The Canadian television industry has always been structured with nuances that would take a master class to explain to the average viewer. But over this past year in particular, it’s also become plagued with an unusual amount of obstacles.
The introduction of the controversial Bill C-11 (a.k.a. the Online Streaming Act), inflation and rising production costs, disputes over ownership and distribution rights, the fight for financing and grants in a crowded landscape, and systemic barriers to racialized and Indigenous creators are just some of the continuing issues. And then there are workers on the picket lines.
When the Toronto International Film Festival begins amid ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes – U.S.-based unions for writers and actors – worldwide streamers, distributors, broadcasters and investors are gazing north to see what’s available. From the outside, that extra attention during this unique time should catapult TIFF’s 50 Canadian features and series showing this year – and Canadian content in general – to centre-stage.
Those on the inside, however, have a different perspective. While the Hollywood strikes may offer a short-lived opportunity to bolster CanCon internationally, those who are already – or hope to one day be – a part of the striking U.S. guilds are hesitant to feed content to a problematic system with specific sales or deals. Meanwhile, the myriad financial and production challenges in Canada raise questions about the overall viability of future homegrown projects, especially as streamers continue to establish their presence here.
It all feels a long way from where the industry was in early 2021, when Netflix revealed its intention to open shop in Canada. The announcement came less than a year after the streamer put out an open call to Canadian creatives for English-language pitch proposals, igniting hope among those who have long lamented the stiff competition resulting from a lack of Canadian networks to which they can sell content. (Bell Media’s development team, for example, receives an estimated 1,000 pitches a year.)
“We’re looking forward to opening our doors and building on the great work we’ve started with our creative partners to bring more Canadian artists and stories to the world,” Netflix’s Ted Sarandos said in a 2021 statement.
Later that year, the streamer hired Sphere Media’s Tara Woodbury as its first Canadian content executive. Amazon’s Prime Video also implemented a Canadian team with the hire of Brent Haynes as head of Canadian scripted originals. Disney+ tapped Jason Badal, Shopify’s former director, as VP and GM of Disney+ Canada, and last August, former Telefilm executive Stephanie Azam joined as the Canadian director of content. That same year Paramount+ hired Katrina Kowalski as VP of content and Tom Hastings as the Canadian head of original programming.
And then … nothing notable. The new Canadian streamers had been set up in anticipation of Bill C-11 – which was created with the goal of requiring entities like YouTube and streaming platforms to promote and create Canadian content, similar to longtime mandates for Canadian radio stations and TV networks – and made a big show of representing themselves as taking pitches at industry events. But actual Canadian commissions took several months to get rolling, and they have been underwhelming at best.
To date, Netflix has commissioned a one-time French Canadian stand-up special and struck a three-year, three stand-up-special deal with Just For Laughs Group’s Francophone TV division. The company also announced an upcoming Arctic-set comedy in partnership with APTN and CBC, and Mae Martin’s limited series Tall Pines from Sphere Media. In April, the streamer threw itself a star-studded party attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to celebrate the launch of its Toronto headquarters. Press weren’t invited to cover the shindig, however a Netflix representative told The Globe and Mail that its local team is actively working on development.
Prime Video’s CanCon slate has been more prominent thanks to a Kids in the Hall revival (that may or may not return for Season 2), and French and English adaptations of the streamer’s international competition show LOL: Last One Laughing. The comedy series The Lake and the animated adult series Gary and His Demons were also among Amazon Original’s initial Canadian commissions. Looking ahead, the streamer has confirmed The Sticky, an upcoming dramatization of Quebec’s 2011-12 maple-syrup heist.
As for Three Pines? The adaptation of Louise Penny’s novels may have been set in Canada, but it hailed from international producers and doesn’t qualify as Canadian under current regulations. Furthermore, it was canned after one season when the involved partners couldn’t agree on a financing structure.
Paramount+ has been busy building its Canadian audience via U.S. brands like Pluto TV and Showtime. Showtime content used to stream exclusively on Bell Media’s Crave platform, and the shift raises another issue: What happens to Canadian networks that have long relied on U.S. acquisition programming to bolster its schedules if streamers begin keeping such content to themselves?
Meanwhile, Paramount+ finally announced its Canadian slate at the Banff World Media Festival this past June. In development are four original Canadian series, a travel documentary, and a film based on the memoir The Boy in The Woods that’s produced in association with Lumanity Productions and JoBro Productions. The streamer has also struck deals for several Canadian feature film acquisitions.
And then there’s Disney+. Not only has the Mouse House plotted zero Canadian originals to date, but in June news broke the streamer was “pausing” original commissions in Canada. Further digging revealed the company had quietly let go of key hires, including Azam.
So where does streaming in Canada go from here? The streamers themselves aren’t about to weigh in. The Globe asked each major company to answer the same set of questions pertaining to their respective investments in Canadian originals, their thoughts on how Bill C-11 may impact business moving forward, and how they may be using Canadian content to fill any strike-related voids.
Netflix swiftly declined to participate. Prime Video and Paramount+ came back days later with polite passes. The Canadian team for Apple TV+ forwarded the request to its American counterparts, but nothing came back. And Disney+ ignored the requests altogether.
Whether these outlets aren’t ready to share their plans, or are awaiting direction from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission as to how it will enforce C-11 before implementing “real” Canadian content, remains to be seen. Either way it’s clear the future of CanCon, and Canadian television in particular, is on the cusp of a major change – one that, for the time being, no one wants to talk about.
Special to The Globe and Mail