Celebrating 35 years of the Ellis Enterprise

But carefully considering the audience interest is just one reason why Ellis has been so successful. Anyone who has ever crossed paths with him immediately sees that not only does he have a genuine love of the business, he is a...
January 1, 1999

But carefully considering the audience interest is just one reason why Ellis has been so successful. Anyone who has ever crossed paths with him immediately sees that not only does he have a genuine love of the business, he is a stickler for doing things right. And in a competitive industry where loyalties can change as often as television programming, his ability to form positive, long-term relationships with clients is a testament to the way he approaches the business.

‘With the growth of specialty networks, it’s gotten to be a complex industry but the Ellis’ have it covered,’ says John Gill, director of network scheduling at TV Ontario. ‘It’s easy to feel assured with Ralph because he knows the market better than anyone and he understands our needs. That’s a critical factor in being a successful distribution operation.’

Although Ellis Enterprises is today one of the country’s most respected distributors, its creation was somewhat accidental. Ralph Ellis launched the company in 1964 after working initially as a representative for the National Film Board offices in Halifax, Ottawa and New York. Upon returning to Canada in 1956, Ellis formed Fremantle of Canada with American partners, a small company which distributed programs from US-based Fremantle International as well as from Australia and the UK.

After eight years with Fremantle of Canada, he was offered a job as vice-president and general manager of Walter Reade Sterling, a small New York-based cinema and television company. Accepting the position meant he and his wife Eleanor would have to raise their children, Cathy and Stephen, in the United States. This concern, coupled with the political instability caused by the recent assassination of President, John F. Kennedy, encouraged the Ellis’ to stay at home.

‘I found myself in Canada and without a job,’ recalls Ellis. ‘I knew that I loved films and documentaries and I wanted to do something that made the most of my experience with the NFB.’ It was with this mindset that Ellis Enterprises was created.

In the first year, the 40-year-old Ellis was the company’s only employee. He ran the business from a cramped office space at the corner of Yonge and Wellington Streets, in the heart of downtown Toronto. From this one-room facility, Ellis began re-establishing the local and international contacts made during his days at the National Film Board and Fremantle.

The most immediate reward, he recalls, was having the freedom to plot his own course. ‘After working so many years in the NFB where everything needed committee approvals, it felt good to be able to make decisions and execute them immediately,’ he says. ‘It’s an approach we continue to this day by working hard to be as streamlined and as efficient as possible for our clients.’

The early days of the business in Canada proved challenging because of the limited number of television stations to market to. The American industry had the three big networks and Canada was even smaller, recalls Ellis. ‘We also had to prove to show producers that Canada was a viable market on its own,’ he says.

The majority of foreign programming came from Britain and Australia. Ellis Enterprises is the foremost distributor of British programs into Canada and was the first to introduce classics such as Coronation Street, Upstairs Downstairs and The Two Ronnies, among others, into the Canadian market. Today, Ellis has exclusive rights from the catalogues of global players based in Australia, US and the UK. These include English and French language sales in Canada for Beyond Distribution, Discovery Communications and ITEL (which includes Cosgrove Hall, Turner Original Productions and United Wildlife). In English Canada, Ellis reps the British and Australian output of Pearson Television International (Thames Television and Grundy Television) and the non-fiction output of Unapix International of the US.

‘I remember taking a chance by following Ralph’s advice about a British program he was distributing called Brideshead Revisited,’ says Trina McQueen of her days at the CBC Network. She now heads Discovery Channel Canada. ‘I was terrified that the show wouldn’t work because it hadn’t even yet aired in the UK. But Ralph assured me that audiences here would like it and he was right. The show took off.’

To complement the distribution business, Ellis decided to try his hand at producing. Shortly after the launch of Ellis Enterprises, KEG Productions got off the ground through a partnership with filmmakers Gerry Kedey and Dan Gibson. The company name was derived from their collective last names, and the specialty would be wildlife and environmental documentaries.

