Category Archives: Co-production

Dueling Industry Conferences

It’s hard not to compare industry forums when they are back to back.  Thursday the Banff Media Festival held its “Content Industries Connect” conference at the Ritz Carlton.  Swanky.  It was a paid event.  In the past it had been part of the Academy’s Screen Week but this year while during Screen Week it wasn’t affiliated with the Academy (there’s a story there somewhere but I don’t know it).  Friday the official Industry Forum took place, hosted by the Academy, CMPA and DGC.  It was free for members of those three associations and took place at the TIFF Lightbox.  Not quite as swanky but the seats were more comfortable.

I don’t know if anyone went to all of both.  I was signed up for both but came late to Banff and skipped out of one of the Industry Forum panels.  It’s just too much of a time commitment to do both.  Most people seemed to pick one or the other.  The topics were quite similar but Banff was the only one with a Media Leaders panel so my impression is that the senior executives chose to pop in to the end of the Banff day to attend the Media Leaders panel and bypassed the Industry Forum.  The Industry Forum was more grassroots given the free admission for members of those organizations.  The speakers seemed to be aware of that and targeted the production community rather than the executives with their discussion.    So while the topics were the same, they ended up being quite different days (I’m not going to compare the cocktail parties though for me the food at the Industry Forum won – quinoa battered shrimp and lamb chops!).

As someone who attends a lot of conferences I didn’t think I’d miss much by skipping the Banff panel on The Future of Content in a Multiplatform World and based on the tweets and what I heard, it was the same talk we’ve been hearing for the past year from Vice, Shomi, Blue Ant and CBC. I don’t know anyone who attended the panel on brand engagement with speakers from Hyundai, Microsoft and Kraft and the tweets don’t tell me much either.  Honestly, it seemed an odd choice for the content crowd.  I finally made it to the conference in time for the “Letterkenny” panel.  Full disclosure – I haven’t seen it all (I don’t have CraveTV) but every second of “Letterkenny” that I’ve seen makes me laugh.  I enjoyed the clips, hearing about the process, learning about its success (more views on CraveTV than any other show in its catalogue including Seinfeld and South Park) and its renewal announced during the panel.

Then there was the Media Leaders panel.  Banff has it every year that they have done this event.  This year there were only two leaders after consolidation (and CBC cancelled) – Mary Ann Turcke from Bell Media and Doug Murphy from Corus.  Talking to people afterwards there was one word that seemed to sum up the panel and it’s not a polite word.  It starts with a b.  There was a very negative reaction to Doug Murphy’s discussion of the CRTC’s decision to not require Terms of Trade as part of broadcast licences – they’re now free to treat every deal like a snowflake.  Yes, a snowflake.  Which ignores the very real imbalance in bargaining power between the mega-broadcasters and most independent producers.  There was a marked contrast between this Media Leaders panel and the one last month at Prime Time – this one was channeling ‘sunny ways’.  Everything is going to be great.  Netflix isn’t a threat as they’re now starting to partner with it, get high profile casting because of its involvement and negotiate windows.  It’ll be interesting to see if they go back to ‘Netflix is heralding the end of the world as we know it if you don’t deregulate us’ mantra next time they’re in front of the CRTC.    They were also pretty positive about pick and pay.  Sure a few of their services will die but producers shouldn’t worry because the remaining ones will only be bigger and better.  Since the jury is still out on this big shift in consumer behaviour due to pick and pay that has been predicted by some, this could mean that pick and pay is going to be used as an excuse to close up some of the underperformers. Again – we’ll have to wait and see what happens in front of the CRTC.

Now off to the Industry Forum.  The first panel was on discoverability.  I’m still not sure we’re all talking about the same thing (push vs. pull) but this panel was a lot more about new techniques to find audiences and provide them with what they want than the discoverability panel at Prime Time which talked more about traditional marketing using digital platforms (and I believe that it was also programmed by the CMPA since it was branded Prime Time Any Time).  In particular, it was useful to hear about Richard Kanee (CBC) and Ramona Pringle (interactive digital media producer) experimenting in finding and engaging audiences.  I appreciated Kanee’s admission that the CBC had missed social media engagement opportunities in promoting “Strange Empire” (you can’t expect him to take responsibility for the whole marketing mess) and his admonition that producers and broadcasters shouldn’t always chase the latest new thing.  Some of the tried and true engagement methods, like email newsletters, still work and should remain part of your strategy instead of running after all the riskier new methods.  Final favourite bit of wisdom from the panel was that the studios (and broadcasters and producers) should be learning audience engagement from the YouTubers who have learned how to find, support and grow their audiences.  Casting them in a mainstream television show isn’t enough to migrate their audience, but if the YouTubers develop their own television show their audience will recognize the authenticity and watch.

