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Northern lights

Most territories have been affected at one time or another by the omnipresence of American media. When it comes to Canada, however, the image of a light bulb next to the sun is perhaps the best way to describe the traditionally dim impact Canuck shows have had when up against the megawattage of imported US TV programmes. As a result, most Canadians have tended to tune into the more heavily promoted, sleeker US fare that is often run in simulcast on the country’s main terrestrial channels.

Combine that with Canadian heavy-hitters like Alliance Atlantis and Fireworks, formerly owned by CanWest Global, getting out of production, and it looked like the industry was heading for ruin. Fast-forward a few years, though, and the indie sector is ticking along nicely. And despite the hurdles, home-grown Canadian content is defying the odds and finally beginning to claw back some much-needed market share from its neighbour to the south.

Most notably, CTV’s half-hour sitcom Corner Gas (right) finished its fall 2005 season with an average of nearly 1.6 million viewers. Coming 14 out of the nation’s top 20 shows, it was the only home-grown scripted show to make the top 20 – a miraculous feat by Canadian standards. Add to this the ongoing success of Canadian Idol, top-shelf ratings for several of its TV movies, and viewer devotion to tween drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, and CTV has done well in attracting viewers to indigenous fare.

Although it has traditionally been very challenging to adapt a US format for the Canadian market because the original has already been viewed in the country, CTV’s huge success with Canadian Idol has shown that it can be done. Following in CTV’s footsteps is CHUM, who is rolling out a local version of the Top Model format. Canadian indies Temple Street Productions and May Street Productions are coproducing Canada’s Top Model in association with distributor CBS Paramount International, and the series is scheduled to air on CHUM’s City TV network in May 2006.

Things aren’t going quite as well at Canadian public broadcaster CBC, which continues to struggle to find that break-out scripted series. In the meantime, it remains committed to producing ‘high-impact’ miniseries and TV movies. It took a further hit this past summer with the double whammy of the departure of nine-year programming head Slawko Klymkiw – who has since joined the Canadian Film Centre – and a two-month strike. The latter led to repeat programming and the absence of its Saturday night ratings-winner, Hockey Night in Canada.

Once the lockout was resolved in October, the channel’s share quickly rebounded to its roughly 7% piece of the national pie, but its dramatic offerings felt the sting because of missed promotional opportunities.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on terrestrial net Global to see what it has planned on the Canadian programming side. In recent years, the broadcaster has been chastised for an almost non-existent commitment to indigenous scripted content, but with the promotion of ex-Blueprint Entertainment and Alliance Atlantis exec Christine Shipton to VP, original programming in October, the tide is changing. Global reportedly has several projects in development and two series are set to debut this winter: sexy teen drama Falcon Beach (Insight Productions/Original Pictures) and half-hour comedy series The Diary of Jane (fka The Jane Show, from Shaftesbury Films).

On the pay-TV side, Movie Central and TMN have jointly built up their ‘HBO-esque’ strategy, with high-concept, high-production value series, including the second season of bioscience thriller ReGenesis (left), and the critically acclaimed dark comedy Terminal City, which chronicles a woman’s battle with breast cancer.

And showing no sign of flagging is mockumentary cult hit Trailer Park Boys, which airs on Alliance Atlantis-owned cable net Showcase Television in Canada, but has also been sold to BBC America and to Paramount Comedy in the UK.

Trailer Park’s success beyond Canada is part of a larger trend that spells good news for the country. Just as indigenous programming is growing in popularity domestically, Canadian fare is also doing brisk business in the US. Possibly helped along by the rise of niche channels that are increasingly on the hunt for innovative programming, Canadian programming breaking into the US over the past year includes Breakthrough Film and Television’s Paradise Falls, picked up by gay net Here!, Breakthrough/Blueprint Entertainment comedy/reality hybrid Kenny vs Spenny, which went to the Game Show Network, Comedy Inc and Spike TV, and Paperny Film’s My Fabulous Gay Wedding, bought by Viacom gay channel Logo.

Cream Productions

Founded in 2003 by director Christopher Rowley and producer David Brady, Toronto-based Cream Productions is adding a number of one-off documentary specials to its burgeoning production slate.

