'Whistler' gets mixed reception

'Whistler' gets mixed reception

International TV producers John Morayniss and Noreen Halpern got an icy reception when they set out to make "Whistler," Canada's most expensive and probably most popular drama ever.

The frosty face-off was with the weather that came in the form of world-class blizzards during shooting in the ski resort town of Whistler, British Columbia.

There has been a much warmer reception from Canadian TV audiences, who are tuning in to the ski-slope soap in impressive numbers. Think of "Whistler" as "The O.C." on snow.

The production partners, co-founders of Los Angeles-based Blueprint Entertainment, originally came from the stable of Canada's Alliance Atlantis, where they were senior production executives. They set out four years ago to form a new company that would straddle the U.S. and Canadian TV communities with offices in Los Angeles and Toronto.

"We envisioned this as a three-pronged business that would produce for the Canadian market, for Canadian audiences, with financing out of Canada," Morayniss says. "But the company would also do shows targeting the U.S. market first and foremost. And if it got some financing out of Canada (for these shows), then well and good. The third prong was to be programming that would marry both elements -- a show for both Canadian and U.S. audience that is financed out of both territories."

The first two elements of the business plan are long in place, with a big slate of reality and drama for Canadian and U.S. outlets in Blueprint's portfolio. Many of the company's shows also are selling well internationally.

The pair have now achieved the third part of the business plan with the successful production of 13 episodes of "Whistler" and an order for another 13 signed and sealed with Canadian broadcaster CTV. The series is budgeted at about $1.4 million per episode, with financing coming from the federal government in Ottawa and the provincial government in British Columbia as well as from Viacom's the N in the U.S. The series began airing on the N in June.

" 'Whistler' started in Canada with CTV. ... They came to us," Morayniss says. "They really wanted an experienced production company to come in and oversee probably the most expensive one-hour drama they have ever done with the exception maybe 'Due South.' "

The Canadian funding alone probably would not have been sufficient to bring in the kind of quality production that would compete with the blue-chip American imports that dominate the schedules in Canada. A U.S. broadcaster and financing would be needed. Blueprint, with its Canadian heritage and successful track record, would have been an obvious choice for CTV in choosing a production shop. But what really clinched it, Morayniss says, was the boutique company's everyday working savvy in the U.S. market. Blueprint brought in the N, which in turn brought a "significant" level of finance clout to the production.

"What set us apart from any other Canadian production company was that we had a serious presence in the U.S.," he says. "This justifies the business pan that we had formed from the get-go for Blueprint."

The lesson in this, he says, is that boutique indies with the right business plan can thrive in today's fierce international production market.