Playback’s 2016 5 to Watch

From Playback magazine: Five Canadian entertainment industry talents whose careers are on the rise.

Playback‘s annual 5 to Watch is akin to a living organism. Every year it’s a little bit different, adapting to the climate around it. This year’s list is no exception and if we could identify an overall theme, it would be one of transition – not unlike the industry at large. Our intrepid five have each shaped their careers to the opportunities in front of them – whether they followed a muse or forged an opportunity where none existed before. Canadian entertainment is in a moment of peak entrepreneurialism, and, each in their own way, Playback‘s 5 to Watch reflect that, across crafts, coasts and mediums.

melissa a. smith (2)Queen of the North: Melissa Smith

Foresight, drive and ambition have led this 24-year-old to break into the casting business with her own agency operating in two Ontario production hubs   

Growing up as an aspiring actor in Northern Ontario, Melissa Smith commuted to Toronto for gigs, eventually moving there to get an agent and book larger parts.

For some, the story might end there. But not for Smith. Her decision to take a job after high school as a casting assistant in order to learn the business from behind the lens, coupled with more than a little foresight and vision into how to tap into the rise of productions back around her hometown of Sudbury, ON, have led to success for the young entrepreneur.

Twenty-four-year-old Smith owns and operates Melissa A. Smith Casting, which she launched in 2013. Smith skipped the rookie grind, in which many spend years as assistants getting to know the business, and went straight into running her own agency and capitalizing on the production boom in her hometown. The company now operates offices in both Sudbury and Toronto, with an administrative assistant staffing each and three to four projects on the go at a time.

Her portfolio has included two New Metric Media projects, Letterkenny and What Would Sal Do?, both shot in Sudbury, the upcoming Cardinal for CTV in 2016, and features like Away from Everywhere for Quiet Revolution Pictures and Ontario casting for eOne and Max Films’ Two Lovers and a Bear, which screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

She is particularly proud of her work on the first season of Letterkenny, in which she was able to cast newcomers who have stayed on as series regulars, as well as going on to book other shows and features. Mark Montefiore, producer on the series, praises Smith’s “killer instinct” and calls out her casting of Joel Gagne as “Joint Boy” on seasons one and two. “He’s actually a miner by trade but she brought out his acting chops,” he notes.

James Milligan, CEO of Vancouver-based Wild Media Entertainment, who is working with Smith on upcoming feature Grim Trigger, says he was impressed with her willingness “to go and approach anyone regardless of their level of fame [and] to find new talent, someone who hasn’t maybe been exposed to mass market.”

Not content to focus on casting, Smith has also launched Opal Entertainment, a production and consulting company focused on Northern Ontario. Upcoming projects include a 21st-century superhero feature DragonMan, a coproduction produced by Mario Domina and written by Ted Lazaris, which is based on his trilogy of books. Opal is also working on fantasy/fairy-tale feature Wurdilak, a U.K.-Canada coproduction with London-based ThunderBall Films set to shoot in 2017.

By Val Maloney

rt!The rule breaker: RT! 

Director RT! has long worked with the biggest names in music. Now, he’s making a name for himself  as a TV and film director

Randall Thorne isn’t someone who sits around and waits for opportunities to come knocking. His 12-year career as a music video director and recent move into television directing can largely be credited to the fact that Thorne (who goes by the name RT!) has created his opportunities for himself. And his approach has consistently paid off. The writer/director, who was this year named to TIFF’s 2016-2017 Studio program, is now in development on his first feature film.

In 2001, RT! was an aspiring director and production assistant at MuchMusic, taking advantage of his proximity to artists to pitch them on his directing services. “It was ballsy,” he admits with a laugh. That approach, however, landed him his first gig directing local artist G Stokes’ video for “Rock Da Block.” In 2002, it was nominated for Best Independent Video at the MuchMusic Video Awards. Since then, RT! has accumulated 14 MMVAs and worked with artists like Kardinal Offishall and Sean Paul.

Despite his success directing videos, RT! found the TV industry unwilling to give him a shot behind the camera – an opportunity he craved. So, once again, RT! created his own way in.

In 2013, when pop star Shawn Desman needed a director, RT! pitched him on another idea: a TV special showcasing Desman’s upcoming album. After Universal Music Canada (UMC) gave it the go ahead, RT! co-wrote, coproduced and directed Alive, a 30-minute special that debuted on MuchMusic. “The planning for this project was a huge process that involved storyline, dancers, choreography and locations. RT!, being the true professional that he is, not only managed to execute an incredible job seamlessly, but he brought the passion and creativity he has to all of his work to make this a success,” said Ivan Evidente, director of A&R at UMC. Alive, and its director, both nabbed Canadian Screen Award nominations.

