Something is wrong.
Michael Donovan has been sitting here for a couple of minutes now, at a secluded table in the hip Portuguese restaurant Chiado, the air tight around him. He’s making small talk, but there’s something obligatory about the exchange. He’s not giving away more than is absolutely necessary. To wit: How long has he been in town? “Three days.” (Pause.) Does he often come to this restaurant when visiting Toronto? “No.” Oh. So… um… it’s not one of his favourites? “No. I just eat in my room and work, work, work.” He smiles thinly, like an experienced traveller submitting to the whims of a customs official, wondering when the encounter will end.
Mind you, that may be his default mode. As CEO of the Halifax-based children’s television powerhouse DHX Media Inc., whose shows include Yo, Gabba Gabba!, Caillou and a forthcoming 3-D reboot of the classic Inspector Gadget series, Mr. Donovan spends about 50 per cent of his time on the road. “My home is really the Air Canada lounge,” he says. His voice is gravelly, so the quip sounds like a growl.
It’s been like that for decades, ever since he and his older brother Paul, two of eight siblings, spent the late 1970s and early 1980s trying to crank out B-movies under the name Salter Street Films. In the beginning, Michael Donovan saw the business as a brief diversion, after years of law school and doing poverty law for Dalhousie Legal Aid. But he caught the bug. “At that time, Canadian films were expected to be very tedious,” he notes. “There was a legacy of social agenda. Not necessarily entertainment. And so it was much more exciting to flout that.”
Paul wrote and directed, Michael produced and travelled around the world selling the pictures, such as South Pacific 1942. (If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone.) “You’d make them for around $250,000, and by selling it country by country – $15,000 here, there – you’d make maybe $500,000. Which, actually, between the investors and this and that, rarely paid the bills. So you’d go to the next one, hoping that was the one that would work. That was the world of the independent.”
Until it wasn’t. By Mr. Donovan’s telling, that world imploded by the mid-1980s with the advent of home video. Yes, the new delivery technology brought a flood of new money into the system. But it also meant “the difference between A- and B-(movies) became too sharp – and very noticeable to audiences.”
After mulling a move to Hollywood, the Donovans resolved to stay in Halifax, and eventually pivoted to producing TV shows, including Codco and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He mentions this as he begins a small appetizer of grilled sardines.
“I just knew there was so much talent, particularly out of Newfoundland, that nobody was aware of, and there was an opportunity. It was very satisfying, I must admit, to create political satire.” There were other successes, such as the 1991 CBC-TV movie Life With Billy, which won three Gemini Awards. A kinship between the Donovans and the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore led to the TV series The Awful Truth for Bravo, and the Oscar-winning doc Bowling For Columbine.
And there was an acclaimed film adaptation of Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire’s Rwanda genocide book Shake Hands With The Devil, which received 12 Genie nominations, including one for Michael Donovan’s screenplay.
But those days of hands-on film and TV production are over now. As CEO, he pronounces himself dedicated exclusively to creating shareholder value. “That’s the job that I have, and I work on it as assiduously as I can,” he says. “If I actually go and engage in the creation of the products, that would distract me from the core job, so I can’t do it. Do I miss it? Yes, at some level. But this is what I’m doing.”