The next panel was on co-production featuring three Canadian majority copros:  “Book of Negroes”, “Born to be Blue” and “Room”.  There was a good discussion of why go copro – the added money allowed them all to afford higher profile talent which generated more sales.  It also allowed them to access government funding rather than distributor advances which meant casting the best person for the part rather than for international sales.  Unfortunately, that government funding helped those stars become international hits and now it’s unlikely that anyone in Canada can afford them so for me there is a flaw in that system.

I have to admit that I stepped out and missed the “Orphan Black” panel not because I don’t love the show (I do!) but because I’ve seen a few “Orphan Black” panels over the years.  I ran into a few others doing the same thing so we did our own networking.  We went back in for the keynote speech from Colin Brown, who among other things is a professor of film and economics at NYU.  He gave a very insightful presentation on the international markets for feature films and how they differ between markets and between films and the business case for investing in a mid-size studio producing a slate of mid-range budget films.  His add-on bit about Canada was less insightful as the audience did not need to be told who are the Canadians in Hollywood or that we should be prouder of all the great talent who have left.  As someone who has spent their entire career in the domestic film and television industry I was not impressed.   But I am thinking about what Canadian stories might be naturals for the Chinese and Egyptian markets.  Hmm.

So did we need two such conferences in two days?  Nope.  They could have been merged and been one great day – as long as they kept the quinoa-battered shrimp.

International Digital Media Co-Production: A Guide for Canadian Companies

Today Interactive Ontario launched the International Digital Media Co-Production Guide for Canadian Companies.  I’m rather proud of it since IO hired me to research and write this report and it consumed a great deal of my Winter 2014.  I’ve given you the link to the report on the IO website but you can also find it on CMF, OMDC and Bell Fund’s websites (as funders of the study) and CMF also has a French version.

You should check it out if you’re interested in digital media co-production.  I spoke with a number of producers and stakeholders in Canada and outside to identify the advantages and disadvantages to this kind of business structure as well as the different business models that producers are experimenting with.  The report also has tips for how to get started in the international marketplace and a section that provides specific resources for UK, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.    It’s both a big picture report and a handy tool for producers.

Funding Application Tips – Partnerships

I probably should have done this post on Partnerships before last week’s post on how not to screw up your funding application but there you go.  I’m doing it now.

One of the biggest ways that a project can fail (in general, not just with funding applications) is in picking the right partners to work on the project.  This is co-producers or digital media and television producers or creative partners.  The same rules/guidelines apply.

Audio-visual media is a collective work.  None of us can create (high quality commercial) film, television and digital media on our own.  We need to work with other people to bring complimentary skills together to get the end product completed.  I think that we all understand that a screenwriter, producers, director, actors and crew are needed to produce but this also applies to the producer.  Sometimes it is skills that are needed, for example when a smaller production company or series creators partner with a more experienced production company to take on a bigger challenge.  Sometimes it is financing as when a Canadian production company partners with a treaty co-production partner.  And then there are the partnerships between formats when a tv producer partners with a digital media producer to create affiliated digital media content for a television program.

Early on in my career I learned a few key rules on partnerships from a tv producer who became a broadcaster and then a winemaker and is back to being a broadcaster.  I like to sum them up as ‘can you get drunk with your intended partner?’  It may seem frivolous but bear with me.   You get drunk with people you like (most of us do anyway).  Production is hard and you should only do such hard work with people you like and trust, can talk to and feel that you can rely on.  This means spending time with people and getting to know them before signing an agreement.  Put the relationship ahead of the deal.