‘I always believed audiences were interested in nature shows, but good programs just weren’t out there,’ says Ellis. ‘In Canada we have a great wilderness that I thought should be brought to the world.’ In 1968, KEG produced 78 half hours of Audubon Wildlife Theatre for the CBC, and the company has gone on to produce over 400 hours of nature programming for family as well as children’s audiences.

Stephen, who started with the distribution company in 1973 while a university student, credits his father for having the foresight to create the production operation.

‘In economic good times, the broadcasters commission more and production surges,’ he says. ‘In tougher times, the distribution side benefits, providing a balance to our business.’

The focus has always been on nature documentaries, but in 1969 Ellis ventured into drama production through a sister company, Manitou Productions, and created with William Davidson the 26 half hours of Adventures in Rainbow Country. The series aired on the CBC Network and shot to number 1 in the ratings. It wasn’t unseated as the highest rated Canadian drama until the arrival of Anne of Green Gables over 10 years later. In 1979, Ellis and Davidson produced Matt & Jenny for the Global Television Network.

‘They were ground-breaking productions in that they involved producing drama from outside the major Canadian networks, with international partners such as ABC Australia and Polygram,’ says Ellis. ‘But there weren’t the support structures that there are today, such such as treaties and government funding. Without realizing it, we were laying the groundwork for what later became known as independent production.’

The success of KEG Productions attracted the interest of media conglomerate Maclean Hunter, which acquired a stake in the company in the mid-1970′s. ‘This had the positive effect of enabling us to interim finance large production budgets,’ says Stephen, who took on the role of Managing Director of KEG in 1983 when Ellis bought out founders Kedey and Gibson. ‘As long as we stayed with lower cost genres, such as documentaries, it meant that we could build equity in our library and didn’t have to rely on the government subsidies that were launched in the ’80′s.’

The appeal of wildlife programming to the steadily increasing number of domestic program services enabled KEG to expand its production in the 1990′s. The company’s Canadian pre-sale partners have included Baton Broadcasting, CBC Network, CanWest Global, CFCN-TV of Calgary, Discovery Channel, Family Channel, SRC, TVOntario and YTV.

In late 1995, Ellis Enterprises took on yet another challenge-a stake in what was to become the Outdoor Life Network specialty service. ‘We were in talks with Rogers Communications at the time about the prospects for a channel dedicated to outdoor living, nature and sport,’ recalls Stephen Ellis. ‘Rogers and subsequently Baton Broadcasting had superceded Maclean Hunter as investors in KEG Productions, so we already had a good working relationship with both. We had also been a supplier to Outdoor Life Network of the US. It turned out to be a dream team.’

When Roger Werner, founder of Outdoor Life, US heard about the company’s interest, he was thrilled. Ellis was known by US broadcasters as being a very reliable supplier, recalls Werner.

‘They were well respected distributors and had themselves an excellent library to contribute,’ he says. ‘I knew they would be good to have on board.’

Outdoor Life Network launched in Canada in October ’97, but early in 1998 Baton and KEG repositioned their assets. KEG is now solely owned by Ellis Enterprises while Baton has strengthened its position in Outdoor Life. ‘It was a great experience to have been involved in OLN from inception to launch; however, we both felt that it made more sense for us to completely own KEG and for Baton to have more of the network,’ explains Ralph Ellis. ‘It’s worked out well because now we can both focus on what we really do best.’

For 35 years, serving broadcasters and viewers is what Ellis Enterprises and KEG Productions have done best. And it’s not just industry insiders who think so. In 1997, Ralph Ellis was awarded the Order of Ontario and named a member of the Order of Canada for his contribution to mass media and his efforts in promoting Canada abroad.

Despite all these successes, Ellis Enterprises and KEG Productions still function with the sensibilities of a family-run operation. Eleanor Ellis worked there for 20 years and daughter Cathy once served as director of marketing. Today, a full-time staff of 12 and a host of independent producers and freelance craftspeople make up its extended family. Although Stephen Ellis has presided over the distribution side since 1986 and was recently made president of KEG, Ralph Ellis still chairs both enterprises and has his thumbprint on each project.

