Media Business Development and the COVID-19 Crisis

The global climate of mediamaking is shifting, to say the least. As such, producers are recalibrating ― where they usually leverage connectivity on an international scale, the reach of their business is stunted. In a time of uncertainty, we take stock of how producers capitalize Canadian work, and the international partners that represent this work globally.

Bracing “the cavalry”

Producers possess a high capacity for creative business development, despite hurdles and the hustle of sustaining projects for wide release. As media scholar and author Charles Davis states, “business developers are like the cavalry,” seeking new markets and expanding upon pre-existing agreements. With productions frozen or halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the already unpredictable nature of labour in the screen-based industries has intensified tenfold. In the present moment, it is key that persistence meet adaptability.

Emily Kulasa is a seasoned producer and the director of business affairs at First Generation Films. Her understanding of international partnerships in film and television is that they have set the foundation for Canada’s growing media ecosystem, and will continue to be crucial. “The film industry in Canada would not exist without co-productions,” states Kulasa, adding that “the majority of First Gen’s business is international.” Their collaborations with Ireland, the United Kingdom, and for an upcoming feature, Germany, demonstrate that there is a withstanding importance for “producers in Canada to be networking […] and meeting producers from other countries.”

Kulasa clarifies that “the industry in general can’t operate in a vacuum.” When First Gen President and prolific Canadian producer Christina Piovesan has a full slate, she takes meetings and networks to get interesting overflow projects to another team. Kulasa clarifies: “That’s an international thing, that extends past international borders.” 

Certain nations have responded to the reality of worldwide co-production by revising the stipulations of their treaties, making these agreements more competitive. That is Ireland’s case, whose treaty has shifted to notably flexible terms. Certain Canadian producers have also begun to advocate for increased flexibility within agreements between smaller treaty nations and Canada.

Funding to execute

The inevitability of co-production, along with its distribution and marketing tactics, are evidenced time and again in the programming directives of Canadian export development funds. In fact most programming emphasizes border-crossing relationship management that is oriented around co-production and international presales.

Included in the Canadian Film Centre marketplace initiatives is the Netflix/CFC Global Project, which expands focus beyond broadcaster purview in an ever-changing media landscape. The project’s Marketplace Accelerator is “designed to strengthen the international festival/market preparedness for […] exciting scripted narrative projects that have international potential,” but stipulates that “projects should be developed and at the packaging stage.”

Within any export-funding sampler, it is crucial to highlight the Ontario Creates International Financing Forum, the agency’s “feature film co-financing event at the Toronto International Film Festival.” At IFF, “selected international and Canadian producers are brought together with international sales agents, U.S. distributors, agents, equity financiers and executive producers for brokered meetings.”

In 2017 Canada was named the 38th member country of Eurimages, an alliance orchestrated by Telefilm and, by extension, Canadian Heritage. As of 2017, Canadian production companies can submit co-productions to Eurimages and the European Cinema Support Fund for financial subsidies.

Lastly, the CMF’s own Export Program is solely designed to “help fund development activities for television projects intended for international markets.”

Pivot strategy

Much of the export development funding offered to Canadian producers is reliant on physical meetings, on events where networking is conducted in person between producers from a variety of countries. Despite COVID-19, these interactions remain invaluable. Certain organizations have recently offered resource support in project development to implement immediate assistance. The Ontario Film Commission’s new online Training and Professional Development Hub offers support for experienced as well as novice film workers in the advent of the pandemic. 

But what of longer-term, more invested options?

The ways in which producers and creators engage with financiers and distributors are pivoting in TV and film. The balance Canadian producers must strike between domestic and international funding will likely be negotiated through interfaces rather than in-person meetings. A virtual market hub was recently launched by a coalition amongst British and American independents, Hollywood agencies, and German distributor Wild Bunch International for Cannes Film Festival. 

Virtual technologies are proving overall essential to business proceedings in other industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, and certain arts organizations are following suit. In an update regarding the temporary closure of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey announced the organization will be “looking at both onsite and digital innovations that will provide options […] for our audiences, support filmmakers, our partners and bolster the industry” come September. With TIFF’s recent participation in We Are One: A Global Film Festival, both Vicente and Bailey have expressed that the organization will continue to plan some degree of a physical festival in the fall. Their testament speaks to the critical importance to accommodate active business development initiatives during any festival, including TIFF’s own annual Industry Conference. 

Enterprise rerouted

Producers and creators in Canada have consistently sustained international collaborations and delivered pitch packages with assistance from technology. It is worthwhile to see where public funds might help this connectivity during such an uncertain period, and into the future of digital networking.

The need to exhibit films and television “on hold” will remain a dilemma, despite the cancellation or postponing of international festivals and theatrical releases. The Canada Council for the Arts has noted this reality “in response to COVID-19’s impact on the arts milieu.” The Council is currently inviting applicants of the Digital Strategy Fund to submit proposals before July 31st 2020 that will “implement digital solutions as a strategic response to the COVID-19 crisis.”

The thoughts of a producer living and working in Canada are for the time being daunted ― there are obvious reasons. But ultimately, they are just rerouted. The goals and ambitions of producers and creative business developers remain the same ― despite the need to pivot.

In fact the pivot is what producers finesse the best.

Kathryn Armstrong
Kathryn Armstrong is an independent consultant and media scholar with a body of work driven by the communities and individuals who shape Canada’s diverse media ecosystem. Her most recent publications include her thesis for the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute on Canadian national film discourse. She also frequently presents at conferences such as the Film Studies Association of Canada, on topics like the relationship between Canada’s independent producers and its national broadcasters. As a connector and intellect, Kathryn has done research for the CMPA and has worked closely with TIFF and Ontario Creates. She holds an MA from Ryerson University in Media Production, as well as both an MA and BA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto.
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