The special allowed RT! to approach TV producers with an “episode” under his belt. Since 2014, he’s directed for Degrassi: The Next Generation, Make It Pop and Backstage. (Noted Canadian director Warren P. Sonoda calls him “unequivocally talented.”) In between TV jobs, RT! co-wrote and directed The Time Traveler, which was awarded Best Short Film at the 2015 Canadian Film Festival.

It was at that festival that RT! approached David Miller, president of A71 Productions, with that now-patented “ballsy” style. “[He said] ‘You don’t know it yet, but we’re going to work together,’” recalls Miller. While Miller wasn’t that interested in working on micro-budget indies, RT!’s concept ultimately swayed him. The thriller, which recently received development funding from the Harold Greenberg Fund, is told from three different perspectives. RT!, who co-wrote the script with screenwriter and poet Wendy Motion Brathwaite, will direct one “perspective,” while Nurse.Fighter.Boy director Charles Officer and Cracked producer Calum deHartog will direct the others. “We’re all rallying around [RT!],” says Miller. “We’re doing it because we can see that independent filmmaking spirit in him.”

By Regan Reid 

alex patrick take the shotThe deal-maker: Alex Patrick

The president of Take the Shot Productions has helped transform the East Coast prodco

Leave it to Newfoundland’s Take the Shot Productions to use the most Canadian method possible for evaluating the merit of a potential employee: hockey.

It was 2011, and the Republic of Doyle prodco was heavy into the series’ six-season run and its execs had little time for anything else other than the offbeat procedural.

This, the company’s five partners realized, was not a sound business strategy.

So when longtime TTS mentor and industry sage Michael Levine, a partner at law firm Goodmans LLP, brought one of his bright young talents to their attention, the partners (John Vatcher, Allan Hawco, Perry Chafe and Rob and Peter Blackie) paid heed. They invited the hotshot young articling student to be their VP of business affairs and, naturally, join their rec-league hockey team. It was, in part, the latter that helped seal Patrick’s future with the company, Peter Blackie half-jokes.

“Everything you need to know about Alex Patrick, you can learn in playing 15 minutes of hockey with him,” Blackie says with a laugh. “He joined us to play – and while we greatly appreciated the youth in his legs – one of the things that really stood out to us is that he is a real competitor, but a real team player.”

It’s a theme that comes up often in conversation about Patrick, who rose quickly at the prodco and was named president of Take the Shot Productions in 2014.

Since then, the company has seen its fortunes rise considerably, thanks in no small part to Patrick’s business savvy. It is the producer behind Frontier, Discovery Canada’s first-ever scripted series (and for which Netflix holds international/second window rights) and Caught, a forthcoming one-hour drama with Entertainment One for CBC. Patrick played an instrumental role in helping secure both deals for TTS.

Levine, who has mentored CBC GM Sally Catto in addition to Boat Rocker Media principals David Fortier and Ivan Schneeberg, says he saw in Patrick the common elements for entertainment-business success: “sensitivity, toughness, intelligence, intuition, a sense of humanity.”

The idea to connect Patrick to Take the Shot came out in the Goodmans gym (natch). While discussing Patrick’s future in law, it occurred to Levine that he had an ambitious young lawyer who didn’t want to work in corporate law, and knew a prodco that wanted to focus on creative.

The stars aligned quickly after that. Keen to broaden his VP role at TTS, Patrick started attending markets and it was at a MIPCOM that he met with Discovery programmer Edwina Follows and asked if she’d be interested in scripted; she said she was, possibly in something on the Canadian fur trade. Patrick took it back to the Blackies and the rest is, well, history.

Patrick is now spearheading TTS’s expansion to Toronto, a move he hopes will help bridge the Toronto-centric TV world with Newfoundland’s assets, and allow him to better pursue those game-changing deals.

“It can be a challenging process but it’s also fun,” he says of his role. “In a short period of time (around Frontier) there was a high volume of stuff that needed to get done – it was stressful but I now feel really equipped to handle it. The only way to learn some of this stuff is to do it.”

By Katie Bailey 

cj creativeThe digital breakouts: CJ Creative

Who needs TV? CJ Creative transformed their “sweet” factual business into a YouTube sensation 

By any account successful TV producers, with several factual series to their names and a first-look deal with eOne, CJ Creative’s Connie Contardi and Jocelyn Mercer by 2014 were feeling disillusioned with the game.

So that same year, they approached the star of their single-season Slice series SugarStars, Yolanda Gampp, and asked if she’d be interested in fronting a YouTube channel. The Toronto-based duo had been shopping a Gampp series idea around to broadcasters but to no avail. However, with YouTube’s DIY culture well established, they believed Gampp had a shot at breaking through in the medium.

