B.C.'s TV producers seek greater control over creative content

New funding will help local talent secure additional control of their productions

A local film crew on location in Vancouver | Photo: Chung Chow

With throngs of new streaming services competing for television shows and movies to offer subscribers, the number of potential buyers for made-in-B.C. TV content has never been higher, according to producer Catherine Winder.

“But the way deals get struck, often we as Canadians and, of course, B.C. producers don’t always have full control over the long-term future of the rights,” said the CEO of Wind Sun Sky Entertainment Inc. and Skybound North Entertainment Inc.

A new joint program from the private sector and government, as well as a string of recent industry initiatives, could soon offer B.C. producers some additional control.

The Canadian Media Producers Association’s B.C. branch (CMPA-BC), the Canadian Media Fund (CMF) and Creative BC – the non-profit agency charged with promoting the province’s film and TV sector – revealed plans last month to offer $400,000 for early-stage development of children’s and scripted drama series.

Eligible B.C.-based producers would be able to tap as much as $30,000 to fund research, scriptwriting, storyboards and travel costs to pitch a new series or market a project.

Critically, a broadcaster does not need to be tied to the project for it to be eligible for funding.

“That was actually a requirement for us in terms of our funding,” said CMPA-BC chief operating officer Liz Shorten.

“There’s been incredible consolidation in our sector in terms of the doors a producer can knock on to pitch a show.… As these media companies that are Ontario-based are competing with all these new [streaming] services, they’re commissioning less because the budgets have had to go up. So it’s even more challenging for people way outside of the centre to get projects commissioned.”

The initiative comes at a time when B.C.’s film and TV sector is experiencing exceptional – albeit lopsided – growth.

The volume of film and TV production in B.C. grew 20.6% annually to reach $3.58 billion in the last fiscal year, according to a March 2019 report from the CMPA.

Foreign productions accounted for $3.04 billion of that sum, growing 31.5% from a year earlier.

But growth did not translate domestically as TV productions from B.C.-based producers sank 15.1% to hit $438 million and domestic film productions from B.C.-based producers fell 74.4% to $11 million.

“We’re very fortunate here in B.C. that the [foreign] service sector has done very, very well,” Shorten said. “That’s all wonderful but we also want to have a strong independent sector as well.”

The CMF provides financial support for Canadian content, but its funding model depends on a percentage of revenue from traditional broadcasters.

As streaming services eat away at those revenue streams for broadcasters, less funding is going to domestic productions.

And while the CMF offered $298 million in support during fiscal 2018-19, Ontario and Quebec producers took a combined $238 million compared with $19 million for B.C. producers.

Meanwhile, the province’s creative sector has been embarking on its own initiatives over the past year to boost its domestic output.

The Pacific Screenwriting Program – funded by Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq:NFLX), the CMPA and Creative BC – saw its first group of entry-level screenwriters graduate last May, with one writer immediately landing a job as script co-ordinator on the Netflix horror drama The Order.

This comes after the provincial government adjusted its film tax credit program to allow for B.C. writers to qualify, providing incentives for producers to build up a stable of local writers.

And last September, the Directors Guild of Canada’s (DGC) B.C. chapter launched its Directors Initiative.

Through the campaign, the guild facilitates career development, meetings and flights down to Los Angeles for B.C. directors to meet with producers. It has also helped bring about the new directors.ca online hiring directory and showcases to raise the profile of directors’ credits.

The DGC, which has been collecting data for a decade, has found that Canadian directors are leading 33% of productions in the province.

The Directors Initiative aims to get that figure closer to 50% within two years.

Meanwhile, Winder said, the launch of the Access 2020 initiative, which closes applications March 11, has equal appeal for both small and incumbent B.C. producers.

“Having the ability to self-fund development with support of the government provides us with that much more leverage because we’re in control of our properties early on,” she said.