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Optimism or Pessimism – Which Are You Going to Choose?

I’ve been to a lot of Prime Time in Ottawa conferences and frequently the hard road that is Canadian media causes a lot of pessimism, particularly when you put a lot of hard-working producers in a room.  There was definitely some of that but there were some stand out speeches and panels that caused vibrations of optimism throughout the two days.

Last summer the CMPA appointed Reynolds Mastin as its new CEO after Michael Hennessy retired.  There are few people as well liked as Reynolds in this industry but his opening speech made fans of even the casual observer. Reynolds made it clear what kind of a CEO he is going to be and where he wants to take the CMPA.  He fixed the name.  It was Canadian Media Production Association but everyone constantly incorrectly called it Canadian Media Producers Association – and that’s what it now is.  Then he came out swinging on two major issues.  He called for the CRTC to compel Netflix to provide data (which they refused to do at the Talk TV hearing) so that good public policy can be made to ensure the choice of Canadian content on OTT platforms.  He called for a full public hearing on the Shaw-Corus merger to ensure that the public gets the best deal possible.  Reynolds made it clear that his job is to represent his members, even if that means upsetting a few sponsors.  I strongly encourage you to watch the speech on their YouTube channel:

That speech got people excited, which was the best way to start a conference.  There were mixed reviews to the opening keynote from John Penney, Chief Strategy Officer at US broadcaster Starz.  These sorts of forecasting speeches can be difficult.  Those in the room who are on top of developments in the media industry find it old hat while those who spend less time thinking of these things are excited and inspired.  Penney’s message was that the future was going to lead to mass personalization (everyone getting their own content stream based on their preferences) and the challenge was to figure out how to monetize that.  For some reason broadcasters seem to prefer this push of content, perhaps because they think they can control it, but I object to anything that prevents me from browsing for content. I’m looking for curation, and guidance but not lack of control.  Maybe that’s just me.

The next panel threatened to totally undermine not only excitement but any optimism about the future.  The annual Media Leaders panel featured Heather Conway from CBC, Barb Williams from Shaw, Steve Denure from DHX and Tracey Pearce from Bell.  I don’t know what was going on with Heather Conway but the phrase most tweeted about what she had to say was ‘doom and gloom’.  Content prices are getting crushed, consumer prices for tv services will all go up with pick and pay, there is no original content on OTT services, we don’t know how lucky we have it now . . . It was hard to hear our public broadcaster be so negative.  It was a relief to hear Steve Denure’s unbridled optimism for the financial opportunities that exist with digital platforms from creating low cost content for YouTube to getting another season for Degrassi from Netflix after Nickelodeon cancelled it.  Shaw and Bell were somewhere in the middle – cautiously optimistic.

It led me to think about last year’s media panel where the most optimistic person was Michael MacMillan from Blue Ant Media.  There are parallels here.  Both Michael and Steve have been around this business a long time.  They head small multiplatform media companies that create, broadcast and distribute.  They are smart enough and nimble enough to see the opportunities where they are and move there.  I hope Bell, Shaw and particularly CBC are paying attention.

The rest of the day was hit and miss.  I can only comment on the breakouts that I attended but they were definitely uneven.  I was surprised by the Discoverability panel because most of the panelists seem to have a different definition than I did (and those I talked to).  As Kevin Wright tweeted, “Is Discoverability the digital word for marketing?”  Most of the panelists talked as if discoverability was about selling their content to the audience.  Only Janet Brown of FilmBuff, a U.S. digital platform for indie film, talked about discoverability being finding ways to get the audience to discover something that they didn’t know they wanted to watch.  It’s a difference between pushing your content or empowering the audience to pull it.  It will be interesting to see which definition the CRTC will be focused on in their Discoverability Summit.

I found the Business Plan workshop useful as well as a great opportunity for two companies to get expert advice on their business plan development.  Though the companies were an aboriginal cinema business (Bandwidth – great name) and an interactive digital media company (Relish Interactive), the advice given transcended the kind of business and was applicable to whatever kind of company you may be trying to grow.   It’s also good to deal with specifics for an hour in the middle of a day of big picture thinking.

