Monday, February 19, 2007

The Whopping Post of Doom

(aka Mr. Bill points out a few things and tosses out some ideas for consideration)

So in order to halt the great migration of screenwriters and other Creatives from Canada to the coffee shops of Silverlake (which, I have to ask - why Silverlake?), I have set up some loose ideas to hopefully help promote discussion toward invigorating the Canadian Domestic Television industry.

As much as I would like to see some faces to names and share a drink with everyone, I know many would see it as a personal failure if they couldn't do the jobs they love in their homeland. I know it hurts me when I go back to SC and people have no concept of what I do, or that it's a business. (Many think the actors just make it up right there on the spot). I can't imagine what it would feel like to know I had to involuntarily go to a foreign country to make a living.

So that's the mandate:

- To find a way to make Canada a stronger industry and presence in worldwide entertainment by supporting and creating entertaining homegrown productions Canada can export and build upon.
- Reverse the trend where the government is the arbiter of taste and culture and put it back in the hands of the people.
- To encourage innovation and investment in the above.

Remember, healthy competition helps everybody get stronger.

1. Turn the job of financing, production and broadcast over to the broadcasters (with appropriate guidelines):

The above is not a new idea. Quebecor wants to do this instead of going through the CTF (but ultimately bowed to pressure from Producers), and Shaw Cable wants to have more say in what programs are produced with its funds. Okay, this may seem to be putting the whole package into the hands of the devil, but remember two things - Shaw, Quebecor, et al are beholden to both ratings and stockholders. Who is the CTF responsible to for its decisions?

Ultimately the entertainment industry must be responsible to its audience(s) who pay to be entertained.

- Turning the burden of financing and production over to the broadcasters lets them have a greater, market-driven say in what is developed and produced. It makes them invest in the idea of profiting from the money they have been previously "wasting." If they want to make money, they are going to get the chance - but they have to do it with indigenous programming they produce and own like other networks around the world.

- Making broadcasters the defacto financiers and producers removes the government from the equation except as an overseeing authority via Revenue Canada and the Government's Accounting Authority. This will streamline the development and production process by not having to go through the network and then CTF (or vice versa).

- The development departments of each broadcaster decide based on what they think their audience will respond to, and develop those shows accordingly… but more importantly it gives broadcasters more incentive to market and promote shows they develop.

- x hours per week per channel in primetime is reserved for original Canadian programming. You can mix it up (2 hrs. one night. 1 hr. each successive night or whatever), but there has to be that X hrs. every week of original Canadian programming in primetime (7pm to 11pm) on each particular channel/network. Repeats count as ½ hr. for an hour show, and ¼ for a half hour show. This will be determined by a panel made up of reps from the broadcasters, the unions, and government mediators.

- Repeats are encouraged, especially if the episode is available the next day as a digital stream with advertising. (as NBC does with Heroes). ACTRA will like this as it will stimulate the recently negotiated residuals for internet broadcasting.

- Reality Television and Sports programs are not eligible for funding under this program. Only scripted programming (the definition of which will be based on the WGC MBA with producers). This doesn't include documentaries.

- The Government Accounting Office and Revenue Canada will keep track of the books in terms of what broadcasters spend. All paperwork requirements insurance, union agreements etc… will continue as usual - only CTF paperwork will be eliminated. Broadcasters will have flexibility to move funds from one production to another as necessary, but…

- The broadcasters must each spend all of their allocated monies every year. If they don't, the "excess" is sent to the CBC for their next year's budget. Since both production and promotion dollars count toward the spending requirement, this means that broadcasters are encouraged to develop and promote as much as possible.

- The CBC is a separate government entity. It's financing comes direct from the government's budget and doesn't receive funding from this situation (except as outlined above). It has other sources of revenue and resources and if it wants to be competitive it needs to step up, define itself, and fulfill that mandate. The government shouldn't be competing with private business for the same dollars. It discourages competition.

- Co-productions with other countries and financing sources are eligible (and encouraged), but those productions must shoot in Canada, or have a sufficient Canadian presence in the production (i.e. half of the production personnel must be Canadian or whatever the current guidelines say).

