Friday, June 29, 2007
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Most people carry a cell phone these days, so the "We can't reach them." or "We aren't able to call for help." complication always seems a little convenient. Most often it's solved with 'No Service' on the call display or whoever is trying to be reached is 'Out Of Range', but both are feeling more and more like a cheat or a cop out. Oh yes, and when the battery is dead or dies all of a sudden...unless the character's been on the cell all movie and using up the juice.
And speaking of call display, for ages you could have a character pick up the phone and get startled by a surprise caller. You know, like when they gasp and drop the phone...or turn away and quietly hiss: "I told you never to call me here!" Nowadays, audiences pretty much presume characters will have call display (at least on their cell phones), and should expect them to check who is calling. But rigging and shooting a small LED screen to see just a name or a number or even Unknown Caller is a bit of a deal...and not quite as dramatic. Especially if the character is like me and usually just ignores it after seeing who it is.
These days, most documents, pictures, photos, etc. are sent via email with attachments. However we've all seen the threatening note or incriminating evidence or document show up by fax. Who even sends faxes anymore? But for the old schoolers, it's more 'dramatic' for the document to slowly spool out for a character (and viewer) to see than some mouse clicks while staring at a computer screen. Not to mention its also a bit of a deal to rig and program a computer to perform said actions on cue - the fax machine gag is relatively easy.
Answering machines. Now this one's a biggie. I mean, my mom still has a 'push the Play button' model that creaks and whrrrs and needs a cassette tape, but EVERYONE else I know has Message Manager or Talkmail or some variation thereof. This makes the plot device of leaving the warning like "Pick up, Laura. Pick up! Well, I hope you get this message...the killers your husband!" (for the killer to hear and/or erase), or the exposition message where the audience gets to hear the crucial information (either as it's recorded or when its played back) a lot more difficult to execute with voicemail. Especially since not just anybody (a friend, the detective, the killer) can access and play back a voicemail.
I've been involved with two rewrites recently that included answering machines and faxes, plus no one in either script had a cell phone. Now I acknowledge these were rewrites of movies that have been in development for many many years, or are based on books written years ago, but regardless, they aren't period pieces. They're supposed to be set in the present. But if an entire plot turns on someone hearing a message or not able to be reached by phone...what to do, what to do?
It makes writing plot a little more tricky, but the revolution must start now.
Any other examples of communicating 'tried and trues' that have to go or are no more?
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Borrowing a term coined by DMc, for me it was the final scene of the second episode...in a hospital room, friend of the family Bill stands over 13 year old Shaun. The teen lies in a coma, his neck broken from a surfing accident. They're about to pull the plug. Bill withdraws a pet cockatoo from inside his coat and tells it to "...kiss Shaun too while we're being stupid." The bird pecks the lad on the cheek, and Shaun wakes up.
Off Bill's stunned reaction, we go to closing credits as the song 'Staring At The Sun' from TV On The Radio plays underneath (okay, it's not the clip, but as close as I could find)...
Ooooo...the Commit moment.
And best use of a song in a TV show this year.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Overall CD sales have plummeted sixteen percent for the year so far -- and that's after seven years of near-constant erosion. In the face of widespread piracy, consumers' growing preference for low-profit-margin digital singles over albums, and other woes, the record business has plunged into a historic decline.
The major labels are struggling to reinvent their business models, even as some wonder whether it's too late. "The record business is over," says music attorney Peter Paterno, who represents Metallica and Dr. Dre. "The labels have wonderful assets -- they just can't make any money off them." One senior music-industry source who requested anonymity went further: "Here we have a business that's dying. There won't be any major labels pretty soon."
Could that mean there might not be any major TV production companies soon? Anyhow, the decline is due primarily to CD sales decline, much like the demise of conventional TV is attributed to perceived declining TV show viewership. And so what was the music biz's response?
Just a few years ago, many industry executives thought their problems could be solved by bigger hits. "There wasn't anything a good hit couldn't fix for these guys," says a source who worked closely with top executives earlier this decade. "They felt like things were bad and getting worse, but I'm not sure they had the bandwidth to figure out how to fix it. Now, very few of those people are still heads of the companies."
More record executives now seem to understand that their problems are structural: The Internet appears to be the most consequential technological shift for the business of selling music since the 1920s, when phonograph records replaced sheet music as the industry's profit center. "We have to collectively understand that times have changed,"
All sound familiar? I'm sure it does. Networks are still pinning too much on creating 'big hits'...take away the latest flavour of the month (American/Canadian Idol) and there's no such thing anymore. Just a lot of little hits...with the term hit needing to be redefined. But the paragraph that struck a chord with me was this...
Despite the industry's woes, people are listening to at least as much music as ever. Consumers have bought more than 100 million iPods since their November 2001 introduction, and the touring business is thriving, earning a record $437 million last year. And according to research organization NPD Group, listenership to recorded music -- whether from CDs, downloads, video games, satellite radio, terrestrial radio, online streams or other sources -- has increased since 2002. The problem the business faces is how to turn that interest into money. "How is it that the people that make the product of music are going bankrupt, while the use of the product is skyrocketing?" asks the Firm's Kwatinetz. "The model is wrong."
Yes there's been fragmentation and gaming and the Internet but I think most of us know that lots and lots of people are also still watching TV shows, just at different times and in different ways.
So the music biz recognizes the problem is the system and the way it is/was structured, but what are they going to do about it? HERE's what some of the music industry leaders are suggesting, including ad-supported music, consumers become retailers, labels change their stripes...
"The notion of a company that is only in the business of selling recorded music is an artifact of the physical world. In the next year or two, as physical growth continues to lag, the labels' pain will just get so great, they'll move to a more rational approach: The smarter way for music companies to work as venture capitalists, where they help to support bands through recording contracts, tour support, licensing, helping them artistically, essentially as business partners. If the artists succeed, the labels succeed. In a digital world that's the only way to align the interest between the label and the artists and it's been surprising to me how slowly the industry has been to
...and peer to peer goes legit....
"Tens of billions of songs are downloaded for free by people all over the world, representing a huge market - not in changing their behavior, but in creating businesses around that fact. People that provide access to networks are the logical place for payments to be administered: Today you pay your cable company, not only for bits and bites, but for services like HBO or a tier of basic cable. It's in everyone's interest to administer payment there, with royalty payments made from pools of money collected based on stat rates or voluntary rates. You'll have Time Warners and Comcasts and Verizons working with content companies to convert these marketplaces without trying to change customer behavior."
