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Canada's homegrown TV content needs to come home

As someone who has been producing film and television for 30 years, I, like many in the industry, am beyond anxious to see our Canadian Heritage Minister's imminent recommendation on how best to reboot our entertainment and media industries. Mélanie Joly, our Oxford-educated minister, took office in 2015 urging patience and telling journalists that, unlike Donald Trump, she will need 700 days to be fairly judged on the merits of her close to $2-billion gamble. But her work is taking longer than negotiating the Yalta Conference.

In the two years since Joly has been in office, American entertainment giants such as HBO, Netflix and Amazon have blurred the lines between movies and television. And now, CBS is launching a new service to provide their shows directly to Canadians. This means private Canadian networks are at risk of losing their U.S. partners, who have provided decades of rich prime-time programming with a signal that was previously blocked to protect their market. Now, the water-cooler talk is all about American binge-worthy shows and Joly needs to find a way to a provide a new source of massive funding to producers for Canadian-produced programming that delivers more than one Canadian show in prime time or we will cease to be relevant and the private networks will face extinction.

Following a multitude of meetings with artists, entrepreneurs and visits with high-profile digital players, Joly has pledged to improve conditions for our $55-billion cultural economy with a new set of rules one hopes will incent networks to stimulate significantly more production in a borderless digital age.

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It's a great sound bite, but she will need to consider that the current economics of our chronically underfunded industry is a system guaranteed to make Canadian shows fail, and our creative process is fractured. Economically, every hour of scripted drama loses money in its own market. Even if you can make a decent drama for $2-million or $3-million, you cannot make $2-million or $3-million in ad revenue. The result is that the private networks have little appetite or funds to take the risks when they can buy U.S. fare at a cheaper price than to produce it.

Aside from increased funding, we need a new licence system that has broadcasters owning equity more frequently in licensed productions. The notion is that if networks have an opportunity to own a piece of the pie, they might make a profit on international sales. However, the issue still remains that if our product can't make it in the domestic market, it won't get made. The shows that do get made are subsidized by all the funding that requires Canadian creators be hired in all the key creative positions and still lose money.

There are encouraging exceptions, such as Orphan Black, which was a profitable gamble successfully sold internationally, and the series Cardinal, which has been sold to BBC, but we need more. While there is no hard and fast rule that a network can't have skin in the game, the government currently disallows any equity investment beyond its licence fee to go towards its mandate of network spending on Canadian programming. If there is little back-end opportunity and it's cheaper to buy U.S. fare, there is less of an appetite for taking any risk on edgier, bigger-budget shows we are competing with.

Creatively, our system is not stimulating enough quality writing and the problem just might be that most shows are producer-driven. In the United States, the showrunners are the new stars and they are given vast latitude to create riskier content. We have a strong community of great producers, but our writing has somehow been subservient and muted. Joly can address this by funding better writing programs in Canada and providing incentives for successful Canadian writers working in the United States to come home and create.

I am encouraged when I see people such as Moira Walley-Beckett, who cut her teeth on Breaking Bad, and is now working on Anne (of Green Gables) for CBC. The show was greenlit for a second season and is also seen on Netflix in over 190 countries. I have no doubt that Walley-Beckett's south-of-the-border writing experience has made the show more relevant and tighter.

There are other bright spots on the horizon that are game changers, such as the new miniseries Alias Grace, a partnership with CBC and Netflix, and Travelers, a joint venture between Netflix and Showcase. What Joly needs to fix is an industry in which breakout hits such as Orphan Black, Schitt's Creek and Kim's Convenience are too rare and even surprise us when it happens. And we need to invent more at home. While I don't love reality TV, the Canada's Smartest Person format has been sold in 11 countries as compared with Canadian adaptations of foreign reality shows.