I cannot refer to big picture thinking without mentioning the other highlight of the day, Minister of Heritage Mélanie Joly in conversation with Reynolds Mastin.  What a delight.  If you keep in mind the Heritage Ministers of the last ten years (Bev Oda, Josée Verner, James Moore and Shelly Glover) you will have a better understanding of why Joly was treated like a rock star by the room.  First, she showed up voluntarily for the opening cocktails the night before and even made an appearance at the William F. White’s post-cocktails party.  In her chat (and it was a chat not a written speech given to the Parliamentary Secretary to present at the last minute) she came across as smart, charming, funny and invested in the arts and culture sector.  She promised to revamp the policy framework to take into consideration the digital shift (which has been needed for years!), announced the signing of a revised Canada-Ireland co-production treaty and talked about not only reinstating PromArts and Trade Routes but updating them for digital strategies.  The whole room became fanboys and fangirls.  It was kind of like how you react when you finally get a good boy/girlfriend after an abusive relationship.  The only downside is that we now have huge expectations from our Minister.

The day ended with a conversation between David Purdy, new of Vice Media and Val Creighton of CMF.  Some of you might remember that Marcia Douglas and I were attacked by elements of the twitterverse when we live tweeted Purdy asking the government to block VPNs since they allow access to Netflix U.S. (undermining his then boss Rogers’ Shomi service).  We were a little nervous about what Purdy might say this time but he stayed on message.  He talked about what Vice Media is looking for (lots of content but you better be under 30 if you’re going to pitch them) and how it is intending to grow (go global!).  So if you were under 30 that would have been an optimistic speech but pessimistic for the rest of us.

Day 2 was much more optimistic and interesting and suggested options for my Netflix list, which was its own version of discoverability.  There was a terrific panel on International Production with execs from TV2 in Denmark and NRK in Norway.  They talked about protecting the creative and sacrificing financing if it means watering down the creative.  They have had very successful productions that were created specifically for their market but because of the focus on creative excellence did very well internationally.  Titles like Borgen, Lillyhammer and the show that sent everyone searching until Kevin Wright found it on Netflix Canada – Heavy Water Wars – have done very well telling domestic stories.  We tried to find The Legacy but it doesn’t appear to have been licensed in Canada (yet?).  Corrie Coe and John Young used Orphan Black as an example of a show that was created for a specific domestic audience (Space) but has done very well internationally.  Young alluded to challenges when dealing with other financiers (i.e. Syfy) but in that case they’ve been successful.  Corrie also shared an optimistic stat.  Her goal for Canadian dramas is now audiences of 1.5 million (what she referred to as Saving Hope numbers) when she used to be happy with 750,000.  This is a mark of a successful industry and we should be proud.  So we don’t need to move to Scandinavia to create compelling domestic content that sells around the world – right?

The conference ended with a bang of optimism with a closing keynote from Kenyatta Cheese.  Besides having a very cool name, he supports online fan communities (like Orphan Black and Doctor Who) by providing them with content and he gives great talk about it.   His phrase is ‘the Audience has an Audience’ which basically means that the online fan community creates content and experiences that other fans engage with so a smart strategy is to support those communities to help your show grow.  While consumers do want control over when and where they watch a show they do not want to watch alone so turn to online fan communities.  If any producer ever wonders if there is value in supporting fans he gave the selling point – in the U.S. Orphan Black doubled its viewing audience season over season in part due to the online fan community telling all their friends that they needed to watch this cool show and giving examples of why.

To get more of the full picture of Prime Time, check out my Storify of the tweets:  https://storify.com/klashton/prime-time-in-ottawa-2016.  If there were no tweeters it didn’t mean that it was a boring session, but sometimes it did.

Next year’s Prime Time will be February 1 – 3, 2017 but in the meantime there will be a Prime Time Any Time day during the Academy’s Screen Week (March 7 – 13th).

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Kelly Lynne Ashton

Kelly Lynne has over twenty years of experience on the business side of Canadian film, television and digital media as an entertainment lawyer.She took a slight departure to produce children’s digital media. When it was time for something new, moved back to business affairs but now in film, television and digital media. More recently she discovered that all along her true calling was as a Canadian media policy wonk. Now she assists clients with research projects, policy and strategy development, government and government agency submissions and social media consulting.
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