Los Angeles Trade Commissioner: “To Sell To a Global Market, Create For a Global Market”

What are the best strategies to crack the highly competitive Hollywood market?

On behalf of CMF Trends, I recently spoke with Patricia Elliott, Consul and Senior Trade Commissioner in the Los Angeles office of the Canada Trade Commissioner Service (TCS), to learn how TCS assists Canadians media firms seeking to do business in Los Angeles.

Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service is in the Ministry of International Trade, led by The Honourable Francois-Philippe Champagne. TCS was established in 1894, so for more than 120 years TCS has been helping Canadian companies promote their economic interests in the global marketplace.

TCS now has 161 offices around the world. As exports continue to increase in importance in the globalized economy, a fifth of all Canadian jobs are directly linked to international trade. As a fundamental, the TCS Step-by-Step Guide to Exporting asserts that one impact of success in the global marketplace is to boost domestic competitiveness and resilience to foreign products and services in Canada.

Elliott leads a growing team of 15 trade specialists responsible for Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. In addition to Arts and Cultural Industries, the team covers priority sectors including clean tech; foreign direct investment (FDI); information and communication technologies (ICT), infrastructure; innovation; and life sciences.

Elliott’s opening comments delivered an instant reality check on the entertainment industry: “Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world, but at the same time, it is the second biggest city in the US. Of course, the entertainment industry is iconic: the Hollywood sign, the Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys and everything else, but—according to the World Trade Centre in Los Angeles—it is dwarfed by advanced manufacturing, which here in LA is more than entertainment and agriculture combined. Is the entertainment industry important? Absolutely, when you put it in perspective of everything else that’s going on here, the incubators, the academic institutions, high tech—it’s an important component, but not the main economic driver.”

Irene Berkowitz (IB): Given that reality, how much focus does Canadian entertainment receive in LA?

Patricia Elliott (PE): Under the current government, creative industries have become a priority sector which allows us to focus on finding opportunities in film, TV, music, or performing arts that we can take back to industry in Canada. The first thing we need to do is get an understanding of the network and the market here, and for LA, that’s huge.

IB: What is TCS-LA’s main goal for our industry?

PE: Exports. For any Canadian company, the ability to grow and strengthen your company within the Canadian market is a challenge. California has relatively the same population as Canada. If you want to succeed and grow, you’ve got to expand outside of Canada, which is true in any industry.

IB: In practice, how does that work?

PE: We look for opportunities that match Canadian capabilities. We could discover an absolutely phenomenal opportunity here, but if no Canadian company matches that service, or builds that widget, there’s no value.

IB: Any specifics?

PE: One example would be a Canadian company might ask: “Do you have a contact with company ‘X’?” At the same time, we’re meeting with companies like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, trying to identify an opportunity for Canadian companies that we would take back to the industry and say, “Hey, they’re looking for X.”

IB: What do you find are the biggest hurdles to export expansion?

PE: One of big challenges we see is access to capital. Whether you’re a clean tech company, a drug company or a TV producer, you’re always looking for money to help your company grow. There’s a lot of money down here, but what we find in terms of challenges across all sectors, is Canadian companies equate success in Canada with U.S. success: that they can take that same strategy, and succeed in the U.S. It’s rarely the case.

IB: From your perspective, what is the error in that analysis?

PE: That your strategy is transferable, that your business plan can be replicated down here, whether in front of an investor or distributor or a buyer. A large part of what we do here is saying things like this to Canadian companies: “That is not going to work. You cannot go in front of that VC with that PowerPoint. That is not what they will want to see, because it is so much more competitive down here.”

IB: Is it just that, in LA, you are competing with the best?

PE: It’s that you’re competing with the world, every other country in the world that’s trying to finance or sell their product.

IB: Does TCS drill down to the meeting level, and help companies improve their pitch?

PE: We haven’t really done it yet on the cultural side, but we do it a lot in other sectors. Down here, you have to have your game on. You have to be a lot more aggressive. People say to me: “I couldn’t get the person to take the meeting.” Our response to them is to go back and ask again. It just means that they weren’t available on that day or at that time. Because that is what people do in LA—take meetings.

IB: What’s the most important piece of advice for that one big meeting?

PE: Make sure you know what the market wants. What they will buy. What they will partner with. Understand your competition. Make sure your product is commercially viable outside of Canada.

IB: Does the LA Trade Commissioner office have relationships with the agencies, who are often gatekeepers to these meetings?

PE: That’s something that we’re building up to. We recently issued a contract for a database of key qualified contacts, because out of all the services we offer, that is the one that’s requested the most often: “I want to speak with company X—who do I talk to?”

IB: If I was a producer requesting a meeting with Netflix, will you provide that service?

PE: Of course. But Netflix is a massive company, so what component of Netflix? Who do you want to meet? Where are you at in terms of your pitch or your business? However, we are not television producers, agents, or distributors so we look for our initiatives to be driven by industry needs. Also, keep in mind that we cover more than just film and television. The music industry is massive here and we also look at performing arts. We do not focus on publishing or visual arts as those sectors tend to be more on the East Coast, i.e. New York.

