U.S. 'Heartland' deal for Canuck TV producer

Cleared in 97% of U.S. syndicated market for fall season

TORONTO -- First-time TV producer Michael Weinberg in 2004 put a bet on horses that has paid off like no other for the career investment banker.

"Heartland," Weinberg's Canadian horses-and-heartache family drama now its fourth season, has been cleared in 97% of the U.S. syndicated market for the fall season.

And to get to his U.S. deal, a Montrealer that lived by numbers had to overcome an unexpected obstacle: listening to his gut.

"When I was an investment banker my whole life, no decision was ever made without numbers. If the numbers said do this, that's what you did," Weinberg recalled.

"In this business (TV), there really aren't any numbers. You have to go with your instinct, you have to go with your gut," he added.

What's more, the banker was no big fan of TV: "Like everyone else who watches television, I was saying to myself, every time I want to watch something, what do I get? I get 'Law & Order,' I get 'CSI,' and I get reality. Once you go past that, what's left -- basically nothing."

But that changed in 2004 when Weinberg, with an itch to make films and TV, was steered by a banking colleague into horses to the Heartland kids novel series by British author Lauren Brooke.

"I read a couple of the books and they were pretty repetitive and boring because they aimed at girls 15 years and younger who like horses. It was not a family kind of book," he remembers.

So on a lark, Weinberg set out to secure the book rights from an Los Angeles producer who'd never got a theatrical feature based on one of the 21 Heartland books off the ground, as intended.

Weinberg adds he didn't see a "kid-on-a-horse" story akin to National Velvet likely to succeed.

"I wanted to change the (book option) deal to make a TV series, to add characters, change characters and make deletions, which you don't need to do if you're doing an exact replica of one book for a movie," he insisted.

After successfully negotiating a new options deal for the Heartland books, Weinberg got lucky by lining up the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. as a broadcaster just as the Canuck network was searching for a family drama to anchor its Sunday night schedule.

And a homegrown series about a family living on a horse-rescue ranch in Alberta that included a 15-year-old girl with a knack for communicating with horses apparently fit the bill.

"It was important to bring back a show that would remind people of the great family shows like 'Anne of Green Gables,' and 'Heartland' did that, but with a modern day story," Kirstine Stewart, general manager of programming at the CBC, recalls of the original pilot order for "Heartland."

But Weinberg, as he developed "Heartland" along with fellow executive producers Heather Conkie, Jordy Randall and Tom Cox of Seven24 Films, ran into an unexpected roadblock: TV and its creativity just didn't fit this banker's M.O.

After he'd set the budget for the original "Heartland" pilot, and who'd get paid what, the Canadian drama stopped being a money exercise for Weinberg.

"Making decisions like should I cast this actor or that actor. Well, where are the numbers on that one? Or should I go with this kid of story line or that kind of story line?" he recalled.

Weinberg must have had some hidden creative instincts, however, as he was instrumental in casting the Canadian drama, led by Amber Marshall as a 15 year-old girl horse whisperer and Graham Wardle as a cowboy hunk with a dark past.

"With the first episode I said, this is the way to go. Fortunately for me, I turned out to be right, or lucky or something," he adds.

The original "Heartland" pilot went up against three other pilots in the CBC development hopper, and tested best among the pack in the kids and family demos.

"So they (CBC) commissioned another 12 episodes for the first season, and I got to 13," Weinberg recalled.

By the end of the first season of "Heartland," the ratings were enough to secure a second season order of 18 episodes. Then there was another 13 episodes for the third season.

"For the fourth season, we're doing another 18 episodes. And we're hoping ratings go up again," Weinberg adds.

Meanwhile "Heartland was also sold widely into Europe and the world market. But the U.S. market beckoned.

"The U.S. is sort of like the holy grail. It's almost like confirmation that the show is good, so a lot of foreign countries, if it plays in the U.S., consider the show has credibility and they're more interested in acquiring it," Weinberg explained.

Ironically, the Heartland book series, while written in Britain, are set in Virginia, which didn't work for Weinberg.

"Virginia is a very flat kind of ground, it's sort of boring visually," he remarked.

So he took the CBC's cue and moved the series shoot to Alberta, in the shadows of the majestic Rockies.

"So we're showing Canada and people around the world say,' hey, look how nice it looks," Weinberg said.

This fall, "Heartland" will be seen on a slew of CBS, Tribune, Sinclair, Hearst, Lin, Meredith, Nexstar and Belo station groups, mostly in weekend primetime slots, as part of a syndication deal by Genesis TV and Film.

Produced by Seven24 Films and Weinberg's Dynamo Films, the Canadian drama is shopped internationally by Fireworks International.
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