Maybe it’s an occupational hazard. Writers spend their days living in their heads, imagining the world as they want it to be, so perhaps when things turn dark in the real world they’re just naturally inclined to ignore the facts. How else to explain that, when The Globe and Mail recently surveyed some of the leading creators and other players in Canadian television, they were – almost as a breed – unflagging, even upbeat? Hadn’t any of them heard about the dire state of the industry?
Take Bruce M. Smith. In early April, the CBC unceremoniously axed its reboot of the popular eighties-era drama Street Legal, which they had brought him in to create and oversee, even before the sixth and final episode of the season went to air. So there he was, on a recent Friday afternoon in his Montreal home office, making some tea and waiting for that afternoon’s Liverpool F.C. match against Huddersfield to start, instead of hashing out season-two episodes in a roomful of other writers.
And so, over the phone, what assessment of the landscape did he offer up?
“I think it’s hard to say there’s ever been a better time to be a Canadian writer.”
A few days later, Glenn Cockburn was on the line. “I think Canadian television is in a golden age right now,” he said. An agent – and therefore a temperamentally positive fellow – and the founder of Meridian Artists, Cockburn represents such writers as Kevin White (Kim’s Convenience), Sarah Glinski (Degrassi: The Next Generation) and Vera Santamaria (Orange Is the New Black). “Show after show is finding an audience, appealing to the critics, or having long runs.”
Even so, a disaster is brewing: Last week, The Globe reported that this country’s three major commercial broadcasters – Rogers Media, Bell Media and Corus Entertainment – had slashed their commissions of scripted narrative Canadian programming from 2014-18 between 24 per cent and almost 68 per cent, according to data compiled by the Writers Guild of Canada (WGC).
A new report from the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) notes that licence fees paid by private broadcasters fell from $591-million in the 2013-14 TV season to $360-million in the 2017-18 season: a whopping 40-per-cent drop. Canadian programs are finding it tougher than ever before to stand out amid hundreds of new programs on streaming services and other platforms. And there is growing despair over an unprecedented brain drain of writing talent, as hundreds of creators decamp to Hollywood.
If Canadians want to keep seeing our own stories on our screens – whether that’s the brooding Northern Ontario noir of Cardinal, the Montreal mobsters of Bad Blood, the bananas Baroness von Sketch Show and Letterkenny or the bittersweet Anne with an E – the industry needs to figure out how to do things differently. So perhaps we should listen to the writers for a moment. Because, being creative types, they can’t help imagining happy endings. Or at least ones in which they survive, against all odds, to fight another day.
Canadian creators have been tilting at windmills for decades, shaking off the aggressive indifference that is their seeming lot in life: Broadcasters in Canada are required to commission and air Canadian content in order to secure a TV licence from regulators, leaving a nagging sense among many writers that they’re merely being tolerated.
“We often feel that there’s an obligation to make Canadian television, as opposed to a passion,” says Mark Ellis, who created CTV’s Flashpoint and CBC’s X Company with his wife, Stephanie Morgenstern. “And that’s been a fundamental difference between how Hollywood South and North operate, philosophically.”
Emily Andras, the creator of the feminist western demon-slaying genre hit Wynonna Earp, which has developed a rabid fan base airing on Bell Media’s Space channel, says it can be frustrating to hear broadcasters cry poor as an excuse for not developing and airing original Canadian programs.
“It’s more about the way the money is distributed,” she suggests. “I get a little bored of the networks wringing their hands and saying, ‘Oh, God, it’s so expensive’ – when they basically take massive piles of money and go to the States and buy programs that are already available on American networks here.”
When CTV, Global, CityTV and others splash out for expensive U.S. programming, though, they get the built-in marketing muscle of the American networks for which the shows are produced. According to the CMPA’s 2018 Profile report, published at the end of March, Canadian programs earned only a 24-per-cent share of the English-language TV audience (in certain genres) in the 2017-18 season.
“I kind of get it,” Andras says. “If you can buy House and get huge ratings for it, it’s hard for Return of Littlest Hobo to compete with that.”
Floyd Kane, the co-creator of CBC’s Diggstown, argues that the general disregard of English-language Canadian viewers for domestic programming is unusual. “We have not been taught to embrace Canadian programming in the way that Americans embrace American programming, or Brits embrace British programming – or Australia, or Spain, or whatever country. We have a completely different relationship to the television shows and the films that we consume,” he says.
“You look at the fact that Schitt’s Creek is a huge hit in the U.S. – or Kim’s Convenience [both of which are on Netflix south of the border], but CBC doesn’t really get credit for those. So, from that perspective, it’s like we haven’t figured out how to make our audiences understand that we’re over here, in the corner, putting our hand up, but we’re in this room where there are a million people. So I feel like that issue is the Same As It Ever Was.”
Still, Kane and others say changes are afoot: Canadian broadcasters are now more inclined to greenlight shows that better reflect the diversity of Canada, such as Diggstown, which features a black, female lead (Vinessa Antoine, a Toronto-born actress who starred for five seasons on General Hospital). “I don’t think a show like Diggstown would exist in the old Same As It Ever Was [world].”
