TV co-ventures thriving as global economy dictates partnerships

International partnership opportunities in the TV programming market are strong, with Germany, the U.K. and France among the countries most actively seeking copros with Canada.

‘Everyone wants to talk partnerships these days,’ says Christina Jennings, CEO of Toronto-based Shaftesbury Films. ‘We have done kids shows with French broadcasters in the past, but now we are talking to a major French network on the drama side, which would be a first for us.’

‘Broadcasters want prestigious programming with big-name stars and [they] don’t have the resources to commission these projects themselves,’ adds Jesse Prupas, VP of distribution and development at Montreal-based Muse Entertainment.

Positive international developments, according to Prupas, include the fact that French broadcasters appear more open to accepting dubs made in Quebec, whereas previously they demanded this work take place in France. He also notes that the German public networks are now willing to produce in English, which is making partnerships with that country easier.

Muse is a minority coproducer (20%) on the massive eight-hour, $40 million miniseries The Pillars of the Earth, a project brought to the company by Germany’s Tandem Communications.

Based on the best-selling novel by Ken Follett, Pillars explores war, religious strife and power struggles in 12th century England with a star-studded cast that includes Ian McShane (Deadwood), Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist), Donald Sutherland (The Italian Job) and Gorden Pinsent (Away from Her). Broadcasters include Starz in the U.S. and The Movie Network in Canada, with a second window to CBC.

Shooting took place on location in Hungary and Austria, with post and special effects landing in Montreal.

Although Prupas admits international copros are extremely complicated and a lot of work, they allow Muse to take part in high-profile, big-budget projects like Pillars, which has Ridley and Tony Scott as exec producers alongside Muse president Michael Prupas and Tandem’s Rola Bauer.

‘These prestigious miniseries have helped put us on the map as a quality production company that knows how to navigate the perilous waters of international copros,’ observes Prupas.

Jennings says international players are also knocking on Shaftesbury’s door to solicit partnerships.

‘We have two projects that U.K. broadcasters actually brought to us,’ she says.

Shaftesbury is structuring fewer projects as official treaty copros and instead working directly with international broadcasters. Jennings points to Murdoch Mysteries, a partnership with UKTV in Britain, as an example.

‘Broadcasters are partnering with us and don’t want the constraints of a treaty coproduction,’ she says.

‘Treaty copros are complicated and can get too deal-driven,’ explains Jennings, pointing out that creative decisions are often made based on territory spending requirements rather than what works best for the project.

Only in cases where a project creatively requires a large shooting component in another country will Shaftesbury consider an official treaty coproduction.

‘We have a show idea based on a Canadian book with Canadian characters but set 80 percent in Scotland, so creatively that makes sense as a treaty copro,’ explains Jennings. ‘But all the other projects on our [development] books right now are broadcast partnerships.’

Regina’s Partners in Motion is also working directly with a foreign broadcaster, ZDF in Germany, to develop a documentary about the imperial harem of the Ottoman Empire, which will shoot in Turkey, a country that does not have a copro treaty with Canada.

Jeff Stecyk, general manager and COO at PIM, notes that ZDF has taken a key role in getting the project financed by taking rights to various European territories, as well as helping to develop the creative. The doc has been presold to VisionTV and SCN in Canada, Middle East broadcaster MBC and Italian buyer VideoShow.

As the TV financing landscape evolves, branded programming opportunities are top of mind, but both Prupas and Jennings say these programs won’t travel well internationally.

‘There are European brands and there are North American brands and they aren’t necessarily recognized in each other’s territory,’ says Prupas. ‘And in our experiences, broadcasters have remained very protective of their turf when it comes to branding.’

Jennings is developing an online project that has brand interest, and says if you go that route you have to accept that this limits international sales.

‘We have had conversations with our international partners and [branding] creates issues,’ she says. ‘If we make a deal with a car company in Canada and an Italian broadcaster has a relationship with a different car dealer, then they won’t take our show.’

The launch of the Canada Media Fund and its prerequisite multiplatforms could also be a boon for copro opportunities.

‘Canada is perceived as being very lucrative as a production partner because of our funding mechanisms, and with the new CMF, I’ve heard from international producers and broadcasters that we are being viewed as groundbreakers,’ says Stecyk.

Prupas has found, particularly on the kids animation side, that international broadcasters are willing to put up cash for a digital project when it leverages Canadian subsidies. As an example, he points to the animated kids series The Mysteries of Alfred Hedgehog, coproduced with Alphanim in France. Muse applied to the Bell New Media Fund to create a bilingual interactive website and the show’s French broadcaster came up with the largest licence fee for the website, as much as the other Canadian partners (TVO, TFO, Radio-Canada and Knowledge) combined.

‘For France 5 it’s a wonderful deal because they get to leverage a small licence fee of 5% of the budget and get a website worth half a million dollars because of all the equity that comes out of Canada,’ says Prupas. ‘The French network saw the value because they don’t have that kind of fund in France. That makes us a very appealing partner.’