Copros in Canada: May the best deal-maker win

Despite close proximity to its big brother in the U.S., the production scene in Canada is notoriously less profitable - budgets are lower, funding sources are much harder to come by and copro deals often make the difference between a successful...
May 1, 1999

Despite close proximity to its big brother in the U.S., the production scene in Canada is notoriously less profitable – budgets are lower, funding sources are much harder to come by and copro deals often make the difference between a successful project and one that never gets off the ground.

Because there’s only so much domestic funding to go around, braver souls, including documentary producers, are being encouraged to take the show on the road, and cast their lot in the great international marketplace.

Norman Bolen, VP of programming with History Television, calls it a ‘grown-up strategy.’

‘I think companies that really want to grow up as we approach the new millennium will be trying increasingly to do international coproductions purely on a business basis without having to rely on [public funding],’ says Bolen. ‘There is enough money in the international market to support really good projects.’

This strategy would, of course, leave more money in the domestic funding pot for the many high ‘CanCon’ (Canadian Content) historical and biographical documentaries required by Canadian specialty channels, the kind of product Bolen says can be financed through the Canadian Television Fund (CTF – See Sidebar), domestic licenses and the matching provincial and federal tax credit programs.

The typical budget being pieced together in Canada for domestic documentaries (info mags aside) tends to come in at the CAN$150,000 to $250,000 an hour range. At the coproduction end of the scale, the range is CAN$400,000 to $600,000 an hour, and more.

Higher-end Canadian license fees (from the specialty channels) are in the CAN$50,000 to $60,000 range. A matching U.S. fee for the same program could be in the US$75,000 range. Add a potential French-language market license and the tax credits, covering about 20% of the budget, ‘and you’re there,’ says Bolen. The other fully-financed options include an equity investment from Telefilm Canada and/or money from one of the private funding sources, either of which is likely to put less pressure on yet another option – a distributor who comes up with an advance against foreign pre-sales.

Even with the various levels of Canadian funding sources, including money from private sources such as the Rogers Documentary Fund, the Independent Production Fund or the Bell New Media and Broadcast Fund (for more on these funds, search, a collaboration or multiplication of license fees in the form of shared windows is often still a requirement. ‘Sometimes we do French and English licenses in Quebec and the rest of Canada. Sometimes we bring in TFO [TVOntario's French-track service], sometimes we bring in Vision TV. There are ways to work in the Canadian environment to make those programs,’ says Bolen.

Since its introduction three years ago, the CTF has had the effect of doubling documentary production in Canada.

In the 12-month period ending March 31, 1999, Telefilm Canada and the CTF financed 110 docs, although only a relatively small percentage were coproductions. This year, the number of producers with coproduction projects looking for Equity Investment Programming funds has grown.

In all of 1998, 16 docs with combined budgets of CAN$12.7 million were coproduced by Canadians and international partners, a level of action approximated in the first two months of ’99 alone when 13 documentary coproductions received advanced rulings from Telefilm.

The ’99 entries include: the historical saga The French in America, from Montreal-based Pixcom Productions and France’s Cineteve; The Kinmel Park Riots, from Edmonton’s Great North Productions and Amory Brice in Wales, about a cover-up and riot undertaken by Canadian soldiers in Wales at the end of WWII; Survivre/Survive, from Pixcom and France’s Marathon; The New Road, a doc on the Viking voyage to North America from Halifax’s Triad Films and an Icelandic partner; Bad Girls, a look at the new role of women in the porn business, from Montreal-based Inform-Action and TVB in France; and The Odyssey of Food, from Montreal-based Prisma and Okkerse in the Netherlands.


The new Canadian Television Fund guidelines add two broad evaluation incentives – an `at risk’ component which encourages producers to seek out pre-sales and make their own investment, and additional ‘evaluation points’ for broadcaster license fees over and above the established minimum, historically, in the case of documentaries, 15% of the Canadian share of the production budget.

Trina McQueen, president and CEO, Discovery Canada, and a member of the CTF’s board, says while this year’s trigger threshold for Discovery programs remains unclear, it’s certainly above the old 15% minimum. Bolen suggests it’s edging towards 25%.

Two major changes to coproduction funding have been introduced into the 1999/2000 CTF guidelines.

