Sienna Films flexes its creative muscles

With two shows travelling the world, more projects in the wings, and Kew Media's recent endorsement, Playback's Prodco of the Year is gearing up for an even bigger 2018.
cardinalBellMedia

It’s been a banner year for Toronto’s Sienna Films, with a six-part series travelling the globe and an international copro renewed for a second season in Canada and by a major U.S. net. But perhaps the most ringing endorsement of Sienna’s Prodco of the Year status comes from Kew Media Group, which just acquired the Toronto prodco, in part, says Kew CEO Steven Silver, because of its history delivering high-quality projects.

Sienna, headed by Julia Sereny and Jennifer Kawaja, had one of the biggest successes of the year with Cardinal, produced alongside eOne and adapted from the book series by Giles Blunt. The show follows detectives played by Billy Campbell and Karine Vanasse, an unlikely but magnetic duo on the hunt for a serial killer in northern Ontario. Season one averaged 1.1 million viewers weekly when it debuted in January – ratings that led Bell Media to greenlight an additional two six-episode seasons.

The show, which unabashedly flaunts its Canadian setting, sensibilities and slang (Vanasse’s character is frequently heard muttering “Tabernac”), has proven attractive to buyers worldwide. Global distributor eOne licensed the acclaimed mystery to more than 100 territories, including Hulu in the U.S., Canal+ in France, and C More in Scandinavia, among others.

“[Cardinal] has specificity of setting, the Canadian small town, which frankly the world has not seen a lot of,” says Sereny. “They’re [also] great stories with great characters and we’re fortunate that we’re living in a time where there’s a market for [that].”

For the prodco, the focus is always to develop stand-out creative. Todor Kobakov, who composed the score to Cardinal, says Sienna was looking to produce something that pushes the envelope. “[They gave] me an opportunity to shine and try new things,” he says, and the result is something that feels almost filmic.

Cardinal wasn’t the only series on Sienna’s plate in 2017. The prodco also delivered Ransom, a high-adrenaline drama created by longtime Sienna collaborator David Vainola (Diamonds, Combat Hospital) and Frank Spotnitz (of The X-Files fame).The series is based on the experiences of a real-life hostage negotiator.

Season one, produced by eOne, Sienna, Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions and Paris-based Wildcats Productions, was created for Global, TF1 in France, RTL in Germany and CBS in the U.S. Sienna was interested in taking audiences inside a world most people are unfamiliar with, but bringing the project to life was not without its hurdles. “With four networks to begin with and producers in three different countries, it becomes quite an orchestration,” says Sereny. In October, Global and CBS renewed the series for an additional 13-episode second season, this time as a Canada/Hungary copro.

“We’re so excited to have another opportunity this year to really hone the concept of the show,” says Kawaja. Season two is produced by eOne, with exec producers Kawaja and Sereny via their Sienna banner and Spotnitz, via his Big Light banner, with Budapest-based Korda Studios coproducing.

Ahead of its 2018 second season premiere, the series has sold to more than 100 territories, including Australia, the U.K., Africa and MENA.

Cardinal and Ransom are just two of the high-quality projects that attracted Kew Media to Sienna. “[Jennifer and Julia have] built a great company through passion and hard work and have demonstrated time and again their capacity to originate and deliver high quality projects,” said Silver. The Toronto media conglomerate, headed up by Silver and Peter Sussman, currently has 10 prodcos and two distributors under its umbrella.

For Sienna, the partnership allows it to maintain its autonomy, while offering the company expanded reach internationally, as well as the backing of an experienced business and legal affairs team – key when navigating today’s complex global deals, says Kawaja.

Founded in 1992 by Sereny, who has produced such films as April One (1994) and Hidden Children (1994), Kawaja officially joined Sienna in 1994. Kawaja says in Sereny she found a partner who, like her, was committed to telling meaningful stories that were in no way “sentimental, apolitical or generic.” Sienna Films is rounded out by production executive Andrea Glinski, who has been with the prodco the past 20 years, and development head Elise Cousineau, whose been on the team for 13 years. With their collective focus on creative and creators, the prodco has consistently found audiences.

Sienna has produced acclaimed films like New Waterford Girl (1999), a coming-of-age film set in 1970s Nova Scotia, and How She Move (2007), a Toronto-set teen dance flick that was released in the U.S. by Paramount Vantage.

“We used to do more features and some TV, now we’re doing more TV and some features,” says Sereny, who adds the shift is largely driven by audience demand for high-quality TV content.

But it’s not just its TV shows keeping the company busy. Sienna is currently exploring the unique challenges of world-building with Riftworld Chronicles. The 2015 CBC web series, created by Jonathan Williams, produced by First Love Films and exec produced by Sienna, has since spawned a digital comic. To date, four volumes of 10-part digital comic Riftworld Legends have been released by Joe Books, with the publisher planning to reprint all 10 as a graphic novel.

Based on the popularity of the franchise, Sienna and First Love are also producing the mobile game Riftworld: Heroes with Belgium’s Reed SPRL and are in development on a Riftworld TV series, which is in the process of being financed.

“We’re trying to set the course on the TV series and then decide how the web series will spin off from that so that the audiences are getting fresh stories and characters that can exist without having to watch the TV show or read the comic books,” Kawaja says.

Sienna is also about to take a long-gestating film project from the script stage into production. Sweetness in the Belly, a feature the prodco has been developing for seven years, is set to begin filming in Ethiopia and the U.K. in March. Based on the novel by Canadian author Camilla Gibb, the film stars Saoirse Ronan, with a script by Laura Phillips. The Canada/Ireland copro, which recently scored more than $700,000 in Eurimages coin, is produced with Dublin’s Parallel Films.

With a number of other projects on its development slate – including Red Nation Rising, a TV series produced with Eagle Vision for APTN, and a film adaptation of Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness with Winnipeg’s Inferno Pictures and Jody Colero– Sienna is in no danger of slowing down. And, as with all of its projects, the company is focused on story first and foremost.

“We develop material we really believe in, with people who we really believe in,” says Sereny. “And if you tell a good story and you tell it well, you’ll reach an audience – whether it’s here or somewhere else.”