Again, these are the kinds of ideas and suggestions that are constantly heard in TV circles these days. And now we have a recap of the Green Report from this years Banff (sorry couldn't link it)...
The future of TV? On-demand, and Online
By James Lewis — Created 06/22/2007 - 8:13am
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the final session at this year's Banff World Television Festival, billed as a critical look at ‘The Future of Television,' was that it ended with an hour-long talk about the Internet.
The panel discussion aimed to address three key questions raised by Nordicity Group Ltd.'s Banff Green Paper 2007: The Future of Television in Canada, a document prepared in conjunction with the "town hall" session closing the festival. Those questions: Is the broadcasting system collapsing? Is the new broadcast paradigm a "zero-sum" game, where the real winners come from outside the regulated system? Finally, what does broadcast regulation and policy look like in this new world?
Some on the panel were blunt when addressing the first of that trio. "I'd say about 20% of the industry is toast," said Telus Corp. VP of broadband and video policy Michael Hennessy, later revising that estimate to as much as 35%.
Hennessy urged producers and programmers to fight back by identifying and winning a core audience. "At the end of the day everything is becoming so discretionary," he said, adding that those services catering to a special-interest niche audience will likely find enough support to survive.
Norm Bolen, executive VP of content at Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., agreed the future was uncertain for television: while the current crop of TV services appears to be holding its own - more so on the specialty channel side than conventional broadcasters - "there's no guarantee that it won't collapse," he said.
One of the biggest challenges: keeping the traditional programming rights model intact in the Internet era, including Canadian broadcasters' lucrative right to simulcast US programming. "Some of these threats are killers for our business model," Bolen added.
While some might hold out hope for Canadians to rebuild their presence on emerging platforms, here the picture is equally grim, according to Bolen. "What are we doing in these spaces? We're getting crushed," he said. In the case of such platforms as video on demand, "Our content is not seen as the premium content that's going to drive these services - it's just not," he said.
But CRTC associate executive director of broadcasting Scott Hutton, who appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage earlier this year  to provide insight into how technology is changing both public and private television, vigorously defended the Canadian broadcasting system and its future prospects.
"Our industry is certainly not collapsing, and anyone who's seen our regulatory decisions lately and our reports to the minister will see that," Hutton said. "Our industry has been faced with a number of threats since we've been here, and we've always survived and adapted and succeeded."
Lucie Lalumiere, VP and GM of interactive at Corus Entertainment Inc.'s television division, said that not only is YTV competing with Canadian-produced kids content online, it has to contend with foreign unregulated Internet content as well. "I do believe we're challenged, but there's lots of opportunity," she said.
And Lalumiere challenged an earlier assertion by Marcela Kadanka, senior director of arts and entertainment at CBC Television, who said that specialty broadcasters will suffer most from the emergence of video on demand and other competing discretionary services. "We believe that specialty is much better positioned than conventional," Lalumiere said.
But Directors Guild of Canada general counsel and director of regulatory affairs Monique Lafontaine argued from the audience that the respective bids for CHUM Ltd.'s assets tendered by CTVglobemedia and Rogers Communications Inc. - both of which offer a healthy premium over independent valuations - prove there is value left in conventional television.
And while nearly all panel members believed that broadcast regulation needs fine-tuning, there was some disagreement on what form it should take. "Some people, like the Ted Rogers of the world, are going to win big, because they keep taking risks," said Telus' Hennessy. Others, however, "are hoping that the regulator will come in with a new fund or something to save them."
Valerie Creighton, president of the Canadian Television Fund, admitted that Canadian producers and broadcasters do enjoy "a protected environment," but added that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, she said, "we're lucky to have it," and international producers envy the support their Canadian counterparts receive from government.
But the CRTC's Hutton warned that the environment that nurtures Canadian producers will likely have to change. "You [will] probably have to move from protection to promotion," he said.
Although he agreed that all stakeholders must try to create a new model together, Mario Mota, senior director of broadcast relations and research at the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, rejected the notion that producers were protected and coddled by the system to a greater extent than broadcasters. "We know the economic value of simulcasting and simultaneous substitution [to broadcasters]," he said. "Maybe we need to throw that out.
"Take a real hard look at the Canadian content in deep prime time - it's almost nonexistent," Mota continued. "Canadian broadcasters have an addiction to foreign programming, particularly US." But, he added, it's not because Cancon is inferior: "When all the elements are there, I'll put Canadian content against any in the world."
Hennessy admitted that the quality of Canadian productions has increased dramatically. "The stuff that we're funding is as good as the stuff from the US and UK," he said. "It's not ‘I can tell that's Canadian' anymore."
"The stuff that we're creating here [in Canada] is compelling, it's ground-breaking," echoed marblemedia partner and producer Mark Bishop. Case in point: marblemedia's own Shorts in Motion: The Art of Seduction, which won nominations at the Canadian New Media Awards, the International Interactive Emmy Awards, and the Banff World Television Awards.
Shorts in Motion is the type of homegrown content that Canadians can excel at in a brave new multi-platform world, Bishop said. "It was built for mobile, but it was able to go online, it was TV content, it was theatrical," he said.
Corus' Lalumiere also pressed for more tax shelters and credits for funding Canadian productions, which make it more compelling for private broadcasters to satisfy the demand for capital left unfilled by the limited number of publicly funded programs.
Alliance Atlantis' Bolen, meanwhile, urged all sides in the debate to get together and hammer out a cohesive plan for addressing new technologies and opportunities. "We need a strategy, [and] we don't even have a process for creating a strategy," he said. "If you don't know where you're going, you're going to get there."
But Hennessy cautioned against building reliance on external funding into such a plan, and noted that dialogue is good, but doesn't accomplish anything in and of itself.
"You've got to start thinking like people in a market, because there's not going to be anyone to help out for much longer," he said. "The ones who are sitting in the room, talking, are going to be toast."
Anyway, you should get the picture...there are clearly a lot of similarities between the two situations. And I believe the TV industry will ultimately learn and benefit from the music industry's woes. And though networks and media conglomerates may be able to survive in the short term by merging and repackaging programming to fulfill their mandates and continue to supply something to the consumer, in Canada especially they've got to start 'producing' a lot more original product and then releasing and distributing it within the changing parameters of a new business model and different industry system.
