A beautiful blonde woman awakens in her upscale, downtown apartment and makes love to her boyfriend. He heads out to his car, which explodes as soon as he gets behind the wheel.
Horrified, she rushes outside, in the dramatic opening moments of Web of Lies, one of the library of made-for-TV movies created by Montreal production house Incendo. Since 2001, the company has been pumping out about five movies a year, all of which involve a tried-and-true formula: They are women-in-peril movies, in which smart, savvy females find themselves in hot water due to work or romantic complications (or some combination of both). No matter what you call the genre – pulp TV, chick-flick noir – it is decidedly light, and more often than not it is entertaining. And while film critics tend to ignore this kind of thriller, you can't argue with Incendo's success. In a rapidly changing entertainment-media economy – one that in most cases is shrinking – Incendo's products are seen in virtually every broadcast market in the world.
Incendo was founded by Stephen Greenberg, 56, and Jean Bureau, 48, a decade ago, after several years of upheaval in the Quebec film and TV scene. Both of them had worked at production house Astral, and trained under the tutelage of Greenberg's father, the late Harold Greenberg, who is widely regarded as a pioneer of the Canadian film and TV industry. But Astral sold off its distribution division, and after it went through a series of ownership changes, Greenberg and Bureau decided to make a go of it on their own, establishing Incendo as a film producer and distributor. It holds the Canadian distribution rights to a number of American hits, including everything Fox produces – yes, that includes The Simpsons, arguably the most lucrative TV franchise in history – making Incendo the largest TV distribution company in Canada.
Beyond the business of distribution, Greenberg and Bureau wanted to create content of their own. Sitting in their swank Westmount high-rise offices, they say that their intent in establishing their own company was to avoid the mistakes of the past. "Jean and I have seen every deal, good and bad, every screwball financing plan," Greenberg says. "We've been doing this for more than 30 years. We've been able to steer clear of problems we've seen others in the business get into."
The key to Incendo's initial sales and continuing growth has been a willingness to listen to its clients, very carefully. "Some in the film industry make films for themselves, and that's fine," Bureau says. "We create programming for the specific needs of our broadcasters. These are thrillers with female leads. When you look at the ratings for a thriller with a male lead, they're not as strong. With a female lead, you assure the female audience too, and the ratings are better. We make a better niche product, one that performs as well as possible for our clients."
Bureau says the idea for the Incendo thriller came to them at a time when the movie-of-the-week (MOW) was in transition. In the late 1990s, a close friend and mentor, Bill Miller, visited them in Montreal. Then-president of the major U.S. TV production and distribution company Hearst Entertainment, Miller had sage advice about where MOWs were heading. "TV movies were then about cancer – the disease-of-the-week movie," Bureau recalls. "But Bill said he couldn't sell those movies overseas any more. He was focused on the international sales. He knew that advertisers wanted to reach women who stayed at home. He said we needed to reach those women with a different kind of film." Disease-of-the-week movies were no longer selling abroad, Bureau says, in part because local TV companies were covering stories about women who were facing those challenges. In order to survive, MOWs needed to find a new formula that would have universal appeal across borders and regions.
What the three men were talking about was gendered programming. Women often make the purchasing decisions for the household and are therefore a crucial demographic for advertisers. The MOW had traditionally been a sure-fire way to reach that audience. Network executives knew that if a rival broadcaster was going to feature a major sporting event, they would do well to program a female-friendly melodrama as competition. Since women had less interest in sports than their male partners, they inevitably turned on the second TV in the household to watch the MOW.
When the three-channel universe morphed into 3,000, however, things changed for the MOW. "We needed to find a way to reach women with a different kind of film," Bureau says. "We liked the idea of a thriller with a woman in the lead."
Although MOWs were no longer a staple of network fare, they were still routinely screened on specialty channels aimed at women. And as the Incendo team learned, these movies have legs. Given the taste for American-style entertainment, the Incendo formula could play to a broad range of audiences worldwide. "We wanted something sexier, edgier," Greenberg adds. "We wanted to open up the genre a bit."
Bureau and Greenberg listened carefully to Miller, and it paid off: He was the international distributor for their debut film.