IB: A number of recent reports have identified export market intelligence as something our producers need. Is your office able to provide assistance with research, such as the number of shows bought, genre trends?

PE: While we don’t have the bandwidth in-house to do that kind of research, if it was requested by industry, it might be possible able to secure funding to purchase it or hire someone to do it. We have different mechanisms to request funding for those types of reports, but it is limited. Results are posted on our website and we do publish reports from events that we attend, such as MusExpo.

IB: The TCS brochure, Step-by-Step Guide to Exporting, discusses many financial assistance programs for exports, including Export Development Canada (EDC); Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) ; Global Opportunities for Associations (GOA) ; CanExport ; and Canadian Business Women in International Trade (BWIT). How might these services apply to media?  

PE: For example, as long as you’re a Canadian national association, you can apply for Global Opportunities Associations (GOA) funding. I believe CIMA, the Canadian Independent Music Association, receives fund money for their export initiatives. My experience, especially on the film and TV side, has been that some companies are very good at accessing the funding. But you need to have a solid business plan, including financials. It’s no different than if you’re coming to the bank for a loan.

We need to know things like “What kind of market research have you done to tell us that LA is your market?” “Who’s your competition?” “Do you have anyone in your company that has international market experience?” “Do you have the finances to hold you until the money starts coming in from distribution?” If companies can’t answer these kinds of questions, they need to do more export preparedness.

IB: Many of the gatekeepers to selling content into the growing export markets in Asia and Africa would be headquartered in Los Angeles. Your goal for this opportunity?

PE: We do not only target U.S. companies when conducting our outreach (meetings) in our territory but we also include multinationals to see if we can gain access for Canadian companies, not only within their U.S. subsidiaries but also—potentially—into their supply chains outside of the U.S. Our ultimate goal is economic benefit to Canada, and we have a number of performance indicators which measure progress towards that goal. For example, when people come here and they’re looking to secure a meeting, our performance indicators include being able to secure that meeting and then as a result of that meeting, whether there is some kind of economic result, such as accessing equity, securing a distribution deal, getting picked up by Netflix or CBS. That for us is success, and we measure with key performance indicators.

IB: Where is Canadian content, at the moment, in terms of this journey?

PE: It depends on the sector. On the music side, recently six out of the top ten artists on Billboard were Canadian.

IB: What might TV learn from music?

PE: If you want to sell to a global market, you’ve got to create for a global market. Telling Canadian stories to Canadian people is good and well, but you could be limiting yourselves to that audience. It’s no different than if it’s a drug for life sciences or clean technology; if you’re not creating it for the global market, you’re not going to sell in that market.

IB: In the journey towards commercial viability, one of media’s similarities to industries like pharma seems the high cost of R&D: TV shows are also very expensive to develop.

PE: Yes. Drugs costs millions and millions of dollars if you invest in them and you don’t even know until you’ve gone through all the testing and FDA and Health Canada, whether or not you’re actually even going to be able to sell it. In the creative industries, we have all these platforms now, for example Netflix is doing 1,000 hours of original content in 2017. An interesting case of a Canadian story is The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re leading up to the Emmys and there are women walking around hand in hand in costume throughout Hollywood and Beverly Hills. I’m seeing pictures on Instagram and Facebook and that’s amazing.

IB: Yes, Handmaid’s Tale is being embraced by audiences in Canada and around the world. As you know, it is based on a novel by one of Canada’s most famous authors, Margaret Atwood, but is not Canadian content. Handmaid’s Tale is an American series, created by American Bruce Miller, produced for Hulu. One of the Executive Producers is Warren Littlefield, former head of NBC. Any thoughts?

PE: That speaks for itself. The producers have taken something that is commercially viable, which happens to be a famous Canadian book by a world-renowned author, and manufactured a successful global product.

The TCS Step-by-Step Guide to Exporting contains a wealth of information on exporting, including details about the benefits of global trade, export plans, marketing, e-commerce, regulation, IP, contracts, tariffs, shipping, delivery, payments, documentation, trade agreements, and much more.

As our industry prepares to meet its 21st-century challenge—the need to be globally competitive—TCS seems mission critical. Its service seems invaluable in advancing understanding of the imperative of commercial viability and disseminating, through all levels of our industry, the tools to achieve our new goal. These seem giant steps forward.

Irene S. Berkowitz
Dr. Irene S. Berkowitz, is an MBA instructor at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and a senior research associate in Ryerson University’s Media Innovation Research Lab. Her doctoral dissertation on Canadian media policy received national recognition during the CRTC’s “Let’s Talk TV” initiative. As a leading thinker, her opinions are often sought by the media, including The Globe and Mail, Playback, BNN, Sirius XM, and the CBC. Dr. Berkowitz holds a PhD from Ryerson University, an MA from the University of Chicago, and a BA from Cornell University.
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