‘I leave all the technical details of the business to Stephen and his staff,’ he says. ‘My talent is having an instinctual sense about a show or project. It’s always been an exciting challenge to make sure that we release only the best.’


Chances are Canadian television viewers have never heard of Ellis Enterprises, but through its influence in the country’s television landscape, viewers have undoubtedly been affected. Not only has Ellis been the largest single source of British programming in Canada for the last 35 years, it has maintained working relationships with every television broadcaster, pay TV service and cable network across the country.

In the early days of Canadian television, nearly all programming came from a foreign source. CRTC regulations once encouraged broadcasters to provide shows from commonwealth countries as equivalent to Canadian, and Ellis was first out of the starting blocks in Canada. It introduced to Canadians a wide variety of British television’s hits, including Doctor in the House, The Jewel in the Crown and Sherlock Holmes-to name a few.

‘When you are dealing with international distribution, it’s critical to have a representative who knows the markets,’ says June Dromgoole, controller of programmes with Channel 4 in the UK. She worked with Ellis Enterprises in the early 1980′s when she was managing director of a UK distribution company. ‘Ralph has shown us what a good local representative can do-he handled all our programs in Canada with great success.’

At 18 years, the company’s longest standing supplier for the English and French language markets in Canada is ITEL. The ITEL catalogue features perennial drama series like Tales of the Unexpected and the P.D. James Mysteries and current hits, Touching Evil on Showcase and Where the Heart Is on TVOntario. In recent years it has expanded heavily in animation through its Cosgrove Hall division and by co-venturing on series like Calamity Jane on Teletoon and Stressed Eric on YTV. The long-running World of Survival hours have been an ongoing success on Discovery Channel, as have titles from Turner Original Productions such as Moonshot and Mind Control.

In 1996 it was announced that the Ellis would be representing the entire British and Australian output of Pearson Television International in English Canada. Pearson’s catalogue is thousands of hours deep, from drama classics like Rumpole of the Bailey to the universal appeal of Mr. Bean, the most successful British comedy ever on the CBC. Recent hits include It’s A Man’s World (the original Men Behaving Badly) on the Comedy Network, Great Myths and Mysteries of the Twentieth Century on History Television and Pie in the Sky on Showcase. Pearson’s Grundy Television armproduces Neighbours, the most successful drama serial in the world, seen in over 60 countries.

Ellis has a unique relationship with Beyond Distribution of Australia, in which it handles Beyond’s programming in English and French Canada and Beyond handles Ellis’ in Australasia. ‘Ellis has represented Beyond’s interests for nearly a decade for which they have sold over one thousand hours of our catalogue,’ says Torquil Macneal, VP of international sales for Beyond International. ‘Stephen’s knowledge of and experience in the Canadian television landscape have been invaluable to us.’ Recent Canadian successes for Beyond include Ocean Girl, which premiered on The Family Channel and is currently airing on YTV, the Beyond 2000 science series for Discovery and the documentary special Rat on CITY-TV.

The non-fiction output of US-based Unapix is the most recent addition to Ellis’ offerings in Canada, the biggest consumer of which has been Outdoor Life Network, with prime time series such as The Ultimate Adventure, Forever Wild and ESPU – Endangered Species Protection Unit finding a home.

Over the years, Canada’s import business has seen two waves of growth. In the early 1970′s the onset of independent broadcasters like Citytv and Global, plus educational networks like TVOntario, provided greater distribution opportunities. And in the 1980s and early 1990′s, the establishment of specialty networks such as YTV and MuchMusic further extended what Ellis could offer Canadian broadcasters. Not only did the company begin to increase its catalogue offerings, it found new markets for its own production projects.

But it has been the launch of American specialties such as The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and The Learning Channel that have been a boon to its export business. Discovery in the US and Canada, CanWest Global, the Family Channel and YTV have all been regular pre-sale partners.