So please let's not spend the next two years only forming committees and undertaking studies and generating more reports. Puhleazze. Otherwise, we'll be reading a version of this Rolling Stone article in Playback in a couple years.
Yes, there needs to be a plan..but less talk, more rock...
Monday, June 25, 2007
Many years ago I co-wrote and directed my first TV movie, a family fantasy drama called Guitarman. And it came with all the the requisite Canuck caveats...it was my first movie, it was the first indigenous TV movie from Saskatchewan, in fact it was essentially the first movie most any of us on the crew had done. It turned out okay but looking back I'd say it was a good high concept idea....but tentatively executed. And I recently saw a review of it on IMDB that had those words we hate to hear but hear so often: "...for a Canadian movie, it's not bad."
But that's not my point. My point is that when it went to air in its first window it was on the CBC (second window was on Superchannel, now known as Movie Central). And it got reviewed in all the major papers and media outlets. More importantly, it got a John Doyle review. I remember almost running to buy the Globe & Mail the day of its airing to see what 'he' would say. This even knowing that way back when that Doyle seemed to have a thang for knocking that which was on 'the CBC'.
He murdered it. Ripped it to pieces. Basically ended the review by calling it stupid piece of crap. Okay, maybe not those exact words but the overall gist wasn't favourable.
I remember feeling a little like I'd been hit in the gut. Because you see, I, or at least my movie, had been totally trashed by John Doyle.
But the odd thing was another part of me was saying: "Hey! I was totally trashed by John Doyle! Yes!"
Not to say it didn't sting a little, but as far as I was concerned it meant I'd arrived or was legit or something because I'd actually been reviewed. (And I will say this, at least the criticisms were based on what was on the screen...not whether or not it was Canadian.)
So what happened next? Well, I flipped open the Toronto Star and there was a glowing review for Guitarman calling it a magical family drama - 3 stars out of 4.
Lesson learned? To each their own...it's just someones opinion, and hopefully an honest one.
Since then I've been reviewed numerous times. Some were good...others, not so much. I learned to take it all with a grain of salt and soon decided that the most important 'reviews' I got were those from Joe Viewer (not Joe Clark, Joe Viewer)...people who watched not because they had to but because they wanted to. And if those regular folk ever said they found something boring or confusing or ineffective or what have you, that's when I'd take the reaction to heart and vow to try to make it better or more entertaining next time around.
The mass viewing audience...that's your real target --- not one or two people at the papers. That being said, I'll still take someone writing intelligently and critically about the business and our shows and calling it like they see it over nobody at all...just spell my name right.
Hell, just be happy to even get reviewed...it means you got something made.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Will: How did your Banff 2007 go?
Al: Our Banff was an absolutely awesome experience. Our team got amazing results, most of which I’m not going to share with you on your fabulous blog for a mix of confidentiality, superstition and general tight-lippedness. But I can say we had one new show ordered, pitched a ton more, got a lot of promises and interest, created and nurtured a bunch of great new relationships, and have more follow up than I think I can handle.
I got reamed out by Jeff Alpern (which was cool because Jeff is an absolute pro and a champion), brainstormed with the Style Network, got to watch the fabulous Shelley Eriksen in action, had a wonderful dinner with some members of the Writer's Mafia and my team, and was blown away by Ben Silverman’s speech. Banff is essential. It’s the highpoint of our development year.
Will: Where is Smart Woman Survival Guide at these days, and what does its future hold?
Al: We’re just shooting the last few episodes of season three right now, and will be finished production in August. It’s no longer an impossible to define lifestyle hybrid as it’s a full blown scripted comedy and our cast and crew have surpassed expectations. We had Michael Kennedy (of Little Mosque on the Prairie fame) come in to direct for three episodes and he re-introduced us to our show. He showed us what was possible and it blew our minds. We go to air August 11 – and we have to capture a big audience to get an order for more episodes – so check your listings and watch the damn show and tell your friends to watch the show. It’s funny. We’re on the verge of a big international distribution deal and all my superstitions are kicking in, so more on that, or not, later.
Will: I know you’ve been very involved with the Canadian Film Centre over the years. Why do you think it’s important to the Canuck Film/TV industry and is it managing to stay relevant and up with the times?
Al: In my not so objective opinion, if it weren’t for the Canadian Film Centre we wouldn’t have an industry. I could rant about this for hours. What the CFC does is allow people the space to commit to their careers, and to then get the industry behind them in that commitment. While you’re at the CFC you are mentored by the industry and have access to the experience and teaching of dozens of industry mentors, and get a very rigorous education and set of challenges. Coming out of that experience, most people know what is expected of them by the industry and have begun to master the skills to deliver. And they have built a community around themselves who will support them in their career.
Will: You’ve worked primarily out of Toronto for most of your career. Any thoughts ever of making the move to Los Angeles? If not, why do you like working in Canada and navigating the minefield that is Canuck television?
Al: I have worked primarily out of Toronto but I spent almost five years criss crossing Canada where I spent up to 150 nights a year in hotels from Yellowknife to St. Johns. And then spent three years doing the same thing all thru Europe so I had 8 years where I traveled a lot. Prior to that I wrote features out of Los Angeles and learned everything I know about writing but hated being in L.A, and missed everything that’s great about living in Canada. Once my kids got old enough to miss me I quit traveling and set up shop in Toronto.
The minefield of Canadian television can be petty and stupid and incomprehensible but it’s a life that we choose so I have to take some responsibility for that choice. I’ve worked on 24 productions in seven years at Showcase making what I think are some of the best series made in Canada or anywhere. Being a part of shows like Trailer Park Boys and Slings and Arrows and Rent A Goalie is as good as it gets. As a producer I’ve produced seven series in seven years and have a hit show on right now so I have nothing to complain about. I’d love to make the money available in the US but we have a good life here and I don’t have to worry about my kids’ safety or health care the way I would in the U.S..
Will: What energizes or inspires you creatively?
Al: I’m very inspired by the people around me. Melanie, my kids and my friends are very inspiring. I’m inspired by positive energy. I already know all the reasons why everything won’t work and why every idea is a bad idea, so even a drop of positivity can go a long way.
I get inspired when I listen to other people and get connected, and I get really inspired when I know they are listening to me. I get inspired when I’m trusted to do the job. My best work always comes out of trust. Nothing kills creativity more than micromanagement. The reason most of our television sucks is because it has all the life and inspiration micromanaged out of it. There’s nothing more inspiring than another person’s faith, believing you can do something when you’re not sure you can.
