Comments hamper Canada-China TV co-prods


TORONTO -- Canadian producers have gone back to the drawing board to figure out a way of reconstituting a potentially lucrative official co-production treaty with China for TV series.

Officials with China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and Heritage Canada, the federal department responsible for film policy, for more than a year have conducted formal talks to ink a treaty that would hand each country's TV producers lucrative tax benefits and business at either partner's end.

But those negotiations recently stalled after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper upset the diplomatic apple cart by criticizing China's human rights record.

"China was keen, but because of the comments of our prime minister, discussions on finalizing the language of an agreement have stopped," says Irene Chu, a Toronto-based independent producer currently shooting a Mandarin-language TV series in Toronto with China's Western Movie Group.

The diplomatic tension underlines how, as much as political power and patronage can open doors to TV production in China and Canada alike, it also can close them.

David Zitzerman, a Toronto-based entertainment lawyer with Goodmans, says the negotiations on a China-Canada co-production treaty have been politicized.

"The politics and the extent to which Harper and the Conservatives have been an irritant to China has factored into what the treaty covers and whether they (Chinese officials) are willing to amend it," he insists.

The irony is that China and Canada already have a co-production agreement signed in 1987 for movies, and officials from both countries are negotiating to amend the treaty to include TV series.

Chu originally structured "Once Upon a Time in Toronto" as an official Canada-China co-production to limit costs and hedge risk, with Canadian broadcaster Omni Television and Western Movie Group as lead financiers.

That was until the Canadian government informed Chu that Canada has no co-production treaty for TV dramas, only treaties for movies and animation.

Forced to scramble, Chu secured a broadcast license fee from Omni and a distribution advance from the Western Movie Group to finance her project.

"Both China and Canada are Pacific Rim countries, both have Chinese communities," Wang Da Wei, executive producer with Western Movie Group, says of the decision to eventually back Chu's soap.

Chu says the misunderstanding over "Once Upon a Time" led Chinese and Canadian officials to begin negotiations on amending the existing treaty to include TV.

Why does Canada, which already has official co-production treaties with more than 50 countries, need another one with China for TV series?

Canadian producers, like colleagues everywhere, are going further afield to raise financing.

After years of mostly doing co-productions with British or French producers, Canadians are reaching out to partner with producers in such emerging markets as China and India.

India and Canada also have yet to agree on terms for a co-production treaty for film and TV despite signing a letter of intent to do so in 2003.

Confounding matters for Canadian producers is the fact that amending movie co-production treaties to include TV has traditionally been a simple matter. Ottawa last did it in 2006 with its Canada-Spain treaty to include animated TV series between the countries' respective producers.

Zitzerman points to the irony of Canada already co-producing TV series with Hong Kong producers, albeit through a memorandum of understanding and not a treaty as Beijing regards Hong Kong as a special administrative region.

"That shows you how it's all political. If Hong Kong is allowed to have a TV treaty and is controlled by Beijing, there's no reason why China can't have (a TV co-production treaty) with Canada," he says.

Telefilm Canada, the federal agency that oversees the country's official film and TV production treaties, referred all questions about negotiations to Heritage Canada, which says that "ambiguity" in the existing official Canada-China co-production treaty led to TV productions being excluded.

While giving no indication where the current negotiations with SARFT officials are on amending the co-production agreement, Heritage Canada added that Canada is "committed to exploring with China the possibility of implementing a treaty framework to ensure co-production can take place not only in film but also television productions."

SARFT officials declined comment when asked about the apparent freeze in talks between Canada and China over amending their co-production treaty.