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TORONTO – What a difference a U.S. network series can make.
Toronto indie producer Adam Shully is in Los Angeles this week for the winter spec season to take another stab at U.S. primetime after his 2010 Canadian cop drama The Bridge landed on CBS.
He’ll find the market well-seeded with Canadian imports.
U.S. networks discovering primetime gold from scripted Canadian dramas like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue has fellow Canuck producers making regular stops in Hollywood to press still more homegrown shows on receptive U.S. broadcasters.
“If you have good stories, why not take a shot,” Shully said, underlining a new Canadian TV model that has U.S. and other foreign deals elevating a homegrown show internationally.
In fact, if you were painting a picture of a Canadian film and TV producer comfortable on either side of the border, it would probably look a lot like Shully.
He doesn’t mind being called a hired gun for Hollywood.
In Canada, as in Los Angeles, you need to fake it until you make it.
So Shully paid his dues in the trenches as a line producer or production manager on a string of Hollywood film and TV shoots shot in Canada before taking on The Bridge as an original project.
His first job as a PA was on the 1983 Playboy Channel video comedy The Sex and Violence Family Hour, which co-starred a young Jim Carrey.
And his first Hollywood movie gig — MGM’s 1984 Mrs. Soffel, which starred Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson and was shot in Toronto — had Shully as an assistant location manager.
But however close he got to the cameras on film and TV sets, Shully really wanted to be a production manager.
“I’m all about the business,” he concedes.
Shully did become a production manager on the 1987 Friday the 13th TV series, and other gigs followed, including the 1994 sci-fi TV series Robocop for Rysher Entertainment.
“We were blowing up things everywhere,” he recalled.
But Shully’s biggest bang came in early 2009, when CBS crossed The Bridge.
While Hollywood had long seen fortune in making movies and TV shows in Canada, U.S. networks considered it folly to program Canadian imports that instead went straight to niche cable channels.
That changed with the 2008 Hollywood writers strike when CBS bought the Flashpoint cop drama, a purchase quickly followed up with NBC acquiring The Listener, another drama, this time about a telepathic medic.
Both series were originally developed out of Canada by the CTV network.
But before the rare Canadian pick-ups could be dismissed as a fad – Flashpoint and The Listener were, after all, WGA strike-proof content – CBS returned to the well to acquire The Bridge, handing Shully and his series partners the ultimate validation of a U.S network primetime slot.
This was no overnight success.
Shully and Craig Bromell, a former Toronto police union boss, first pitched a local drama based on Bromell’s life as a cop to Jay Switzer and Diane Boehme at domestic network Chum Ltd. in 2005.
By mid-2006, Shully and Bromell had a ten-episode order from Chum, with Laszlo Barna’s Barna-Alper Productions on board as a co-producer.
But a year later Chum was acquired by CTV and all bets were off.
After much horse-trading, CTV agreed to fund a two-hour back-door pilot, and in early 2008 suggested Alan DiFiore to rewrite the script and Aaron Douglas as the series lead.
By November 2008, CTV gave The Bridge a full-season order.
Then, a month later, CTV topper Ivan Fecan brought The Bridge pilot to CBS’ Nina Tassler and David Stapf as a possible follow-up Canadian cop drama after Flashpoint.
“He was hedging. He’s a smart businessman,” Shully said of Fecan’s gambit.
It worked, because a few months later Entertainment One was on board as a co-producer as CBS took The Bridge for its summer schedule.
Like a shower of Olympic medals, the flurry of U.S. network pick-ups had Canada’s creative class and politicians dancing with joy.
And local TV producers were soon headed to Tinseltown with their most ambitious, character-driven dramas in hand, and walking taller on studio lots than they ever could have imagined before the WGA strike.
A light also flashed on on studio lots: cash-strapped U.S. networks could purchase on affordable hour created, written and directed by Canadians, and one that didn’t require as high a rating as a domestically produced show.
And Canadian networks that had traditionally given their best primetime slots and biggest money and marketing to U.S. shows were, by and large, now buying homegrown shows that secured American network berths.