How do you do that?  Meet lots of people and companies before decided which one you want to work with.  Attend markets and conferences where you can meet a lot of people (and socialize with them!).  Talk to your friends and colleagues about their experiences with those companies.  Yesterday I told a story about the reactions of two different companies to an event that I was trying to set up and the person I told it to heard the story as more evidence that one company was a better potential partner for her than the other company.  It wasn’t the point of my story but it definitely informed her opinion about which one she would rather work with.

It is more than likeability and ethics though.  What you look for in a partner depends on what you need but you need to be certain that your partner has it and isn’t just BS’ing you or entertaining magical thinking about their abilities.  That’s the due diligence part that you have to do.   Can they bring that financing to the table – check out their past projects.  Can they produce the digital media component – check out their past projects.  Do they have the distribution skills or marketing skills that you lack – check out their team.  Right now possibly the biggest problem in convergent media production is tv producers partnering with digital media companies who do not have the skills and experience to produce what the tv producers are looking for.   For example, if a convergent project is going to be about developing and supporting the television audience with content then a digital media shop that has only created websites that sell products will not have the necessary skills.   The result, if it can be funded, just may be garbage.

If you don’t know the sector that you’re exploring for a partner then consider hiring a consultant who works in that area to help you find potential partners.  Yes, it does sound like hiring a matchmaker but it can work.  Some organizations are partnering with other organizations to facilitate matchmaking, for example WIFT’s Digiscape in partnership with CMPA, CWC and Interactive Ontario.   Go to funders’ websites and check out what they’ve funded and who produced it.

OK, so you’ve found your dream date, now what?  An effective partnership comes out of both parties clearly understanding the strengths that each bring to the partnership, the roles they will each perform and being completely on the same page about what is being produced.  You can do this in a co-production or services agreement but you also need one or more meetings where you can talk about the big picture and all the little details that it will take to get there.  I cannot tell you how often I have been able to see in a funding application that partners appear to have completely different ideas about what they are producing.   An effective partnership involves constant communication – which of course isn’t difficult because you do like each other, right?  [see above re getting drunk together]   You do not carve up the responsibilities and go off and do your thing, assuming that your partner is off in their corner doing their thing and somehow magically it will all get put together and end up being fantastic!

Ideally you want to have such a fantastic working relationship with your partner that you can work with them again and avoid all of this hard finding your partner work.

CBC Licence Renewal – More Than Just Ads on Radio

The CRTC issued its CBC licence renewal decision today and I of course have a few thoughts about it.  But first – my context.  While at the WGC I spent a lot of time over two years (due to hearing postponements) working on a submission and presentation to the CRTC on CBC’s licence renewal.  My thoughts here are informed by that thought and analysis but not limited by it.  I’m also in no way representing the WGC.  Remember – it’s just my own somewhat informed personal opinion.

Renewal was never at issue but just the terms of that renewal.  The decision to allow limited ads on Espace Musique and Radio 2 for three years has received most of the attention and will be the headline in the news but there’s an awful lot more in the 124 page decision.   As an English TV content person I have very specific interests – nothing about French tv or radio and little about radio.  With that in mind, here are a few comments.

The whole CBC Licence Renewal process was very belaboured and it was what I think of now as the ‘old’ style of broadcaster application.  As broadcasters have done for years, the CBC submitted an application that asked for a great deal of deregulation and included lots of  ‘trust us’ language.  Stakeholders objected and provided evidence that trust was a questionable strategy.  The CBC countered at the hearing and during the reply stage with compromises – often as a result of clear messages from the CRTC during the hearing.  This is the  ‘public hearing by negotiation’ that the Chair, Jean-Pierre Blais, has objected to on more than one occasion.  [This may be the last time that we see this strategy as in the Bell-Astral2 hearing Bell certainly heard the warning and came to the CRTC with its bottom line rather than an opening bid.]

In the meantime though, when assessing the decision you really need to look at both the original proposal and the final proposal when looking at the decision.  In several instances the Commission seems to have felt that the CBC made enough of a concession in their final proposal that it didn’t need to push it further.   You may not agree.

