For an ‘in the moment’ feel for this year’s Prime Time in Ottawa conference hosted by the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), look up my twitter feed for Jan 29 – Feb 1, 2019 and/or check out the hashtag #PTiO to get other perspectives as well. I used to Storify my tweets but sadly that’s no longer an option.
I have to say that this was a pretty good conference. Attendance felt up (I don’t know the actual numbers). The opening cocktail was packed and that means interest from local Ottawa media, politicians and bureaucrats as well as delegates.
I like to pick a theme for the conference after the fact, often an unintended theme that comes out of what people are thinking and talking about, regardless of what is actually programmed. I have to say, I am pleasantly surprised to declare that this year’s theme was diversity. I need your help sharing my blog post on terminology widely as the misuse of the term diversity as a synonym for people of colour was pretty widespread but more and more people are getting it and talking about what needs to happen, how to improve it and why. It came up in a variety of panels that technically were not about diversity. The fact that we’re still talking about why is a little depressing but at least more people accept the fact that better reflecting our own audience and reaching a global audience is a pretty good why. Netflix was pretty clear. They target a global audience so need a diversity of stories and storytellers. The panel on working with Netflix therefore veered off at one point to talking about how to improve the diversity of talent in Canadian production with producer Noreen Halpern calling for more training programs and showrunner Dennis Heaton telling the audience it was everyone’s responsibility to mentor emerging talent who aren’t otherwise getting opportunities.
I do object to a call from talent agent Glenn Cockburn (on the Scarcity of Talent panel) for more programs that target kids in high school since I know that many colleges and universities are already graduating pretty diverse classes but everyone who isn’t white and male are having a harder time getting hired. I tweeted out the story of my daughter who graduated from Centennial’s Broadcasting and Film program, one of a very diverse class, and did her work placement where she was the only non-white face. How can you hire an all white crew in the city of Toronto?? Two of her female non-white friends are DGC trainees and they are getting great support from that union so it’s not all bad news. I am in the camp of mentoring and financial support to give emerging talent work opportunities. Hold the door open everyone.
Now was the conference itself diverse? Only if you measure gender balance. Conference producer Marguerite Pigott was pleased to announce that 50% of the speakers were male (I did enjoy the stat being flipped like that). But by my rough calculation (and this is not scientific as ethnicity and identity are the choice of the speaker, not the person counting) only nine of 56 speakers were people of colour. Yeah, we’ve got some work to do.
The marketing pitch session (Prime Time Throwdown) was a glimpse into that future. All three projects were pitched by women. One was an LGBTQ team and one was a half-POC team. Two of the projects are web series that will likely earn good audiences but are the kinds of shows that are unlikely to find a home on traditional broadcast. Barbelles is targeting ‘queer women 18-34’ and as we have seen with Carmilla that audience segment is very hungry for content. Tokens on Call won the pitch and I’m looking forward to its launch later in the spring as it takes a very funny look at attempts to subvert traditional casting to create more diversity (see that theme again). In general though, it was an entertaining and informative session as the audience learned about the marketing strategies, and potential pitfalls, from producers who will be undertaking an aspect of marketing themselves. Two out of the three had received Bell Fund funding for a Discoverability Plan so it was also interesting to see how that new program can impact producers.
What else went on? The talk of the conference was the opening panel of broadcasters. Every year Prime Time starts with this panel and it’s usually pretty tame as the broadcasters say the same thing year after year – the CRTC needs to deregulate as life is just so hard, they love producers, the broadcasters have great CanCon (that they’re doing because they love it, not because they have to) etc etc. Well, not this year (and not just because of a controversial statement from the head of CBC – see here). There was a feisty dispute between Stéphane Cardin of Netflix Canada and Catherine Tait of CBC (which was a little strange since Netflix buys a lot of CBC comedy and dramas) and between Stéphane and Mike Cosentino of Bell Media (which made more sense since Bell is calling for Netflix to make a contribution to Canadian programming of 20% of their annual revenues). Reynolds Mastin tried to squeeze Terms of Trade into the conversation by calling it Code of Practice – not sure that worked. Stéphane suggested that more people in the room wanted to work with Netflix than would likely admit it and judging by the packed room for the Working With Netflix panel later that morning and the very positive experiences of the panelists, I’d say he’s right.
There were a few panels on the latest info on a topic and they provided up to the minute insights and that was refreshing. Too often we’re lucky to learn one thing new in a panel but I enjoyed the insights from the Kids panel (don’t think tv first automatically, might be better to build a game first to get their attention), the Distribution panel (distributors are increasingly getting involved at development because of increased competition) and the last minute (due to keynote cancellation – a conference producer’s worst nightmare) Future of Features panel (producers have to use digital platforms and interactivity to find audiences where they are and not leave it to distributors).
While it is discouraging that we still have to have conversations about the need for diversity and exploiting digital platforms, it did feel like the dial had moved a bit in the right direction so there was cause for optimism.