‘Our export business is parallel to the growth of the US market since it comprises 50 percent of the world market,’ says Stephen Ellis. KEG has been a regular prime time supplier of programming to US-based Discovery Channel since it launched over a decade ago. When Discovery was getting started in 1986, Ellis was one of five companies worldwide to sign output agreements with them to bolster their original programming. The award-winning series Profiles of Nature and the accompanying one hour specials are one of the longest running prime time series on Discovery US.

With an output of over 20 hours of production per year and over 200 hours of programming in release, KEG Productions is Canada’s largest producer of wildlife programming. Its nature documentaries are regularly seen in over 100 countries and have been translated into 30 languages. Within the wildlife field KEG has ex-plored a number of genres other than straight documentary. It has produced the children’s quiz series Wild Guess, the pre-school series Mother Nature for TLC and the comedy series Buck Staghorn’s Animal Bites for Discovery Channel Canada and Animal Planet, in a co-venture with Betafilm.

In its first season in 1996, Buck Staghorn’s Animal Bites, a collection of animal bloopers, quickly became one of the highest rated shows on Discovery Channel Canada. ‘Ralph and his staff are very good at understanding the personality of a network and offering the appropriate programming,’ says Trina McQueen, head of Discovery Channel Canada. ‘We continue to acquire programs from them and we’ve also worked on co-productions with KEG.’


New technology, niche markets and an increasingly competitive global marketplace have created a whole new landscape for program distributors and producers. As president of Ellis Enterprises and KEG Productions, Stephen Ellis has been handed the torch to take the companies into the new millenium. He first worked at Ellis during summers where he packed, labelled and transported 16mm film prints to Buffalo, NY, for US release. For the last 26 years, he has honed skills in distribution, production and industry lobbying. He says he is very optimistic about what the future holds for the business.

Q: As the millenium approaches, what do you see as the challenges facing Ellis Enterprises, and the distribution industry as a whole?

A: The distribution industry has become a more scientific business, which makes for an increasingly significant role, but it’s also affected how we do our jobs. With the expansion of specialty networks and the increasing number of productions that are out there, suppliers have to be even more informed about how the markets work. We not only have to understand the niche markets but also how some of the programming we distribute will translate across different cultures. A good distributor has really become a rights manager, having to resolve complexities of signal spillover, channel carriage technology, exclusivity and multiple window release on a given property in order to maximize returns to the producer.

Q: How has this changed from the way Ellis conducted business in the past?

A: Years ago, one sale to a broadcaster would determine the release pattern of a show for quite a few years. A marketing plan now is really a patchwork quilt that varies dramatically from show to show. Local affiliates were also actively buying their own programming in the 1970′s and ’80′s which provided distributors with more opportunities to sell locally. Both the domestic and the global marketplaces have since consolidated in ownership but diversified in number of services, so the challenge is in striking this new balance. We’ve also increasingly tracked and been involved in industry developments such as the regulatory process and new rights, like retransmission, which can enhance producers’ incomes. One thing that hasn’t changed is that we’re a full service shop. This has contributed to our longevity in my view. A broadcaster knows they can rely on us to deliver what we’ve committed. The trick is in maintaining that level of service cost effectively.

Q: Given this playing field, what is Ellis doing to remain competitive?

A: We think it is very important to add value to the process when dealing with broadcasters, otherwise we don’t have a role to play. Our strength is our knowledge of Canadian television, and we stress that when dealing with international clients. This has been particularly important as more and more specialty channels come to air. We’ve had to be forward thinking when it comes to understanding the needs of our broadcast clients, both locally and internationally. If we are attuned to the personality of a certain network, it makes it easier for us to sell them future programming that suits them. Also, the lines are blurring between selling programming off the shelf and pre-licensing future productions. Our experience in production and recently in broadcasting has helped make us credible with programmers.

Q: What role has technology played in affecting the direction the company is going?

