Kids producers weigh in on Canadian Netflix deal

Execs from marblemedia, Spin Master, Guru and 9 Story share their views on how Netflix's proposed US$400-million Canadian production push will particularly impact the kids TV landscape.
October 4, 2017

Netflix has perfected the art of leaving a crowd wanting more, and in the case of its new plans to spend more than US$400 million (CAD$500 million) over five years on Canadian-made productions, the Canuck creative community is certainly craving some added clarity.

Among the changes outlined by Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly late last week as part of a new Creative Canada cultural funding regime are no new taxes on SVODs or internet service providers, a yet-to-be-determined boost in funding to the Canada Media Fund, US$100 million (CAD$125 million) earmarked over five years for a Creative Export Strategy, and, of course, the proposed Netflix production push, through which the SVOD giant will launch its first Canadian studio. In fact, establishing a permanent, multi-purpose film and television production presence in Canada marks the first time that the California-based company has done so outside of the US.

While the launch of Netflix Canada reflects the SVOD’s commitment to supporting the country’s creators, producers and cultural expression, a number of kids content makers believe that little change may actually be in the air—at least initially.

“There are so many prodcos in Canada already making content for Netflix, so the SVOD is clearly used to making significant investments here. But none of us know how much they’ve already spent on productions,” says Mark Bishop, co-CEO at Toronto-based marblemedia, whose series Splatalot! and Hi Opie! have been licensed to the streamer. “Will things be purely service work or original productions? We need to make sure the content is Canadian-owned and controlled, and that still remains to be seen.”

Bishop adds that since the deal is still in its infancy, concrete details may trickle in slowly, particularly as they relate to Netflix content head Ted Sarandos’ loosely veiled statement: “We look forward to continuing our work with Canadian talent, producers, broadcasters and other local partners to create Netflix originals in Canada for many years to come.”

Netflix claimed in its consultation-submission to the government last year to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Canada in 2016 across commissions, licences and service production. But in terms of original production by indies, US$80 million annually may not represent much of a bump (if at all) over current levels, depending on how it’s used. Netflix declined to elaborate on the information in the government’s press release, as did Joly.

“There are fundamental questions that need to be asked. For example, Canadian broadcasters are living in a regulated system and pooling money for content, and here come these new players that are not controlled in the same way,” Bishop notes, though he believes linear broadcasters won’t necessarily view Netflix’s production push as a threat.

(Of course, for broadcasters that have asked the government to “level the playing field,” the Netflix announcement falls far short of expectations. Rogers Media, backing the move not to tax internet services, noted it spent more than US$528 million on Canadian content last year and US$464 million the year before, with Bell Media also making note of the same.)

“Canadian broadcasters have encouraged us to get global partners on board our series, and that includes Netflix. What was seen like an enemy is not, as Netflix brings global reach and a healthy budget to deliver a great show,” Bishop says. And more dollars are welcome within a consolidating kids production industry.

“While the global market is having a strong appetite for kids content, domestically we only have a few players and don’t see the same investment in content,” Bishop adds. The US$100 million for exported content is also directly applicable to children’s fare, as Bishop says kids producers have been among the top exporters of content worldwide for the past three decades. “We need to keep producing content we can export,” he says. “If we don’t make it, we can’t sell it.”

With regards to Netflix establishing its own in-house facility on Canadian soil, Bishop doesn’t foresee a Netflix Canada studio as an encroachment on his territory. “A production studio is a smart investment on their part,” he says. “If I were Netflix, I’d be investing in dubbing and closed captioning, so a hub facility would make a lot of sense.”

Spin Master Entertainment EVP Jennifer Dodge echoes Bishop. “Anytime that we have a broadcast entity of any nature setting up in Canada, it’s a good message. But until we understand what that commitment looks like, it’s hard to determine how it will benefit us,” she says. “We need more information to determine whether or not it will be incrementally positive for the Canadian kids and animation business. Netflix indicated it would be ‘originals,’ so that could mean Canadian content, service work, commissioning or acquisitions, different genres, and with no specific commitment to kids. It sounds good on the surface, but I also believe Canadian kids producers have been doing a good job already placing shows on Netflix.”

While Spin Master-produced PAW Patrol currently streams on Netflix in Canada only (and on Nickelodeon globally), the company has yet to ink a global distribution deal or original commissioning agreement with the SVOD giant.

Guru Studio president and creative director Frank Falcone, on the other hand, has two original toons currently airing globally on Netflix, along with a number of series licensed to the platform.

“The deal is interesting in terms of financial impact, but Netflix was probably going to spend that amount anyway—if not more,” Falcone says. “Canada is a good bridge between Europe and the US, and offers a step into other territories. We understand those cultures and are more open to them and understanding of European sensibilities, and so it’s wise for Netflix to have a position here.” Falcone adds that Netflix has been a particularly innovation-focused broadcaster during the development of original series Justin Time GO! and True and the Rainbow Kingdom (pictured), the latter of which was just greenlit for a third season.

“I know Netflix is really committed to kids regardless of where the content comes from,” Falcone says. “But what percentage in Canada will be committed to children remains to be seen.”

Vince Commisso, president and CEO of Toronto’s 9 Story Media Group, is more confident that a large portion of Canadian funding will go toward children’s content. “Netflix has always been up front about its commitment to kids shows. They have both acquired original content from us and licensed our shows,” Commisso says, fresh off the heels of the September premiere of 9 Story’s Netflix Original series The Magic School Bus Rides Again. “The statement is good. As broadcasters always look to American content, here comes a huge multinational platform that wants Canada,” he says. “I think it’s a creative progressive approach of where content is going in digital world. Now let’s roll up our sleeves and do the hard work to make sure there are tools to execute the mandate.”

With files from Regan Reid.

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