Currently in production is Digging Up the Trenches (left, 2×60′), produced for History Television Canada, Military Channel US and History Channel UK, and with Germany’s Spiegel TV. It chronicles the excavation of the First World War trenches around Ypres in Belgium. Before a road is built, changing the site forever, a team of archaeologists, historians and forensic scientists will reveal the secrets under the hallowed ground where Canadian soldier John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields, and where a young Adolph Hitler earned his Iron Cross by saving a fellow soldier’s life.

U864: Hitler’s Last Deadly Secret (1×60′), also with Spiegel TV, is being produced for History Television Canada, ZDF and BBC2. It follows a Norwegian salvage team as it excavates the Second World War German submarine U864, which disappeared during a journey to Japan in 1945. Along with secret jet technology, the sub carried 80 tons of toxic mercury that is now in danger of leaking, causing an environmental disaster. German and British naval documents, as well as interviews with survivors, retrace the sub’s journey until it was sunk during the first battle ever to have been fought entirely under water.

Nerd Corps Entertainment

Fronted by former head of Alliance Atlantis Communications’ children’s television division, Ken Faier, Vancouver toon studio Nerd Corps is focusing on delivering 52 half-hour episodes a year, targeting six- to 14-year-olds. In addition, the Nerds are beginning to stretch the age target, and are also exploring shorter formats and interactive content for broadband, mobile phones and hand-held devices. “Our goal is to ensure that we use animation to deliver an emotional connection to our characters and the worlds we create in order for our audiences, young and old, to engage in our properties beyond television,” says Faier.

Currently in preproduction, Storm Hawks (52×30′) is set in a world where the only way to communicate with each other is through flight. YTV in Canada is on board the boys’ action adventure, which follows a group of kids who have taken on the legendary role of the Storm Hawks. Together, they attempt to replace crystals that control weather patterns and can restore order to the world.

Team Awethum (52×11′/26×30′), in development, is a 2D comedy-action series featuring four little nerds from Glickersville whose mission it is to save the town from the ‘forces of cool.’ Essentially a big shout to all those kids who were subjected to wedgies and ‘locker incarcerations’ in their youth, the series follows the gang as they battle against boredom. Nerd Corps is in discussions with Canadian and international broadcasters on the project, with delivery tentatively slated for fall 2007.

Also in development is League of Evil (52×11′/26×30′). Cheekily billed as “a comedy-intensive action-adventure with explosions and educational segments teaching the dangers associated with operating death beams,” the show follows the exploits of four costumed villains whose sights are set on world domination.

The Eyes

Vancouver-based factual/reality producer The Eyes Project Development Corp is at work on season two of home makeover series Love it or Lose it! (26×30′) for Canada’s HGTV. The programme sees homeowners ‘spin the bottle’ to decide which extreme designer they’ll get to redo a room in their house, in the style of country, modern, India, Asia, gothic, retro or shack.

Participants have no say in what happens to their room and after seeing the results must choose between keeping it or having it changed back. Peace Arch Television, The Eyes’ parent company, is shopping the finished series and format rights internationally.

Looking ahead in 2006, Blair Reekie, president of The Eyes, says that the outfit has a full development slate including lifestyle series, feature-length docs and docs for international coproduction. “Our growth will be in leveraging our success in Canada on larger-budget, global event series and feature-length docs structured as coproductions with leading European producers,” says Reekie.

9 Story Entertainment

While continuing production on the second season of preschool series Peep and the Big Wide World and the first season of ambitious toon/CGI project Skyland (right), a copro with France’s Method Films, Toronto-based 9 Story also has a number of new animation projects in development. The outfit is currently seeking development partners on Best Ed (52×11′), a comedy Flash series billed as The Odd Couple for 11-year-olds. Also from Peep creator Rick Marshall, it targets the six to 11 set, and follows the antics of Ed, a hapless yet helpful dog, and his neighbour Buddy, a squirrel.

Also on the drawing board is Futz (52×11′), a series of Flash-produced shorts for eight- to 14-year-olds being developed with Teletoon in Canada. It follows Futz, ‘part genius and part idiot’, as he becomes involved in a series of madcap adventures, such as being a futuristic spy with a maraschino cherry-bomb, a medieval knight with iron boxers, or a ninja with a flexibility problem.