Will: What are your personal pet peeves, in work and in life?
Al: I can’t stand cruelty or injustice or disrespect of any kind and I get quite bent out of shape about it. People can be cruel in this business and use “its only business” to justify intolerable behavior. That’s bullshit. “It’s only business” always means – “I’m going to screw you now and break all of our agreements.”
When creative people pour their guts into a project they deserve to be treated with respect and honor, regardless of the opinion on their work. I sometimes forget that and don’t show proper respect to the people I’m working with and that is my greatest embarrassment.
In life I like things to be impeccable so I can’t stand any kind of physical mess. I spent five years living with my ten year old in a cancer ward and he has a compromised immune system so I’ve become something of a germaphobe. I can’t stand it when people are careless with germs. We were in the hospital during the Sars crisis and it showed the danger of being careless with germs and the kind of hysteria that can result. The film and television industry in Toronto still hasn’t recovered from the impact. I take a lot of crap for my germaphobia but it kept my son alive. He's made it to ten when he might not have made it to five.
Will: Favorite Movie of all time.
Al: The Magnificent Seven (and the original, The Seven Samurai)
Will: Favorite TV Shows of all time
Al: The Flintstones, Gilligan’s Island, Twin Peaks, early Sopranos, The Shield, Sports Night and TSN’s Sportscentre.
Will: If you hadn't become a writer/producer in television, what do you think you would have done with yourself?
Al: I would have studied architecture and furniture design and hopefully been practicing both skills. But knowing what I know now, if I could do something else I’d go to business school and start businesses. I’m loving the business side of the industry more and more. And I have a not so secret dream to have a tree farm and hope to one day.
Will: What the hell's a tree farm?
SONG&ARTIST? - "If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al."
Friday, June 22, 2007
Because it makes me smile...
Thursday, June 21, 2007
"It's all about good design."
Okay, now we're getting to the nitty gritty - most excellent Creative Consultant and Canuck TV producer Al Magee digs into two topics of interest to most of us...the making of quality drama and future of Dramatic TV and Feature Films in Canada.
Will: So what’s Al Magee’s take on what is necessary to make another long running Canadian hit like DaVinci’s Inquest or Due South or Cold Squad or Traders or Street Legal (Regenesis also seems heading down that road)?
Al: I have no secret to a hit one hour show or I’d be rolling in them, but I do have a bunch of opinions, some earned and some purely speculative.
The only hit one hour show I worked on was Slings and Arrows and I was a spear carrier to Bob Martin and Susan Coyne’s genius. (Ask producers Niv and Danny, they’ve got the touch.) I think Regenesis is a success because it is unique, it is rigorously produced by a strong production company and team and it has committed support from its broadcaster. That combination has allowed the show to mature and gain momentum and build an audience. It takes time, (more than one season) to discover a series, to learn from the audience and to process all of that learning into stronger characters, stronger stories and a stronger series design, which payoff with audience.
On the speculative opinion side – popular television is made by people who live and love television, not by people taking a break from feature film careers. Which is not to say you can’t do both. Slings was loaded with feature people, and certainly the actors, the producers and the director have great success in features, but they also have great experience and respect for the craft of television story telling and dedicated themselves to that. So too do the team at Regenisis. The industrial series that we make never hit too big in Canada because they smell so inauthentic. It’s not so much fun to watch a guy from a salad dressing commercial dressed up like an Alien spewing gibberish on a set full of flashing lights. But those series give us all great experience and keep us alive and make it possible to develop an industry. And sometimes they make it harder to develop an audience. (And by the way that is not a reference to Stargate, which is a favorite of mine, great television made by an incredibly talented group of people.)
Can we get a one hour series that takes off the way our half hours like Corner Gas and Little Mosque can? Maybe, and maybe if the one-hours follow a similar route as the half hour hits – authentically Canadian, not pretending or aspiring to a US primetime aesthetic, and giving the audience something accessible that is not available on a network simulcast. It takes a perfect triangle to get any series right but it’s more important on a one hour because of the pressure on the writing to be sustainable. So the triangle of a skilled writer with a strong point of view, a producer who knows how to work with writers and broadcasters and banks, and a broadcaster who is unflinchingly committed to the series is essential. I’ve had first hand experience on each side of the triangle and at various points in my life as a writer, as a producer and as a broadcaster, I’ve been the one to screw things up. It’s not one of those triangles that works with two sides out of three. It takes all three. So can I revise my pretentious label and call it not the Perfect Triangle, but the Perfect Storm.
The world doesn’t need another TV series the way it needs cures for what ail us, so the making of TV series is an illogical enterprise from the get go. In my twenty some years, all of the successes I’ve been a part of have had perfect symmetry on what I’ll now call my triangle theory. If you’ll permit me the temporary pretensions of naming my own theories:
Slings and Arrows had a head writer in Bob Martin with a unique imagination and singular point of view. It had producers in Danny and Niv and Sari who are very creative, know how to lead projects, how to marshal resources, how to bridge production and broadcast, and it had a team at Showcase that was maniacally committed to the enterprise. Speaking purely from my experience on that show from the broadcast side at Showcase, we were rigorous and respectful with the development, the creative team completely engaged with us for full debate, and as a result the project maintained one singular point of view and a commitment from everyone to stay on the same page regardless of the pain. Hence there was no pain. That takes great commitment and leadership from all sides which we don’t often experience.
On the creative side, the cliché that it’s all about good writing is only partially true. It’s all about good design. Good design requires the committed input of the writer(s), the producers, and the broadcaster. The broadcaster has to come to the project with an actual tested set of information about their audience not just wacky guesses and misinformation and insecurity that will undermine everyone’s confidence. From the writers it takes a commitment to the project, to the ongoing development of the project, to the responsible integration of all the input, good, bad and otherwise, and to managing their own sense of attachment to their best ideas that just won’t fly without getting pissy and passive aggressive and throwing their hands up. It’s toughest on the writers and we have a lot of extremely talented writers who can write brilliant material, and we need to support and develop those writers to gain the skill to manage their own temperament and attachments so they can apply their talent to what may at the time appear like the most undermining of notes and conditions that get placed on their work.
