Pay nets find new model in o'seas pre-sales

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TORONTO -- Canadian premium pay channels are ramping up foreign pre-sales for their original dramas and comedies while also setting up shop with overseas production partners.

Having long aired "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" as the cornerstone of their schedules, Movie Central and the Movie Network, Canada's two premium pay channels, in recent years have greenlighted such original dramas as "Slings and Arrows," "Terminal City," "ReGenesis" and "Bliss." Now those shows are landing on U.S. cable channels and elsewhere internationally.

Shelley Gillen, head of creative affairs at Movie Central, the western Canadian premium pay TV channel, explains that the bimbos, car chases and fluffy storylines typical of 1990s Canadian-made series are a thing of the past.

"These are not just another show about doctors or lawyers or a repeat of some earlier success. There's passion in the writing and delivery from creatives who know their world intimately, and yet can make them accessible to a general audience," she said of the latest crop of Canadian-made series meant to get TMN and Movie Central on the cultural map.

But Canadian premium dramas don't come cheaply. For this reason, Movie Central and TMN have traditionally pre-sold a second window to a domestic cable or conventional channel to help cover shortfalls in production financing.

The problem is that the Canadian cable or conventional channels want a short first window, while the premium channels need a long first window because of the likelihood that viewers will bypass Movie Central and TMN and their monthly fees to wait until homegrown dramas show up elsewhere on Canadian TV schedules for free viewing. The need for a finance model that will allow the premium networks to hold onto their original programming locally for as long as possible has executives looking offshore.

"We're looking seriously for foreign partners on all of our shows," said Michelle Marion, TMN's director of Canadian independent production.

TMN and partner Movie Central are opting, when possible, to develop a Canadian series strictly with a foreign partner on board, or a significant distribution advance.

A recent example is "ZOS" (Zone of Seperation), an eight episode drama from Toronto-based Whizbang Films about the perils of UN peace-keeping in the Balkans that received a foreign distribution advance from Los Angeles-based Alive Entertainment. The series, set for shooting in eastern Europe this spring, has no Canadian second-window sale as of yet.

Other upcoming productions include "Durham County," from Muse Entertainment and Back Alley Film Prods., a Canadian drama with a June airdate that was the first Canadian drama ever to be pre-bought by Britain's Granada International based on the script alone.

TMN and Movie Central typically look for foreign broadcasters to put up 25%-30% of the production budget for an original Canadian drama as a pre-sale.

Also in the pipeline from TMN and Movie Central is "Insurgency," a drama from Vancouver-based showrunners Jayme Phafl and Angus Fraser. The duo earlier produced for Canadian premium TV schedules "Terminal City," a drama about a woman with terminal breast cancer who gets her own reality TV show. That series has a U.S. sale pending, with Channel Four International handling additional foreign sales.

And TMN and Movie Central are jointly developing comedy "Living in Your Car" and the drama "The Weight," both from the writing team of George F. Walker, Dani Romain and Joseph Kay.

Of course, the Canadian premium networks are still banking on HBO and Showtime series like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Deadwood" and BBC/HBO co-production "Rome" to sustain and grow their subscriber bases.

Also coming this season is the David Milch-produced surfing drama "John From Cincinnati," which stars Canadian-born Bruce Greenwood, Luis Guzman, Rebecca De Mornay, Luke Perry and Austin Nichols, as well as the second season of "Big Love," which stars Bill Paxton as a practicing polygamist balancing three wives.

While TMN and Movie Central will continue to entertain a second window in Canada where applicable, Movie Central's Gillen insists that the more original dramas and comedies from Canadian premium channels are recognized by foreign broadcasters, the more international pre-sales will become available and the need for pre-sales from Canadian cable or conventional channels will diminish.

"We're creating world-class pay TV programming, first for our own audiences, but with the calibre of acting and directing that will spread out to broadcasters around the world," Gillen said.

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