In 2003, Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier ditched their jobs as lawyers to become storytellers, launching the Toronto-based indie TV studio. After initial success with local series including Being Erica and The Next Step, Boat Rocker hit gold with 2013’s Orphan Black.
The Tatiana Maslany-starring thriller, which follows a “family” of cloned sisters, ran for five seasons on BBC America. Boat Rocker laid plans to go public, with an eye to raising capital to fund their next stage of expansion. Led by company CEO John Young, the company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange on March 24 in an IPO that raised $170.1 million, cash earmarked to repay credit facility debt and bankroll a new slate of scripted and unscripted series production.
“We have a strong platform [and] a major, independent, multigenre entertainment business that’s ready to go,” says Schneeberg.
For Orphan Black fans, top of the list of new shows is a spinoff series set in the world of the Clone Club that is being set up at AMC Networks. But it’s a long list. Boat Rocker is producing the drama series Invasion for Apple TV+ and American Rust for Showtime. The Toronto outlet also has an animation studio, a majority stake in Hollywood management firm Untitled Entertainment and an unscripted production arm that includes Matador Content. The company acquired American Rust producer Platform One Media, rebranding it as Boat Rocker Studios, Scripted, and with Katie O’Connell Marsh boarding as vice-chair.
As major Hollywood studios and upstart streamers empty their bank vaults to compete against Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, Schneeberg and Fortier talked to The Hollywood Reporter about sourcing great content with creative partners and making their indie studio profitable over the long haul.
Describe what brought Boat Rocker to your recent public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange?
Ivan Schneeberg We used the capital that [Toronto financial group] Fairfax gave us to build the business out, organically and we bought a number of businesses that added capabilities and assembled that into a cohesive integrated studio. Now we have a strong platform, a major independent, multigenre, entertainment business that’s ready to go. COVID slowed us down for a bit. But we’re ready to take it out for a spin. And what Dave and I are determined, in partnership with our CEO John Young, was the most efficient way to raise that capital, the best next partner for the business was the capital markets and public markets.
Post-IPO, you have the balance sheet strength and financial flexibility to grow. What’s your strategy for the future?
David Fortier The breadth of what we do is very important to us. A lot of media companies do some of what we do, but very few in the independent media space do all of what we do with creation and development across all production genres and at every level of live-action and animation. We have a robust distribution team that works internationally. We have a talent management aspect after we acquired a majority stake in Untitled Entertainment. We really do feel we have a real content platform to grow and in order to compete, you need access to capital and a robust build-up plan, which is what we have.
With the industry’s biggest buyers increasingly vertically integrated and wanting to own their IP, how will you negotiate content sales deals that allow Boat Rocker to retain rights or secure enough upfront production fees for longtime, recurring revenues?
Fortier Obviously, there’s more competition, not only from other production companies but from buyers themselves. Our view is because of the talent management business combined with our animation services business, combined with all the content we produce organically and all the creative partnerships that we have, and our ownership, distribution, and exploitation capabilities, there’s enough breadth there for us to be able to manage what we’re producing, the deals we do and the capital we spend while trying to retain those rights. You can’t ever guarantee it, all you can do is partner with the best creatives you can, create the best content you can, and then retain the rights that you need to build the business and exploit them.
How do you see the streaming wars shaking out?
Schneeberg It’s never been this exciting. I’ve never seen a more robust, more competitive marketplace. The OTTs, the originals, are platforms in the first instance and studios secondarily, like Netflix. And then you have the original studios now launching their own platforms, broadcasters launching their own platforms. So you see this emergence of new platforms, all needing content. Some will self-supply, and won’t need a lot of content.
And then you’ve got an environment of linear broadcasters who aren’t going away. They continue to be relevant. They continue to get their elbows up to fight for great content. Right now, we’re making shows for them. We’re in production now on American Rust, starring Jeff Daniels, for Showtime. We announced Beacon 23 for AMC. And because of this demand for content, we’re finding you can always sell exceptional shows, the best stuff that will make platforms accessible. And we’re seeing a lot of flexibility. There are deal-making and partnerships that buyers are prepared to do because they can’t fully fund all their content, that would be a bad business for these platforms. We can bring something to the table, an ability to help exploit rights, monetize rights, produce and deliver exceptional content.