But for an occasional camera shot of the CN Tower in Toronto, and Canadianisms like timbits and Zambonis, the storylines and production values behind the new Canadian dramas stayed close enough to typical U.S. network fare to keep American TV viewers on side.
Soon, other local producers that similarly built careers servicing U.S. location shoots in Canada — like Steven Hegyes and Shawn Williamson in Vancouver and Don Carmody (Chicago) and John Weber in Toronto – were busily making their own original films or TV shows with foreign partners.
In the process, the Canadians redefined the role a small TV market astride the American colossus can play in a globalized entertainment business.
Of course, Shully and his team pacting with the U.S. networks to produce a cop drama for both sides of the border was no picnic.
For example, two endings for the 12th episode of The Bridge, directed by Stuart Margolin, were produced, one that took risks by having a cop die, and another where the cop lives.
In the end, CBS aired the sanitized version, while CTV aired the episode where the cop dies.
Here’s a teachable moment: too many cooks in the kitchen with big egos has Canadian indie producers working like politicians to keep everyone happy.
That was fine as long as Canadian politicians kept throwing public dollars at homegrown dramas that could sell widely internationally.
But now a budget-strapped Ottawa has started pulling back on taxpayer investment in Canadian film and TV.
So the strength of Canadian TV now lies with indie producers like Shully’s 990 Multi Media Entertainment, Cineflix Media, Entertainment One, Take 5 Productions and Shaftesbury Films that have the pragmatism to plant a flag in Hollywood to make TV shows back in Canada, while exploiting local tax breaks and other lucrative subsidies.
Canadian co-produced TV dramas like NBC’s The Firm, HBO Cinemax’s Transporter and CW’s The L.A. Complex, and blood and boobs mini-series like Showtime’s The Borgias and Starz Entertainment’s Camelot all have a host of international masters.
But above all else, their Canadian producers need to be in three places at any one time to ensure the main master, the American network, is satisfied and TV audiences on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border feel ownership of a show.
To better attract foreign coin for Canadian product in an era of globalized production, Shully would like to see more American stars in in Canuck projects originated by emerging and established writing and producing talent.
“It levels the playing field,” he insists.
There’s nothing new in Americans in lead or cameo roles in Canadian indie movies, given the success of recent releases like Barney’s Version and A Dangerous Method.
Canadian show-runners are making similar moves to develop high-quality TV shows for the home and world markets that use local talent and crews.
But they’re coming up against a convoluted points system to determine Canadian content in taxpayer-funded projects that critics insist is out-dated and works against indie producers looking to work with international partners.
“I don’t want to be constrained by a 6 out of 10 points drama,” said Shully, referring to a local series that tap fewer public subsidies because they have minimal Canadian and maximum foreign participation.
Just as the screen-based stories being told out of Canada like ABC’s The Hot Zone and DirecTV’s Call Me Fitz reflect a rapidly changing polyglot world, local rules for film and TV financing need to be rewritten and re-imagined.
“It’s 2012, and every other business has that flexibility,” Shully argued.
Including in Los Angeles, where he returns this week, no longer as a hired gun, but as a player looking to partner with the Americans on a slate of Canadian-originated projects in development.
These include Home of the Braves, a six-part TV thriller based on a screenplay by Shully and David Warry Smith, where a drought-ridden U.S. considers invading present-day Canada to satisfy an insatiable need for water.
Another primetime drama is The Axis, created and written by Norbert Abrams, about five survivors of a gritty inner-city American city that reunite for the funeral of a sixth colleague who experienced an unexplained death.
And there’s a pilot script for The City by Mark Shekter, where it’s back to Toronto City Hall as the series lead, Tricia Queen, the city’s emergency commissioner, battles the mayor and other top brass as the mysterious death of an iconic Hollywood star on a local movie set sparks a medical epidemic.
For Shully, it’s all a long way from the over two decades carrying water for Americans shooting in Canada to gaining a gut understanding of what global TV viewers today want to see on their TV sets.
“Let the best idea win,” he said, liking his chances this week in Los Angeles.
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