The Canadian Screen Awards are a perfect microscope for Joly to observe and study the very best in Canadian talent and some of our flaws. Having produced the CSA show from infancy and anonymity, it's an annual, glamorous opportunity to show Canada that we have wonderful shows and movies to fall in love with. Sadly, too many films with little-known faces have come and gone by the time the CSA show airs. Joly needs to create a strong marketing fund for filmmakers and networks to access to better reach Canadians and build a star system. At the 2016 CSA show, I tried to talk to her about these ideas, and she thought I was a stagehand. I shouldn't have worn black.

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Lighten up on the Cancon rules

We must stop handcuffing our writers and producers by forcing them to comply with some national mandate to tell Canadian stories. We are Canadian, and our stories will inherently reflect our sense of humour, our drama and our individuality. I can't tell you how many pitches I have been to where some development executive measures the Canadian quotient word by word like a recipe for poutine. The reason why Schitt's Creek, Kim's Convenience and other shows like them work is that they have the comedic pacing and editing style of a Jim Brooks sitcom. The same goes for Sarah Polley's Oscar-nominated film Away from Her. It was a universal story directed and written by a Canadian.

Additionally, there is no point in legislating or forcing private networks to play an unrealistic weighting of Canadian content. Given the choice, we will always cross the border until we discover better stuff in our own backyard. Relaxed Cancon rules and co-production incentives must be the headline. It's a crime that The Handmaid's Tale is not a Canadian co-production. There is little appetite for merging funding agencies; instead, accountability is required as to how shows get funded and the agencies need to create a more robust and strategic marketing fund for Canadian product.

Additionally, the focus should be on stimulating more content by replacing or reducing the Canadian production point system. The current system allocates funds based on a potentially outdated allotment of Canadian labour attached to a production. Cue the critics, but I would also give more funds to CBC, a broadcaster that doesn't have a profit imperative and has a mandate to air more than 80-per-cent Canadian in prime time. The BBC gets seven times CBC's funding for a population contained in a space the size of New Brunswick. European countries do this and we end up seeing their best when it is funded properly. To balance the equation, Joly will have to find a way to help producers deliver the kind of product that will have the private networks create an audience experience as Netflix does and compete with the programming pouring into this country.

Bigger risks yield bigger rewards

When it comes to content, we need to take more risks and worry less about failure. While this is hard to imagine doing when Canadian fans write in and demand another season of Big Brother Canada, we are swimming in great material at home. The Scotiabank Giller Prize, an Oscar-style event celebrating literary fiction, is wall-to-wall with content screaming to be made into a killer series or film. We have seen Giller-winning authors Alice Munro, Vincent Lam and Margaret Atwood's works turned into a series or film, but it's not enough. I would option Madeleine Thien's novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing in a minute and I would hire Heather O'Neill to write edgy comedy all day long. Joly can stimulate this by larger tax incentives attached to original Canadian works of fiction.

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Bringing our homegrown back home

We need to stop vilifying and mourning Canadian artists that left to find work in Hollywood. Let's bring them back and co-create together. We have a half-billion dollars available from our funding agencies that could incentivize Paul Haggis or Denis Villeneuve to come home more often. Or how about the dozen great Canadian writers currently working on U.S. shows? I would give Samantha Bee a contract that would make her head spin. I would rather spend the money here versus bailing out Bombardier. Send a jet for Bee, bring her home.

Recently, I had some repatriated Canadian entertainment neophyte lecture me on the evils of hiring hugely successful Canadian entertainers that have found success in Hollywood. "Canadians resent actors that move away and then come back to work here." She then listed everyone she hates, from Eric McCormack to Jim Carrey. I wanted to send her back immediately on a one-way United Airlines flight. Are we not yet tired of gagging on those suffering from the tall poppy syndrome?

I do believe that we now have an industry that is proud of our yield, and maybe soon the public might be on the threshold of caring, too. What Joly needs to ensure is that we have the tools and support to reach that day.

Barry Avrich is producer/director of many acclaimed documentaries and author of Moguls, Monsters and Madmen: An Uncensored Life in Show Business

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