Welcome to Banff, The TV Festival Where the Elevator Pitch Becomes the "Gondola Pitch"

Banff Springs Hotel - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Banff Springs Hotel

The 38th World Media Festival, where 'Black-ish's' Anthony Anderson and ABC exec Channing Dungey will appear, gears up to embrace the digital age as well as the future of TV.

U.S. TV executives are about to trade in the Hollywood Hills for the Canadian Rockies.

As the global TV industry descends on Banff, the resort town in Canada's Alberta province, for the Banff World Media Festival, U.S. networks hungry for programming will be pitched international TV co-productions that could land them a primetime show for a fraction of the cost of developing something from scratch.

To wit: ABC scored with such primetime acquisitions as Rookie Blue and Designated Survivor, both of which were made with Canadian partners and thus were much cheaper than in-house productions.

Now in its 38th year, the Banff event began as the industry-only Banff World Television Festival, where Americans and Europeans returning home from the Los Angeles Screenings could build relationships and talk about co-productions in an intimate Rocky Mountain setting.

Hollywood talents including Chuck Lorre, Jill Soloway and Nigel Lythgoe have been among the showrunners to walk the Banff red carpet in recent years.

In 2011, the event rebranded itself as the Banff World Media Festival as a nod to the fact that the industry isn't just about TV anymore as content creators embrace the digital age. Here, the future of television is discussed amid the decidedly old-world charm of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, with its stained glass windows, carved wooden ceilings and mineral spa pools.

Take Netflix's survivalist thriller Between. The show might not have existed if not for what has become known as the Banff "gondola pitch." In 2014, Between executive producer Naveen Prasad of Elevation Pictures found himself on a gondola in Banff with Rob Roy, vp content acquisition at Netflix. "We were having dinner with the Netflix folks the night before, and Rob mentioned, 'I've never gone up Sulphur Mountain. Let's do it tomorrow,' " recalls Prasad. "So we went up the mountain and ended up talking about Between."

A few days later, Prasad got a call from Netflix vp international series Erik Barmack, who bought the pitch and eventually nabbed Between for his worldwide streaming schedule.

"The festival brings together television and digital media leaders from around the world, offering an unparalleled opportunity to launch new business, discover great content and create relationships with co-production partners," says eOne Television CEO John Morayniss, who also serves as the Banff Foundation chair.

Banff also helped hatch the Canadian medical drama Mary Kills People, which Lifetime picked up straight to series from eOne and Cameron Pictures. Tecca Crosby, senior vp creative affairs at eOne, recounts first pitching Mary Kills People, from creator Tara Armstrong, to Canadian broadcasters inside the Banff Springs' showpiece President's Suite, complete with a grand piano and exterior glass elevator.

"It's an eagle's nest up there. It has a spectacular living room and an incredible view down the Bow River Valley," Crosby says of the luxury pad high atop the Scottish castle-style hotel. "It's an incredibly inspiring place to be. A lot of foreign guests are very impressed, and it gives a luster to our Canadian TV industry."

Glen Salzman, co-CEO of Cineflix Media, credits Banff with in 1998 cementing the long-term future of his indie studio, which today produces via a joint venture with Tony Wood's Buccaneer Media Marcella for Netflix and ITV and has offices in London, Toronto and New York City. Salzman and series creator Merrily Weisbord that year pitched Dogs With Jobs to international broadcasters during a market simulation, using live dogs to illustrate a reality series about working canines, including land-mine sniffers and sheep herders.

The pooch project generated immediate heat, and quickly landed on PBS in the U.S. and in 49 countries on the National Geographic Channel. "We were in the right time and place and the company grew quickly after Dogs With Jobs sold as it was a good time to be selling content in the Canadian and the U.S. cable markets," Salzman told THR.


ABC In the Spotlight

The Disney/ABC Television Group is this year's "company of distinction" and will bring several top execs to the fest, most notably entertainment president Channing Dungey, who delivers the keynote address on June 12. Other speakers include ABC Studios president Patrick Moran, in conversation with showrunner of the year John Ridley (American Crime), and ABC News president James Goldston, who will discuss media in the Trump era on June 13.

Anthony Anderson: Impact Award Honoree

THR will present the Impact Award to the ABC comedy Black-ish at the fest's June 13 gala. Star Anthony Anderson will accept the honor and participate in a master class with chief THR TV critic Tim Goodman on June 14.

Diversity Master Class

The Real World co-creator Jonathan Murray, this year's A+E Diversity Award recipient, will lead a June 13 discussion about his Emmy-winning docuseries Born This Way and diversity in the entertainment industry.

This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive an issue, click here to subscribe.