2. A Canadian Television Production and Infrastructure Investment Tax Credit will be (re)introduced:

(Note: There may already be sufficient legislation in place to achieve these goals. If this is so, then a promotion campaign to stimulate domestic investment in television production is required by investment houses (I can only reference the economic impact of tax credits for "filmed entertainment" in the Price Waterhouse Coopers report for 2006)

- to stimulate private persons and business to set up investment partnerships to invest in television production and infrastructure, independent of broadcasters. Not only does this provide more dollars to the industry, but goes toward removing the elitist sensibility of the past. Anyone with sufficient investment capital can be a part of the industry through government regulated partnerships.

- Investments can be in studio space, equipment, VFX technology, etc… and can run parallel with current or future provincial and national business tax incentives. The entertainment industry is just that - an industry - and needs to be treated as a business that manufactures and distributes a product. There are many investments that are recipients of tax credits (medical research and agriculture for example), and there's no reason why television can't benefit from the same sort of legislation.

- In addition, private investment partnerships could be set up to provide P&A monies, marketing, promotions, merchandising, etc… The partnerships would receive a tax credit for promoting Canadian productions both domestically and abroad. For example a German private equity company financed the P&A for Monster when it was re-released post-Oscar.

- 1/3 of the financing in investment partnerships can come from a foreign source, through a Canadian representative. The point is not to only bring in foreign monies, but to stimulate homegrown investment and promotion.

- Production companies will be encouraged to set up private financing sources, prior to approaching broadcasters (similar to what Joel Silver did for his company or for what Marvel did with Merrill Lynch Commercial Finance Corporation before approaching Paramount).
This will set the building blocks for the future where production companies will wholly finance and produce their works, and broadcasters and distributors will do what they do best - distribute.

- This also widens the economic impact of every dollar spent, spurring provincial and national economies.

- It may at first appear that I'm suggesting too many tax credits which would reduce the government's revenue, however, the tax credits are necessary because the Canadian dollar is rising in value (against the US dollar) and thus becoming less and less attractive to foreign and public investment.

3. Television productions must become faster and "better":

- There will be a Showrunner / Executive Producer for each show. The Showrunner will be the creative voice for the show and the final word on anything story. The E.P. will be the financial voice for the show. Together they will represent the show to the network. One doesn't overrule the other. An example of this would be the Ron Moore - David Eick partnership on Battlestar Galactica.

- There will be a "Writer's Room" style to all productions. Because of the speed by which a network must work in order to get shows in the pipeline, a staff will write the show. This employs more writers (to state the obvious) and brings more money into the WGC coffers.

- All sorts of productions will be eligible to approach producers and broadcasters - TV movies, short serials (8 episodes), series (13+ episodes) and one-offs. It is up to the producers and the networks to decide if they can sell the show they are pitched.

- Script development will be based on a pilot script and a short (10 page) bible outlining the series as well as any talent attached. No multiple scripts that languish in development. No 100 page bibles.

- These things are all very obvious and have already been discussed ad infinitum in various blogs and websites. In addition, the Showrunner /Writer's room methodology is being adopted by the German television industry as their homegrown productions have been losing the ratings battles against American product. The method is becoming the norm.

4. Canadian Creatives have to get over the fact they are competing with the United States:

- This is going to be the hardest leap of all. This isn't a David and Goliath story. This isn't a Wal-Mart story. This is about a business finding its particular niche in the market and delivering value.

- Every Guild and Union is going to have to increase their press regarding their membership's activities and accolades.

- They are going to have to do what they do better than anyone else. They can't do this by parroting back American programming and slapping a Maple leaf on it.

- By making these stories' settings and characters unique, yet dealing with universal themes, Canada can compete. There are several examples of this including DaVinci's Inquest, Cold Squad, Intelligence , etc… This, "aw shucks, it wasn't anything special," attitude has to stop. The fact you haven't recognized how good these shows are, and what a cash cow they could become with the right publicity and marketing, is really disheartening.

- Every elitist reviewer who slaps a show down because of its populist subject matter alone, and not because the show was poorly crafted or produced, has to be shown the door. Elitism has no place in television - a populist form of entertainment.

- "Entertain first" must be the motto inscribed in every executive's, every producer's and every writer's door. Hell, print it on the toilet paper if that's what it takes to remind everyone involved.