The crux of the matter though was how to balance ensuring that the CBC met its regulated mandate with the clear reductions in its parliamentary appropriation.  While the government has said that the CBC has a record high appropriation, the CRTC crunched the numbers and started the decision by saying that the 2011-12 appropriation was comparable in adjusted dollars to the 2002 appropriation though $180 million higher in actual dollars.  By the end of the next term in 2019, the appropriation will actually be $160 million less than 2002 in adjusted dollars.  So how does the CBC manage to meet its mandate with fewer resources?  The CBC argued that it needed flexibility to figure out on its own how to meets its mandate with fewer resources but the Commission definitely didn’t buy the blanket ‘trust us’ argument.  The CRTC decided that there had to be a few ground rules but they are going to allow more trust than most of the content creators are going to be happy with.  Here are a few highlights from the English TV perspective.

In a number of places the CBC had expectations and they are now conditions of licence.  There is no negative consequence to not meeting an expectation.  It’s a suggestion that may or may not be met.  As part of the licence renewal application for the next term, CBC will have to report on whether it met its expectations but not before.  A condition of licence however is enforceable and the CRTC can bring  the CBC back before it in a ‘show cause’ hearing or with a mandatory order (See the OWN hearing for a recent example of a show cause hearing and the resulting decision as an example of a mandatory order).

CBC had asked for a condition of licence (“COL”) of 7 hours of PNI per week when they historically had been commissioning 10 hours.   By the end of the hearing they moved to 9 hours of PNI and the CRTC has accepted that.  That doesn’t sound like a big difference and the CRTC made the point that quota should be less than historical commitments because going forward the funding would be less than historically received (despite CBC’s very positive revenue projections in the application).   But the decision also accepted the proposal that only 75% of PNI (or 5.25 hours) would be independent and that a minimum of 2 hours would be drama and 2 hours would be documentary.  Content creators and especially DOC fear that CBC would only do the minimum of 2 hours of documentary (down from current levels of 3 hours per week) and increase the amount of in-house production that they are currently doing.  The CRTC’s argument is that these are minimums, they ‘expect’ the CBC to exceed those minimums and they believe that the CMF guidelines and the CBC’s need to build audience and generate revenues will be enough incentive that additional regulation is not necessary.

Respectfully to the CRTC, I see some holes in that argument.  CMF broadcaster envelopes are based in large part on audience success (way complicated).  The CBC is not and cannot be all about chasing large audiences to increase their CMF envelope or their ad revenues because then it stops being a public broadcaster.   Its mandate includes offering a variety of programming so that all Canadians can find programming on CBC, not the same program to each and every Canadian.  This is why even at 3 hours a week, the CBC offers more documentary programming than the private broadcasters.  Any push for larger audiences in order to increase CMF or ad revenue is likely to mean fewer documentaries as they just do not have the same level of audience as prime time dramas such as “Republic of Doyle” or “The Rick Mercer Report”.   Regulation was needed to ensure that the CBC did not ignore its mandate in search of revenue.

Then there is the issue of the CBC’s excessive use of minority co-productions (“Tudors”, “Pillars of the Earth” etc.) to meet its Canadian content obligations.   The WGC proposed excluding them from calculation of PNI as they use few Canadian resources.   The goal was to find a solution to an imbalance in broadcasting co-productions that meant fewer opportunities for Canadian talent on Canada’s broadcaster.  Well, the Chair of the CRTC is well-versed in co-production policy from his previous employment at Heritage and the decision refers to the biggest policy hurdle to addressing the imbalance – the policy of ‘national treatment’ means that were the CRTC to agree to that exclusion, there could possibly be international trade repercussions.  However, at the hearing the Chair had countered that a possible solution was requiring an overall balance of co-productions within PNI so it was disappointing not to see that in the decision.

The CBC’s previous expectation that it broadcast Canadian programming for 75% of its day and 80% of its prime time period has now been entrenched as an enforceable condition of licence.  While some parties, such as ACTRA, wanted the CBC to move to 100% Canadian programming in prime time, the CRTC agreed to what I think of as the ‘Coronation Street exception’.  There would be riots in the streets if the CBC had to get rid of it, riots in the streets.

