Q&A: Christina Jennings

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Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO of Canadian producer Shaftesbury Films, struck pay dirt in February 2008 when NBC picked up 13 hours of her Canuck drama "The Listener" at the height of the WGA strike. The drama, which features a young paramedic (Craig Olejnik) with telepathic powers, is set to bow on June 4 on NBC stateside and on CTV in Canada after Fox International Channels (which co-financed the show with Shaftesbury, CTV and CBS) released it on 92 international channels in March. "Listener" follows another Canadian drama, CTV's "Flashpoint," which also airs on CBS.

The Hollywood Reporter: After "Flashpoint," do you feel the pressure for your Canadian drama to perform in U.S. prime time?

Christina Jennings: Whether "Flashpoint" had gone first, or we would go first, or anybody, the bottom line is what we're trying to prove is these aren't flukes, that this is actually an incredibly smart way of doing business. And that we (Canadians and Americans) can co-develop shows and co-produce shows that will work in our respective markets. For sure the pressure's on.

THR: NBC is going heavy this summer with scripted dramas -- "Merlin," "The Philanthropist" and "The Listener." Do you feel the performance of "The Listener" is dependent in part on how the other two dramas fare?

Jennings: I don't think so. At the end of the day, it all comes down to your (time)slot, partly what you're up against. And we're not up against the Olympics or some big sporting playoffs that pull people away. It's obviously the promotion and marketing. If you let people know that this is going to be a great show, they will tune in. And from then on the show has to do it on its merits.

THR: You said last year when "The Listener" was acquired by NBC that there was a "new pattern" emerging at American TV networks to work with production companies outside the U.S. Do you now feel that new pattern is here to stay?

Jennings: If "Flashpoint" was successful, if "Listener" goes out and reaches an audience in both countries, that will bode well for the future. I believe that this is the model that is going nowhere. We all hope that every show we produce and broadcast will win. And not all will win, for all sorts of reasons. But that doesn't say the model is broken, or there's a problem with the model. At the end of the day, CTV, NBC and Fox International picked up "Listener" based on the creative. They had a hand in shaping that creative. Hence, 13 episodes, all fully delivered. So it did work as a model. It wouldn't have worked if the two networks (CTV and NBC) had a complete difference of opinion in terms of the programming. That would have been a disaster. That would be way worse than if it doesn't reach an audience.

THR: Can you see U.S. networks developing series with Canadians, and not just waiting to see finished pilots?

Jennings: We've already had some of those meetings. There's no reason why you only go in one direction. What's interesting about the "Listener" model is that the project really was a three-way partnership between CTV, NBC and Fox International. But you could have a series that could come the other way, that Fox would bring to us, and we would take to CTV, and allow them a say in the creative. That's not far off at all.

THR: We've seen a coming of age for Canadian actors, writers and directors with the latest crops of dramas in U.S. primetime. Where's all of that headed?

Jennings: There's two things. One is, put aside what's been happening in the business, where Canada and America are doing these partnerships. The other thing happening is (Canadian broadcasters) CTV and Global Television and Citytv have very much gotten back into the one-hour drama business. For so many years, they weren't in the drama business, so we lost showrunners to the States. A huge number went and are now running among the best shows on TV. And we weren't training the young people to move up the ranks. So if you talk to producers and broadcasters here, they'll say we have a shortage of showrunners. Our success has happened so quickly, we haven't had time to train up. Over the next year or two, we'll start to see people in story departments move up to showrunning positions for the first time. That's the next thing we've got to do. We have writing, directing and acting talent, but it's the showrunning talent we need.
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