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January 7th, 2019

Robert Cohen, co-founder and president of Toronto-based prodco Media Headquarters, sees a burgeoning format export business in Canada’s traditionally import-dominated market. Clive Whittingham reports.

While Canada is known for its tax breaks and production incentives that have made it an attractive coproduction partner for many a factual or drama producer around the world, it hasn’t been a particularly prolific producer of original formats. More often, it’s a case of international shows going the other way and getting a local version.

This has shown signs of changing recently, however, with firms like Beauty World Search and Quebec-based Media Ranch starting to export shows such as Fashion Hero and True Sex Confessions. Another firm leading the charge is Media Headquarters, a 15-year-old outfit best known for its original format Canada’s Smartest Person, which airs on CBC.

The company received four broadcast green lights through 2018 and with 15 international deals for Smartest Person already signed, including with Electus in the US, co-founder, president and exec producer Robert Cohen is eyeing 2019 as a year for international success.

“Canada doesn’t have a huge original format business. In primetime we have formats licensed into the country which are very successful, but we’re trying to engineer a reverse of that model,” Cohen tells C21.

“That part of the industry is growing. What I’m seeing is a new interest from network partners in original formats and the creation of original IP that can be exploited worldwide. There are partnerships to be done between broadcasters and producers to take advantage of the international format market, and it’s a trend we want to see continue. We’ve shown through Smartest Person that it can be done and we’re working with new formats with almost everybody in town. It is new and exciting, creating new and original Canadian formats instead of imported ones.”

Media Headquarters became part of Kew Media Group when it launched with the acquisition of six firms in 2017. That infrastructure, coupled with an in-house distributor, is helping the firm overcome the traditional obstacles facing Canada’s format business. A year ago Cohen said “the deck is stacked against” Canadian producers trying to make an international success of their shows.

“Being part of Kew Media has opened up new opportunities,” he says. “We have a built-in distributor and we have models we can go to market with that include distribution advances and partnerships that can make projects move forward in different ways.

“Any new format we create right now is something we’re looking at for tape and format sales internationally. It starts very early in the development process; we think about what sort of international response a show may get. We keep our ears to the ground and try to develop and cultivate formats that can have international success. The Canadian industry has changed a lot.”

The Kew investment also enables the company to engage in the pre-packaging of programmes to pitch – something that’s been required in drama for years but is now bleeding across to parts of the industry that would previously commission formats from a paper idea.

“We increasingly put together more sophisticated presentations for our development properties,” Cohen says. “That is a big part of where the industry is going; we put a lot of effort into trying to attach the right cast and talent and put on the most sophisticated package we can. There are definitely exceptions to that. We are close with our partners and have conversations at an early stage about the kernel of an idea, and sometimes it’s just an idea at the right time and with the right partner.”

Cohen says the company specialises in producing “twists on an existing genre.” The Brigade, for US cablenet Outdoor Channel, is in the survivalist space and challenges 10 strangers to work together to complete a 1,200km journey across the historic York Factory Express fur trade route to the Arctic Ocean.

“At the heart of it is collaboration and cooperation: can these 10 strangers work together to accomplish something that could never be done alone?” he says. “The history of the trade route is part of it, for sure, but it’s not a recreation show by any means. The history imbues the show with a mood that is rich and beautiful. The takeaway comes from learning how they tackle hiking over mountains or traversing white water. But it’s the simplicity of a group getting from point A to point B – there’s no host, no pit stop, no challenges, just a massive, genuine race through the wilderness.”

The company has also ignored the traditional advice to ‘never work with kids’ by producing a junior version of its Canada’s Smartest Person for CBC. Canada’s Smartest Person Junior started airing in November and has already spawned numerous viral moments.

“You have to be very thoughtful when you bring kids into the mix,” Cohen says. “We had a lot of discussions during development about what the tone of the show should be. We’ve worked hard to strike a balance, because when the kids have the lights on them and are being tested in front of the nation it’s inherently high-stakes. You have to keep that, but at the same time bring a kindness into it.

“You have to be encouraging of the kids in a way you don’t have to be with adults. They have to be having a good time. The secret sauce is as long as we see them being delighted and excited with what they’re accomplishing then we can also take the hits they get. All the social media comments are about how kind the kids are to each other.”

The firm is also working on Red Button, a CBC digital series that gives filmmaking equipment to young Canadians and cuts the footage into short films. Completed projects include one girl dealing with physical disabilities and a boy facing homelessness and addiction to the opioid Fentanyl.

Meanwhile, Salvage Kings has been greenlit by the local History channel. The show follows a family firm that finds hidden treasures in abandoned buildings about to be torn down and brings them back into use before selling them.

“We have a creative company and development process and we put huge emphasis on that development,” Cohen says. “The common thread through the four shows is they’re all a twist or a progression on an existing genre. We love to do that. We spend development meetings looking at what our clients are ordering, what they want and listening to the market feedback about what things work best for the partners we know. Then it’s about finding what comes next in those buckets, what’s new, what talent we can cast to take this genre to a new place and how we can innovate on this style of competition we’ve seen before. That’s a big part of what inspires us.”

Clive Whittingham 07-01-2019 ©C21Media

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