Now for kids – a subject near and dear to my heart ever since my earlier time with Owl Television.  CBC has stated that they want to move away from school age and youth programming and concentrate on preschool programming.  They stated this made sense because these age groups were leaving broadcast television and going online, where their needs will be met by CBC.ca.  No evidence was presented to support the departure of kids and youth from tv and Youth Media Alliance presented stats to the contrary.  However, the CBC had also not presented any evidence about what it is doing and how much it is spending on CBC.ca.  Many stakeholders, and particularly the Youth Media Alliance, presented arguments and evidence to demonstrate a need and a want for quality school age and youth programming for Canadians on CBC.  The CBC revised its proposal to a condition of licence of 15 hours of programming for children up to 12 years of age and an expectation of 5 hours for youth 12 to 17.  The CRTC ‘expects’ a reasonable allocation between preschool and school age programming.  There is a new requirement of 1 hour of original programming per week.

The good news in this is that the children’s obligations have moved from expectation to COL but the bad news is that youth programming hasn’t and there is no protection of school age programming within the allocation of 0 – 12.  Given that in the last licence term there was an expectation of 5 hours of youth programming that was completely ignored I don’t understand why the CRTC thinks that an expectation is good enough for the coming licence term.  The CRTC’s logic is that 1 hour of original programming is more of a commitment to original programming than zero but that still will not prevent the CBC from meeting its commitment as it does now through airing a lot of very old repeats.  At the hearing there were many passionate arguments about the obligation of Canada’s public broadcasters to meet the needs of its youngest citizens and I am afraid that we will be hearing these arguments again in 5 years.

There was one little part that I did enjoy in the kids part of the decision.  This Commission isn’t buying the argument that the last Commission agreed with – that families should just pay for YTV, Treehouse and Family Channel if they want kids programming.   The Commission stated clearly that as private conventional broadcasters have moved out of kids programming, it is even more important that the CBC as Canada’s public broadcaster support the kids and youth audience.  We just don’t agree on how that will happen.

During the hearing the CBC committed to broadcast one Canadian feature film per month but would not commit to when they would air them.  They wanted the flexibility to air them on Saturday afternoon or late in the evening.  Really late.  As most audiences are still watching tv during prime time, there were calls for a commitment to air Canadian feature films in prime time and not let the CBC dump them in off hours.  As I recall the DGC was pretty insistent on this point.  The CRTC has instead ‘encouraged’ the CBC to air Canadian feature films in prime time and in a regular slot in the summer (ie when there is no hockey).  I think an encouragement is even less than an expectation.

A really wonky request was for more detailed reporting to be able to assess whether CBC is meeting its expectations and COLs and encouragements (is that a word?) while the CBC was arguing for less reporting.  One in particular that interests me is the call for reporting on the CBC’s digital expenditures and revenues.  On the one hand the CBC is saying that it can get out of kids and youth programming because it is doing a lot for that age group online while on the other hand they are not reporting any of that activity because there is no requirement.  The CRTC reiterated that as a Digital Media Broadcasting Undertaking (DMBU – successor to the much loved NMBU) is exempt from licensing, there is no requirement to report other than the vague reporting that is currently reported to the public in an industry aggregated way.  Any greater reporting could somehow harm developing business models.  I hope then that the CBC will not be allowed to make the claim again at the next licence renewal hearing that these unreported activities can take the place of regulated activities.

The final piece of interest to me is on terms of trade.  The Commission declined to wade into the competing stories about why no agreement had been concluded (this had taken up a lot of hearing time) but was very firm and clear about its jurisdiction to impose a terms of trade agreement if it wants to, regardless of the CBC’s legal opinion to the contrary.  While it won’t at this time impose Terms of Trade, the CRTC gave the parties one year to conclude an agreement or risk a show cause hearing or a mandatory order (see above).  Will that be enough to break the log jam?  We can only wait and see and hope that it happens.     Terms of Trade are important to provide stability and certainty in negotiations and create a level playing field between parties so we do all need the CBC and CMPA to conclude Terms of Trade.

Oh, that’s a lot of stuff.  I congratulate you if you made it to the end.  Just imagine if I was interested in French TV and radio!

