Everyone who works in Canadian television appreciates the irony. For decades, creators of homegrown series shaved off the edges of their Canadian-ness, the better to sell to international (especially U.S.) markets. They filmed in Toronto or Vancouver, but never as Toronto or Vancouver – it was Generic North American City. They avoided glimpses of the CN Tower; they swapped out red mailboxes for blue ones; their characters never uttered tells such as “province” or “prime minister.”
Call Me Fitz is a good example – it shot in Nova Scotia, starred Canadian-born Jason Priestley as a caddish used-car salesperson and ran four seasons on HBO Canada. But there was nothing specifically Canadian about it. “No one said, ‘It can’t be in Canada,’” Michael Souther, one of its executive producers, said in a recent interview. “It was a choice to use a nondescript setting.” But everyone understood why, and many Canadians thrived as providers of low-cost television that looked and sounded American.
Then a funny thing happened – behemoth streaming companies such as Netflix and Prime Video began to dominate what people watch. And those U.S. streamers discovered that, around the world, viewers want … local programming. About three years ago, they opened development offices in Canada, actively seeking capital-C Canadian projects, no locale-shaving required. (They’re doing the same in other countries, too, including Australia, Great Britain, Italy and India.)
“When Amazon first started here, I met with a ton of producers and production companies,” Christina Wayne, head of Canadian originals for Prime Video, told me in an interview, “and the constant story I was hearing was, ‘I have a drawer full of shows that I’ve never been able to make, stories I’ve wanted to tell for so long and haven’t been able to without watering them down.’”
A year ago, Prime Video’s Canadian originals began to trickle out: the docu-series All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs; a local version of the comic-showdown franchise Last One Laughing; a reboot of the iconic sketch series The Kids in the Hall. But Canadians who make scripted comedies and dramas kept a close eye on The Lake, a half-hour series set in Ontario cottage country, created by Julian Doucet (Hudson & Rex), and produced by Souther and his partner, Teza Lawrence. It’s the kind of series that needs to be grounded in specifics and authenticity, the kind creators pour their hearts into (Doucet draws from his unique family and their summers at the cottage). It dropped June 17, and though Amazon doesn’t share ratings, it must be attracting Canadian clicks – on July 14, it was renewed for another season.
Netflix hasn’t announced a slate yet, but at the Banff World Media festival in June, its Canadian development executives committed to “leaning into localness.”
All this sounds like good news, and in many ways it is. Canadian actors and crews will work more. Canadian producers and production companies will have more buyers for their shows, and those shows will feel more rooted. For example, Three Pines, the upcoming Prime Video series based on Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels, is set and shot in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, with a Canadian crew. It doesn’t star a Canadian as Gamache – he’s played by Alfred Molina, a Brit – but his co-stars include Tantoo Cardinal and Rossif Sutherland, and it’s directed by Canadians such as Tracey Deer.
Thanks to the streamers’ deep pockets, their shows look shiny, with starry casts and high production values – plus extra money for splashy promotion. The streamers avail themselves of local tax credits, but otherwise they fully fund their own projects – they don’t take money from Canadian funding agencies. Their Canadian producers don’t have to scramble around the world to cobble together financing and distribution, and showrunners don’t have to compromise their content to ensure that co-funders from Croatia or Portugal or wherever are represented. Prime Video’s Canadian originals also go out to a staggering 240 countries, a global audience that homegrown productions rarely reach.
“We start with, ‘What is a show that’s going to work in Canada, with a Canadian point of view, that has both local and global appeal?’” Brent Haynes, head of scripted originals, Canada, Amazon Studios, told me. “Then we buy and develop those shows.” There’s no ceiling to the number of shows they might make, and no budget cap on how much they might cost. But there has to be Canadian representation in the creatives, cast and crew, and the point of view has to come from a Canadian place.
“We’re not going to wave the Maple Leaf in every scene,” Haynes continued. “We don’t want Canadians to say, ‘You’re trying too hard to be Canadian.’ And we’re not trying to explain Canada to the world. But we want to tell stories that have to be in the location they’re set. Canada is cool. It looks great on the screen. You see all these other countries shooting their cities and making them glamorous, in a way that makes you want to go there. Why can’t we? No one is going to say, ‘It’s set in Toronto? Oh, I can’t watch that.’”
