A successful project means a good deal

During Shakespeare's time the play might have been the thing, but as television replaced the stage as the popular form of entertainment, the deal has becomeÉwellÉjust as much of the thing....

During Shakespeare’s time the play might have been the thing, but as television replaced the stage as the popular form of entertainment, the deal has becomeÉwellÉjust as much of the thing.

The international successes of Banff Television Festival nominees Sullivan Entertainment’s Butterbox Babies (made-for-tv-movies category), Heartland Motion Pictures’ Guitarman (children’s programs) and Cinar/ Bernard Zukerman Productions’ Million Dollar Babies (miniseries) are testament to the theory that the off-screen machinations of television are just as important as the on-screen ones.

Regina-based Heartland’s $2.2 million mow Guitarman, which puts a rock ‘n’ roll twist on the Pied Piper story (substituting a guitar player for the piper and locusts for the rats), is considered to be one of the most ambitious dramatic projects ever produced in Saskatchewan.

After a trip to the u.s. and a couple of months in distribution limbo, it was Paragon Releasing, then headed by Isme Bennie, that struck up a foreign distribution deal for the project.

‘It also helped,’ says Heartland producer Stephen Onda, ‘that Paragon chose it as one of their featured projects for mip-tv in 1994.’ Armed with Canadian presales at the market, Paragon’s international sales included Asia, Latin American and the Middle East.

A year after its mip debut, Guitarman is still selling strong, says Onda. ‘Because Guitarman was well-received at the market, Paragon was able to develop a selling strategy – selling first to the pay services such as BSkyB in the u.k. and then to the regular terrestrial broadcasters like (Britain’s) Channel 4 – maximizing each step. We didn’t have to take the first sale that came along, worrying that we’d have to sell it before the project was old news.’

To date, sales of Guitarman are three times Paragon’s distribution advance, says Onda (including sales to Australia, Belgium, the Caribbean, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Spain and the u.k.), paving the way for coproduction opportunities for Heartland with interested parties in both Canada and abroad.

‘All in all, it was quite a success,’ says Onda. ‘We told a story from Saskatchewan that had broad audience appeal.’

For Butterbox Babies, the true story of Lila and William Young who used the Ideal Maternity Home in Nova Scotia as a cover for selling black-market babies, Toronto-based Sullivan’s agenda was to create a Canadian production about a Canadian story, says executive producer Kevin Sullivan.

Says Trudy Grant, president of Sullivan Entertainment International: ‘When we investigated the marketplace for Butterbox Babies, we realized that an American network would take a typical American network slant to the story, and that wouldn’t be appropriate. We wanted to make a Canadian production with Canadian funding, and (felt we) could realistically make a good quality mow for about $2.8 million.’

In the traditional u.s. network mow paradigm, Lila would have been portrayed as an antagonist; Sullivan wanted to portray her as protagonist. The producers also wanted to examine what defines a Canadian hero, as well as raise a lexicon of moral issues.

‘We didn’t want to get into the black and white morality of the networks. And we wanted to deal with contemporary issues – within religion, power and politics – in a thought-provoking manner and let the audience make up their own minds,’ says Sullivan.

Sullivan took a feature-like approach to the Butterbox Babies story, promoting it as a Canadian product, and stayed away from making it as the ‘social issue of the week,’ says Grant.

According to Grant and Sullivan, it is this difference that enhanced the salability of Butterbox Babies, which has sold to about 30 countries to date, including Australia, England, France, Germany, New Zealand, Scandinavia and South Africa. In Canada, Butterbox Babies scored the highest Canadian rating ever (3.2 million viewers) for a two-hour mow.

‘We’ve sold to American networks in the past, so it wasn’t what motivated us to make the story,’ says Sullivan.

Of course, an American presale can be quite a coup.

‘The American presale is a win-win situation,’ says Ralph Zimmerman of Toronto’s Great North Artists Management, a company affiliated with icm in the u.s. and dedicated to taking Canadian product to the States and accessing the u.s. market. ‘Once you sell into the American market, the rest of the world will follow. That’s not to say you have to sell American to do well internationally. Certainly a lot of Canadian companies have done well without it. But it remains the ultimate prestige. It’s like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.’

It can be difficult for smaller Canadian productions to get funds without the presale, says Zimmerman. Because many Canadian productions do not have a lot of above-line extras, they cannot afford to pay high prices for marquee talent. And in the American market, the value of the star is crucial. When it came time to cast the lead in Guitarman (high-profile names like Keith Richards, Neil Young and Sting were tossed around), Heartland could not negotiate breakage for the simple reason it did not have the funds to do so.

The presale of the $10 million, four-hour miniseries Million Dollar Babies to cbs allowed the producers to negotiate breakage for both Beau Bridges and Kate Nelligan.

Zimmerman, who represents the miniseries’ producer Bernard Zukerman, brokered the Million Dollar Babies package – coming to the table with a strong script, a production financed in Canada, and the reputation of screenwriter Suzette Couture – to Jeff Sagansky of cbs. After reading the second draft, cbs pursued a deal, bringing in some final script work and some casting approval.

cbs was a perfect target for the miniseries, says Zimmerman. ‘cbs is skewed older, was doing miniseries, and according to the information we had, was looking for material.’

According to the producers, the sale marks the first time an American network has provided a front-end licence for a Canadian miniseries.

‘In the past, the American television market never bought foreign programming for primetime because they didn’t need to,’ says Zimmerman. ‘Now with weaker and less concentrated advertising dollars and plunging licence fees, the whole television landscape is changing, and it’s the American producer that’s being squeezed.’