How and Why Creators Are Staying in Canada

For many creative industry professionals working in Canada, one of the definitions of success has long been ‘making it’ not just in Canada but also abroad, and in particular in the US. That may mean snagging a visa and an agent in Los Angeles or New York, or just the ability to spend several months each year working south of the border, so that one’s bio can include the envy-inducing phrase “Splits his/her time between [insert name of Canadian city here] and Los Angeles or New York”.

While the cross-border dream remains an aspiration for some, it's now one of several options, see that an increasing number of Canadian creators are able to stay at home and prosper. “During my 37 years in this business, I’ve only worked outside of Canada a few times,” revealed Torontonian and Oscar-winning producer J. Miles Dale (The Shape of Water) in an interview published in the fall 2018 edition of Indiescreen. “And now, after 20 or 30 years of learning from the best, I think we’re at a high water mark. We can say we’re among the best.” While the Guillermo del Toro-directed feature is not CanCon, Dale points out that the production “was almost all Canadian from top to bottom” and makes a special point of referencing some key Canadian crew members—costume designer, production designer, and sound department—as “nominated, nominated, nominated”.

Canada, “a billion dollar location”

Canadians are not the only ones who are singing the praises of the Great White North. In 2017, the Hollywood trade publication Variety dubbed Canada a “billion dollar location”, citing the availability of high-quality crews, sophisticated production facilities and locations that range from remote stretches of wilderness to lively urban hubs.

Oh, and there’s also the dollar. One US producer did the math, pointing out that “on $5 million, 1 cent is going to result approximately in a $50,000 slide, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but those are resources you can put on the screen.”

Between our beautiful scenery and our bendable buck, the production numbers north of the border are impressive and growing… In annual study by FilmLA, it was reported that 20 of the top US box office feature films were shot in Canada in 2017, up from 13 the previous year.

Rising to the challenge of working locally and selling globally

A number of panels at this year’s TIFF industry conference focused on the buzz around the flourishing of Canadian productions, from broadcast TV to feature films to shows making their way around the world by way of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. Also, as streaming services quickly become the new TV, making shows and movies for a borderless audience is not just the new normal but a new opportunity.

Whereas previously, Canadian producers could hope to reach anywhere from 100,000 to about a million viewers for a successful run on national broadcast television at home, a hit on a global platform may today reach into the tens of millions of viewers. And Canadian creators are rising to the challenge. As Corie Wright, director of global public policy at Netflix, recently stated in an interview, “Anne, Alias Grace, Travelers, Frontier, Between, Degrassi: Next Class, Orphan Black and Some Assembly Required are all certified CanCon, and Netflix invested in them because we believe they are great stories that our members will love—not because the government made us do it. […] We are a global company looking for universal stories and characters that transcend nationality and language. Canadians are already pretty good at that.”

While it’s no secret to most that shows such as Anne with an E and Alias Grace are hits around the world, there are multiple Canadian productions that are attracting global attention and acclaim. Jocelyn Hamilton, president of Entertainment One’s Canadian television division, offered up a number of specific examples during a panel at TIFF 2018’s Industry Conference: Canadian legal drama Burden of Truth reaching the #1 spot on the CW Network in the US and Private Eyes, starring Jason Priestley as hockey player turned detective Matt Shade, enjoying a run in 110 territories around the world. “We can proudly show landmarks like the CN Tower in the background,” quipped Hamilton. “We don’t have to be Chicago or New York anymore. We can be ourselves.” But with great potential for exposure comes great responsibility. “We can’t afford not to make ‘great’. Just ‘good’ isn’t good enough anymore,” she pointed out.

In the world of Canadian feature films, streaming services are also providing a boost, for their ability not only to take homegrown stories to the world, but also to reach audiences in rural parts of the country. During a TIFF panel titled “How Canadian producers are making it work”, writer/producer/director Darlene Naponse, whose new feature Falls Around Her premiered at TIFF, shared her first-hand experience of the value of Netflix and other on-demand streaming platforms to indigenous communities in non-urban areas. “Being hours away from theatres, and with limited options on broadcast TV, streaming services allow indigenous communities to see films they wouldn’t otherwise be see and also to see themselves.” Producer Jennifer Shin remarked that she sees other advantages of the arrival of the likes of Netflix. “The model has been disrupted, and both buyers and distributors are being more curatorial. This forces competition and forces artists to push their boundaries.”

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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