A 65% Canadian content quota requirement for License Fee Program money (paid in the form of an automatic license ‘top-up’) has been dropped. In addition, both both EIP and LFP have been capped at CAN$5 million for 1999/2000. The issue has raised concerns in Europe especially in view of the fact that LFP’s coproduction contribution was close to CAN$10 million last year. A closer look at the new qualifying point structure, specially the extra points earned through an eip investment, has lead producers to suspect 1999/2000 documentary coproductions without EIP funding are unlikely to benefit from LFP money.

McQueen says the funding system is a competitive process. In the TV business, you win some, you lose some, she says. ‘I don’t really get the problem, because any producer in this country who doesn’t understand that CTF funding is not automatic shouldn’t be in the business. We know there are going to be three, four or five times as many productions submitted as there are licenses. And now at least the system has some rationality to it in that there are points and guidelines.’

Mary Armstrong, a producer with Pixcom Productions in Montreal, says the work of piecing together higher licenses and the `at risk’ component, which includes pre-sales, distribution advances and producer investment, has made the business of international coproduction more complicated.

‘It’s tougher for everybody, but it’s even harder for a small company to put in `at risk’ money,’ she says.


As for the caps placed on 1999/2000 CTF coproduction funds, Bolen says, ‘I’m going to get a fair share of LFP money for super-Canadian projects which are also valid. The fact is, at some point, people who play in the international coproduction market and want to build their business and broadcasting strategy around that have to do it independently. You can’t always be looking for a handout to make these things happen.’

Andy Thomson, president of Great North Productions and a member of the CTF board, says because Great North is also a distributor it can cover the shortfall with guarantees if EIP or LFP money doesn’t come through.

‘We can be fairly comfortable that we’re going to get the money through a foreign sale,’ he says. ‘Certainly we’ve applied [to the CTF] because I’d rather get the money today than get it out of the foreign marketplace two years from now. If we do get the money, it is really just a form of interim financing because Telefilm Canada will invest in the show and we’ll pay them back from foreign sales.’


Deborah Drisdell, Telefilm director, international relations, says growth in international documentary coproduction reflects the need for ‘higher production values.’

And while much of the demand for CTF funding comes from the specialty channels, Drisdell says competition between specialty programmers is raising the stakes, resulting in more expensive coproductions.

‘We like getting involved in international coproduction because it brings additional revenue to the up-front structure which allows you to make a more attractive show,’ Thomson says. ‘But secondly, chances are that coproductions will sell better in the international marketplace partially because they have more production value and also because they have already demonstrated [of the `foreign' pre-sale] that they have international appeal.’

McQueen says interest in a program proposal on the part of a recognized broadcaster is a ’100%’ incentive.

‘If we hear the BBC or NHK or Discovery U.S. are interested in a project it is absolutely a plus,’ she says. ‘These are networks and channels which we certainly know have the resources to do the kind of development and to give the producer the kind of support which will result in a quality program. It doesn’t always work but at least you’re starting with a structure and resources.’

McQueen says production values are specific to the story being told, and are not just a function of the budget. If filming locations are sufficiently concentrated and graphics and special effects aren’t the main factors, then high-value programs can be created with smaller budgets, she says.

Travel-related documentaries is a program category where additional coproduction financing has become a necessity. ‘If we want to explore the world, as many of our programs do, that is where you are looking for a partner,’ McQueen says.


On the topic of international partnering resulting in a sum exponentially greater than the individual parts, Bolen raises The Sexual Century (a new six-hour series from Toronto’s Barna-Alper Productions and Carlton/ITV) as an example. ‘One, you bring a much larger budget into play because ITV/Carlton in Britain will play it in primetime and put in a very hefty license fee. You also have the creative input from the other side, the ideas and directing and producing skills mingling with [the] skills here. You have two broadcasters with creative input and so basically you end up with a much bigger project, something that will play on the world stage and multiple markets. And in the long run it will generate income for the production companies and will probably mean they will be able to invest more money in productions with us down the road.’

As to how this super doc supply is affecting demand: ‘People [the clients] are now saying they want something different,’ says Pixcom’s Armstrong. ‘They want really high quality, and they’re saying they want more entertainment.’

The ‘lucrative and tough to crack’ nature documentary category ‘just keeps getting more expensive,’ says Thomson.


But coproduction isn’t only about enhanced budgets, says Nathalie Barton, president of Montreal’s Inform-Action Films.

‘For one thing, it’s about making sure the film finds a market in Europe. And it’s also insurance that we gradually get less dependent on Canadian funds, because I can see them running out. So it becomes a question of building relationships with producers in other countries.

