michael MacMillan loves to cook. He’s hosted many swanky dinners at home, but the CEO of Blue Ant Media has also found another location to practice his culinary skills. For years, every Thursday, you could find MacMillan cooking at the Stop Community Food Centre, a partner program of Community Food Centres Canada, on which he serves as a board member.

When asked about it, MacMillan almost sounds sheepish. “For a couple of years, I had the pleasure to make lunch for people who’d not had a good warm meal in several days. What’s not to like about that?”

A member of the Order of Canada, he has volunteered with a number of community and industry organizations including Open Roof Films and Human Rights Watch. MacMillan balanced his community activities while building a media empire at Blue Ant, which owns the world’s largest library of 4K wildlife and nature content and media brands such as Cottage Life, T+E and Smithsonian Channel Canada.

But MacMillan’s major contribution to Canada, and the reason he snags this year’s Playback Humanitarian of the Year Award, comes from deeper roots than merely trying to give back to the community. His humanitarian perspective arises from his fascination with democracy and the body politic. It’s what moved MacMillan to create Samara Canada in 2007, the year he and his partners sold Alliance Atlantis, the huge media company that dominated Canada’s English TV and film market, to Canwest Communications and Goldman Sachs.

Samara Canada’s mandate is to connect “citizens to politics.” Without a specific political agenda, the Toronto-based research organization and charity aims to reinvigorate the idea of democracy across Canada. If people become more involved in the political process, Samara argues, they will work on local and national issues and hold politicians accountable for their work—or lack of it.

“We’re attempting to promote the idea of active citizenship,” says MacMillan. “Frankly, we try to change behaviour amongst our political or public leaders, which we think would result in Canadians holding the idea of the public sphere in a higher regard.”

In his early years at Samara, MacMillan realized quickly the lack of purpose and idealism about the Canadian system had spread to our elected politicians. In the best selling book, Tragedy in the Commons, which MacMillan wrote with Samara co-founder Alison Loat, they discovered through exit polls of MPs voted out of office that politicians are just as disenchanted with the present system as are many Canadians.

“The politicians were critical of the power that their party had over their nomination process and over being whipped to vote a certain way in the Commons. They were disenchanted with the power the party had over what they could say inside or outside the Commons and the encouragement for them to behave like trained seals at best or foolish schoolchildren at worst,” says MacMillan.

“Michael believes in the collective decision making through politics that happens in this country,” says Jane Hilderman, the executive director of Samara, who’s worked with MacMillan since 2011. “Over time, he’s seen pressure put on that space, constraining it, making it less ambitious and inclusive. It’s our job to
strengthen democracy.”

Hilderman says Samara does far more than conduct research, pointing to the Everyday Political Citizen program. The annual poll selects winners in three age categories: under 18, 18 to 29 and 30+. “Canadians are encouraged to nominate their colleague, friend [or] neighbour – somebody who is not a parliamentarian and is not a paid staffer – who is participating actively in our political life,” explains MacMillan.

Jurors include Margaret Atwood, First Nations-advocate Cindy Blackstock, hockey player and environmentalist Andrew Ference and other activist Canadians.

“It’s amazing that there is no cash prize and yet we still get almost 300 nominations from every part of the country,” Hilderman says. “People see the value in [saying] thank you to people who keep our democracy running. We end up with a lot of youth nominations.”

Says Hilderman, “Michael consistently chooses to elevate young people to leadership roles. It is easy to give lip service to this idea, but I’ve watched Michael time and again do it, including with me at Samara.”
Another major program is Democracy Talks, which targets and attempts to motivate people who are less likely to vote. Says MacMillan, who clearly wants a more robust voting population, “whether it’s Boys and Girls Clubs or YMCAs or new Canadian settlement organizations, we introduce the chance for these people to talk a little bit about politics. The questions that are debated are practical ones: ‘Are there bike lanes?’, ‘How is the garbage collected?’, ‘Do I feel safe?’, ‘Is the street lit properly?’”

What motivates MacMillan to spend his time with Samara Canada? “I’ve always believed in the importance of what I call the village green or the public square,” he says. “The most important thing in the world is the connective tissue that binds us together.”

When asked his political ambitions, he’s is momentarily amused. “I have not seriously thought about running for office. I’ve taken the view that working through Samara is a reasonably effective way to make a contribution.”

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Michael MacMillan, a primer
The current CEO of Blue Ant Media has a lengthy history in the film and TV industry. His first claim to fame was the formation of Atlantis Films in 1978, where he went on to win an Oscar for his flick Boys and Girls at the ripe age of 27. The company later merged with Alliance Communications in 1998, which would dominate the industry for the next decade, rolling out hits like the CSI franchise across North America, while also introducing Canada to a bevy of niche specialty channels.

MacMillan parted ways with Alliance Atlantis on its sale to CanWest in 2007.With an eye on the future of media, he took a controlling stake in VOD/digital broadcaster GlassBOX Television. Under MacMillan’s leadership, the cross-platform media co rebranded as Blue Ant in 2012 and expanded its specialty properties to include nature channel and SVOD Love Nature, Cottage Life and crafting channel Makeful. This year, Blue Ant has turned its attention globally, rolling out Love Nature into 32 countries and bringing its largest ever slate of content to MIPCOM for international buyers.

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Playback‘s Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame was founded in 2007 to recognize extraordinary achievements in the Canadian entertainment industry. Inductees are selected by a jury of their peers. 

This article originally appeared in Playback’Winter 2017 issue.