Talk of exceptional content brings us to the Orphan Black spin-off series you announced two years ago with AMC. What’s the status of that project?
Schneeberg It remains a top priority for our scripted group and for AMC. We’re working right now on pitch concepts and the structure of the pilot scripts. We haven’t announced anything else on that. We’re all collectively excited about where it’s heading.
Fortier When we look at a property like Orphan Black, which we own, it’s a very important asset and we want to make sure, as we grow the franchise in partnership with AMC, we get it right. That’s the other side of the coin. It’s not just creating lots of content, which obviously we want and are doing. We want to create great content and the Orphan Black franchise deserves time and attention to get it right because there’s a fan base that’s expecting something special and so we want to deliver.
Hollywood talent agencies continue to dominate in packaging TV shows. How are you exploiting your stake in Untitled Entertainment?
Schneeberg It’s a delicate balance in the relationship between the studio side of our business and the representation side of our business. The management job at Untitled first and foremost is to represent their clients’ best interests. So we’re very careful to manage that relationship to ensure there’s a distance and no conflict of interest. It’s our job, the studio’s job, to present itself as a great option to those clients, that can help them tell the stories they want to tell. We view the studio side as a resource to the representation side, not the reverse.
Have you had success in finding partnerships with Untitled clients?
Schneeberg A great example is Dakota Johnson and her partner, Ro Donnelly, who established [production company] Tea Time. We have done an overall deal with that company. And we partnered with Amazon Prime on a series that [Tea Time] created called Rodeo Queens. We have a number of other projects that Tea Time is developing that we’re very excited about.
Fortier Another one is we partnered with Allison Williams on a remake of the Being Erica property. We’re still working on that. Obviously, we don’t want a carbon copy. The world has changed since the original came out. We spoke with [Untitled founder] Jason Weinberg, he represents Allison, and she was a huge fan of the original. She’s an executive producer on the project and set to star in it as well.
You rebranded Platform One Media, which is behind Showtime’s American Rust, as Boat Rocker Studios, Scripted a year after acquiring the indie studio. What’s the strategy there?
Schneeberg In buying the business, we had an important partner join us, Katie O’Connell Marsh, the vice-chair. She works with Dave and I and Michel Pratte in running our studio. She has multiple responsibilities in that role and one of the most important is overseeing creative relationships that we’re establishing with creative partners —actors, directors, writers —who want to set up their own businesses and tell stories that they’re interested in. Katie is an exceptional creative leader in the television business, and she’s good at understanding the creative needs of partners and protecting the stories we want to tell, and ensuring they come to fruition.
We’re about enfranchising creators. We built a business that’s designed with franchise creators, irrespective of the genre they want to make. We want a lot of people to tell the stories they want to tell, and not to be dictatorial or directive in terms of the type of stuff that we want them to do. We want them to do the stuff they want.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Boat Rocker’s business plans?
Fortier COVID came at a difficult time. But our company in partnership with Fairfax set out internationally [pre-pandemic] to add to the company elements that we felt we were falling short on or didn’t have. Now we’re just starting what we were ready to start back then. Because of the company we’ve built, the people we have in place, and the structure we have in place, we can take advantage of this operational leverage to grow the business, while keeping costs down.
Post-IPO, are you looking to do more mergers and acquisitions?
Schneeberg Both are on the table. We’re looking to continue to expand the ecosystem that we have created to tell stories and build brands. Anything that can enhance our ability to do that, we’re going to take a look. It’s more likely we’ll buy businesses or slates of content that we can roll into our existing infrastructure, what you would call tuck-ins or acquisitions, versus operating businesses.
What’s a bolt-on you’d have in mind?
Schneeberg Podcasting. It’s not something we do. We can see how podcasting would fit nicely in our ecosystem in terms of telling stories and building brands. Graphic novels are another great example of that. And there are others.
Fortier Besides on-screen or directing talent, producer talent is another area we’re looking at to expand our business, without changing our infrastructure. A great example is the deal we just did with Jessica Sebastian and her new venture, Maven. She’s a tier-one producer working with our company, taking advantage of our expertise and vice versa, to really grow our unscripted business.