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Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier, who head up Boat Rocker Media, took umbrage at a notion that Tatiana Maslany was a worthy Emmy winner, but that their series, Orphan Black, had lost its way. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)
Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier, who head up Boat Rocker Media, took umbrage at a notion that Tatiana Maslany was a worthy Emmy winner, but that their series, Orphan Black, had lost its way. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)

Orphan Black producers see bright future for Canadian TV Add to ...

When Tatiana Maslany won the best actress Emmy Award last month for her kaleidoscopic portrayal of a collection of clones on the cult Space channel hit Orphan Black, her acceptance speech was filled with the usual forgettable blandishments: She thanked her PR team, her partner, the show’s writers.

It didn’t take long after her win, though – an historic moment, the first time a Canadian actor had won an Emmy for a show made for a Canadian network – for a sharp argument to break out over its significance. In the pages (and digital platforms) of this newspaper, TV critic John Doyle suggested that Maslany had won for her “stellar” work in a show that wasn’t as great as she. Orphan Black, he wrote, “began as a thrilling series and then stumbled into a near shambles of storytelling.”

At the east-end Toronto headquarters of Boat Rocker Media, the parent company of Temple Street, which makes the show, the words fell like stink bombs. The other day, Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier, the co-executive chairs of Boat Rocker, sat down in their office to talk about the recent rapid expansion of their company. But first they had to get something off of their chests.

“It’s naive to suggest – I would even say it’s stupid to suggest – that an actress, no matter how talented – and Tatiana is, without question, one of the most talented actresses we’ve ever encountered,” Schneeberg begins, “could win an award of that importance without being given, in this case an array of characters to portray; brilliant dialogue; a show that looks and feels world-class in terms of the way it’s written and the way it’s lit and the way it’s directed; and a host of additional leads and supporting cast that she can play off of, such that that performance shines. To suggest that she could win that award in the absence of that? It’s profoundly stupid.”

Fortier adds: “The articles that come out in the States don’t say: ‘Oh, great victory for Tatiana, too bad the show’s not up to snuff.’”

The men may be feeling especially defensive because, in the 12 or 13 years since they left their jobs as entertainment lawyers at the Toronto office of Goodmans LLP and started making their own shows – their first prime-time show was the three-season Showcase comedy Billable Hours – they say they have watched English-language Canadian TV become respected around the world. A confluence of factors, including the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, has brought more money into the Canadian system. And Boat Rocker has been working to position itself at the fore of the pack, because the two men are convinced the best days of Canadian TV and other content are in the future.

To that end, last year, Fortier and Schneeberg sold a majority stake in the company to Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., the Toronto-based insurance and investment firm headed by Prem Watsa that has recently been moving more into media. With the Fairfax cash, Boat Rocker went on an acquisition tear of its own, buying the Ottawa-based animation studio Jam Filled Entertainment, a significant minority stake in the boutique animation house Industrial Brothers, and a couple of companies that hold the rights to small TV libraries. In late summer, they swept in and bought a large chunk of the assets of Arc Productions, the Toronto animation house that declared bankruptcy in August. About 200 former employees of Arc are now back at their jobs, on the Boat Rocker payroll.

In addition to Boat Rocker Studios, which produces Orphan Black, Family Channel’s tween dance hit The Next Step and its spinoffs, CBC’s X Company, and other shows, the company comprises a division that handles international sales on Boat Rocker’s programs and others, and Boat Rocker Brands, which is focused on exploiting a show’s so-called intellectual property in as many legitimate formats as possible.

“We think about brands,” says Schneeberg, standing in the cheery kitchen area of another symbol of Boat Rocker’s expansion: A gleaming, newly renovated four-storey brick-and-beam century building near Toronto’s Distillery District. (Schneeberg says it was the original headquarters of John Ross Robertson’s 19th-century newspaper The Toronto Telegram. More recently, in the manner of such things, it was a crack den.)

“A great show should be bigger than just the show, right? A show like Orphan Black is a great example – it’s great I.P. It’s worked as a TV show as the cornerstone, but we’ve done comics, some board games, all sorts of different types of merchandise.” For the past year, an in-house digital team has been working on an Orphan Black mobile game, which will be launched soon.

In the summer, the company’s venture capital arm, Boat Rocker Ventures, also made a small investment in The Outline, a New York-based digital publication from Josh Topolsky, the co-creator of The Verge and Bloomberg’s former top digital editor.

“We’re a financial partner, but we’re also the content partner. So if The Outline comes upon a great story, and it’s television-worthy, or worthy of a feature, or perhaps worthy of a game, opportunity outside the scope of The Outline, we’re that partner,” Schneeberg explains.

If that sounds eerily close to the model of Talk magazine, Tina Brown’s high-profile post-New Yorker venture which was supposed to spin off intellectual property for its backer Miramax Studios to develop into feature films and TV shows – and which instead racked up an estimated $50-million in losses before shutting down two and a half years after launch – Schneeberg is unfazed.

“That partnership we bring to the table is not the core reason for doing it. Josh is doing it for his reasons, and frankly we would have invested in it, if it made sense, irrespective of the relationship with Boat Rocker because we believe it’s a great idea. If we never made a single show out of it, I think we’ll still make a lot of money off of our investment.”

Still, Schneeberg and Fortier say that sales of Boat Rocker’s TV shows make up an estimated 60 to 65 per cent of the company’s revenue, so that’s what they spend most of their time and energy on.

When they started out, Schneeberg says, “there wasn’t enough money in the [Canadian] system to make great shows. Now, we’re in an era where there’s way more buyers, and Canadian broadcasters are much more inclined to support higher budget shows, because it’s actually in their own interests.”

U.S. networks, as well, are open to partnerships like the one between Space and BBC America, which airs Orphan Black in the United States. And the so-called over-the-top streaming services (Netflix, CraveTV) “will buy from anybody, as long as the content’s good. They’re agnostic, in terms of the nationality of the producer, but very particular in terms of wanting the quality to be great. So, what we’ve realized in this era – this so-called Golden Age of TV – is, if you can make really great stuff, you will sell it. And you will make money off of it. So it’s become a creative meritocracy, more so than it’s ever been.”

Fortier and Schneeberg say that Canadian producers have two competitive advantages in the new ecosystem: firstly, the cultural protectionist policies and the matrix of government subsidies; secondly, their proximity to Canadian writers.

“We meet them when they’re young, coming out of the [Canadian] Film Centre, coming out of the colleges or wherever they might have gotten their training, we read their earliest scripts, we follow their careers closer than anybody else can, because we’re here, we live amongst them. They become our friends, and that is a unique pipeline to English-speaking talent.”

With that in mind, they have one hope: That, as Canadian-made TV continues to gain respect in international markets, more Canadian writers will stay home, and generate the next big show here rather than Los Angeles. “Sometimes it’s heartbreaking for us, to develop a writer, develop a relationship – only to have it taken away by the gloss and the bright lights of Hollywood,” Fortier says.

Schneeberg nods. “We’re supposed to be building a world-class cultural business here, employing people, and exporting these shows, and there are a lot of writers and actors making a lot of money as a result of that. And every single time they achieve that success, they immediately migrate to L.A. because they perceive that to be the brass ring.”

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