Brian Hamilton, a principal in the Vancouver-based production company Omnifilm Entertainment, regularly travels to television conferences around the world. “But when I say the phrase ‘Canadian drama,’ buyers don’t come running,” he said in a recent phone interview. “They’re going to Israel, Norway, Korea.”
Why aren’t we on that list? “Part of it is brain drain, ambitious screenwriters going to Hollywood,” Hamilton said. “But that’s not the whole story. Our funding structure grew up around making television that is cheap, cheerful, ‘American enough.’ We can and should be a powerhouse. But we’ve aimed for bronze.” To succeed in the streaming age, he continues, Canada needs screenwriters who can stay in and write about their hometowns. Centralizing everything in Los Angeles or even Toronto won’t work anymore. Audiences want local.
Vancouver should be one of those hometowns. B.C. is a $3-billion-plus per year global production hub – in 2021, it hit a record of $4.8-billion. But as much as 90 per cent of that money comes from service (not domestic) productions. Those scripts are written elsewhere. Which means that Canadian screenwriters are shut out of 90 per cent of B.C.’s business.
Hamilton and others with stakes in the province – including Liz Shorten, the COO of the Canadian Media Producers Association-BC; and Robert Wong, the VP of Creative BC – decided to do something about that. In 2017 they created the Pacific Screenwriting Program (PSP), a 15-week immersion in both the craft and business of screenwriting. (Hamilton is the board chairman, Shorten the secretary/treasurer.) Netflix signed on as lead sponsor, and this month (April), the PSP will celebrate its fifth graduating class, six fledgling screenwriters armed with original scripts and the skillset to sell them.
“We decided, let’s not fight over a slice of the pie – let’s build a pie shop,” Hamilton said. “It didn’t hurt that streamers are in a growth phase in Canada, looking for ways to demonstrate that they’re good citizens. But we’re all motivated that a collective rising of the tide will lift everyone. And everything starts with the writer.”
“We wanted to go deep rather than broad,” Shorten agreed in a separate interview. “We assemble a select group of six highly skilled professionals, and train them for market reality.”
Here’s how the program, called the Scripted Series Lab, works. A showrunner in residence – this year it’s Jennica Harper, showrunner of JANN, writer on The Spencer Sisters, SkyMed and Cardinal – had a pilot script she wanted to develop into a series. (She called it “a case-of-the-week mystery with comedy and heart,” à la Private Eyes.) From applicants who submitted an unsold TV script plus references, she built a diverse “writers’ room” of six, based on their various strengths, backgrounds and experience. (It costs $25 to apply and $1,500 to attend, though tuition relief is available.)
For phase one of the course, students spent 10 weeks functioning like a real writers’ room, breaking the first season of Harper’s series: They pitched and debated ideas, crafted character arcs and story outlines, created a series bible and wrote one script apiece.
“The best reason for any showrunner to do this gig is selfishness,” Harper told me, laughing. “Sure, I’m giving back. But I’m also reaping the rewards, six great minds helping me make my show as good as it can be. They learn that if you love TV writing, you can love anything you’re working on – which is important in Canada, because there aren’t enough shows made here that anyone can afford to pick one lane and stay in it. Then, if my series gets picked up, everyone who wrote gets a contract, maybe a prime-time credit. Win-win.”
Students are now in phase two, which lasts five weeks, working on their own projects one-on-one with a mentor. They are also meeting showrunners, agents, producers and network execs, honing their pitching skills, and learning how to craft a pitch deck with visual elements. The program will culminate on April 25 with a full-day, invitation-only event, the Vancouver Scripted Summit, where they’ll pitch themselves and their projects to industry pros from the likes of Amazon, Corus, Bell, CBC and Paramount+ Canada.
“Feature film writers prove everything about themselves by handing in a script,” Hamilton said. “But a television series is bought on an idea of material yet to be written. So series writers need charisma, force of personality, clear vision. They need to have it on the page and on the stage. We help them learn to schmooze, and to be able to describe how they’re unique as writers.” Contrary to the fantasy, most writers won’t sell their first pilot to HBO, so students also learn what’s required to be a script assistant and story co-ordinator – entry level jobs in most writers’ rooms.
PSP alums have worked on series including Schmigadoon, Circuit Breakers (both AppleTV+), Heartland (CBC), Family Law (Global), Our Big Punjabi Family (OMNI) and The Night Agent (Netflix). Renuka Singh, from Kitimat, B.C., took the course in 2019, after a 10-year career in finance. “I was absolutely green,” she said. “No idea what a writers’ room felt like, all this new terminology flying around me, and no clue what I was good at” – which turned out to be research, big story moments and juicy plot twists. After graduating, she landed an agent, who used the script she’d polished – a horror thriller à la Yellowjackets – to pitch her for gigs. She’s now an executive story editor on Syfy’s Reginald the Vampire and a writer/story editor on the upcoming series I Woke Up a Vampire for Netflix and Family Channel.
Ryan Atimoyoo, who is Cree and a dual U.S./Canadian citizen, was a film teacher who joined the great resignation when COVID hit. He earned his place in the (all Zoom) 2021 PSP with a pilot, Lucid Spears, about an Indigenous woman who travels in dreams to hunt a serial killer in her community. “I had an MFA in screenwriting from UBC,” he said, “but the PSP taught me things I didn’t get there: the business side, the hive mind that’s so crucial to breaking a story, and the importance of networking and following up, meeting for coffees or lunches. The biggest misconception is that your writing is everything. It’s not.” After graduating, he worked on Grendel, Hudson and Rex and SkyMed. He’s currently involved in a test program at the PSP, “a deadline helper, where you’re accountable to a group to hit targets for your next show.”
The networking side of the PSP is crucial for Hamilton. “The Canadian Film Centre in Toronto, which just had its 25th anniversary, is one of our inspirations,” he said. “They have an impressive group of alumni who support them, who have built industry relationships around their experiences there. I can hardly wait for us to have the same thing – a community, a sense of shared purpose, and professionals who stay here and work where they live. It’s so important not to feel alone in our freelance, unpredictable profession.
“Writers hire other writers,” he summed up. “The key product we offer is hope.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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