We need leadership and we need to commit to each other. We need leadership from the broadcasters and I’m feeling new inspired leadership from places like the CBC, and Showcase and certainly from Canwest (I’m simply not in communication with CTV so have no first hand experience.) We need leadership from the creative community, in the form of stories that the capable and qualified writers are dying to tell, and we need leadership from the producers to create workable relationships with the writers and showrunners and create partnerships with broadcasters to develop the vision collectively and get buy in from all the stakeholders. Mostly we just need to work harder and smarter and get off the sense of entitlement that sabotages our work when the going gets tough.
We also need leadership and collaboration from the agents. All the writers are represented, and we now live at a time of great opportunity and it’s time for agents and producers to work collaboratively to get projects made. We have some incredibly good smart agents in Canada and they need to take a more active role in getting material out there, in creating opportunity for their clients, and for helping their clients to develop their individual business plans and careers. The agents that take a leading role in the development of their clients work and working relationships are about to find themselves very handsomely rewarded.
We all aspire to HBO standards, but we rarely actually do the heavy lifting on the series design to get to an HBO standard. HBO does a few things that we can learn from. Their series take place in worlds that we don’t have access to but have a strong curiosity about. Worlds that we have not seen or rarely see on television. These shows are written and produced by creative people with strong points of view, with a voice, David Chase, Darren Star, Alan Ball to name a few. These writers have a story they want to tell. They don’t 'just' want to make a TV series. The network process at HBO is rigorous – and respectful. It’s not about beating up on the creative people, it’s about providing the kind of leadership that a production needs from a broadcaster – real audience information, guidance toward that audience, and committed feedback toward an agreed upon set of creative and business goals, not a random collection of opinions from people trying to impress their bosses and protect their jobs at the expense of the project. It takes commitment to the rigor of completing the design of the project, which includes ongoing exploration of theme, character, story, the world, the franchise and all of the ways these ideas can be communicated within the box that is being built around the series premise.
All that said, there is some exciting material in development and production at the networks right now and I’m very optimistic about what’s about to come out.
Will: Awesome answer, even if I happen to like aliens spewing gibberish. Okay, we’re mostly about TV here at Uninflected Images Juxtaposed, but you’ve done a fair amount of work on a lot of Canadian feature films. What are some of your favourite experiences and where do you see the feature film industry here in Canada going in the future (as in, what needs to happen for it to get on the public’s radar, at least in English Canada)?
Al: I’ve been lucky enough to work in a creative capacity on over 50 produced features. I have a few films out right now or coming out that I story edited: Lucid, Poor Boy’s Game, Fido which are all good films. My favorite experience was Highway 61, for almost a year me and Bruce and Don spent our nights in a crappy apartment on College Street beating out a story and revising scripts. That was huge fun and being a part of Bruce’s ascent to the throne was a blast. I was a producer on Sam & Me, Deepa Mehta’s first feature, which was the fifth film I’d worked on with Deepa, and to be a part of the launch of that kind of talent is hugely rewarding. I’ve worked with Clement Virgo a couple of times and it’s a challenge to serve him well and I like that challenge. And I’ve recently committed to an emerging super star Chaz Thorne, who wrote Poor Boy’s Game, and just directed his first feature from a script we worked on called Pushing Up Daisies.
What has to happen to get on the public’s radar? We have to give the public a few hits. Bon Cop Bad Cop was a step forward. I have huge hopes for Fido, and if not Fido then the next film that its director Andrew Currie makes, he’s a huge talent. But the system we have is not a workable system. Wayne Clarkson (at Telefilm Canada) is doing everything he can to make it workable but as an industry we’re not doing enough to help him. I see three obstacles:
One – the creative feedback system on feature films in development is intolerably stupid and does not work. The writing gets micromanaged by people and institutions taking a destructive approach to the notes. Most of the notes are written by readers who are frustrated wannabe writers trying to break into the industry.
Two - the screenwriters are not rigorous enough in their approach to the writing. We have very talented and skillful directors and producers and crews, but the majority of our feature writers are by and large unwilling to do the rigorous intellectual work demanded by long form drama. I know because I’ve worked with a lot of them. There is a sense of entitlement that we all have the right to make features and people use that to let themselves off the hook (now it feels like I’m ranting). In my opinion the best Canadian long form drama is on CTV where the television process is more workable and produces more consistency.
Three - the system is not self sustaining and focuses on emerging talent so it is mostly an industry of first timers. The senior people gravitate to television or move to the U.S.. We need emerging filmmakers to keep it fresh but our system also has to sustain careers and we need to be watching the fifth and sixth feature films of our writers and directors. And not just the four or five filmmakers who are the exception. And it should be noted that those great Canadian filmmakers (Bruce, Atom, Mr. Cronenberg etc.) are also exceptional people with remarkable talent, skill and commitment.
To get on the public radar we just have to make better films and we have to be more respectful of the audience.
Will: Phew...wow. Thanks for all that, Al. Much to mull over and a lot to take to heart.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Will: One final question about Smart Woman Survival Guide...you've been working on the international roll-out with Tom Gutteridge, Fremantle Media North America's former CEO and now head of his own shop, Em2. Why did you choose to work with Tom? Is there more interest in the finished programs or in purchasing Smart Woman as a potential format?
Al: Tom Gutteridge is a very inspiring person and he knows everyone in the world of television. When Tom was CEO of Fremantle he was looking for a producer to partner with on Fremantle formats for Canada. He asked around and was lead to me. We hit it off and were working on a deal to produce his formats in Canada when suddenly he left Fremantle. We stayed in touch and when I had a rough cut of Smart Woman I sent it to Tom and he committed to it right away. He took us thru MIP in October and introduced us to dozens of potential partners both distributors and format producing partners. We’re still working on that.
We went quite far down a road with an American broadcaster for both the sale of the Canadian episodes and the production of American episodes and just recently learned that they have new management and are using the money earmarked for our show to bolster their bid for Nascar. I was a bit tender for a few days after that but now have to laugh. I’d put my money on Nascar in America too. International buyers went nuts for the show and we have offers from the biggest international distributors with interest in both the completed shows and the format. It has been a fast and overwhelming education for me and a journey that is really just getting started and I’m struggling to keep up with the momentum on Smart Woman Survival Guide.
We’ve just delivered our second season, which we shot in HD and upgraded everything that we could upgrade and the show is amazing. We’re shooting the third season right now.
Will: What are your short and long term goals for your company, Magee TV?
