Global TV companies keen to work with Canada in increasingly borderless industry

In the new borderless business of television, Canada is emerging as an ideal partner.

In the new borderless business of television, Canada is emerging as an ideal partner.

That was the word from several buyers and sellers at MIPCOM, the international media content market which concluded last week at Cannes.

“I think all the borders have gone down in television because there’s such a huge demand,” says Frank Spotnitz, executive producer of the upcoming CBS/Global series “Ransom.” Best known as a writer/producer on “The X-Files,” Spotnitz has spent 22 years making American network TV shows in Canada, including three “X-Files” spinoffs. He cites the “huge talent pool” and “beauty and diversity of the landscape” as reasons he keeps coming back.

“Ransom” stars Luke Roberts (“Game of Thrones”) as a top hostage negotiator jetting around the world to deal with deadly crisis situations. Spotnitz and his Canadian collaborators shot the series in Toronto before recently shifting production to France. It will air in the New Year.

The TV veteran says “Peak TV” is real.

“There’s an unquenchable thirst for drama,” he says, adding the driving force is platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu as well as cable networks in the U.S.

“They can’t afford to do (all this production) on their own, they need partners,” he says, “so they look to Canada and to Europe.”

One such production is “Versailles.” Heading into a second season, the historical epic was one of three series showcased at MIPCOM by Telefilm Canada and the Canada Media Fund. The lavish costume drama was originally a France-only production until costs swelled towards US$40 million per season.

“Canada enjoys production treaty deals with France and we were able to offer the talent and resources to make this series happen,” says Ian Whitehead, executive producer and head of production and development at FOX Incendo.

There are currently 54 treaties between Canada and other producing countries, according to the CMF.

Besides international co-productions, the CMF supports domestic dramas such as “Murdoch Mysteries.” Shaftesbury CEO Christina Jennings came back from MIPCOM buoyed by demands from broadcasters in the UK and France for more episodes of the CBC drama, already in its 10th season. “Murdoch” is one of Canada’s top TV exports, appearing in over 110 markets worldwide.

“It’s a great crime series featuring wonderful characters and an alternative to dramas out there that are quite dark,” says Jennings. “‘Murdoch’ can play daytimes, prime times — it’s very schedule-friendly.”

Jennings says international buyers are telling her they want the next “Murdoch.” Shaftesbury is partnering with France and the UK on a series of “Aimee Leduc” movies for TV. The mysteries were inspired by true crime novels by Cara Black set in Paris. Production will begin in France in 2017 with a Canadian cast in the lead and Canadian writers and directors also involved.

Another company making deals at MIPCOM was Vancouver-based Thunderbird Entertainment, makers of “Kim’s Convenience” and “Beat Bugs.” An alliance with Skybound North, the creative force behind “The Walking Dead,” was announced during the TV marketplace.

“They’re looking to expand beyond the traditional way of making shows in the U.S.,” says Thunderbird CEO Tim Gamble, a veteran MIPCOM player. “This gives them an opportunity to access Canadian talent and the benefits of producing shows in Canada. It gives us access to high quality creative talent.”

Gamble agrees that high-end scripted fare has become such an expensive proposition that several countries almost have to get involved.

“Unless you’re a Netflix or Amazon or an HBO, funding the whole thing is becoming prohibitive,” he says, citing HBO’s “Westworld” as “again raising the bar.”

Chris Ottinger, president of worldwide television sales and acquisitions for MGM Studios, says he was worried coming into MIPCOM that the market might be over-saturated. The path around that, he feels, “is to try and aim as high as possible.”

Two shows MGM Studios offers the world — “Vikings” and “Fargo” — deliver on that promise, he says. Both have Canadian connections, with “Vikings” a co-production between Ireland and Canada. Besides actors and directors, “Vikings” boasts a Canadian post-production partner, Take 5.

“We work with them as much as we can, they’re super talented,” says Ottinger.

Set in North Dakota, “Fargo” shoots in and around Calgary.

“We wanted to be a little farther north to get more snow — it was a challenge in season 2 because it didn’t snow enough,” he says.

The MGM Studios booth at MIPCOM also boasted a large poster for an upcoming production shot in Toronto: “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Starring Elizabeth Moss (“Mad Men”), Ottinger sees this adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel as “a global masterpiece and absolutely the kind of serialized, dramatic storytelling that is perfect for television now.”

The miniseries will premiere on the U.S. streaming service Hulu in the spring. Ottinger says he hasn’t sold it to a Canadian broadcaster yet, “but I’m not worried about getting one.”

by Bill Brioux, The Canadian Press

— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont. While in Cannes, Brioux was a guest of Telefilm Canada and the Canada Media Fund.