New Establishment first reveal: Marilyn Kynaston and Kate Sanagan

The Toronto-Vancouver indie distributors were selected as one of the industry's picks in Playback's New Establishment search earlier in the summer.

Earlier this summer, put out a call to the Canadian screen industry to hear who amongst your peers may be the emerging game-changers and innovators. Leading candidates were selected to be profiled online, the first of which appears here. The ultimate New Establishment pick will be revealed in the fall issue of Playback, which will be arriving in subscribers’ mailboxes starting Sept. 4 and also available in the TIFF industry office.


The Buzz: In just 10 years, Picture Box co-owners Marilyn Kynaston and Kate Sanagan have turned their company into a industry leader in the distribution of kids, lifestyle and documentary series by acquiring titles, such as Til Debt Do Us Part, X-Weighted, and Tumbletown.

Why did you found Picture Box?

MK: I worked for a company in Vancouver called Forefront Entertainment and they closed their doors. So my options were to leave Vancouver or start a company. I had some really good relationships with producers where they were offering me their shows if I were to start a company.

Right now, your slate focuses largely on youth, lifestyle and doc shows – why these particular niches?

KS: That was what both of us knew. We already had relationships with those buyers. We moved into lifestyle because the market told us to. Our first factual series was called Cook Works, and when Marilyn took it on we just didn’t know [if it would sell].

MK: It came to me by chance. I was completely shocked that within six months it was selling to places like Thailand and Israel. It started to sell all over the world. Then we developed a real strategy to go after lifestyle programming.

Are there niches that you are looking to expand in?

KS: We’re already in the kids genre, but we’re moving more into the half-hour format. We’ve done a lot of interstitials sales.

What would you say is your mandate or distribution strategy?

MK: Our mandate from the beginning has always been to provide really cost-effective and efficient services to Canadian producers, while at the same time delivering high quality programs to our international buyers.

KS: What we try to do is offer a distribution service for a sales agency cost. We also offer a variety of different models to producers.

How does this set you apart?

KS: Because we’re the owners of the company and also the main sales people that also allows us to have a really hands-on approach with the strategy of each show.

What do you look for from a show?

MK: Whether it’s factual or kids, the number one thing for us is always that there’s a good story being told. Character is also really important.

For our acquisitions, we always start with the producer rather than the show. We’re going after producers we feel make quality shows and understand story and character.

KS:  We also like to seek out new talent.

Why go the risky route of co-financing?

KS: We don’t have deep pockets like some of our competitors. In order to compete we needed to have an edge. We were approached by Sinking Ship to do this new model.

MK: So we helped finance the pilot [of Anne's Droid] and as soon as we had it, we went out to the international marketplace and brought on partners for that.

What challenges do Canadian programs face in breaking into the international market?

MK: One of the challenges is just the technical aspects. It’s insane how many different formats broadcasters are asking for, and the upfront costs have really escalated.

Also with higher budget shows, especially in the kids arena, you need some international money to complete the financing, and it’s harder and harder to find that.

KS: Channels, particularly in the U.S., are asking for worldwide rights, and that’s a problem for us too.

What makes a Canadian show successful internationally?

MK: Some of it is just a zeitgeist thing. We sell Til Debt Do Us Part, and it did better in its fourth and fifth seasons than it did in its first three years. That was due to the world economy collapsing. All of a sudden Til Debt do us Part was very attractive to broadcasters because people were dealing with that debt load all over the world.

There are also genres that people want, like bridal shows and cooking shows. Those are just perennially interesting to people.

What was your thinking behind initiatives such as the WIFT-T Picture Box mentorship?

MK: We really feel that it’s important to nurture the next gen of TV distributors and sale people. It’s an arena that is sometimes forgotten. For whatever reason, there seems to be a lot more women interested in what we do. So we thought WIFT-T would be a good partner on it.

What other initiatives are you getting involved with?

MK: We’ve just developed a new relationship with TVO kids and we’re distributing their kids programs internationally.

KS: The VOD market is of interest to us, especially in non-English speaking territories that have perhaps been otherwise closed off to English-language programming. So we’re looking at that in the next couple months and seeing what that could bring for us.

Photo: Marilyn Kynaston and Kate Sanagan