Al: The long term goal is to be thought of as a go-to trusted innovator of new ideas and formats with a proven value to our broadcasters, our creative partners, our producers and creative teams. Our goal is to be a top of mind team for delivering impactful series. The television industry is super fickle and I’m always trying to create or find the next great idea that is going to disrupt the flow and create the next set of opportunities.
Short term, I’m working on a national mentoring project to bring new talent into the television industry, and want to be the company of choice for emerging talent to pitch new ideas and we’re committed to providing a nurturing and rigorous creative environment. Short term we’re looking to replace the three series that we just completed. And short term I try to get thru the week without dropping the many balls I juggle.
Will: Have you reached a pinnacle now where networks are coming to you with ideas or for ideas on a preferred basis? Or is it same as it ever was and about grinding it out?
Al: It varies. I’ve had networks come to me with ideas and that is a welcome boost of confidence and obviously great for business. But I grind it out like everyone else. Ideas and economies are what is most important to broadcasters and there is very little loyalty to individual producers or companies so we all tough it out every day.
Will: Has your pitch process changed over the years? The Al I know is an awesome pitcher. How did you come by your skills and what are your top pitching pointers for newbies?
Al: Thanks for the compliment. I’m a conversational pitcher. I don’t make a big deal about staging a pitch I just work it into conversation. I got my pitching skills by working in development for 20 years and living by the rule of “you only eat what you kill.” If I don’t sell I don’t eat so I’m just another version of Willie Loman.
But seriously – I take Jan Miller’s pitching course every year. I do. And I take notes, and I reframe all my current pitches when I’m in that course and I consult with Jan. I have great success that way. Pitching is about creating opportunities for people. I learned a while ago that nobody wants to be sold, they want to solve their problems and realize their own dreams. Nobody gives a shit about your crappy project they’re too busy trying to solve their own problems and dreaming their own dreams so if you and your project can create an opportunity for them – they’ll seize it, and if not, they won’t. If your pitch doesn’t solve a problem or create an opportunity for your target then it’s just talk.
I always do the homework. I keep track of what the broadcasters are looking for, how they’re planning, what they have on air now, how their current schedule is performing and how they are competing and I look at how my projects and ideas can create opportunities for them to meet their goals.
Will: How much writing do you actually still do? Is that an enjoyable process for you?
Al: Now I mostly write notes. Some days I write good notes, other days not so much. I don’t write too many scripts any more. For my lifestyle shows I write the formats, the storylines and do a final pass on the host on camera scripts. On my scripted shows I work in the writers room with the writers and spend time on each iteration of each script but the heavy lifting is done by a head writer and writing team. At Showcase I’ll have up to 12 series on the go at one time so all my ideas tend to go into those series and I don’t have much interest in writing after spending half the day on all that material.
I do like writing, more in the room with other writers than alone. And I have a writers heart so I tend to write ridiculously long emails and letters and notes. I can type faster than I can think which is a curse some times.
Will: What personality traits and/or skills do you think best serve you in your work? What qualities do you look for in your staff, or in creative people you work with?
Al: I value integrity, impeccability and creative. But if people aren’t impeccable with their word then I don’t really care how creative they are. I’m a neat freak and a germaphobe so they have to be able to roll with that. I can create a fair bit of chaos so I like order and dependability around me so they need to be able extremely organized. I work with a lot of self described bossy women. I like people to be outspoken and fearless and clear about their communication. I try to balance out the dreamers and the doers. I can get a lot done but mostly I’m a dreamer. Toni Miceli our VP is a doer. She could run a small country.
And I can’t stress enough – the quality of being able to keep your word. Some people think they can get away with being flakey but they can’t. Many of the key people on our team have been together for eight years because there is such a high degree of trust. Production is hard enough without having to worry about trusting the people you’re working with.
Will: Note to self...tone down my flakey!
TO BE CONTINUED...
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Next we delve into the reality/lifestyle shows Al's been involved with over the years - his assessment of this form of television and where it could be going is pretty sweet...
Will: Designer Guys was a huge international hit and one of the first real personality-driven lifestyle shows, certainly from/in Canada at least. Did you find Chris and Steve to fit the show concept or was it created around them, and how were you subsequently able to so successfully re-invent them into two more series?
Al: Designer Guys was built around what Steven and Chris could and could not do on television. We followed their professional decorating process and got them on camera and tried to do something fresh where character and personality were as much a part of the story as the presentation of information and the makeover. We found Steven as a columnist on another series and when we had lunch with him he brought Chris and the two of them together were hilarious.
Shaping additional series around them (e.g. Design Rivals) was a challenge because the audience loved them as the Designer Guys. Change was difficult and not instantly embraced. But what Chris and Steven have that can work in any format is a genuine love for people. They really care and want to help people make their dreams come true and that comes thru in everything they do.
They’re beautiful human beings and it shows on camera.
Will: Yeah well, they always struck me as having waaay too much fun, but that's just me. Now, you've been involved with a significant number of food-related lifestyle programs. Are you a foodie yourself? What do you see as the new face of food lifestyle?
Al: I am a bit of a foodie. My partner Melanie is possibly the best cook in the universe. Seriously. I get unbelievable meals several times a week. Then I eat fish sticks and chicken fingers with the kids when its my turn to cook. I’ve been lucky that with association with the Food Network I’ve been treated to a lot of incredible meals. Who is the new face of food lifestyle? I never get tired of Nigella’s face, and Ms. Delaurentis of Everyday Italian just might be the most beautiful face on television. Canada does need a new face for Food Network though they are doing great work in new forms of documentary and reality shows that transcend the need for a face. They’ll do something surprisingly innovative very soon.
Will: Love By Design was an interesting show, and perhaps your first foray into the hybrid lifestyle series? Do you think it may have been a show ahead of its time?
Al: I’d love to think it was a show ahead of its time but maybe it was just as show that didn’t have a time. It was a huge pain to produce and got all tied up in weird US deals and became a bit of a nightmare. The actual format was a lot of fun and working with Richard Yearwood was a step toward working with actors in a lifestyle context. It was my second attempt to blend character with lifestyle and to tell a personal story as well as a process story. It all seems a bit cliché now but when we were making those shows there were no models to draw on and we took a lot of heat for what we were trying to do.
Will: The landscape of lifestyle programming has changed significantly in the last five to ten years. What are some of your observations? How have you managed to stay on or even ahead of the curve? Where do you see the opportunities being, especially for new writers and producers?
