Christina Jennings, Chairman and CEO of Shaftesbury, founded the company in 1987 and has led its emergence as one of Canada’s leading production companies (who also give great prizes to a certain website’s charity auction). Shaftesbury series include Murdoch Mysteries, The Listener and Good God. She spoke with me a couple of months ago about her company, career, the job of a creative producer, and the rescue of Murdoch Mysteries.
Shaftesbury has a very diverse lineup – how do you choose what projects to pursue?
It always comes down to passion. Life is too short. It takes an awful lot of time from a lot of people in our company to get a project realized so you really have to love it and be prepared to stick with it. It isn’t easy. It’s getting more challenging. So whether it’s a kids project or one hour series or half hour comedy or a digital property or even a factual show, it’s got to resonate with us. Do I have to love everything as the head of the company? Probably not, but I do. I know everything we acquire and why we’re acquiring it. It’s got to be passion.
The other thing we tell creators and writer is that even if we love your project, we don’t want to take it on if ultimately we don’t think we can help them get it made, again getting to “life is too short.” I can think of all sorts of examples that we just loved but when we sat down we said to ourselves we’re not going to be able to get this thing made right now in this current climate, with these broadcasters, or with the current package. So we are selective and that’s our process.
Has your business model changed given the changing TV landscape? Does something like Totally Amped signal a new area for Shaftesbury?
There’s no question and I say it every single day: I am having to train myself and we as a team are having to train ourselves into approaching content as content and being somewhat platform agnostic. Totally Amped and State of Syn are two examples. They started life as completely independent. One is going out through iTunes and now online through various broadcasters around the world. It’s a whole different way of looking at it.
Now people bring us a project and we do all our steps of: do we like the project, do we like the team who’s involved with the project, do we think we can actually get the show made. And then we say to ourselves, where’s the best place to deploy this project? Six months to a year ago, projects would come in here and we’d say which broadcaster do we sell this to? Which broadcaster in Canada, and the States, and Europe? We don’t do that anymore. We ask ourselves where could we launch this perhaps faster, where could we incubate a project where yes, it’s a smaller budget, but we get to try something out. That’s how we’re approaching things now. That’s not to say that a huge part of our business isn’t projects that we acquire for television, because that is the core of our business.
How has the co-production model helped with getting projects made? Do you see a downside?
We’ve probably been doing co-productions right back from our feature days and moved right into TV co-productions, so it’s probably 20 years we’ve been doing them. If I look at Murdoch Mysteries, while that’s not a treaty coproduction it is a broadcaster co-production. We sure couldn’t make Murdoch Mysteries without those UK partners. The plus side there is that those partners are able to help us get the show made in Canada.
If I think about shows that the British have brought us, years ago we did Diverted, about the planes on September 11 that were diverted from New York and the story of how many people ended up in Gander, Newfoundland. Well, that started out originally as a British project, if you can believe it. A British writer, Tony Marchant, heard the story on British radio and wrote a script, and in the end we got involved and it became a very Canadian production.
You look at each one differently, and I think if there’s a downside it’s that there are only so many time slots for any of our programming across whatever genre. In primetime there are only so many hour long time slots, for kids’ shows there are only so many. You have to be mindful of the fact that if a minority Canadian coproduction is sitting in one of those coveted slots, that means that that’s gone for a Canadian show to come along. The only downside is it makes a bit more competition.
Kirstine Stewart (head of CBC TV’s English programming). I know Kirstine and she heard the news and she reached out immediately. She knew the show and she knew it worked for her audience, the CBC audience. We are so thrilled with what Citytv did after all those years, and 5 years is a really long run for anybody, but we believed, and CBC did too, that there’s’ a lot of life left in Murdoch. There are a lot more stories to be told. What’s going to be quite exciting when Murdoch does go on the air on CBC is the fact that it will be a national Canadian audience that will get to see Murdoch. Citytv was limited in terms of audience. We did terrific numbers for them, but we were limited in that they’re not a national broadcaster. So we’re pretty excited by that, that people in Canada who’ve not seen Murdoch before might actually finally get to see it.
It does seem odd that when it had good ratings it was cancelled anyway. Do you think it says something about where a Canadian show fits on a Canadian broadcaster?
No, I don’t, I really do think projects have their time and when it launched on City it was never the perfect fit. Every network has a brand, every network has a demo it’s going after, and Murdoch didn’t quite fit. But you know what, City had great numbers, it was doing quite well for them, but at a certain point you have a brand. It was a great five-year run, it was its time to leave City for all sorts of reasons, and now it moves to this different, more national platform on the public broadcaster. I look at their fall lineup and Murdoch fits very nicely. I give Kirstine that credit for reaching out.
When developing a project, what is your role as producer in the creative process? How do you work with writers to create a series, and then throughout a series?
I am a businesswoman running this company but I am also a creative producer. That’s how I started and that’s still what drives me. But I do believe that it is crucial to let the creators have their voice. A creative project is a very delicate thing. There are a lot of voices in our business. There’s the producing voices, broadcasting voice, the partners that are involved have opinions, sometimes you have foreign sales people that have opinions, and in the centre there’s this writer, the creator, holding onto the vision. I very much see our job as trying to help the writer do their best, support their vision.
How we work with an experienced showrunner might be different from how we work with a newcomer who might be looking to us creatively to provide guidance in terms of how do you construct a long running series, how do you answer to network notes. Part of that is just experience. So how we as a company deal with the creators depends on the project. We could all do a fantastic job producing and directing but at the end of the day it really is about that vision and that voice. Once you get it right you can, like Murdoch, have a series go into its 6th season because we found that voice and had that vision. It’s a delicate industry we have in terms of shaping the creative.
How did you get your start as a producer?
I grew up in a very creative family. My father was a writer – a journalist, not a television or film writer – and my brother is a journalist and all sorts of members of my family are writers, and my sister is in the music business. I grew up in a family where it was about being creative, it was not about growing up to be a lawyer. That’s what we lived and breathed. I started in different careers that weren’t necessarily creative but in one I owned a restaurant with some family members and started meeting film and television people and I go back to your first question: I fell in love with their passion. They had these dreams and they wanted to tell their story and it was so important and they were so passionate I just fell in love with that passion. I thought if I can bring my business skills and all of that to the table and work together – I got the extra benefit that it was a creative endeavour. In a way it ticked all the boxes personally.
What advice would you give for somebody who wants to be a producer?
One of the things I’ve realized about what I do is that it’s a multifaceted job. There’s the business aspect so you need to understand business, you need to know how to put the deal together and you need to understand various people’s positions in the financing of a show, so if one of your partners is looking to recoup their investment you have to figure out how to do that.
The amount of homework you have to do, it’s a tough business. You need to know if you have a project like who’s done anything like the project you’re trying to do before you, and have they succeeded or failed. Are there any projects like the one you’re talking about out there. Who’s doing what. You have to be constantly tapped in to your competitors. That’s your homework and you’ve got to do your homework.
It’s the ability to manage a disparate group of people. You’re dealing with writers, broadcasters, money people, you’ve got actors, you’ve got the international marketplace, there’s just a lot to manage. People skills are pretty high on the list of things you need in your bag of tricks.