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Sean Harris as Micheletto and Colm Feore as Cardinal Della Rovere in The Borgias. (Jonathan Hession/Jonathan Hession / Showtime)
Sean Harris as Micheletto and Colm Feore as Cardinal Della Rovere in The Borgias. (Jonathan Hession/Jonathan Hession / Showtime)

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The Canadian co-pro: Is it competition or co-operation? Add to ...

What do the lustful Henry VIII, the scheming Rodrigo Borgia, a youthful King Arthur and a steerage passenger on the Titanic have in common? They are all Canadian - or at least their current television incarnations qualify as Canadian content.

The Borgias, a new series that is currently showing on Bravo! and will be rebroadcast on CTV in June, is the latest European costume drama that Canadian producers have helped finance in exchange for a share of the behind-the-scenes jobs and a few lead roles on screen: In this instance, Colm Feore plays Rodrigo's arch rival Cardinal Della Rovere while Quebec actor François Arnaud plays his son, Cesare Borgia.

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The productions are made under international treaties set up to permit smaller countries - in this instance, Ireland, Hungary and Canada - to pool resources and compete with big-budget Hollywood fare. It's a television trend, heralded by The Tudors series on CBC in 2007, that just keeps growing. The CBC will begin airing Camelot, a Canada-Ireland co-production, next fall while Shaw Media recently announced it will broadcast Titanic, a Canadian-British-Hungarian miniseries, on Global in 2012.

Broadcast regulations allow Canadian broadcasters to count the productions as Canadian content, and the Canadian producers can get tax credits and funding based on the Canadian portion of the budget, which leaves critics questioning whether Euro pudding is pushing domestic programming out of choice prime-time slots.

"There's a scramble for any kind of money internationally. The Europeans need to look beyond their borders for extra coin," said Chris Haddock, writer and producer of the Canadian TV series Intelligence, Da Vinci's Inquest and Da Vinci's City Hall. "In one way, we are taking a step forward, competing in an international market. In another, we are taking two steps back in trying to make TV that appeals to everyone. You get these broad things like Camelot, based on a fairy tale, or The Tudors and The Borgias, that will appeal to Europeans and have some colonial link to Canada.... The crux is: Is it competing [with Canadian productions]for financing and for space on the prime-time schedule?"

Both the Writers Guild of Canada, which represents Canadian screenwriters, and ACTRA, the actors' union, fear the co-pros are doing exactly that. They are sounding the alarm about an increasing imbalance between minority co-productions in which Canadians play a small role often providing post-production work such as editing, and majority ones where the key creative roles and the actual filming, which provides the bulk of the jobs, stay in Canada.

"TV dramas are completely out of whack: We have far more minority than majority co-productions," said Maureen Parker, the guild's executive director. "We are perpetually financing foreign productions.... It's disingenuous to Canadians who are subsidizing it with tax credits."

The federal government, which says the number of Canadian co-productions in TV and film has dropped since 2000 because of increased international competition for partnerships, is currently updating its model treaty, the blueprint for co-production contracts. It is proposing to drop the floor for minority participation from 20 per cent of the financing to 15 per cent to give Canadian producers more flexibility. The guild is unconvinced and wants the federal funding agency Telefilm Canada to do a biennial review of the balance between majority and minority to ensure visibly Canadian projects are getting their fair chance.

"It was never the intention of the treaties to create Canadian shows that are full of U.S. or U.K. stars and are shot offshore," said ACTRA national executive director Stephen Waddell. "Canadians don't realize these are Canadian films and fill Canadian-content requirements and Canadian air time with shows that are shot overseas."

Ironically, considering their European settings, these shows are created with American audiences in mind: Although the U.S. is never party to the international treaties, American cable networks are often major broadcaster partners in the projects.

"Everyone is looking for something that works everywhere," Haddock said, adding that these shows are always shot in English because that is the largest linguistic market, leaving foreign-language broadcasters to do their own dubbing. "You want recognizable stars: The Italians are played by Brits.... It's the Disney model."

Many producers and broadcasters, however, defend the minority co-productions, saying they bring audiences much richer fare than one country can afford on its own while giving Canadian actors, writers and directors international exposure.

"It's a great model, it's the way to get these series made," said John Weber of Take 5 Productions, the Canadian producer of The Borgias, Camelot and the final season of The Tudors. "It provides the audience with a significant amount of Canadian contribution on large-sale, high-end period dramas you can't finance in Canada." He estimates that The Borgias, which was shot in Hungary and employed several hundred people, had about 70 Canadians involved at various stages of the creation, production and post-production including 30 visual-effects artists.

While the unions suspect the show's real appeal to broadcasters is their lower price tag, programmers disagree, saying if that were the case they could simply pick them up later rather than invest in their production - although then they would not count as Canadian content.

"You don't just go for something because you can get it for less money. You go for it because it will work for your audience,' said Phyllis Platt, acting head of arts and entertainment programming at the CBC. "We chose with care: Is this something that Canadians have a connection to, something that has some resonance?" She points to the big myth of Camelot and the monarchical history of The Tudors as aspects of those productions that speak to many English Canadians.

Occasionally these sweeping sagas might even take place here: Platt says the CBC is currently seeking foreign partners for a Canadian majority co-production of a historical drama set in Canada and Europe. Visions of Champlain and Vimy Ridge dance in the head.

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