- Do not disregard the audience. They are your client and are paying you good money to entertain them. Know what they like, what they buy (and where they buy it) and what they do.

- Yell across the border at us Americans in the industry so we know what you're doing. If you can't do ads in Variety or The Hollywood reporter you can do email blasts to all of the executives down here.

- Have every Canadian celebrity here in LA lend their support or endorsement for promotional purposes. Gather all of the broadcasters together to pay for it in some sort of loose association.

- Hire Canadian actors who have made names for themselves in America. This provides a better "in" to the American market and thus more international markets.

5. Prepare for the future:

- I know that Telefilm already has an internet initiative going, but it's time some commercial broadcaster got into the game in a big way. Sponsor broadband-casting of independent television programs by aspiring writers, producers, directors.

- Hold open pitch sessions where someone has the possibility to have a show go into development. This should be a cooperative effort between broadcasters, the guilds, unions and any other associated organizations or institutions.

- Develop strategic advertising and product placement partners.

- Build an international sales staff out of the sales persons from Canadian indie film companies. They're hungry and know how to hustle. Give them good product and the chance to market and sell it they will build your audience internationally.

- Try something new. You don't have to spend a lot on it. That's been one of my pet peeves with government financed culture - it presupposes that "culture costs money." Tell that to the people who invented Hip Hop.


This what I've come up with thus far, based on reading a few investment reports and articles on the future of the entertainment industry in N. America as well as rereading some key blog posts by the usual gang you see on my sidebar.
The ideas are not meant to be a formula for success, but are meant to be talking points for discussion. There's a long hard road ahead. Change is going to be tough, challenging even. I don't know all the points involved. I don't think one person can know everything - every angle, every nuance - but...

The fact is you've had the government divvying out the funds for awhile now, and to quote Dr. Phil:

How's that workin' for ya?


Steve Abbott said...

Believe it or not, we're trying real hard up here to change things. Some of the broadcasters already fund their own product (Charlie Jade / CHUM). Nothing would please many of us more, than getting Telefilm's boot off of our collective necks. I've been lucky, most of the projects I've worked on have been funded by sources other than the Govt. I just came off (was fired from) a Telefilm funded project (relieved to be terminated I might add) and even among pices of crap, this was a piece of crap.

I'd love to see the 1970's style tax credit reintroduced, we got David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman out of that as well as a slew of new Canadian stars who promptly went south (but that's cool).

In the meantime, we'll keep pushing for those copro dollars.

Good post.

Cunningham said...

I believe it Steve. I've met too many people who don't like "doing things the same old way" for it not to change.

(And that's on both sides of the border!)

And yes, I realize that there are privately funded projects afoot. I whole-heartedly endorse them for that reason alone even though they may not be to my taste. If there's an audience for it - got get 'em. Build the business. Fill the niche.

My whole arguement about governments, any government, is that they don't don't know how to build upon what they have been given by the people. They only know how to administer what they have been given.

wcdixon said...

This is some great suggestions, Bill...thanks for this.

I'm still mulling and thinking about forwarding to people I know more involved with policy desision making just because I can't imagine most of these haven't already been considered. I'm presuming so (I was on committees ages ago that pushed for reforms in order to get more production out in the regions and out from under Telefilm), and want to try to find out why things turned out the way they have.

Jennifer Smith said...

"x hours per week per channel in primetime is reserved for original Canadian programming."

This policy already exists, or at least it did when CTV and Global got their last license renewals. That number was 8. Eight hours of 'priority programming' per week between 7 and 11.

The problem is, neither CTV nor Global comes close to eight hours per week, even including entertainment magazines and other junk they're allowed to fill their schedule with.

This week, CTV has a mere 3 hours of Canadian programming, and only 1 1/2 hours are scripted shows. Global is better (7 hours), but that includes 'Deal or No Deal Canada' and four year old re-runs of 'Blue Murder'.

Combining a weekly minimum with financial incentives and all the other excellent suggestions you made might fix the situation, but the minimums would still have to be iron-clad and enforceable because otherwise Canadian commercial broadcasters will do anything to avoid Canadian programming.

Cunningham said...

All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing...