If social media presence is a bona fide measure of success, Chateau Laurier is simply killing it. The web series has just crossed the three million views line on Facebook—in just two months—and shows no sign of slowing down. Couple that with 65,000 followers on Facebook … clearly, creator-producer-director James Stewart and co-writer-producers Emily Weedon and Kent Staines know what they’re doing.
What the trio has created in just three episodes of content—Season 1 of Chateau Laurier can be seen on the show’s Facebook page—is a sumptuous, gorgeous tale of a couple on the cusp of their arranged marriage taking place against the backdrop of Ottawa’s historic Chateau Laurier. Hattie Bracebridge (Kate Ross) is accompanied by her aunt (Fiona Reid) to the storied establishment where they meet Mr. Mutchmor (the late Bruce Gray, in his final role) and prepare for Hattie’s impending nuptials. But with one errant glance and a few steps away from the lobby, Hattie goes on an adventure that leads to a major twist.
We spoke to creator-producer-director James Stewart about Chateau Laurier, why it’s become a smash hit online, the challenges of filming in a hotel and what’s next for the project.
Why do you think Chateau Laurier has resonated so much not only in Canada and the U.S. but around the world?
James Stewart: I wish I knew the secret sauce. I think there are a number of story reasons and a number of technical reasons. I think the story reasons are people love period dramas. That whole fanbase, with Downton Abbey ending, there is a real hunger for it. I think, specifically in Canada, there is a real hunger for it. As John Doyle pointed out, because of NHL hockey there is no Murdoch Mysteries and no Frankie Drake Mysteries and we landed right in the middle of that. For a technical reason, we decided to launch it as a web series in three-minute episodes and I think that makes it highly shareable and highly viewable. And, once viewers watch it, they’re hooked and take another until they’re done in nine minutes. They say that brevity is the soul of wit. I think brevity is the soul of the Internet.
Facebook is highly shareable and that demographic, women, older women and girls, they are all on Facebook. My mom is on Facebook, my aunt is on Facebook.
How much of a learning curve has it been, for you as a creator, making something in short-form for Facebook?
It absolutely is a learning curve and it changes every year. I did a short film called Foxed and it did the film festival circuit in what I would call a traditional way of distributing something. Then I said, ‘What else is there?’ I put it on iTunes. Then, I was out of outlets for it to create revenue of any kind and I put it on Facebook. It got five million views. It was nuts. Why is that? Because people share, share, share on Facebook. It’s very easy to hit that button.
When we came to Chateau Laurier, I think I was able to really harness all of my social media followers. The Foxed Facebook page has 30,000 followers and I have about 80,000 Twitter followers. We were originally going to launch Chateau Laurier in the fall. We were going to throw a party and have a launch event. I wanted to do it at TIFF Bell Lightbox and they were busy and then Bruce Gray passed away. There was a celebration of his life and then about a month later I said, ‘OK, let’s launch it.’ At that point, we already had 30,000 followers on Facebook.
Give me the background on Chateau Laurier. You grew up in Ottawa in awe of this building. How long has this series been in the works?
I’ve always wanted to do a series on Chateau Laurier and kind of peel back the layers on Ottawa the good. It has a very dangerous history. In the 1800s it was a very dangerous logging town and then it became the capital and all this power and prestige was dumped into this kind of frontier town. Then they opened the Chateau Laurier right in the middle of it and the Titanic went down in the same month. The owner of the hotel went down on the Titanic. The furniture for the opening of the hotel was on the Titanic and they had to delay the opening. It was supposed to open in April and they opened in June in a very subdued way. They didn’t throw a big party. I’ve always known that, liked that, and if I’m in town and don’t stay with family I’ll stay there.
And then, a few years ago after Foxed, I thought, ‘I want to do this show. We have a bit of momentum.’ So we got some BravoFACT money to do a short, a sort of proof of concept for a primetime drama series. We did that and then decided to launch it as a web series because that has it’s own cache and is a genre now. We had very little money. It looks very expensive because we shot it at [the Fairmont] Royal York.
It looks stunning. Not only is it impressive to look at but you really pack a lot of story into just under 10 minutes.
Thanks. Arthur Cooper shot it and we really just phoned around and asked who was available and wanted to do it. Everybody was a pro, including the cast. Fiona Reid and Bruce Gray and Kate Ross and Luke Humphrey … we had a connection with them all and they loved it. We shot overnight in the lobby of the Royal York. I wanted to film it in Ottawa, but logistically we just didn’t have the money.
Did you have a traditional writer’s room with yourself, Emily and Kent?
No, we didn’t. Essentially, Kent and Emily wrote the screenplay that became the web series. It was more of a writer’s booth. The love story was based on an idea that Emily came up with.
I saw a picture of you, on social media, at the CBC. Are you actively pitching Chateau Laurier as a series?
We are. We are talking to everyone. Plan A is we are going to broadcasters to say we have a hit on our hands. We have an unabashedly Canadian story, we have a great cast, we have established our characters and they have three million fans. And we’re going to do Season 2 of the web series where we introduce two more of our lead characters in the Mutchmor family and have some great drama. And if we get a primetime series the web series will serve as a prequel.
Season 1 of Chateau Laurier can be seen on the show’s Facebook page.