“We knew that we were very late to the YouTube game,” says Contardi. “Most of the channels online that have more than a million subscribers started from 2005 to 2008 – 2010 at the latest. And here we were in 2015 trying to crack YouTube. It was kind of a foolish thing, but we just wanted to go for it.”

Backed by the “bank of Connie and Jocelyn,” the pair and Gampp brokered a three-way partnership for How to Cake It, spinning the channel off into its own business outside CJ Creative.

The channel hit algorithm pay dirt last July when subscribers suddenly spiked from a few thousand to one hundred thousand. It is now closing in on two million, and sees around 17 million views a month with 150,000 new subscribers added each month.

Cake It joined Kin Canada last summer, and has since done deals with Disney, Walmart and Baskin-Robbins for brand integrations, currently generating 90% of CJ Creative’s revenue. The brand overall generated sales revenues over six figures in the first quarter of 2016 and anticipates doubling the numbers in the fourth quarter of this year. YouTube revenue and brand partnerships typically account for 50% to 75% of Cake It‘s revenue, with e-commerce making up the remaining 25% to 50%.

Kin Canada managing director Rick Matthews said he was immediately struck by the duo’s business savvy. “Not to sound too cliché about it, but they both have an incredible ability to pivot,” he says. “That’s driven by a strong desire to be leaders in the market. They are pursuing their own passions and aren’t afraid to take smart risks.”

Cake It is also expanding to include more branded merch, live cooking classes and an upcoming book. Their first live cooking class, Camp Cake, attracted 1,200 fans on Facebook Live this summer.

And, wouldn’t you know it? Broadcasters soon came calling, with Gampp appearing on NBC’s Today Show last February. The duo are now planning two more YouTube channels, one fitness-focused and featuring another host of a previous CJ series, Mr. Friday, and another with event planner and SugarStars personality Caspar Haydar. On the side, Contardi will continue to focus on her spinoff business, content marketing firm LuxStory Media.

By Val Maloney 

billon_hi_resTV’s next drama king: Nicolas Billon

He’s a well-known playwright, but now this writer is taking his talents to the small screen  

Playwright-turned-TV writer Nicolas Billon is charting a narrative shift in his own script, taking a plunge into Canadian writing rooms to pen the TV dramas on which audiences are increasingly hooked.

A distinguished and award-winning playwright transitioning into the world of TV writing, Billon’s arrival speaks to the state of Canadian TV. With premium-drama opportunities increasingly available domestically, writers such as Billon are no longer automatically looking stateside for success (although there’s always a chance they will end up there).

Currently working in the writers room of CBC’s X Company, where he skipped a few traditional rookie steps to directly writing a whole episode of season three, Billon landed the gig shortly after graduating from the Canadian Film Centre’s Bell Media Prime Time TV Program in 2015. Just a week before, he signed with The Alpern Group, the agency that also represents vaunted Canadian showrunners Michelle Lovretta and Emily Andras.

“Billon’s presence speaks to the level of talent that Canadian television is currently drawing and shows real promise for the future of the industry,” says Jeff Alpern of the Alpern Group, who signed Billon a week before he got the X Company gig.

The map of Billon’s journey charts a steady, successful trajectory to the visual medium. As a playwright, he’s captured some of Canada’s top writing prizes, earning a 2013 Governor General’s award for his triptych Fault Lines and a Canadian Screen Award and Writers Guild of Canada award for adapting his first play Elephant Song (2005) to film.

He’s also sold the film rights for his play Butcher (2014) to Rhombus Media and is adapting it with Sleeping Giant director Andrew Cividino.

But it’s his interest in Canadian TV, specifically, that attracted the attention of his agent. Alpern signed Billon in 2015 after coming across Fault Lines and being “blown away” by it. He says Billon is that rare, dextrous writer who has both writing cred and an authentic voice.

His signing with Alpern facilitated a transition that has been tempting Billon for awhile. He first applied to the CFC program five years ago with a script that, he now describes with a laugh, wasn’t “yet” TV. But he kept envisioning a career change from stage to the screen.

“TV today is not the TV I grew up on. It’s much more sophisticated, it explores things in a much longer time frame. In a film and in a play you have 60 minutes to three hours to tell one story.”

But with TV’s infinite story-arc potential, Billon says he can dig deep into character development. He likens writing for TV to developing a novel, making a comparison between Tolstoy’s profound treatment of Anna’s character in Anna Karenina to that of Walter White in Breaking Bad or of Don Draper in Mad Men. He’s also enthralled by the writing room process, after years spent working alone. The speed and intense, collaborative confines of the writing room are intimidating, he notes, “but the great thing is you find it is not always perfect but that’s part of the process; the scale [of a TV series] has changed the process.”

By Sonya Fatah 

This article originally appeared in Playback’s Fall 2016 issue.