B.C. documentary producers tap digital streaming boom

Demand for content from digital platforms boosts interest in Canadian productions

Keegan McColl, head of growth at Vancouver production company True Calling Media, says his company’s deal with Amazon.com is prompting plans to expand into the U.S. | Chung Chow

There are only about four seconds to hook a viewer when a video starts playing in a Facebook (Nasdaq:FB) feed, says Keegan McColl.

“You have to start with a really powerful punch,” said the head of growth at True Calling Media, a Vancouver-based production company specializing in short documentaries that follow people passionate about what they do.

Within four seconds of one True Calling video, Toronto Maple Leafs Zamboni driver Rob Buchan steps towards the centre of a dimly lit Maple Leaf Gardens, where the white ice glows in front of dark, empty seats.

What follows is a two-and-a-half-minute story about a man captivated by the science of making the ice perfect.

True Calling, meanwhile, is bringing this and other quintessentially Canadian stories to wider audiences after signing a deal with Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq:AMZN) and launching a second studio, in Toronto, this past spring.

The company’s recent growth portends the way digital platforms, or over-the-top (OTT) services, are boosting demand for Canadian documentary content among local producers.

“Thank you, Netflix [Nasdaq: NFLX], for … raising the popularity level of documentary series again,” said Liz Shorten, senior vice-president of operations and member services for the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Media Producers Association.

She said Canadian documentary producers have been especially successful focusing on projects tied to social impact, and then reaching wider audiences by forming international partnerships.

“Whether it’s climate change, the oceans, these are global issues. And so I think those are resonating with global audiences and partners,” Shorten said.

PwC’s Entertainment & Media Outlook 2018–2022, released June 5, projected Netflix would spend US$8 billion on content this year, while a JPMorgan analyst report from earlier in the year pegged Amazon’s spending on content at US$5 billion.

The report noted that OTT services like Netflix and Amazon Prime represent “the fastest-growing components” of the streaming video sector.

“Amazon is aggressively getting into the content game,” McColl said.

Under his company’s own deal with Amazon, True Calling’s “short, bite-sized mini-documentary series,” as McColl described them, are featured on Amazon Prime’s “Canadiana carousel” that appears as viewers browse the digital platform for content.

“That’s a flavour [Canadian content] that a lot of people want to see, and the market’s deprived of that,” he said.

International co-productions, meanwhile, have been making it more practical to deliver Canadian documentaries to the world market, according to producer Andrew Williamson.

He said it removes particularly onerous financial burdens if a partner, broadcaster or distributer can share costs.

“The platform access is definitely part of it,” said Williamson, who launched a new documentary production company, Cedar Island Films Inc., in April with German producing partner Henrik Meyer. “What SVODs [streaming video on demand services] like Netflix are discovering is there are huge audiences for shows that they may have only initially considered for specific audiences.

“The flip side is that the Canadian marketplace is still a very challenging place to produce content, and it is definitely the catalyst for us to be looking outside of Canada to find projects that will work within multiple marketplaces.”

Next on Cedar Island’s roster are The Magnitude of All Things from Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Abbott and Home, the feature directorial debut of German actress Franka Potente.

Meanwhile, growth has been robust for True Calling, and the deal with Amazon is pushing the company to plan for further growth, according to McColl.

“People consume on Facebook differently than they consume on YouTube and Amazon. So being on Amazon is definitely helping us rethink our longer-term strategy as well.”

He added that the company is looking at producing longer episodes or developing a series focused on one particular subject.

“We’re thinking about expanding into the U.S. pretty soon.”