On the domestic front, Shaftesbury had another stellar year in 2019, producing three primetime series in Murdoch Mysteries, Frankie Drake Mysteries and Hudson & Rex. What allowed it to hit a career-high $108 million in production spend, though, was putting its foot to the floor on its coproduction strategy through a trio of global series: Departure, The Sounds and Dead Still.
Of course, coproducing is nothing new for Shaftesbury, a prolific cross-territory collaborator throughout its 30-plus year history. The difference between 2019 and previous years, says CEO Christina Jennings, is that after diligently building relationships with overseas production companies and broadcasters, the long-gestating strategy came to fruition simultaneously with three international shows.
“After years of working with producers in New Zealand, for example, and trying to find a project that we can do together, it paid off,” Jennings tells Playback of The Sounds, a New Zealand/Canada coproduction with Auckland-based South Pacific Pictures.
Its growth in the realm of coproduction has been aided by the hire of creative exec Alexandra Finlay, who became Shaftesbury’s first U.K.-based hire in March of last year, serving as the day-to-day point person creatively (and for post-production) on The Sounds and Ireland/Canada treaty coproduction Dead Still (produced with Dublin-based Deadpan Pictures).
And with the COVID-19 pandemic promising to be a factor for months and potentially years to come, coproduction could be an increasingly viable way to get projects off the ground financially, says Jennings. “It’s going to be more important than ever to partner up and bring some money to the table.”
The coproduction focus has borne fruit, with season one of Departure selling to U.S. streamer Peacock and earning impressive ratings at home. Not even a pandemic-related shutdown in March could slow the show’s momentum, with Shaftesbury remounting production in August and wrapping production on the sophomore season in mid-October. Meanwhile, The Sounds and Dead Still have helped spearhead a move into original content by AMC Networks-owned streamer Acorn TV.
However, while coproduction will continue to be a crucial element of Shaftesbury’s business, primetime hour-long series are its bread and butter. It produced more than 40 hours in 2019, a whopping total by any yardstick in the Canadian industry. (In order to handle the large production volume, Shaftesbury also last year welcomed creative producer Lesley Grant back to the fold.)
In a year of head-spinning uncertainty, delivering that content to broadcasters has been more challenging than ever for Canadian producers. It’s meant that least one (unannounced) Shaftesbury project has been pushed until at least the top of next year, says Jennings.
“To be honest, 2020 would have been an even bigger year [than 2019],” she notes of the project punted into 2021. But while some shows have been shelved momentarily, both Murdoch Mysteries (heading into its 14th season) and Frankie Drake (renewed for a fourth) have re-entered production and are on course to air on CBC this winter.
Those shows, both creatively led by showrunner Peter Mitchell, were among the first Canadian dramas to resume production over the summer. Not a minor undertaking by any stretch, and an “extremely stressful” exercise for all involved, says Jennings. For all the cases Detective William Murdoch has cracked over 13 seasons, solving the mystery of how to produce during COVID-19 has proven one of the toughest.
Confronting a challenge so vast has led to wide-ranging, complex, ever-changing conversations between Shaftesbury’s senior team about how to proceed with two of the biggest shows on Canadian television. For the time being, the shows have proceeded with more in-studio shooting, fewer wardrobe changes and extras, on-set doctors and simpler storytelling. “This is not the year” to do the more elaborate scenes, says Jennings, adding that around 70% of the increased production costs are unfunded, meaning producers must find the money themselves.
Much of the planning has been done at the scripting stage, and Jennings acknowledges that Mitchell – one of the most experienced showrunners in Canada – has his hands full. “Pete will find ways to be clever, because there’s an expectation that the audiences have for these shows.”
The entire Shaftesbury team has continuously modified its safety protocols as it rolls with the punches of several simultaneous production cycles. Like so many productions across North America, filming was temporarily shut down on Hudson & Rex when a member of the cast and production crew tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in a day-long set closure and a valuable learning experience.
Now, as Shaftesbury contemplates a production model that has been forever changed, Jennings says the prodco is examining different ways of completing its projects, including the use of gaming engines, real-time rendering and video-wall technology.
It’s a far cry from the conversations the prodco was having in 2019 as it powered to its best year on record, but these innovations will likely influence its production methods in both the short and long term.
“We’re in the process of investigating whether there are different ways to make shows. It’s fascinating and it’s costly, but we’re mindful of the fact we can’t work the way we used to.”