If you want to go big, then why not go small, too? That seems to be the thinking this fall season at the CBC, where executives are experimenting with a new kind of approach to television: turning feature-length Canadian films into episodic miniseries.
In September, CBC aired Bones of Crows, a five-part series from director Marie Clements that follows one Cree woman’s survival from the residential school system – a story that was previously told as a 127-minute standalone feature film released to theatres this past summer. Later this month, the CBC will air director Chelsea McMullan’s four-episode docuseries Swan Song following Karen Kain’s final year at the National Ballet – a project that hit theatres last month as a standalone film. And this weekend, the CBC is dialing up BlackBerry – not director Matt Johnson’s two-hour movie, which won over critics when it was released this past spring, but rather a three-part miniseries with 14 minutes of extra footage and a markedly different episodic structure.
Although there have previously been similar movie-to-miniseries (or miniseries-to-movies) experiments in the European market – Olivier Assayas’ 2010 terrorism drama Carlos was broadcast as a three-part series in France as well as released to theatres as a 166-minute feature; Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip comedies all aired as BBC series before being re-cut into films – this is an unprecedented route for the Canadian market. Each of the new miniseries will be broadcast on both the CBC’s linear TV network and available to stream on Gem.
’’We have enough research to show that linear audiences are different from Gem audiences, and so we see ourselves as cheerleaders in getting content seen by as many people as possible,’’ says Sally Catto, the CBC’s general manager of entertainment, factual and sports. ‘’The attention the films have received at festivals, in theatres, only ends up drawing more attention to the projects. Audiences consume things in different times and different ways.’’
There is a potential risk, though, in confusing audiences who either won’t tune in for productions that they think that they have already seen or who (more likely) might watch series with no knowledge that the shows were even films to begin with.
‘‘There is a risk any time you’re working with an unfamiliar model, but we tried hard in our marketing to highlight the differences between the features and series,’’ says Trish Williams, CBC’s executive director of scripted content.
Each project enjoyed slightly different development processes, but they all arrived at the hybrid model for the same reason: money.
Bones of Crows was initially developed by the CBC as a miniseries, but producers needed international partners to help scale up the budget to achieve the desired prestige-cable look – and there weren’t many global partners eagerly biting on the pandemic-wracked market. So the CBC floated the idea that if the project took on a hybrid model, it could secure funds from Canada’s federal funding agency Telefilm. Soon afterward, Elevation Pictures came on as Bones of Crows’ Canadian theatrical distributor. Clements made the five-part series first, then reverse-engineered it to become a two-hour film.
Swan Song followed a similar path. The CBC first commissioned a four-part doc, but the production team pivoted to a hybrid model in order to complete financing, with producers now able to shop a feature-film version to the rest of the world to raise additional funds.
BlackBerry, meanwhile, is an experiment within an experiment. The project originated not with a filmmaking team but with the CBC, which had optioned the rights to Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish’s 2015 non-fiction book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry. While taking pitches from outside producers about how the network could adapt it, the CBC connected with Rhombus Media’s Niv Fichman, who brought in Johnson and his producing partner Matthew Miller.
The original plan was a limited series, but when Johnson and Miller were breaking down the story into three separate episodes, they realized they had the bones of a feature film, too.
‘’Doing both allowed you to raise a little bit more money out of Canada than if it was just a series or just a movie, because you’re accessing funding from different bodies,’’ says Miller.
Johnson and Miller thought about shooting two versions of the project simultaneously, but quickly realized that would be too much of a headache. Instead, they only started work on editing the series months after the film had been released.
‘’The only way I could creatively figure it out was to silo the two versions – I wasn’t thinking about the series when cutting the film, and I wasn’t thinking about the film when making the series,’’ says Johnson. ‘’Originally I thought that the series would be something Canadians can have that the rest of the world wouldn’t – a ‘part of our heritage’ version that more Canadians will see than who saw the movie. I remember watching things like the Avro Arrow series on the CBC as a kid, and I wanted to be part of that.’’
It won’t be just Canadians who get to watch the BlackBerry series, though. Last month, the U.S. cable network AMC announced it would air the CBC cut, too. The channel’s parent company owns IFC Films, which acquired U.S. rights to the BlackBerry film last year.
‘’I’m still getting used to that idea to be totally honest, as I thought it would just be a Canadian experience in our own backyard,’’ says Johnson. ‘’But I hope they enjoy it.’’
The CBC will be able to judge the domestic success of this new model once the viewership numbers come in for both BlackBerry and Swan Song. But already since its debut last month, Bones of Crows has become the most-watched new series streaming on Gem this fall, while 1.6 million Canadian viewers watched one or more episodes on linear television, according to Adobe Analytics and Numeris TV Meters.
‘’It’s a viable financing option, but not one we’re going to want every time,’’ says Catto. ‘’We work from the creative out, so it’ll be finding the story and then the format. But it’s a great model to have in the fold.’’
The first episode of BlackBerry premieres Nov. 9 on CBC at 9 p.m. ET, with new episodes airing weekly and the entire series available to stream on Gem that day; Swan Song premieres Nov. 22 on CBC at 8 p.m. ET, with new episodes airing weekly and the entire series available to stream on Gem that day.