‘One of the problems seems that it’s always Canadian projects that are looking for coproducers [from] the other side, and we’re relatively successful with that. But when somebody from France or Britain comes over here and asks us to reciprocate, it’s much more difficult, at least in Quebec, to find a home for a minority coproduction. I think our foreign partners probably find that frustrating.’

John Marshall of U.K.-based international documentary consultancy jma says there’s an increasing volume of inter-European coproduction, ‘and there is no reason why Canadian producers should not be part of that loop. There’s nothing to exclude Canadian productions from any of the structures that they’re going to set up here, which, by definition, are open structures.’

Despite the structures being open, there is still the eternally thorny task of reaching creative, content and format consensus among culturally diverse partners. Barton says coproduction ‘isn’t an easy thing’ and if third party participation suggests inflated budgets, the surer reality is that more people have to be satisfied.

‘Whether you coproduce or pre-sell, you are probably going to have to make two, maybe three different versions for each broadcaster because each have their own requirements in terms of length and approach,’ says Barton, adding, ‘It used to be that people thought an auteur documentary would be sort of an `untouchable ouvre’ and now we’re having to come round to the idea that if we want to do it this way we have to go into partnership with two, three or maybe four broadcasters.’


Peter d’Entremont, a producer with Triad Films in Halifax says trust between international partners is the essential coproduction ingredient.

‘Is the arrangement strictly deal-driven or does it take advantage of everyone’s talents and situations to make a better program? Because if it’s strictly deal-driven, you might run into problems. Like in any production it comes down to knowing and trusting the people you’re working with, but it’s going to be tested a lot more on a coproduction,’ he says.

‘Part of it is luck and the hope one’s intuitive skills bear out under the marriage of coproduction, because finally that’s what it is, and it’s kind of hard to tell when you’ve just met somebody at MIP-TV or Banff,’ says Pixcom’s Armstrong.

McQueen says in the majority of cases, neither producer, director nor broadcasters seek out coproductions, rather, she says, ‘they’re obliged to enter into a marriage of convenience.

‘The more invisible the coproduction the better,’ says McQueen. ‘I think, most licensees like it that way. I have heard, in fact, of many skillful producers who can juggle four or five broadcasters and make each one feel like they are the ruler of the project.’


John Marshall goes on to add: ‘I think the whole coproduction treaty business – and I can understand the reason for it, and I think it’s excellent for developing the Canadian industry – is a bit too bureaucratic and dense for documentaries which generally are working to lower budgets and need a faster turnaround.’ He adds, ‘My impression is the coproduction treaties are structured for feature films which have higher budgets and much longer lead times. If they could just sort of take a fast-track [approach] for documentary-makers, that would be wonderful.’

In documentary coproduction, Triad’s d’Entremont says timing is of the essence.

‘You come up with an idea like a millennium project [and] if you don’t have enough of a lead on that, good luck in coming up with the money because the way in which we work is often slower than other countries.’


There are an estimated 20 to 30 documentary slots available each year on Canada’s conventional networks, many commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Witness series, and a much smaller number – four or five – by CanWest Global and CTV. The real domestic action is from the specialty channels who generally top out at CAN$50,000 or $60,000. When this level of license fee is factored in (at 20 % to 25% of the program budget), the result tends to cap domestic documentaries in the CAN$225,000 an hour range.

‘If your documentary means spending more money than that, you almost have to look into coproduction,’ says Thomson.

In specialty terms, the first tier of English-language Canadian commissioners includes Discovery Channel, History Television and TVOntario, with a range of typically more modest opportunities available from Vision TV, Life Network, Women’s Television Network, CBC’s Newsworld and Bravo!, in the cultural doc sphere.


If endowed national funding structures can have the effect of undermining minority coproduction (the Canada-Australia model comes to mind, but Marshall says this is changing), the effect of the Canadian content quota is to proportionally increase the value of the Canadian license fee. The U.S. market is ten times larger than Canada’s, but Thomson says producers are selling their programs in Canada for about a third of what they get in the u.s.

‘One of the good things I find about Canadian producers is they are able to make [what look like] $400,000 and $500,000 quality documentaries for CAN$300,000 or $350,000,’ says Bolen.

‘You have to be able to compete with the standard set by network television. Cable, specialty television can’t get away with lower standards,’ he adds.