Greenberg and Bureau's first collaboration was The Rendering, in which Shannen Doherty (famous for her 90210 stint) plays a woman who suspects her husband is a serial killer. Doherty is stalked by the killer, only to realize that he's a recently released convict and that her husband is, in fact, innocent. The twisty-turny plot, with curveballs thrown in at regular intervals, created a basic template for Incendo movies.
Incendo's script department gets hundreds of pitches from screenwriters every year. But there are certain things Incendo looks for, in addition to a female protagonist facing various dilemmas. "It needs to be contemporary, with an urban setting," says Bureau. "The woman should be bright and intelligent, a professional. We want the films to reflect the reality of modern living in the city."
Though there are shades of Harlequin escapism, romance is not a necessity. These women are not screaming victims, waiting for a square-jawed hero to show up and save the day. "One of our upcoming features is about a woman who has created a blog that's very successful," Bureau says. "It's a blog where women can share their experiences of domestic violence. She has an affair with a man who is not the serial killer, but she thinks he is the serial killer. He's actually a very nice guy who ends up dead. Then she actually meets the serial killer."
Greenberg and Bureau used money from their distribution operation, as well as a distribution advance from Bill Miller, to bankroll the first film. And they remained determined not to make the mistakes they'd seen others in the industry make. Rather than buy equipment or hire staff permanently, they hired cast and crew on contract, and rented production facilities locally.
At times, Incendo plot synopses sound like borderline camp. "We're trying to have as many twists as possible, but without going too wild," Bureau insists. "Surprises, yes, but not what-the-eff-is-that?"
"We don't want to go too crazy," Greenberg adds. "These are for mainstream audiences."
With such titles as Deadly Betrayal, Deadly Encounter, Flirting with Danger, Legacy of Fear, Final Verdict, Ring of Deceit and Wandering Eye, an initial glance at Incendo's production list might lead you to believe the movies are strictly formulaic. Not so, Bureau argues. "There's a sense of creative space within the thrillers. Yes, there's a female lead and some kind of suspenseful conflict, but there's a whole world to be created within that framework. There's no formula in terms of who's going to be the bad guy, or how it's going to unfold. It's a genre, but within the genre there's a lot of ways to express creativity. Our clients say they like that all our films are a bit different, with a different director, but they also like the fact that they're the same. That's what they can market in their local TV guides." Critics have, for the most part, simply ignored Incendo movies, if a Google search is any indication. The site Almost Fabulous Movie Reviews had a lone post describing the company's 2004 entry False Pretenses as "standard made-for-TV fare and nothing special. Only worth watching if there's nothing else on."
When Bureau and Greenberg were putting together The Rendering, they worked out of a 10-by-10 office in Montreal's Mile End district. "We had two chairs, two cellphones and a TV set," Greenberg recalls. "That was about it." Incendo has since expanded, with 12 employees in its Montreal headquarters, 15 in the main distribution office in Toronto, and two in L.A. (a development executive and a salesperson). Another office in Montreal houses production; seven department heads work here full-time, but another 70 contractual employees are hired when a shoot is in process - which is much of the year, though shoots are avoided in the winter. "Nothing against snow," Greenberg explains. "It's the shorter days. Much harder to get a shoot done with so little light."
Arthur Holden, a Montreal-based screenwriter and playwright who penned the 2008 Incendo entry Out of Control, is currently developing another movie for the company. "As much as the films are generic –the female lead, the red herrings in the plot – the Incendo team appreciates originality," says Holden, insisting Incendo products are not entirely formulaic. "They are not looking for cookie-cutter stories. I put a bit more character development into my script, which they liked. What they do want is a roller-coaster plotline. You need a certain number of oh-my-god moments - these are thrillers, after all. You need a new twist or turn at about 10-minute intervals. And a dead body somewhere along the line helps."
Though always shot in Montreal, Incendo films are usually set in U.S. cities such as Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia. And Greenberg and Bureau concede that a big part of their success involves taking advantage of Hollywood cultural imperialism – that is, making the films "pass" for American. Each Incendo protagonist is played by an import from south of the border, including Doherty, Mena Suvari ( American Beauty), Ally Sheedy ( High Art, The Breakfast Club), Sherilyn Fenn ( Twin Peaks, Gilmore Girls) and Dina Meyer ( Starship Troopers, Saw). While not A-list stars, these actresses have just enough cachet and international recognition to ensure an elevated level of audience interest – and higher ratings.