Al: Lifestyle is at a real turning point right now. In Canada our celebrities are from the lifestyle world. I’ve been mobbed out in public when in the company of my hosts, and have walked in malls with some of our biggest drama stars and not been noticed. The challenge right now is the cookie cutter models that we’re forced into. Almost every lifestyle show tells the same story beat for beat and the broadcasters seem reluctant to try new models. Instead they add gimmicks that get repetitive quickly.
Right now we have makeover shows, expert intervention shows, skills elimination/competition shows, walk-in-my-shoes shows, and those get spiced up with varying degrees of ambush and gimmick. But these formats all have a bankable narrative structure around an easy to follow process that delivers a satisfying result. It was decorating, then construction and now it’s real estate that is super hot and we see that the property shows are rating very very high.
Documentary is interbreeding with lifestyle to create some fun new formats. I like shows like Family Restaurant and must admit to watching the Superstar Challenge shows. I don’t know anyone who watches the paranormal shows. I’ve got some ideas built around music, and fresh talent, and what I really want to do is re-invent the old school magazine show. My attention span is only getting shorter and as I watch more and more You Tube I’d rather watch a magazine show with five or six short stories than one long story in a predictable format with a predictable ending.
If I’ve stayed ahead of the curve it’s by designing shows around unique talent.
Even Fixing Dinner which on one level was a fairly conventional show, was designed around the unique talents of Sandi Richard who had a real sense of mission around saving family’s dinner hours. You can’t make that stuff up. There are opportunities for emerging writers and producers but the mistake they make is they underestimate how hard it is to make these shows. By episode six the talent become divas, and stay divas until the third season, and you have to generate all of your content without the aid of a room full of screenwriters. The budgets are tight and getting tighter and there is so much choice out there it’s a challenge to build a good brand and keep it on air. I’ve been lucky. And I’ve worked with some excellent production executives at the channels. But I’m always looking for the next big thing.
Will: Speaking of the next big thing, you've gotten a lot of press about Smart Woman Survival Guide and how it is a new kind of drama/lifestyle hybrid series. Tell us how the project evolved. Is it true W Network was reportedly so happy with season one they greenlit season two and three before one went to air?
Al: First – yes, W was so happy with the season one series that they greenlit the second season at our wrap party, before we had gone to air. It was a very brave and bold move by our broadcaster and I’ll forever be in the debt of Joanna Webb and Maria Armstrong and Vibika Bianchi for creating such an unparalleled opportunity. The quick turnaround showed real faith and support and allowed us to keep our cast and crew and facilities and maintain a very very very low budget for the second and third season. It was a major moment – Maria Armstrong our production executive went to the stage to toast the cast and crew and said, “oh by the way, we’re ordering 26 more episodes so get back to work.” There was about five seconds of silence then a hundred people went absolutely apeshit. It was very cinematic. That kind of faith creates a crushing pressure that we’re trying to live up to. Fingers crossed!
The project evolved out a coffee meeting with Maria Armstrong and Vibika Bianchi of W. We had them to a “meet the team” meeting at our office where they asked for a “survival guide” for women. I pitched three or four ideas and they went for the behind-the-scenes idea. They liked the idea of a show within a show and having characters that could search out answers, as well as present information. It was a bit of a bear to develop and I worked with Ramona Barkert a young writer that my agent Glenn Cockburn had been pushing, and my producer Morgan Drmaj, then we brought in Claire Ross Dunn as a senior writer and got a green light. It changed about four times in the writing process to settle on what it became in season one.
After season one aired we got so much conflicting feedback on what worked and what didn’t work that our heads were spinning, and truthfully remain somewhat spun. For season two we removed a lot of the on screen graphics and simplified what remained. We lost all the sound effects and direct to camera demonstrations. We did a great deal of work on the characters and worked with Scott Sedita a Hollywood acting coach who wrote a brilliant book called The Eight Characters of Character. With Scott we revised the design of four of our seven characters and that has made a big difference. We also fixed up our sets and brought in some new directors so we didn’t kill our main director Stephen Hall who did the hard work of setting up the look of the series.
Will: Ah yes, the most awesome Stephen Hall. So how do you finance your shows? Do you have to muck through the Telefilm/CTF and/or Tax Credit forms like the rest of us, or have you as über producer found a simpler way of getting the money?
Al: I muck it out like everybody else. I’ve yet to find the magic bullet for financing. I use license fees, tax credits, distribution advances, and every government fund available. I’m looking for answers to the financing questions. We never get the paperwork from the broadcasters in time to have the cash to shoot so I run a huge personal line of credit on my house and teeter on the edge of bankruptcy all the time.
Will: Unfortunately, that sounds just like a typical Canadian producer...he's human!
TO BE CONTINUED...
Anyway, continuing on with my discussion with Canadian TV producer and Creative Consultant extraordinaire...Al Magee
Will: One of your first in-house jobs was as director of development at Sunrise Films in Toronto. What did that experience teach you about story editing and writing? And about running your own company?
Al: That was a very formative experience. For four years very early in my career I was exposed to Canadian and US networks and cable channels and got to work with all the best writers in Canada of the late 80’s, people like Tony Sheer and Jay Tietel, Janet MacLean, and Charles Israel, and I worked on all of Deepa Mehta’s early films. I learned the process of series development on Danger Bay. And I got to work very closely with Paul Saltzman, who was very generous with information and remains a good friend to this day.
What did I learn about running my own company – probably things like how to manage a development slate, how to manage people, and how to stay solvent. I learned how to run a company from Clark Donnelly at Westwind and how to lead teams from observing John Gill my awesome boss at Showcase.
Will: You recently commented the best gig you ever had was as development and production supervisor for CBC Regional. Why was it so great? What did it teach you?
Al: That must be a misquote, my best ever gig was my Showcase Network gig, but CBC regional was a great gig too. When I worked with CBC I had the opportunity to spend five years traveling to every corner of Canada and working with creative teams in all the regions. I learned a ton. I worked with Joe Novak the regional director at the time and we put 30 series on the air over five years. We developed a regional schedule from nothing.
It was during the early and mid nineties just before Speciality television launched so a lot of what we did was the first wave of non fiction lifestyle television in Canada.
Will: The CBC gig subsequently led to a raft of consulting in Scandinavia. What was it like working in Europe? What lessons could we learn from how they do things there?