A: Technology has lowered channel operating costs and helped globalize the business. This has provided us with many opportunities in recent years, from expanded production and distribution to our foray into a specialty channel. Ironically, the World Wide Web could make it easy for buyers to order programming from an online site if they wanted. Broadcasters would never really have to meet anyone face to face. The challenge is to keep this a people business, to know the markets and offer insight to our clients. Technology has also had an impact in the production end of the business because it is affecting how we film. Digital imagery is slowly replacing analog forms and options such as super-slow-motion and night vision are influencing the content of our programming.

Q: Have you ever been concerned that both Ellis and KEG have reached the top of their game?

A: I don’t think it’s a matter of already reaching the top. It’s more a matter of making the most of the business in the time we are in. There are many opportunities for our businesses post-2000, primarily because programming has become the centre of the media universe, as opposed to the technology of production and signal distribution. One area we are exploring is how to benefit from NAFTA by approaching North America as one large market. The rest of the industry is still focused on traditional models of how to work in Canada and the US.


Throughout the history of Ellis Enterprises principals Ralph and Stephen Ellis have been

committed to the independent production and distribution industry.

Ralph Ellis helped organize and presided over the Canadian Television Program Distributors Association for a number of years until it was folded into the Canadian Film & Television Association in the late 1980′s. He also served on the Children’s Broadcast Institute board (now ACT) for 20 years, culminating as chair in 1990, and helped put the organization on a permanent financial footing. He has also been a Broadcast Executives Society member for 18 years, presently acting as first Vice President.

Stephen Ellis is the longest continuous serving board member of the association representing independent producers, first arriving on the old CFTA board in 1980 and serving as president in 1984. He is currently secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, which lobbies for producers, negotiates labour agreements and operates a successful mentorship program.

In 1989 Stephen became the founding president of the Canadian Retransmission Collective, a non-profit collecting body for royalties from cable operators for programs on distant signals. CRC has distributed Cdn $40 million to date, to producers in Canada and around the world.


From Yorkton to Chicago and Bristol to San Francisco, KEG Productions has garnered the Gold Camera, Red Ribbon, Chris Plaque and Golden Sheaf at festivals worldwide, as well as a number of gold, silver, bronze and some honourable mentions.

Although Ralph Ellis is known throughout the world for his nature and wildlife documentaries, the industry award for the children’s drama series Matt & Jenny was one that particularly pleased him. In 1981, the Children’s Broadcast Institute (now ACT) named the show the best program by an independent producer.

‘Recognition from the Children’s Broadcast Institute was a memorable moment for me,’ he recalls. ‘We had done very little in drama and were still recognized for a job well done.’

Episodes from the Profiles of Nature series of half hours and one hour specials have consistently been honoured at festivals in Canada, the United States and Europe and comprise nearly half the company’s awards. The Magic of Flight received a silver medal at the 1993 New York Festivals and two years later, A Passion for Nature earned the Gold Camera Award: Nature and Wildlife at the U.S. International Film & Video Festival. The series itself was a finalist for Best Documentary Series at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television’s Gemini Awards in 1989 and 1995.

KEG’s most recent honour was for Bear Attack: The Predatory Black Bear, a program produced with Discovery Channel Canada. The hour long special received four awards in 1998, including a bronze plaque from the Columbus International Film & Video Festival and the Merit Award for Educational Value at the International Wildlife Film Festival.

But of all the production awards KEG has been given, Ellis says he is most proud of the recognition he received for Buck Staghorn’s Animal Bites. The family-targeted program offers a unique look at wildlife through the eyes of a hilarious tour guide. In the last two years, the series earned the Gold World Medal for Best Variety Series at the New York Festivals, two Gemini awards and a Gold Award for Best Comedy Series at Worldfest-Houston.

‘To be recognized in the wildlife category is one thing,’ he says. ‘But we were honoured as a comedy series and we beat out some very funny competition. That was different for us.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.