At Prime Video’s big Canadian content rollout at Toronto’s Massey Hall last week – the streaming giant’s first-ever in-person Canadian showcase, where it unveiled 10 made-in-Canada projects that are creatively driven by homegrown writers, directors and performers – I couldn’t help but be reminded of a classic Simpsons bit. Sent to hell after selling his soul to the devil for a doughnut, Homer encounters a demon who attempts to torture him via an endless flood of baked goods: “So you like doughnuts, eh? Have all the doughnuts in the world!” Homer just keeps munching them down, though, only pausing to utter “more” between breathless bites.
In this semi-tortured analogy, Canadian audiences are Homer, and Prime Video is the devil (even though The Simpsons streams on Disney+). After watching Prime Video executives unveil clips and trot out stars for production after production – a new Kids in the Hall series, a multipart docuseries on The Tragically Hip, a Julia Stiles-led cottage-country sitcom called The Lake, a feature-film thriller called Sugar based on the case of Montreal’s “Cocaine Cuties,” a revival of the animated comedy Gary and His Demons – I couldn’t shake the sense that Prime was hoping that Canadians will be so overwhelmed by sugary-sweet Canadiana that we’ll easily submit to our new streaming overlords, barely pausing to ask for “more” between smashing the Prime renew button on our Amazon account homepage.
To be fair, Prime Video should be applauded for doing more to explicitly appeal to Canadians than that other big streaming giant. Two years ago, Netflix premiered Québécois director Patrice Laliberté's chilly survivalist thriller The Decline, the streamer’s first original Canadian feature film – and, presumably, the starting point for a string of made-in-Canada films, which have yet to materialize. Certainly, there appears to be movement on that front – this past November, Netflix appointed Tara Woodbury as its first Canadian-based content executive – but the time seems ripe, too, for Prime Video to plant its own red-and-white flag.
“The mission that we’ve had for the past couple years – making Canadian shows for Canadian audiences – is now gaining momentum, so we wanted to make a splash today and a statement that Canadian content matters to us, and is a critical part of our strategy,” Magda Grace, head of Prime Video Canada, said in an interview after the event.
Noting that Prime Video has been long active in contributing to Canada’s “service” screen sector – meaning that the company has shot several high-profile series, including The Boys and Reacher, in Canadian cities with Canadian crews – Grace said that this new domestic slate recognizes the value of Canadian intellectual property: stories that are top-to-bottom imagined, developed, green-lit and produced within our borders.
“When we think about what is a Canadian Prime Video original, we have to think about whether it has Canadian IP, or does it take place in Canada in a meaningful way?” says Grace. “We shot The Lake in North Bay, Ont., and integrating that locale is important to the story. It’s also about making sure that we have Canadian talent in front of and behind the camera. Not necessarily 100 per cent, but in a meaningful portion to make it Canadian.”
Which is why and how Prime Video subscribers (both in Canada and internationally) will soon see series such as the Quebec-set Three Pines, based on Canadian author Louise Penny’s mystery novels starring Alfred Molina as chief inspector Armand Gamache; the docuseries The Unsolved Murder of Beverly Lynn Smith, from Canadian documentarian Nathalie Bibeau (The Walrus and the Whistleblower); and The Sticky, a half-hour series about a Quebec maple syrup farmer who plans the heist of a lifetime, with producers including Canadians (Anne With an E’s Kathryn Borel) and Hollywood players (Jason Blum, Jamie Lee Curtis).
But there is a fine line between appealing to Canadians and pandering to them. And it remains unclear whether Prime’s “Canadian stories” will be compelling enough to draw in audiences who have more than enough options elsewhere – and might not have patriotism as a deciding factor in their viewing habits.
The news is undoubtedly great, though, for the country’s creative community, which is used to heading south to see their stories realized, not the other way around. And I’m personally thrilled that the Prime powers-that-be convinced Dave Foley, Bruce McColluch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson to get in the same room together and hammer out some new Kids in the Hall sketches. But it is also hard to not wonder if Prime Video’s expansion is intended as a way of getting ahead of whatever Canadian content requirements might be demanded if Bill C-11, the proposed Online Streaming Act, passes.
“It’s too early to tell what’s going to happen with C-11 but we haven’t been making these decisions on prompting from government or reaction from a regulatory perspective,” says Grace. “This has been 100 per cent customer-centric.”
And in the end, it will be the customers who decide. Bring on the doughnuts.
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