The company is also exploring new formats, including content for wireless. According to 9 Story partner and exec producer Vince Commisso, this move is “reflective of the company’s belief that entertainment should be delivered in a variety of ways, with the ultimate aim of creating a cross-media market for content.”

ReThink Entertainment

Established as a distributor, Toronto-based ReThink is currently in presale mode on various new projects including The Science of Lies (2×60′), which has already drawn interest from Canadian pubcaster CBC. The HD doc special, produced with Singapore’s Apostrophe Films, is slated for delivery in fall 2006.

Pirates Attack! (13×60′), also HD, takes an unflinching look at the brutality of modern day piracy on the world’s oceans. It features real-life situations, personal testimonies and in-depth scientific investigation and is being produced with Canadian prodco High Seas Productions. National Geographic and History Television in Canada are both considering the series, as is Nat Geo US and National Geographic Channels International.

In terms of what’s ahead for ReThink, partner Susan Boshcoff says: “We are putting a hold on outside development projects for 2006 and will be concentrating on coproductions and original in-house production.” She adds that the outfit plans to stick exclusively to factual programming, working across the various genres within that realm, but targeting both adult and kid audiences.

Partners In Motion

The Saskatchewan-based producer is hard at work on Legend Hunters (left, 6×60′). Featuring ‘high-end’ re-enactments, the factual series follows detectives on the trail of the world’s greatest historical legends. CTV Travel is on board, and the project is slated for delivery in August 2006.

Also on the roster is Patently Absurd (6×30′), which profiles some of the most ridiculous devices ever invented, along with the inventors. A team of experts attempts to improve upon the wackiest of the patents to see if they can build a working prototype. Slated for delivery to History Television in Canada in October 2006, it also features a biographical component for each inventor and a segment about people whose creations are still in use today.

Other projects on the 2006 slate include Crime Stories III and IV, Disasters of the Century, History Busters, Size TV and Circus of God. The outfit recently completed a co-venture agreement with UCLA Film and Television Archives. Upcoming HD projects stemming from that pact include The Three Titans and Daredevils.

Barna-Alper

After 25 years of TV production, Barna-Alper is venturing into feature films with Shake Hands with the Devil. The theatrical drama is based on the bestselling book by General Romeo Dallaire and is scheduled to begin shooting in early 2006 in Africa.

On the TV side, the outfit is in production with Big Motion Pictures on the project October 1970 (8×60′). Commissioned by CBC and dramatising the infamous political crisis that was capped by the kidnapping and murder of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, the series delves into the lives of the detectives, terrorists, police and victims during the one of the most gripping periods in Canadian history. Written by Wayne Grigsby and Peter Mitchell and directed by Don McBrearty, the project will be competed in late spring/early summer 2006.

Also on the Barna-Alper slate for delivery next fall is the second season of Mega Builders (right, 7×60′). The HD series, which profiles the world’s most challenging engineering projects, is being coproduced with Discovery Canada, Discovery Networks International and Canal D.

Breakthrough Films and Television

Breakthrough’s animation division continues to tick along as it develops new properties such as adult comedy Buddy’s and tween series Jimmy 2 Shoes, and produces new seasons of established kiddie series like Atomic Betty, Captain Flamingo and Miss BG.

Activity on the factual side is similarly brisk. One of the newest shows that will expand the company’s current roster of ‘medical and science’ programmes is Face to Face (13×30′). The series, which follows the practice of highly regarded Toronto plastic surgeon Dr Mitchell Brown, has been commissioned by Life Network Canada, with delivery slated for fall 2006.

Tanya Kelen, head of distribution for Breakthrough Entertainment, says there is more growth on the horizon for the bustling company. “We expect to expand our factual slate to include more medical and lifestyle series. We are also venturing into the investigative genre,” explains Kelen, adding that the company has been ramping up partnerships with US broadcasters, and that various projects are currently in development.

Cookie Jar Entertainment

Sam Ewing, senior VP of sales and distribution for Cookie Jar, says the outfit plans to continue developing its core brands into “global, trend-setting properties” during 2006.

Preschool live-action musical show The Doodlebops is currently airing on the Disney Channel US and on CBC Canada, with a second season in production. And, according to Ewing, Gerald McBoing Boing, which launched earlier this year, is the top-rated show in Cartoon Network’s new Tickle U block.

