This year’s Indie List offers a snapshot of some of Canada’s biggest production companies firing on all cylinders before the domestic screen industry was upended by a crisis of unparalleled magnitude. While 2020 is about survival, recovery and adapting to the “new normal,” the hope is that 2021 could see a return to these levels. Though, with so many variables at play, it could be years before a full recovery.
In this feature:
*Playback gives you the full analysis and reports on the biggest takeaways
*The Indie List directory features the Top 30 Canadian prodcos based on production spend
*AMPLIFIED profiles: deep dive into Indie List companies
There aren’t too many ways to dress it up: the COVID-19 pandemic has been utterly devastating for the domestic industry.
But while the past seven months have been economically disastrous, the worst appears to be over: a significant number of Canadian projects have returned to production, and more look poised to do so following the unveiling of a short-term solution to the insurance issue that has plagued the domestic sector.
However, a full recovery will take months, if not years, and getting the Canadian production sector back to “where it was” will be an uphill climb.
It will be tricky for another reason, too: calendar 2019 set a high benchmark. Across the country, Canadian production volume rose to $3.22 billion, just shy of the $3.31-billion record set in 2017. In many cases, the companies that thrived in 2019 – those that solidified their foundations, entered new lines of business, diversified their content offerings and forged new partnerships – look poised to bounce back quickest in a sector that has experienced neck-jarring turbulence since March.
Among the biggest climbers on this year’s list is 9 Story Media Group, which saw its total indie production budget skyrocket to $148.2 million in 2019, from $101.2 million the year prior, thanks in part to strategic acquisitions of Bali, Indonesia-headquartered BASE and New York’s Out of the Blue. While 9 Story has expanded through a combination of organic and acquisitive growth, other notable climbers Shaftesbury and Muse Entertainment took on additional productions that saw their respective tallies reach record levels. Shaftesbury hit a whopping $108 million, up from $86.2 million the year prior, as copros Departure, The Sounds and Dead Still joined ongoing series Hudson & Rex, Frankie Drake Mysteries and the ever-present Murdoch Mysteries. Muse had an equally busy slate in 2019, with around 14 MOWs primarily produced for the U.S. market joining scripted series Coroner, recently greenlit to a third season by CBC and scooped up by U.S. network The CW.
Rise and fall of production supergroups
This year’s Indie List confirmed there’s a new powerhouse production group on the scene.
Sphere Media (#7), formerly known as DATSIT Sphere, saw its production spend rise to $87.4 million in 2019, up from $67.9 million the year prior. A large portion of that production can be attributed to its subsidiary Sphere Media Plus, producer of the CTV medical drama Transplant, which was the subject of a high-profile acquisition by NBC. And while production numbers are sure to be down across the board in next year’s Indie List, Sphere Media’s production capabilities have been significantly expanded through its acquisitions of Sienna Films and BGM in March. Both of those companies were acquired from another prominent production group, Kew Media, which collapsed in spectacular fashion earlier this year.
One place up the list is another large production group, Boat Rocker Media (#6). The parent company to prodcos such as Insight Productions, Proper TV and Temple Street Productions – racked up $93.1 million in total budgets across titles including Big Brother Canada, The Great Canadian Baking Show, The Amazing Race Canada and The Next Step, in addition to $39.1 million in service production.
Below them is a cluster of companies in the $60-million range: SEVEN24 Films, Thunderbird Entertainment Group and Nomadic Pictures, the latter of which returned to more traditional levels following a mighty 2018 in which production spend rocketed up to $137 million.
Nestled nicely in the middle of this year’s pack are a crop of unscripted prodcos: Blue Ant, Cream, marblemedia and Alibi Entertainment. Since bringing Saloon Media into the fold in 2018, Blue Ant’s production spend has climbed significantly, with projects such as Canada’s Drag Race, Life Below Zero: Canada and Amazon original Bundy: Falling for a Killer contributing to $29.8 million in production spending. Meanwhile, marblemedia has put its foot to the floor on its unscripted strategy in 2019, garnering commissions for Blown Away and Restaurants on the Edge, both of which stream on Netflix internationally. Cream Productions had a busy year too with a slate including Fear Thy Neighbour and Age of Samurai. At the turn of the year the prodco, known foremost for its series, signaled its intent to burrow into longer-form content with the launch of a documentary film-focused division.
With large question marks hanging over the viability of scripted production in the age of COVID-19, these unscripted producers could find themselves climbing up the list next year.
It was also a big year for kids prodco Guru Studio. The Toronto animation company’s total production spend climbed to $28.6 million, with worldwide megahit PAW Patrol, Big Blue and True and the Rainbow Kingdom contributing to the total.
Optimism isn’t high, but how could it be?
When asked about the outlook for Canadian producers, just 31% of respondents said opportunities were better than ever, down from 50% the year prior. Meanwhile, 43% said opportunities were worse than ever, compared with 15% a year ago. Given the events of the past seven months, this comes as little surprise. Understandably, fewer companies are planning on expanding in the year ahead, too – 57% said they plan to grow their businesses (staff, location, development) in the year ahead, compared with 74% last year, while 43% said they have no plans to do so.
The future remains unclear
With filming abruptly halting on the week of March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry was left to count the cost of the pandemic this spring. The CMPA estimated that between March and July alone, around $2.5 billion in planned production spending was wiped out, with Canadian production accounting for $773 million of that total and foreign service location shoots accounting for the remaining $1.76 billion.
Unsurprisingly, respondents to this year’s survey cited COVID-19 as their primary concern, with many zeroing in on insurance coverage (or lack thereof) for communicable diseases as a major source of uncertainty and anxiety. Going forward, it looks unlikely that insurers will provide any kind of coverage for production delays or stoppages related to COVID-19, meaning the financial risk of subsequent production shutdowns will be shifted elsewhere. The $50-million, short-term compensation fund unveiled in late-September promises to solve some of those issues, but at press time the eligibility criteria for that much-needed fund have still not been revealed, leaving many to ponder whether they can realistically remount production before year’s end.
As well, beyond simply determining a path back to production, a crucial issue going forward will be how the CRTC chooses to address Canadian production expenditure (CPE) requirements for domestic broadcasters. As of press time, that too remains an open question, with the industry’s broadcasters, unions, guilds and associations filing applications with the Commission about how best to proceed.
While the path forward remains unclear, the domestic industry will collectively hope an industry-wide return to production can be executed by the spring. If and when that does happen, climbing back to production levels similar to 2019 will be the benchmark for a full recovery.