TV, Eh? Podcast Guest

I interrupt the regular policy wonk discussion to do a little shameless self-promotion.  This week I was a guest of TV, Eh?’s weekly podcast where Diane Wild and Anthony Marco discuss the week’s news in Canadian television.  Last week they had talked about co-productions and Diane had mentioned my blog post about it.  So this week I was invited to expand on it a bit and explain how co-productions work.  It ended up being a very far ranging discussion including vertical integration, enforcement of licence conditions, mandatory carriage and even co-ventures.  And some of the ways that you can conjugate the word ‘wonk’.

If you don’t know TV, Eh? and you care about Canadian television – well, you should.  Diane aggregates all the press out there about Canadian television and now adds her own interviews and articles and the podcast with Anthony Marco.  It is a great resource for people who work in Canadian TV.  She does it for fun.  So if you see Diane – buy her a drink – you owe her.    Listen to the podcast and you’ll get an idea of what she likes to drink.  You could also donate to the cause through the site.

I’m not just saying this because Diane said such lovely things about me.  I mean it!

A New Co-Production Policy – What Do We Know?

On March 7, 2013, during a speech by Parliamentary Secretary Paul Calandra to the CMPA Prime Time audience, the government announced that it would now be implementing its new film and television co-production policy.  Most of the audience went ‘huh?’ and a few directed the ‘huh?’ at me.

I don’t have all the answers but I’ve been able to dig up a few – sorry but it took me a while.

Here’s the context.  A new co-production policy framework  was released February 2011.   It basically said that after declining treaty co-production volume, the policy framework would set the big picture goal of making Canada a more desirable co-production partner.  Co-productions bring more foreign investment to Canada and make it easier for Canadian productions to get access to foreign markets.  The industry was asked to consult on the implementation of that new policy framework – the details of how it would be accomplished.  There were questions and possible solutions that we were asked to address such as lowering the minimum participation from Canada, a new set of minimum key creatives and frequency of review (I’m going on memory as none of the materials are on the Heritage site any more).   These details would inform the specifics of each treaty as it gets renegotiated or for the negotiation of new ones.   That was another question – should Heritage start implementing the new policy with new negotiations or by updating the existing treaties.

So when I heard that the new policy would now be implemented I went to look for the details of the implementation.  Perhaps there would be a report that said how the industry consultation had been considered, or not.   There is not.  Heritage staff advised me that details on the provisions of the proposed treaties (one of the more significant aspects of implementation) cannot be released as they could jeopardize or confuse negotiations.  Heritage did release today a document entitled:  “Selection Criteria for entering into negotiations or renegotiations for an audiovisual coproduction treaty with Canada” and it provides a little more insight.

A treaty agreement governs how the two countries which are party to the agreement will treat a co-production and what the minimum requirements are for a co-production to be eligible.  The primary benefit is that the co-production can be treated in each country as a domestic production, qualifying for support and meeting quotas.

The new treaty agreements will be more conceptual and less detailed than the existing agreements so that they can be more easily amended to adapt to changing production realities and to allow for more negotiation flexibility between co-production partners.  I honestly do not know what this means in reality.  In theory it makes sense because amending a treaty agreement between two governments is very time-consuming and complex but there is still a risk that too much has been left outside the agreement.  We just don’t know yet.

The new rules will not come into play until new treaty agreements are negotiated.  The Selection Criteria document says that the government will prioritize countries with a strong track record of co-production, with government support for co-productions, are good trading partners for Canada, are in a position to offer opportunities to Canadian productions and a variety of other factors.  In reality I think that means UK, France, Germany, Australia and Ireland to start but there are so many factors including ‘have a significant demographic presence in the Canadian population’ that they could throw India or China into the top list as well, even though there hasn’t been the same volume of co-production with those countries.

All we appear to be able do at this point is wait for new treaties and revised treaties to be announced and compare them to the old treaties.  Most (but not all) treaties follow the same format and terms and conditions.   If you are considering a co-production right now I would suggest checking in now and then with Telefilm (who administers the treaties on behalf of the government) to see if there is a new governing treaty that might change the rules that govern your project.   But it won’t happen any time soon – treaty agreements are notoriously slow to negotiate and ratify because they are agreements between two governments.

And for those of you who are wondering if this new policy or its implementation will have any impact on the number of minority co-productions on the CBC?  Wrong venue – that’s an issue for the CRTC which may end up being part of their upcoming licence renewal decision.