After Salter Street was sold in 2001 to Alliance Atlantis (and then shut down in 2003), Mr. Donovan founded the Halifax Film Company, merging it in 2006 with Decode Entertainment to form DHX. In 2012, DHX became what Mr. Donovan says is the world’s largest independent provider of children’s TV programming with its purchase of Cookie Jar Entertainment; it now has more than 9,600 half-hour shows in its library.
That puts the company in an enviable position, as parents around the world will pay a premium for name-brand TV content their children can watch in a safe online environment.
“We sell more children’s animation to Netflix than any other company in the world, including the studios,” says Mr. Donovan. But there are plenty of other avenues for DHX’s content, almost all of which is sold on a non-exclusive basis: If another buyer comes along in the same territory, DHX just sells the rights to the same programming.
“We’re finding all sorts of new customers, and all sorts of new ways to work around the previous restrictions that existed,” he says, now forking his way through a vegetable risotto. “Also, a lot of our programming is preschool – and the one making the decision is the mother. She is going to order on iTunes the show that she experienced.”
To non-parents, Franklin or Teletubbies may not seem like big brands. But they have audiences around the world. Before the development of online platforms, to get noticed, the shows “would have to get on a broadcast network. And if it was an old show, why would they do that? It used to be the ‘80-20 rule,’ which is: 20 per cent sold, 80 per cent didn’t. With the Internet, and infinite shelf space, our experience is the reverse: 80 sells, 80 finds an audience, 80 finds a way. And so very old shows are coming back to life.”
Still, DHX believes there’s plenty of juice left in the traditional television business. Last November, it struck a $170-million deal to buy Family Channel and three other kids TV services that Bell was forced to divest after its $3-billion purchase of Astral Media. Having those channels helps DHX get traction for its own new shows.
“Having been in the producing business, one of the worst things about it, is you might spend three years developing something, and a commissioning editor will – with a wave, a toss of the hand – say no, in 10 seconds. And that’s it. And the reasons are not necessarily not liking the particular show or thinking it won’t work, it’s just not their agenda at that particular time. And the worst thing of that is that, when it was initiated, it was the agenda. It just takes time,” he says. “Also, it really helps, when you’re selling abroad, to have clear placement in your own country.”
As the plates are cleared away, Mr. Donovan is starting to loosen up. He’s thumping the table, talking up the domestic animation industry and its roots in the National Film Board of Canada. He’s sharing the occasional political opinion. And then he reveals why he seemed so tense at the start of the lunch: He had only learned a few hours earlier that he would need to talk about his personal life. When he was told, he says, “I almost fell off my chair. ‘I cannot talk about myself. I never do!’ Terrifying!” He smiles, warmly now. “But I made a choice to proceed. And my terror now seems ridiculous.”
The lunch winds down – we’re now nibbling a collection of cheeses – and I ask permission to snap a couple of photos of him for reference. In the first, he is wearing his glasses, thick black numbers that make him look, when the lenses shade dark in the sunlight, a little menacing, almost De Niro-like. In the second, he looks like the actor Colm Feore. But Mr. Donovan looks at this second one, and seems suddenly winded.
“When I looked at that picture, I saw my grandfather – my mother’s father,” he says. “Slightly terrifying. I’ve never seen that before. Because I don’t look at myself very often.”