NETFLIX AND HULU AND AMAZON ARE YOUR FRIENDS (ALTHOUGH THEY MIGHT KILL YOU FIRST)
You’ve probably heard that there’s a TV and film-production boom in Canada. But that’s not necessarily good news for either Canadian creators or audiences: An increasing percentage of that work is known as “foreign-location service production,” which uses Canadian crews, but not – usually – Canadian writers, directors, lead actors or key producers.
The programming – such as Netflix’s Riverdale (which is shot in Vancouver) and The Umbrella Academy (Toronto) – is overwhelmingly destined for U.S. streaming services or networks. And its production creates inflationary pressures on Canadian-content shows, which are being crowded out of studio space and priced out of crews.
Still, one reason domestic screenwriters are cautiously optimistic is that streamers have begun commissioning their own Canadian-certified shows – such as Netflix’s comedy-horror series The Order, which was created and is overseen by Vancouver’s Dennis Heaton, shot on the West Coast and staffed by Canadian writers.
Far more writers, though, are hearing the siren call of Hollywood.
FIGHTING BRAIN DRAIN WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND
The shrinking pool of opportunities for writers in Canada is spurring a mass exodus to Los Angeles. And while Canadian talent has long seen success in Hollywood as a holy grail, Maureen Parker, the executive director of the WGC, says the current brain drain is the worst it’s ever been: The United States now has the second-highest number of resident screenwriters who are members of the WGC. She estimates that, of the approximately 2,200 guild members, about 1,000 are based in Toronto and about 600 are in Los Angeles.
“We’re losing them daily,” Parker says, naming writers such as Simon Racioppa, who left last year to become the showrunner of Invincible, a pricey animated superhero show coming soon from Amazon, and Graeme Manson, the co-creator of Orphan Black who is now the showrunner of the highly anticipated Snowpiercer. “If we do not encourage a talent pool to stay in this country and make Canadian content, then how do we make it?”
Andras thinks the hand-wringing over brain drain is a little overwrought. “I kind of hate this question, because it insinuates that the people who’ve chosen to stay and work in Canada are somehow lesser, or couldn’t cut it in a different market. And I’ve never not been able to find the writer I want," she says.
Born in Boston, Andras lives in Toronto with her husband and two children; she chose to make her life and career in Canada for a range of reasons.
“This is really controversial, but I think that, whatever your politics, there’s a lot of stuff happening in the States right now that gives people pause about maybe picking up and moving their families there,” she says. “I don’t necessarily want my kids to go through school-shooting drills, right? And if I’m able to make a career here – which, very luckily, I’m able to – it’s a huge factor in deciding to stay, for me and my family.”
I NEED A HERO: THE RISE OF THE SHOWRUNNER (CANADIAN EDITION)
Andras is part of the move in the Canadian industry to a showrunner model of production. Many believe that, when the change took hold in the United States some 20 years ago, it helped spur the current golden age of television.
“The Sopranos showrunner David Chase hired his own directors and designers and a largely unknown cast of character actors,” Ellis says. “It was his authorial voice that created that international success story, and a renaissance in television. Because a network empowered a writer to run with his vision.
“We haven’t been as quick to do that here. And you can’t create quality television by committee. There needs to be a passionate writer at a series’s heart, with a story and characters that they’re burning to share. Because audiences are drawn to a show’s creative flame, right? They’re not drawn to a marketing-department checklist.”
Kane, Smith, Ellis and Andras are all showrunners. For Kane, who is also an investor in Diggstown, that means he has the power to make decisions that could cost money, without having to engage in endless discussions with others – such as the broadcast network – holding the purse strings.
“If we’re running late [on a shoot], my partner and I can say: Let’s keep going and get the [scene]. We’re not saying, ‘Wrap it up.’” If need be, Kane can always rewrite a later scene that saves money without sacrificing an element that is integral to the story.
A HAPPY ENDING (FOR NOW)?
On the phone from Montreal, Smith strikes a philosophical tone. “Writing is a lot like acting. If you don’t absolutely have to do it, then why the hell are you doing it? It’s a very tough, competitive job. It’s a … life that gets harder as you get older,” he says. “But it’s also well-compensated, it’s incredibly rewarding, it’s a great job. And whatever the future holds, people want stories. And it’s the best storytellers that will be needed, whether we’re watching five-minute cartoons or 400-hour dragon series. I think we’re more vitally important than ever before.”
And here in Canada, “it may not be perfect, but it’s not worse than it was 20 years ago,” he says. “We’re much more confident in ourselves as an industry. I stayed in Canada because I looked at a place where we don’t take ourselves seriously – culturally, particularly in drama – but we do in novels. Right? We understand that Margaret Atwood is world-class. So it is very possible for us to get there for drama. And wouldn’t it be lovely to be part of that coming of age, as a country?”
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.