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(Anthony Jenkins For The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins For The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Canadian impresario finds his niche building a children’s TV powerhouse Add to ...

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.”

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.”

Then he shares a lighter personal story. As a producer on Bowling For Columbine, Mr. Donovan attended the Academy Awards ceremony on March 23, 2003. “We were at a hotel in Santa Monica, my wife and I, my children were there. My son was five, my daughter was three. And they’d come back from the beach, we were dressed in black. And my son, being very observant, said: ‘Why are you dressed like that in the middle of the afternoon?’ And I realized – ‘Oh, we forgot to tell you, we’re going to a party.’ ‘Well, what kind of party, in the middle of the afternoon?’ ‘A different kind of party.’ ‘Well, what happens at this different kind of party?’ ‘Well, I’ll tell you. If you make the best movie in the world, they give you a gold statue.’ ‘Oh! Okay.’

“So we come back about midnight or so – nine hours later. And he’s asleep, but we wake him up, because you have to tiptoe through a confined space. He comes back from the bathroom, and I had the statue, and we say: ‘Look! We made the best movie in the world. We have a statue!’ He looks at me and he says: ‘We watched it on TV. Everybody was getting those.’”

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Curriculum vitae

  • CEO, DHX Media Ltd.
  • Co-founder, Halifax Film Group, 2004 (merged with Decode Entertainment in 2006 to form DHX)
  • Co-founder, chairman and CEO of Salter Street Films (sold to Alliance Atlantis 2001)
  • DHX Media television shows include Inspector Gadget, Arthur, Caillou, Franny’s Feet, George of the Jungle, Yo Gabba Gabba!

Born: March 17, 1953 in Antigonish, N.S.

Spouse: Jacqueline Donovan. (Married “probably 18 years this year … My wife and I don’t really pay much attention to it, actually. She’s not that precious about it.”)

Four children: three daughters, one son.

Education: Dalhousie University, BA (1974), LL.B (1977), LL.D (Hon) (2004)

TV and film credits include: Shake Hands With the Devil (2007), producer, writer; Bowling For Columbine (2002), producer; This Hour Has 22 Minutes, executive producer; Codco, executive producer; Life With Billy (1993), executive producer

Quoted:

On March 23, 2003, Mr. Donovan accepted an Academy Award as a producer on the documentary Bowling For Columbine. The film’s director, Michael Moore, used the occasion to excoriate the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq a few days earlier. The experience, “was very satisfying, because there was a standing ovation. At the same time, from the bleachers – boos. People were booing. As a person being in the business of trying to create a discussion, I had in front of me just that discussion, between the boos and the standing ovation. Very satisfying.”

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