Haynes’s background is in comedy programming – he helped create and run the Comedy Network and was a comedy exec at MTV in New York. So “the majority” of what he’s looking for are comedies. “There are a lot of murder mysteries, thrillers and dark dramas out there,” he said. “Canadians are known for doing comedy well. So it made sense to say, ‘This is a hole we can fill.’”
But here comes the twist. Haynes also said, “We’re not concerned with targets like 10/10. It’s, how do we tell the best story the best way?”
The targets he refers to are broadcast regulatory obligations for Canadian content, overseen by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). To qualify as “Canadian,” a program or series must have Canadians in key positions, including producer; director or screenwriter; and one of the two lead actors. It must earn six out of 10 points based on its key creative people: two points for director, two for screenwriter, one point each for first and second lead performers, and one point each for production designer, director of photography, music composer and picture editor. As well, 75 per cent of program expenses and post-production expenses must be provided by Canadians or Canadian companies.
The rules might sound esoteric, but they’re there to protect Canadian artists. At the moment, streamers aren’t subject to those obligations. If Bill C-11 passes, it would put online content under the jurisdiction of the CRTC. But for now, the streamers get to determine for themselves what’s Canadian enough.
Prime Video, for example, calls its upcoming series The Sticky “Canadian,” and indeed, it is based on a Canadian story: the theft of maple syrup worth $19-million from a Quebec storage facility in 2011 and 2012. But The Sticky was first developed for HBO by U.S. production companies, and its original writers, producer and director are Americans. Amazon added a Canadian co-showrunner, Kathryn Borel (she wrote for Anne with an E), but since she’s working alongside an established American duo, it’s unclear how much she’s been able to add. So is that Canadian, or Canadian enough?
Other concerns: Those Netflix executives at the Banff festival promised not to spend so much that they “upend the market” and price out local broadcasters. But broadcasters have to be worried. So are producers and production companies, because when they create a series and sell it to a Canadian network, the creators (not the network) own the intellectual property (IP). If those producers sell the series to other countries, they get the money. But when a streamer buys a series, the streamer owns the IP. Subsequent sequels, prequels or spinoffs belong to them.
When I asked Wayne about this, she replied, “The deals we do are competitive. If producers want to retain ownership, they can sell somewhere else. But we are a talent-friendly company. We want people to have creative control of their material. We’ve never encountered an issue where someone said no to a project because of not retaining ownership of the IP.”
She also added, “We’re hands-on in terms of the creative process. We love getting into the weeds with writers.”
So let’s look at what that means. A series’ development process can stretch over months, as a writer does draft after draft of the pilot episode and creates a “bible” – a highly detailed document that can run hundreds of pages, describing the world of the show, each character and what happens in every episode, often several seasons out.
“Amazon has a high creative bar, and they were quite involved all the way through,” Lawrence, one of The Lake’s producers, said. “The bible process was intense. They wanted more jokes, more character development, more backstory. They pushed Julian to really understand the show he wanted to make.”
“We were the first Canadian scripted original, so there was extra attention placed on us,” Souther, her co-producer, agreed. “But I think everyone’s bar is being raised in Canada. We are competing on a global stage, now more than ever. It’s inspiring everyone to push ourselves.”
The thing is, some Canadian producers pay writers during development and some don’t. For The Lake, Amazon paid the bare minimum according to the Writer’s Guild of Canada‘s standards – Doucet wrote stacks of drafts over about eight months in hopes that his series would get a green light and his work would pay off. Some writers will not be as fortunate.
But the streamers are here to stay, and Canadian creators are going to work for them. So whether or not Bill C-11 passes, the big question is, will the streamers commit to dedicated funds for Canadian content, to preserve a homegrown industry that was so hard-won and so painstakingly regulated?
“I think Canadian creatives are excited,” Souther said. “There’s a potential influx of targeted financing that will be a huge boost to the industry here. We need to figure out the details, and I’m sure things will get messy before they get clean.”
“But it’s a nice confluence of events, to have so much attention on Canadian programming, just as we’re really hitting a peak in quality,” Lawrence said.
And if the streamers’ deep pockets empty out, Canada may have the solution. “Already Netflix can’t afford to spend as they did,” Souther said. “If there’s one thing Canadian producers know how to do, it’s to bring in outside financing.” And who wouldn’t love the irony of that?
Special to The Globe and Mail
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