CMF @ 10: Building blocks of an industry

Jocelyn Hamilton, Virginia Rankin and Blair Powers discuss how their companies have built momentum, relationships and revenue streams on the back of financial support from the public-private funder.

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To mark the Canada Media Fund’s 10-year anniversary, Playback is rolling out a week of content charting the organization’s evolution and impact on the domestic production sector.

jocelyn hamiltonJocelyn Hamilton, president, Canada, eOne Television

When I came to eOne in 2015, getting Private Eyes greenlit for development and ultimately production was one of the first things I worked on. CMF was a huge part of the financing for our then-unproven show. It’s a risk-oriented thing for anyone to put in a minimum guarantee into any new show – you don’t know if it’s going to sell, or how the show is actually going to execute. In the case of Private Eyes, we had one huge piece, which was that Jason Priestley had signed on to be executive producer and star in the show, which is in line with the strategy of CMF and most Canadian companies, where if you can bring a star like a Jason Priestley back into our industry here in Canada in a real way, it helps propel our content that much further.

I have to give props to Corus, who are the keepers of the envelope, for really supporting the show from day one. Corus was very bullish about it, and allocated what I would call the “proper” amount of CMF funding into the show to allow for it to greenlight, without requiring more than a proper MG for the world. What’s happening more and more as budgets go up is that unless you put the proper amount of CMF allocation in, we’re finding it much tougher to finish the financing, because the risk is just not recoupable. So what Corus did was put in the right amount in season one and then again in season two, where they upped the episodic count in the second season to 18, which was another way to amortize our costs.

In Canada, we have to stand behind shows that we know have the potential to sell around the world – but you don’t know until it happens. The CMF is the biggest part of that.

Then, when you’re taking a show out to the world, to be able to say “it was doing well over a million every week at a time when overall ratings were going down year after year” is important, and it started to do really well in France, Germany and the U.K. especially. So then, when we brought our next series out to very similar broadcasters – things like Mary Kills People or Cardinal, even though they’re serialized – there is a track record of winning, of executional excellence. All of those shows – Private Eyes, Mary Kills People, Cardinal and Ransom – all those shows were CMF 10-out-of-10 series. Through the support of the CMF, international partners will continue to look at the next show you bring. And if you don’t have that support up front, especially in 2020, we’re not going to be able to magically come up with the funding, as our budgets are upwards of anywhere between $2.3-$3.1M for these shows. So if we’re going to compete on a world stage, we really rely on the CMF to help us do that and bring Canadian talent to the world.

I have huge respect for Val Creighton, and I know she has worked really hard to make the rules and regulations around the CMF as palatable as possible, and to evolve the organization as the world evolves. The industry and the CMF may need to evolve as time goes on, in a way that makes sense to be able to manage the financing of shows in a very global industry. One question, for instance, is whether the SVODs will we able to access CMF if they are contributing to the system, as has been recently tabled [by Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault]. Those rules will take time, and we don’t yet know the answers to that question. But what I do know is the CMF will evolve along with that, because they are progressive, and we’ll have to continue to progress along with them, because the world is changing.

virginia rankinVirginia Rankin, SVP, Sphere Media Plus

It was around 2017 that we had pitched Transplant to Bell Media, and they had agreed to develop the project, and at that point we applied to the CMF for development funding. We developed it over approximately a year, to the point that Bell Media/CTV was interested in ordering it, at which point we put the financing together – and, of course, we included the CMF in that plan – and then from there we approached NBCUniversal to complete the financing.

Having the CMF funding in place was extremely important when approaching NBCU, because it means that we have stable, reliable funding already in place. It’s also seen that way by the banks and distributors, so it’s a huge advantage to us. It means that when someone like NBCU comes in, the only thing at risk is their own money.

The other thing we accessed that’s extremely important to Transplant is the Anglophone Minority incentive. We’re a Quebec-based company, which works in both French and English, but obviously Transplant is an English program, and so it really makes it possible for us to shoot it in Quebec – it’s an important part of the financing.

The success of the series to date has been mind blowing to us. We’re very proud of the show, and we know it’s an excellent series that obviously achieves great success in Canada. And while we always expected it would sell into the U.S., the fact we got a prime-time slot in the fall was not something we had not anticipated. Obviously that’s partly a function of the pandemic, and the lack of programming, but the fact we’re basically competing, and exceeding, U.S. domestic programs is a testament to the series itself and how people are responding to it. The audience is actually growing, too. Your pilot always does well, but to continue to grow your audience into the middle of the season, as Transplant has done, is just wonderful.

I don’t think we would have a company without the CMF. When I started working at Sphere it was a much smaller company, and it only did drama in both French and English. But every program we have done, it has been supported by the CMF. The company is now bigger and has grown to include unscripted, some of which is not funded by the CMF, but certainly on the drama side, it’s invaluable. It’s very much helped to build the industry in this country.

blair powers Blair Powers, partner, Sinking Ship

The reality is, the funding made it possible to produce Dino Dan. At the time, back in 2008, we had a very limited track record – this was our first series in the live-action scripted space – and so the funding support helped us make the leap from unscripted to scripted in a way that was really important for our future. TVO, our lead broadcaster on the series, allocated the funds from their envelope. Now the majority of our shows are scripted, and this was the first step into that.

Of course, it wasn’t only our first scripted series, it was also our first blended series, where we had pretty significant CG components. Those two pieces – the scripted and the CG – definitely made it a signature calling card for us.

That allowed us to move onto projects like Annedroids (2013), for Amazon Prime, and Dino Dana. Getting a show like Annedroids moving was definitely predicated on having first done Dino Dan, because it had the blended CG and live-action components, it was scripted, and it had a broader arc across the series, so it appealed to a slightly older age group. That show would definitely not have been possible without Dino Dan first.

It was one of those pieces that, at the time, could be taken for granted, but looking back you see it was an essential building block to take a big leap in our production value. Especially in 2008, when there was a lot of fallout in different markets because of the financial crisis, it was invaluable that there was a stable source of funding to back the shows, so we could bring it to life.