The flip side of Incendo's star attractions is equally crucial to its business model: The company employs local crew members, and it casts supporting players and up-and-coming directors from the Quebec talent pool to create each project. While Incendo doesn't apply for financing from the federal film and TV funding agency Telefilm or its Quebec counterpart SODEC – which is highly unusual for a Canadian production company – the fact that it employs a high ratio of homegrown talent means that the company qualifies for provincial and federal tax credits. "We have more and more talented writers in Canada," Bureau says. "And we've hired many great Quebec directors for our films, giving some of them their first opportunity to work in English." The advance sales, plus the tax credits, offset the $3-million to $4-million budgets of each Incendo thriller. In the U.S., that would be considered a fairly low amount for a movie, but here in Canada it's considered to be a solid budget.
Hans Fraikin, who is film commissioner of the Quebec Film and Television Council, says Incendo has succeeded where others have tried but failed. "Their success is due to a number of factors," he explains. "Some production houses attempt to churn out too much – they then overextend themselves by spending too much. Others put out too little, which means they have a lot in one basket. Stephen and Jean have perfected the formula, getting the volume right and balancing that with cost."
The partners' extensive background in distribution has also helped, Fraikin is quick to add. "They are extremely well connected, and very worldly. They are very highly regarded. I thought I knew a lot of people. They are connected to many powerful producers and distributors in Hollywood."
Thanks to an aggressive sales team, the sun never sets on Incendo's productions. The thrillers screen in English on the Toronto-based Movie Network and Movie Central, and as French-dubbed versions on Montreal-based Super Écran. As well, they show up on the Lifetime Networks in the United States and on channels in South America, the Middle East, Asia and across Europe. Indeed, the short list isn't where Incendo films are sold, but where they're not sold. The exception is noteworthy: China. "We believe the pricing isn't always fair [in China]" says Greenberg. "The way we look at it is, we want to make the right deals now. We don't want to look at this in just the short term. The Far East is poised to explode. It will open up to more outside programming as additional satellite services are offered there. We want to make sure that when we sell there, we put it in the right hands, given the copyright issues."
Now that Incendo is moving into its second decade, Greenberg and Bureau point out that a sales pitch to a new market becomes that much easier. "This has [always]been our goal," Greenberg says. "We've built a library. We've sold our next two years of films that have not been made yet. The broadcaster can also acquire rights to our back library. We have 45 films to sell. Those films that we did nine years ago are being sold again and again around the world."
Since Incendo products are constantly being resold and recycled to new markets, it's difficult to assess exactly how much money is made per film. Greenberg and Bureau will only say that each movie is "solidly profitable," and given that they are sold to so many regions and continue to be rebroadcast on various platforms, the films are making approximately three or four times their budget.
While Incendo's fortunes are growing, the company has not been immune to the pressures and challenges facing the cultural industries. The past decade has been brutal, with the music industry, the pornography industry and, more recently, print media devastated by the get-it-all-for-free model of the Internet. And then, to add another blow in what's become a perfect storm, came the severe economic downturn of the past few years, which saw TV ad revenues plummet. "What protects us in part is that the minute our films are finished, they are delivered immediately to our different markets, and broadcast within weeks," says Bureau. "Yes, you will find our films on the Internet, but these are not the feature films the pirates are usually looking for. Each one of these movies is specifically made for TV. Unless you're a huge fan of the star of the film, you're probably not going to find it."
"There are other people in the industry who took a different route than we did," notes Greenberg. "When financial times got tough, they cut their budgets. We held firm on budgets, because you've got to deliver the quality that your clients are expecting. We've been told by our clients that they want the Incendo product. Cutting is a short-term strategy, but not really a smart one. Everyone's been hurt in the past couple of years. We made the decision to hang in."
And Greenberg insists something has been lost in the discussion around new technologies and new ways to transmit and broadcast content. "The core of everything you do is programming. People don't watch wires. They watch programs. How you watch them, how you transmit them, that's all changing. But whether you watch it in a movie theatre or on your hand-held device, the creation of content is the cornerstone. Without the content, you have nothing.
"Our library keeps growing. They play on pay TV, they go to free TV or cable, or both. There's a great resale market here and around the world. The ratings are solid, which gives our clients immediate gratification. The films are working and that's why everyone's back on board for more."
This feature originally appeared in the June, 2011 issue of Report on Small Business magazine.