Skewing older, live-action/CGI series Dark Oracle recently won both an International Emmy and a Canadian Gemini award, and a new season of 13 episodes was recently completed.

Nelvana

“We will have a number of series in early production in 2006, so we expect our output level to reach close to 140 half-hour episodes next year,” says Scott Dyer, executive VP of production and development.

The Corus-owned toon house plans to focus heavily on 2D digital animation (using software from Toon Boom), with four series to be produced in this format next year. While Nelvana will continue to produce a mix of comedy, action-adventure and ‘edutainment,’ Dyer also says there is a plan to produce more short-form ancillary content.

Its newest project, Z-Squad (26×30′), is being produced with Korean studio Enemes and is slated to begin delivery in summer 2006. The show, targeting six- to 14-year-olds, chronicles the adventures of tween girls Chaney, Haemi and Jeanie, and their newfound cuddly alien counterparts, dubbed Zoots. Together, they search for 144 enchanted crystals in a quest to save the Earth and Z-Nation from a cast of bumbling baddies. Dyer says the series is a unique meld of 2D animé with 3D shading, resulting in rich lighting and fantastical environments.

CineGroupe

Coming back from a restructure over the past couple of years, newly revitalised Montreal producer/distributor CineGroupe is working on Dark Tales, a series of six made-for-TV movies inspired by classic fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstock, Hansel and Gretel, and Rumplestiltskin. The live-action/CGI films are targeted at a youth audience, featuring lots of action, high-end graphics and a mature story treatment. The project will be unveiled to broadcasters for the first time at Natpe.

CineGroupe is also developing a series for four- to seven-year-olds that tells the story of water. Using Microphotography and 3D animation, it follows the adventures of a family of droplets who transform themselves into vapour, rain and rivers in their quest to find ‘the source.’

Also in the works is the third season of What’s With Andy (left) for Teletoon Canada and Super RTL Germany, and the third season of Tripping the Rift, a 3D young adult series for Bravo! in Canada and Sci Fi US. A new website and mobile phone content are also in the works for Rift. Looking ahead, the plan is to produce two series per year, with the possibility of doing one feature film.

Muse Entertainment

Montreal independent Muse Entertainment is currently working with fellow Canuck indie Sound Venture Productions to complete Black Widower, a TV movie starring Kelly McGillis. It is based on a true story about three-time wife killer Ed Amos and is for Lifetime Television in the US and CTV in Canada.

Muse is also in pre-production on The Flood, a four-hour miniseries in partnership with Powercorp International of the UK and Moonlighting Films of South Africa. It is about a terrifying storm surge that sweeps into the Thames Estuary, destroying London’s flood defences and threatening the lives of eight million Londoners. The broadcasters are ITV and CBC, with broadcast deals also sealed in Germany, Italy and Australia.

Muse and Box TV are developing The Wind in the Willows, a live-action TV movie of the children’s book by Kenneth Grahame, for the BBC and CBC in Canada. Also in development with Box TV is Love and War in Shanghai, a four-hour miniseries set in the International Settlement of Shanghai in the 1930s.

The company is also developing a slate of half-hour comedies. At the script stage are Dad’s in the Attic, a YTV Canada series for teens; Delicious, produced with Back Alley Films for Global Television; and We’re Open, for the CBC. The latter two are single-camera comedies intended for primetime.

Finally, Muse has also set its sights on preschool programming and is developing The Mysteries of Alphred Hedgehog with Alphamim Animation of France. Canadian coproducers are Mary Mackay-Smith and Merilyn Reed.

Decode

Apart from continued work on returning series such as Naturally Sadie, Franny’s Feet, Girlstuff/Boystuff and Save’ums, Decode is continuing production on Delilah and Julius and launching new projects like Planet Sketch – The Interactive Experience, a copro with Aardman animation that will launch online in 2006.

Another new project, Dudson, a quirky animated series created by Nathan Jurevicius, will also premiere this year on more than just TV, while Naughty Naughty Pets (26×3’15″) is one of the shop’s newest properties. A series of CGI/2D Flash shorts, it follows a pug dog that digs through the floor, a cat that leaves trails of ‘presents’ wrapped in a bow, and an aggressive chicken named Heedley.

