OTTs and Canadian Content: What Collaborative Models for the Future?

How do Canada’s audiovisual creators perceive the production of content and their expansion on the international stage in the years to come? Given the presence of new foreign players in the ecosystem and the rising popularity of online platforms, the question is worth asking. These transformations force us to review how collaboration takes form and to reflect on the definition itself of what is Canadian content.

Last January 30 to February 1, the leaders of the television and media industry gathered in Ottawa for Prime Time 2019, a conference organized by the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA). They were all on hand to discuss the main issues that are at the forefront of public debate these days: regulations, intellectual property, distribution and co-creation between local—and global—players.

Is the creation of Canadian content a local thing?

There is no denying that companies such as Netflix spend significant amounts in Canada. “The contributions that we’re making, our commitment to Canada and the amount of productions we’re commissioning is quite significant,” stated Stéphane Cardin, director, public policy, Canada, during a panel discussion on the country’s broadcasting and telecommunications regulations.

“The amount of money spent in Canada is at an all-time high. We [Netflix] now hold 22% of all foreign financing of English-language Canadian fiction and are poised to greatly exceed our commitment of $500 million spent on local productions in Canada over five years,” adds Cardin.

Panel Beyond Disruption: Crafting a Framework for the Future of the Industry

However, who is better positioned to create content that will interest Canadians? Does content become less relevant to its target audience if its production was not handled by local players? According to Catherine Tait, president and CEO of Radio-Canada, it is better to remain vigilant with respect to the arrival of these major digital players. “The challenge in that context is to determine how we respond with international players, whether it’s Netflix, Apple, Google, whoever whose primary instinct is to monetize at a global scale. Their primary instinct is not to serve Canadians.”

With that in mind, does a production funded by Netflix have the same value as a film funded by local players, for example? “I think it is important to emphasize the fact that what matters with a story being Canadian is essentially the authorial voice who’s written it,” adds Stéphane Cardin. “To us, the fact that we have commissioned our first French-language original feature film by a Montreal-based director [Patrice Laliberté] but that it does not count as Canadian content because we’re financing it is incoherent.”

International success and IP ownership

Since forever, as pointed out by Reynolds Mastin, president and CEO of the CMPA, there has always been a debate about how best to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of the rewards when a show is a big hit.

Catherine Tait gives the example of the resounding success of the Canadian series Schitt’s Creek: “Whether it’s Michelle Daly [the director] or Sally Catto [the producer], they are the people who took risks and commissioned that show five seasons ago. We don’t have an ongoing economic interest in that property now that it’s a world hit, and we have to read in Vanity Fair ‘Thank you Netflix for bringing us Schitt’s Creek’, and that’s very painful for the people in the community who have been making that show. I think it’s important when we talk about economic interest to say that it’s a collective interest.”

Some Canadian producers, however, question the value of intellectual property in a context where promotional opportunities are promising. During a panel discussion titled Netflix: Before and After the Greenlight and in which participated several local players having worked with OTT service providers, opinions were divided.

“We have to think in terms of what works better for the project, says Chad Oakes, the producer behind the Fargo and Hell on Wheels series. For us, it was making it something that was going to be global. And if it meant for us giving up the IP, we're fine with that. Whether it’s something we own, or something Netflix owns, it’s the same creative process and the same execution.”

Noreen Halpern, CEO of Halfire Entertainment and producer of the Alias Grace series distributed by Netflix, agrees: “Does ownership matters? I have to say yes and no. We have to move forward. We have to keep evolving because the industry is evolving, shows and creative models are evolving. We have to change our system.”

Moreover, she points out that she is working on several projects with Chris Regina (director, global television, content acquisition at Netflix), also on the panel, and that the American giant will hold the rights to these projects. Halpern says she works with Canadian writers, directors and actors. Not entirely, but it’s a mix. “I don’t own the rights, but it’s the solution to fund projects that wouldn’t be funded otherwise.”

Behind the curtain: from pitch to production

Concretely, what are the steps involved in this collaborative process to develop property with Netflix? How is it different from working with Canadian broadcasters?

“It’s not for everyone. You must put yourself in a particular mindset and be able to compromise. Also, you have to be prepared to work with a specific method and there are some creators who don’t like this process,” explains Noreen Halpern.

According to producer and writer Dennis Heaton, who worked with Netflix on series such as Ghost Wars and The Order (upcoming in 2019), it all depends on the creator’s personality. “You have to be willing to take risks and everything goes very fast, but personally I don’t see any real downsides to the process itself.”

“With Chris, we went through an extremely detailed pitch process. We put a lot of time and preparation into it. We created a look book, reworked the pitch a few times and had a meeting of about an hour and a half for the final pitch. An hour later, Netflix was calling us saying, ‘Great, sold!’,” continues Noreen Halpern.

For his part, Netflix’s Chris Regina argues that, to work with him, everything stems from the idea. He encourages producers to evaluate their project from a creative point of view first and foremost, not through the lenses of financing. “Think pure about the creative idea, with no reference to its location and temporality, otherwise you limit the pitch by putting it in a box. Ultimately, I’m looking for ideas that are underrepresented in the market.”

We can certainly learn lessons from those who have worked in collaboration with the digital giant and we still have a lot to learn when it comes to optimizing these mechanisms. Nevertheless, let us recall that, beyond the main stakeholders’ economic interests, it is important to value the interest of all players in the industry, big and small. Even though the industry is experiencing major transformation, there is nothing new about the international exporting of content.

“Let’s be clear: producers have been taking Canada to the world for a very long time. They didn’t just wake up and discover six months ago the existence of a giant marketplace. It’s been fundamental to their business to use Canada in part as a launching pad, to export and license their content to all the major markets in the world, says the CMPA’s Reynolds Mastin. Larger players always want flexibility but smaller players need some insurance that there’s a framework that everyone has agreed to so that everyone feels that they’re fairly sharing a hit show’s success.”

Laurianne Désormiers
A professional in the culture and media sector, Laurianne Désormiers is responsible for the editorial section of CMF Trends. In parallel with her work with the Canada Media Fund, Laurianne is pursuing a Master's degree in Communication at UQAM, with a specialization in cinema and moving images. In the past, she has worked with the Phi Centre, DHC/ART, and CISM, and has collaborated on several cultural publications.
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