'Kind of a scary time': Canadian creators face uncertainty in the streaming era
Landscape quickly changing as services like Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video grow
Brent Butt is trepidatious about the streaming era.
While the Canadian comedy star says he's excited about the "palpable opportunities" that exist as more streamers enter the market here, he also finds it "a little frightening."
"It's also kind of a scary time, because none of us knows how any of this is going to work or shake down," says Butt, whose Saskatchewan-set Corner Gas franchise recently expanded from Bell Media platforms in Canada to the IMDb TV streaming service in the United States.
"When I got into producing television, the business model had been the same for about 70 years, and suddenly in the last five years it's completely different. And it looks like over the next five years it's going to be completely different again. And nobody really knows."
With Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and several other major American streamers now competing in Canada alongside homegrown counterparts including CBC Gem and Crave, many film and TV creators here are expressing a cautious optimism.
While many point to the chance for more eyeballs and work, they're also facing increasing competition from American productions that could potentially drown out homegrown projects.
"I don't know that I've had a chance to wrap my head around what the streaming services mean (for Canadian creators), and I don't know that anyone really knows," says Toronto-based filmmaker Danis Goulet, writer-director of the upcoming Indigenous sci-fi feature Night Raiders, which is being produced in association with Crave and CBC Films.
"My hope is that it opens up more opportunities. The streaming services desperately need content," Goulet said.
Indeed, it does seem more gigs are becoming available for Canadian actors and creators.
"It's creating so many jobs in Canada that it's hard to speak negatively of any of it," says Vancouver actress/filmmaker Annette Reilly, a cast member on the locally shot Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
"It's changing the industry at such a fast rate that nobody can keep up."
Business has never been better
Thunderbird Entertainment Group in Vancouver, which has created projects for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Apple TV Plus, and HBO Max, says business has never been better.
"We have to say 'no' to more work than we'd like to, because we can't do it all," said Thunderbird CEO Jennifer Twiner McCarron, whose company has worked with Netflix on The Last Kids on Earth and Hello Ninja; with Disney Plus on The Legend of the Three Caballeros and 101 Dalmatians; and with Hulu on Curious George: Royal Monkey.
Canadian documentary makers are also relishing in more discoverability and long-term shelf life with their films available on-demand, as opposed to relying on narrow broadcast windows.
"I like this idea that as many people can watch it as possible, because that's what I thrive for as a filmmaker," says Toronto-based filmmaker Shawney Cohen, who works for Vice and recently launched his new doc, Rat Park, on Crave.
It's also a great time for less mainstream fare, says Toronto-based producer Lauren Corber, whose digital comedy series How to Buy a Baby is on CBC Gem. She's also working on the upcoming series The Communist's Daughter for CBC Gem.
"A lot of times with the broadcasters, it depends on which broadcaster, but they're trying to appeal to the masses," says Corber, founder/president of LoCo Motion Pictures, "whereas the streaming services don't necessarily look for the masses, they look for the niches."
But Vancouver-based writer and filmmaker Warren Sulatycky feels the American streamers should have to adhere to the same federal regulations the broadcasters do, and carry a certain amount of homegrown productions while also contributing to a fund for Canadian content creation.
The director and co-writer of the new feature April in Autumn, which started a theatrical rollout in October, also wants to see Netflix create a certain amount of original Canadian productions through the hub it established in Toronto earlier this year.
In 2017, Netflix pledged to spend $500 million to fund original content made in Canada over five years, a target it said it met in September.
But Sulatycky notes many of those productions are American, echoing sentiments that have been expressed by CBC president and CEO Catherine Tait, who earlier this year compared Netflix's presence in Canada to cultural imperialism.
Sulatycky also feels Netflix isn't accessible enough to independent Canadian filmmakers.
"You can't even go directly to Netflix unless you have a long-term established relationship with one of the executives," Sulatycky says, noting he's pitched the company but been turned town.
Indie filmmakers typically have to go through what's known as an aggregator, which packages and pitches projects to Netflix, he says.
"It's been incredibly frustrating in the last year, at least, to try to get even a window into Netflix," Sulatycky says. "The other streamers, you basically buy your way onto them."
Facing red tape
Reilly says Canadian screen creators also face a lot of red tape to get funding for their projects and simply can't keep up with their American counterparts in the streaming wars.
"There are not enough Canadian counterparts for the Americans to team up with, so they're really just taking over as opposed to Canadian content having a chance to soar," she says.
"If I were in government, I would be throwing all sorts of accelerator programs and initiatives out there to speed up our Canadian producers so that we can have a piece of this streaming pie."
And while the amount of acting jobs for Canadians has increased, they're not necessarily leading/supporting roles, she adds.
"I think that's something the unions haven't been able to catch up with, to be like, 'Hey guys, you need at least one Canadian in your top five billing,"' says Reilly.
While many creators here cite more freedom on streaming services, with no commercial breaks and fewer content restrictions, some are also taking their international audiences and the platform into account.
Sulatycky says as a filmmaker, he's now "thinking smaller," knowing viewers will likely be streaming his projects. While he loves shooting "grand vistas" for his films, he might rethink that if he feels they won't translate well onto small screens.
"I think that's an issue for creators — you've just going to be forced into a smaller box, conceptually and visually," Sulatycky says.
Butt says he and the Corner Gas team will sometimes decide not to do a joke if they feel it's "a reference that just won't play anywhere else."
"Sometimes we'll say, 'Is that only going to play to Canadians? And if so, is it worth doing it?"' Butt says. "Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't, but it is something we do think about now."