Unscripted insights

Since opening its doors 15 years ago, Paperny Films has produced over 300 hours of programming and won more than 30 awards. Though the economic downturn has slowed the company's slate, Paperny remains one of Canada's most prolific non-fiction production companies.
August 10, 2009

Since opening its doors 15 years ago, Paperny Films has produced over 300 hours of programming and won more than 30 awards. In 2008, the Vancouver prodco had its best year yet, producing 42 hours of programming worth $14 million in budgets. The company’s expanding slate and quality productions earned Paperny a CFTPA Entrepreneur of the Year Award earlier this year.

The economic downturn and financial difficulties facing Canadian broadcasters have slowed down the company’s slate this summer, but the partners remain focused on the silver lining.

‘In a lot of ways we are glad that the growth is slowing at this point as it has been frantic for the past few years,’ says Cal Shumiatcher, partner and executive producer at Paperny. ‘When you have seven productions going at once, you don’t look ahead as much as you should. We are having the opportunity to do that now.’

However, the company has recently been approached by Cartoon Network – which is moving into live action – about an opportunity to make a docusoap for the channel. They are also developing the series Cold Case: Truth and Justice for PBS, investigating Ku Klux Klan crimes that took place 40 years ago during the civil rights era. American philanthropic organizations are investing in the project.

Paperny Films is also shooting a new reality series pilot this summer for Rogers Media’s Biography Channel called Dussault Inc, following the comeback of a former high-school-drop-out-turned-hot-shot L.A. fashion designer who lost his fortune a year ago; is in development with W on a reality series about a multi-generational Italian family who runs the Hockley Ski Resort in Ontario, and have a series in front of Discovery following Bombardier’s development of a new generation of eco-friendly airplanes. The company is also expanding into scripted drama, developing a half-hour comedy series for Showcase with Cameron Labine (Control Alt Delete).

Paperny Films is using this quieter period to focus on development and forging new relationships. They have traveled to Europe to build their international profile, while also focusing a lot of their energies on the U.S.

‘We’re more aggressively seeking U.S. partners and American agency representation for the first time,’ says David Paperny, cofounder of the prodco. ‘We are looking at series like Flashpoint that used Canadian and American money to make a show that is a hit on both sides of the border. We feel we can do this in non-scripted programming just as well. ‘

Paperny Films has found a very successful niche in the docusoap arena, making provocative and innovative reality series such as The Week the Women Went (CBC), where women in a small town are sent away for a vacation and the hapless men are left in charge; the OLN series Road Hockey Rumble, in which small-town rivalries are settled via road-hockey throw-downs; and 100 Mile Challenge (Food Network), following citizens of a small town in B.C. who survive only on food grown within a 100-mile radius of their home for 100 days.

‘We challenge each other to come up with the craziest ideas,’ says Paperny of the three-way partnership between him, his wife of 26 years Audrey Mehler and second cousin Shumiatcher. ‘Our reality shows and docusoaps have strong documentary elements that make them edgier and more real. It all comes down to the characters and conflict and finding the drama – figuring out the high stakes in people’s lives. These shows may look simple but [they're] fairly complicated.’

Beyond the quirky docusoaps, Paperny Films has also taken on challenging projects such as the Gemini Award-winning Confessions of an Innocent Man (CTV), the harrowing story of a man who survived a three-year imprisonment in Saudi Arabia, and Devil Plays Hardball (CBC Newsworld), where mentors were paired up with homeless people seeking to turn their life around. Their filmmaking team also had unprecedented access to the Canadian Armed Forces for Combat School (Discovery), following soldiers training for combat in Afghanistan.

‘Controversy isn’t something we shy away from,’ says Mehler, who is a director and producer at the company and oversees corporate strategy. ‘It’s something we embrace.’

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.