Mainframe

IDT-owned CGI house Mainframe Entertainment has begun production on its Tony Hawk DVD special featuring motion-captured professional skateboard moves. As for the company’s overall strategy, CEO Rick Mischel says: “We’re continuing to pursue highly branded properties for development as CGI DVD feature projects, and expect to commence production on a new series in 2006.”

Cartoon Network US has slotted Zixx (26×24′), a live-action/CG hybrid produced by Mainframe and fellow Canuck indie Thunderbird Films. Arthur-Rich Crest and Lions Gate are coproducers on the series, which combines live-action and game-style CGI. It shows the adventures of an unlikely team of heroes who battle to save the universe. Led by fearless alien Zixx Phunkee Zee, a group of human kids battle it out in a third-dimension labyrinth that operates like a game. YTV Canada is also on board.

Mainframe is also at work on CGI feature Arthur’s Missing Pal, based on the character created by best-selling author Marc Brown. In the first feature, the loveable aardvark, who was also the subject of a long-running animated series produced by Cinar, will learn the meaning of friendship when his dog Pal goes missing.

Ellis Vision

Toronto-based factual specialist Ellis Vision is touting Battle Ready (left, 4×60′), for Military Channel US, History Television Canada and French Canadian network Historia. Slated for delivery in fall 2006, the series sees military geeks, genius mechanics and eccentric millionaires ‘live their dreams’ with blow torches, lathes and electronics as they restore four battle tanks from the Second World War. Each episode follows one tank’s story, tracking its history, discovering where it was made, the battles it fought in and the often tragic end of its career.

According to Kip Spidell, Ellis’s head of production, coproduction will remain a focus for the company, while it continues to centre on its core genres of wildlife, science, history and lifestyle. Ellis is in the early stages of developing a kids show but is also at work on two talent-driven cooking shows: The Food Dudes (13×30′), about two 21-year-old cooking students’ catering business; and Philman George: The Rhyming Chef (13×30′), following a 25-year-old hip-hop artist who also has a flair for Caribbean and Asian fusion cuisine.

Meanwhile, VisionTV International, a joint venture between Ellis and Canuck broadcaster VisionTV, is working on There’s Something About Mary Magdalene (working title, 1×60′). The doc professes to profile the real history of the biblical character that captured the world’s attention thanks to Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code.

CCI Entertainment

Recently signing on former Gullane Entertainment president Charles Falzon (Thomas the Tank Engine, Guinness World Records, Art Attack) as co-chairman alongside president and CEO Arnie Zipursky, Toronto-based CCI’s mandate will continue to be high-end, premium properties, targeted as franchises with off-screen potential.

Preschool toon Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs (right) continues to roll along with key licensing, home video and publishing partners around the world. Major broadcast partners include Cartoon Network in the US, Five UK, Disney UK and ABC Australia.

CCI has joined Ambience Entertainment to produce Erky Perky, a CGI comedy about two bugs in a kitchen. YTV Canada and Seven Network Australia are on board as broadcasters. Other brands include live-action reality property Ghost Trackers for YTV Canada, and Frankenstein’s Cat for the BBC, produced with the UK’s McKinnon and Saunders and Kayenta in France.

Studio B

Vancouver indie Studio B delivered 40 half-hours in 2005, and partner Blair Peters expects it to produce over 75 half-hours in 2006, consisting of a mix of service work, co-ventures and coproductions. The company will also produce shorter format series, says Peters, in the three- to seven-minute range. “We are also developing shorts for our website as a launch pad for new material,” he says, noting that the content came from a year-long open pitch programme launched by Studio B’s in-house development team.

One such project is The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers, from UK producer Pesky. Studio B is doing the animation and holds digital rights, while Toronto- and LA-based Bejuba! Entertainment has TV distribution rights.

The series of 26 half-hours (or 78×7′) is aimed at six-12s and will air in the UK on CiTV’s Saturday morning Ministry of Mayhem block, on YTV in Canada and Cartoon Network Europe.

Adrenalini is the second TV project to grow out of a web short for Studio B. The company is also service-producing a series based on Korean webtoon Pucca, from Vooz, which is set to air on Jetix Europe.

Also on tap is Casey’s Orbit, a preschool Flash/CGI toon about a boy and his pet robot, which was developed with TVO in Canada. Studio B is reportedly seeking presales and a French copro partner.

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