Jian Ghomeshi had a confession to make. On Wednesday afternoon, standing on stage in the exposed-brick event space of at Toronto's Steamwhistle Brewing Company, he explained to a crowd of black– and plaid-clad twentysomethings that he'd told his father he would be hosting an event that day to mark the debuts of seven digitally-oriented entertainment startups. To which the elder Mr. Ghomeshi had apparently exclaimed: "You don't know anything about this. It will be a disaster!"
As it happens, Mr. Ghomeshi proved himself to be an engaged and informed host. But if he is uncertain about the new shape of the digital entertainment industry, which is both disrupting other industries and itself, he has plenty of company among the wider public.
The good news is that, when there's confusion, there is also opportunity. IdeaBoost, a new project of the Canadian Film Centre's (CFC) Media Lab sponsored by Corus Entertainment Inc., Shaw Media, and Google, is trying to help Canadian creators push themselves to the front of the pack. Other media companies should follow their lead.
For years now, budding tech entrepreneurs have benefited from being taken under the wings of established companies or mentors in what are known as accelerators or incubators. IdeaBoost hopes to prove the same model can be applied to nascent entertainment ideas.
Beginning in November, members of the first IdeaBoost cohort underwent a sort of creative and business boot camp: meeting with dozens of mentors and experts in the fields of design, narrative, audience engagement, brand development, sales, and other skills they'll need if they're going to make it on their own.
The groups represented a cross-section of digital entertainment: There was a multiplayer pinball game for PCs and iPads called Rollers of the Realm, from the established game company Phantom Compass; The Ghost Town Project , a sort of Extreme Home Makeover hoping to help places such as a bar on the Jersey Shore that had been ruined by Hurricane Sandy back to life; Ramen Party , a whimsical animated show reminiscent of SpongeBob SquarePants and his wacky friends that makes each ingredient in a bowl of ramen into a character; and others.
On Wednesday at Steamwhistle, the teams each had 12 minutes to pitch their projects to potential investors or partners. Some were more ready for prime time than others, and not all had an immediately obvious business model: A few were pinning their hopes on the crowdfunding site IndieGogo. But they had all clearly benefited from their experience.
The companies that had signed on as founding partners of IdeaBoost seemed pleased too. The chief technology officer of Corus noted that his company is an investor in John Albright's Relay Ventures fund, owns the Montreal animation software company Toon Boom, and has money in the small app company Fingerprint Digital. "These are all small investments, all ways for us to look into the future. They're not really designed to be cash-returning investments as much as they're for us to learn and support the future of Canadian media," Scott Dyer said. It was a way for Corus to ask, he said, "What are we learning about our audiences, and learning about the digital media space that can help us be a better company in the future?"
Jeremy Butteriss, the director of strategic partnerships at Google Canada, said Canadian creators increasingly needed to find global audiences. "We're at a pivotal point in the media industry in Canada. The world has changed dramatically, and without focused efforts to help our creator community transition their efforts and embrace new platforms, as well as giving them support on how best to use them – I think that's critical activity to really seize the opportunities." He mentioned a couple of large gaming firms that have thrived in Canada. "EA and Activision have huge offices in Vancouver and Montreal," he said, "but if we want to continue to be a leader in this rapidly changing world, we need to incubate the next generation of gaming companies as well."
Last year, Mitchell Moffitt, a 23-year-old biology grad from the University of Guelph, started making fun videos with a friend that took a popular approach to science. They called it ASAP Science, and last fall their YouTube channel exploded after a big burst of press. On Wednesday, after going through IdeaBoost, he said he saw all sorts of possibilities of taking the approach to other fields: Why not ASAP Business , ASAP Beauty , etc?
Ana Serrano, the CFC's chief digital officer, believes there's a big opportunity here for Canada. "There isn't one geographic region that could make a claim for being the hub of the digital entertainment industry: Is it Hollywood? We're not quite sure. Is it Silicon Valley? Definitely not but maybe? Is it New York? Not really. ... So there's still a little bit of a global race around becoming that No. 1 cluster region for this stuff, and I think Canada potentially has a real opportunity, given the foundation of support we have, to be in that competitive space."