The CTF (Canadian Television Fund), established in 1996, combined two former funds – Telefilm Canada’s Broadcast Fund (representing government money) and the Cable Production Fund (representing private money collected from broadcasters) – and added an additional CAN$100 million from the Department of Canadian Heritage. The CTF now has about CAN$200 million available annually.

The CTF includes two programs: the Licence Fee Program (LFP) and the Equity Investment Program (EIP). Each has a 1999/2000 budget of CAN$100 million. The LFP is administered directly by the CTF itself, while Telefilm Canada (a government agency) administers the EIP.

The CTF requires that projects reflect Canadian themes and subject matter, have ten out of ten Canadian content points, are shot and set primarily in Canada, and that the program rights are meaningfully owned and developed by Canadians. Projects must also receive a license fee from a Canadian broadcaster which meets the threshold requirements and be set to broadcast in primetime within two years of completion.

Of projects receiving eip investment, 45% to 55% will be for projects licensed by the CBC/SRC. EIP participation is in the form of recoupable, equity investments of up to 49% of the production’s eligible costs. (Info courtesy of Playback.)


Now in its sixth year, the 1999 Hot Docs! International Documentary Film Festival will showcase more than 70 films from Canada and around the world. Set to run from May 5-9 in Toronto’s Little Italy, over 1,000 delegates and 100 buyers are expected to attend. Distinct programs within this year’s festival include screenings of 50 new Canadian documentaries, a lifetime achievement award and retrospective on filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, a national spotlight on French docs and gala screenings featuring the best of international cinema.

Founded in 1993 by the Canadian Independent Film Caucus to showcase and support the work of Canadian documentary filmmakers, Hot Docs! was conceived to provide a forum for the growing doc industry, according to Rudy Buttignol, creative head of docs, independent productions and science at TVOntario, and a member of the Hot Docs! board of directors: ‘What we saw as a real deficiency was, as a festival dedicated to the genre of documentary alone, there weren’t enough opportunities for the filmmakers and the public to see documentaries in a theatrical setting and then to sit down and talk about them, discuss them, and meet the filmmaker.’

Hot Docs! will also feature panel discussions and ‘micro-meetings’ with some of the industry’s key international players, including A&E’s Amy Briamonte, Jacquie Lawrence from Channel 4 in the U.K., Larry Greenberg from the Sundance Channel, and Jennifer Hyde from CNN.

As for a festival theme, the CEO of Hot Docs!, Chris McDonald, says ‘Many of our best documentary filmmakers have turned their cameras outside our borders, giving us a way of relating to the world through Canadian eyes.’

This year’s international selection includes films such as Sun-Kyung Yi’s Thai Girls, Andrea Dorfman’s Nine and Shui-Bo Wang’s Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, which was nominated in the Short Doc category at this year’s Academy Awards. Contact Hot Docs! at #416-203-2155. Website: Christine Cowern


The Banff Television Festival markets itself as ‘an annual international celebration of program excellence, a source of vision, an opportunity for collaboration, and showcase for innovation.’ In layman’s terms, it’s a well-loved schmooze-fest. Set in Banff, Alberta – the heart of the Canadian Rockies – the festival combines an international program competition with a conference for industry professionals from Canada and around the world. Dates for the festival are June 13-19.

The program competition at the festival, the Banff Rockie Awards, are for television programs exclusively. Among the 14 categories are: continuing series, arts documentaries, and social and political documentaries. At last year’s festival, the competition drew 989 entries from over 40 countries and territories. According to festival material, ‘programs range from major, high production value shows by American networks or European broadcasters, to inventive and challenging material from small independent production houses from France to Finland, from Korea to Canada, public television and private television.’ The program catalog at Banff has been called ‘one of the best catalogs in the world,’ by Canal+’s director of documentaries, Catherine Lamour.

The conference section consists of more than 50 hours of workshops and panels. Key panels and forums for discussion include ‘Take a Decision-Maker to Lunch,’ an opportunity for independent producers to meet with decision-makers; and ‘Two in a Room,’ in which two commissioning editors appraise a proposal from an independent producer and establish preliminary stages of development funding for the project.

On the first day of the festival, RealScreen will moderate ‘Selling the World: Documentaries,’ a session during which Canadian distributors will have 15 minutes to sell their projects to acquisition execs. Contact the Banff Television Festival at: #403-678-9260. Website: Christine Cowern

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.