Matt Toner finds middle ground online

Matt Toner has a message for Canadian producers: you don’t necessarily need to spend $250,000 to develop a successful digital strategy for your TV show.

‘There’s been a zero-to-60 mentality among TV producers that if they get specific online funding they spend a quarter of a million dollars on a website. And if they don’t get funded, they do nothing online,’ says the president of Vancouver-based Zeroes 2 Heroes Media (Z2H), a company that produces digital strategies for the entertainment industry and develops its own cross-platform properties.

Z2H has also partnered with the CFTPA to give seminars to producers on how to successfully take film and TV properties online.

‘What we’re trying to do is move into the middle ground and say there’s all kinds of stuff you can do digitally to advance your brand – from a few thousand to $10,000 bucks – so long as it’s socially powered,’ explains Toner. ‘It could be as simple as building a good presence on Twitter or developing a microsite.’

Producers should be putting aside money in their production budgets for a social media element – regardless of whether or not they score funding from the Bell New Media Fund, Telefilm Canada or, in 2010, from the Canada Media Fund, he says. And it doesn’t have to be a huge amount of cash.

‘There’s a lot you can do with a little,’ explains Toner. ‘I would rather see producers take baby steps and start small. Companies that are doing nothing online unless they score money specifically for online projects – I think they are really missing the boat,’ he insists.

Toner began working in the new media industry back when it was actually new. Working in the Canadian Foreign Service, Toner was sent to the trade office in New York in 1996 during the first dot-com boom, where he helped Canadian new media companies meet with potential New York partners.

In 1999, he helped launch We Media, an online social network targeted at people with physical disabilities, and later also worked in the gaming industry for Electronic Arts.

In 2006, Toner teamed up with Paul Gerts (chairman of Z2H), whose resumé includes executive positions at Hanna-Barbera and Lucas Film. They came up with the idea of taking comic books online and Z2H was born.

Quickly expanding beyond just comics, Z2H has worked with APTN to develop an online campaign to garner submissions from First Nations writers across the country, and created a mixed-media digital magazine for CBC’s Heartland, featuring premium content, music, video and game applications, and behind-the-scenes looks at characters. They also created a niche social network for fans of the series that allows the community to develop user-generated content and connect with the producers and each other.

The company has also worked with Rainmaker Entertainment, Telefilm, the National Screen Institute and British Columbia Film.

Brochure, post-card-style show websites with photos of cast and episode synopses just don’t cut it. A digital strategy has to involve audiences and connect them with each other and the property, allowing them to offer their input.

‘Every site should be crowd-powered,’ explains Toner. ‘We think that the best way to make compelling new content is to have a much better dialogue with the audience and have that dialogue as early as possible in the process so you can learn what they want to watch. If you open up the gates to your fans who want a connection to your show, they are going to reward you a hundred times over.’

This is particularly important in TV, where producers are trying to build an audience over multiple seasons, but it also works in film.

Toner points to director/producer Peter Jackson as a great example. When beginning work on the Lord of the Rings movies, he recognized that the fan base knew their subject matter better than he did and were predisposed to mistrust him. So he worked with a website,, and leaked material, asking the fans their opinion.

‘When fans feel they are a part of and legitimately connected to a property they become the biggest supporters of it,’ says Toner.

Z2H has created a primer for the industry, titled From Zeroes to Heroes, to help Canadian producers figure out digital strategies for their properties. It can be downloaded free of charge on their website,

‘We show producers that they need to start with an outside-in process – start with their goals and work their way inside,’ explains Toner. ‘And don’t even talk about technology. Anyone who wants to talk about the technology first, throw them out of your office.’

Z2H is currently developing a stop-motion comic series of shorts with a Canadian broadcaster that will include a video game, an elaborate alternative reality game, a social media campaign and social network that will allow fans to watch the project come to life.

‘It’s very multi-pronged,’ says Toner. ‘We hope it’s going to be a microcosm showing what you can really do in a cross-media way and how the various platforms can reinforce each other.’

Online storytelling is just beginning to develop its potential and there are exciting times ahead as this medium develops – although there may be some bumps in the road along the way.

‘New media is a transformative technology,’ says Toner. ‘But it transforms by disrupting. It rearranges things. And that isn’t always a comfortable sensation for people who like the way things are already arranged.’

Music and books are two industries that have faced this digital reorganization firsthand.

‘And the time has now come for visual storytelling,’ predicts Toner. ‘The wave’s about to hit.’


• Favorite movie: Memento. ‘I find nonlinear narratives intriguing. The movie also had a great web extension.’

• Coolest website: Protagonize ( ‘It’s a collaborative fiction website – it cuts to the heart of social media.’

• Favorite video game: Civilization IV. ‘I actually had to give it to my girlfriend and say, ‘You have to take this away from me and hide it.’ It was like having a drinking problem.’

• Favorite sport: Basketball. ‘I’m a Celtics fan, which means I’m an entirely different kind of masochist. They’ve had 20 years of completely sucking, but now they’re not too bad.’