Al: The big lesson from Europe was that all audiences really crave homegrown hits. I worked on a show in Finland called Tutto Jutto, a crazy cross between Lawrence Welk and the Newlywed Game. On Thursday nights 3 million of the 5.5 million population watched Tutto Jutto. It’s no wonder that our own hits have such an idiosyncratic homegrown feel.
And the professional sensibility in Europe is the reverse of here; the producers and broadcasters don’t take themselves too seriously, but they take the work and their responsibility to the production community and the audience very seriously.
Will: You’ve been playing this Canadian film/TV game for a long time now, and have done way more ‘behind the scenes’ work than just about anyone I know (I’ve never seen someone with so many story editor/creative consultant credits). How did you get to a position of being that ‘go to’ guy, especially for Showcase and the CBC? Are you hired separately by each show, or do you have an overall network(s) deal of sorts (as I discussed with Hart Hanson and his deal at Fox)?
Al: Tough to answer the how I became the ‘go to’ guy without sounding like a dick but I’ll try.
I sweat every single job and do it with a neurotic perfectionism. I always worry that every job will be my last. I have a few skills that serve me well. I understand how narrative works and I see the patterns in an individual story. I know how to listen. I can carry the equation of a particular story in my head for as long as it takes to get it written, and can hold the writer accountable to that story in a way that empowers the writer. I love and respect writers and have a real affection for other people’s ideas and a respect for what drives them to create projects. And I have a facility for negotiating the sometimes conflicting needs of the writer, the producer, and the broadcaster.
If I had to give one answer, I know how to channel a story out of the mind of a creator and coach them on how to complete it to the satisfaction of the all the people they have to answer to.
Will: That's an AWESOME answer. Okay, let’s stroke Trailer Park Boys for a moment. Were you involved with that series right from the get go? How much did you help shape it? And does that involvement extend to today (and if so, how have your ‘notes’ changed over the years to keep up with the times and the ever-shifting television landscape)?
Al: I got involved in Trailer Park Boys at the pitch stage. That was Norm Bolen’s baby and he sent me out to Halifax to coax the series out of the guys. We spent three days locked in a room and came out with a series. I channeled it out of (showrunner) Mike Clattenburg. The genius of Trailer Park Boys is all Clattenburg and his team, I helped get it out of his head and into a form that would support it as a television series. And I had the huge privilege of then working with them, and with Rachel Fulford at Showcase on every single draft of every script and every rough cut and fine cut of every episode.
How do my notes help shape it? I work as a promise keeper for Mike and make sure I know what the goals are at the beginning of the season and then help the team achieve those goals by shaping story, responding to scripts, and offering ideas on character and story throughout the season. On the first season I’d write pages of notes on every script and edit. On the seventh season I send a half page list on all the stuff that made me laugh out loud. My season seven notes are more like fan mail than broadcaster notes; those guys are very expert now.
Will: How much involvement did you had with more recent scripted series like Slings And Arrows? How do you think it turned out? Anything you’d suggest they try differently knowing what you know now?
Al: I worked with Tara Ellis on season one of Slings and Arrows and functioned as the writer’s story editor. There were three super talented writers and us at Showcase so I did a lot of work on the set up of season one, finding the story model and working with Bob Martin to balance the on and off stage story telling.
In season two and three I gave notes on all the scripts and edits, but those later notes read like love letters. As soon as it knew what it was, Slings and Arrows was effortless and brilliant. Rough drafts read like finals, and rough cuts screened like picture locks. Bob Martin is a frigging genius.
Will: Notes that read like love letters...awesome. Shifting gears slightly…Best. Concert. Ever. Okay, you can have more than one but which stand out?
Al: Best Concert ever – that’s a crazy question. Supertramp at the CNE in 1978 or 79, the Crime of the Century Tour with the trippy train film. Pink Floyd at Ivor Wynne Stadium in the mid seventies – first time I did acid. Jeff Healey at Clintons before he was a Jeff Healy.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Sunday, June 17, 2007
If you've been in this business a while in Canada, or even if you haven't, you've probably worked with Al. He's not only one of the busiest, but is also one of our most sought after talents over the past couple decades or so. From his drama creative consulting credits like the Showcase originals; Trailer Park Boys, Kenny vs. Spenny, Bliss, Naked Josh, Slings & Arrows, and Moccasin Flats...to his story editing of dozens of features including Canadian indie hits CUBE, RUDE, ECLIPSE, HIGHWAY 61, ROADKILL, and BLOOD & DONUTS.... Al is one of the 'go to' guys.
Magee is also president of Magee TV Inc., a television production company dedicated to creating innovative new formats for international audiences; recent series as a creator, writer and producer include The Smart Woman Survival Guide, So Chic, Partydish, Design Rivals, Fixing Dinner, Designer Guys and Love By Design. And if that wan't enough, Al has been a longtime consultant and mentor with the Candian Film Centre.
This email chit chat goes on a while, but it gives a lot of insight into the mind and methods of one of our country's best...
Will: First off - set the scene…where are you situated (as in do you work out of your company office or the Smart Woman’s Guide production offices)…what are you presently working on, and what’s on your desk?
Al: I am situated in the “world headquarters” of Magee TV, which is also the production office and studio for Smart Woman Survival Guide. We have a bunch of industrial spaces scattered throughout an old tent factory on the corner of Logan and Dundas in Toronto. Two are fully outfitted as studios, two are set up as corporate and production offices, one is a big green room and kitchen to serve the crew, another is dressing rooms and space for the actors and the wardrobe/make up team, and lastly an art department shop.
I’m sitting in what we could call my office, a very minimalist 13 x 13 boardroom containing a round Saarinen table, a 42 inch flat screen, a phone and my Crumpler bag full of scripts and rough cuts. On my desk I have half a Subway sub, a stack of paper, and a jug of hand sanitizer. Confessions of a germaphobe. My awesome assistant Neil Huber is just outside my door in what used to be my boardroom, we just switched, and theoretically we share an office but there’s too much crap on my desk so I work in this meeting room.
Will: So, like, what are you exactly? I know we all have to do a little bit of everything to survive up here in Canadian TV, but how do you introduce yourself…as a creative or a business man? Writer? Producer? Creative consultant? What hat are you wearing today?
Al: That’s a tough question to answer so I usually avoid answering it. Today I’m Executive Producer of Smart Woman Survival Guide, and President of Magee TV Inc. But a week ago I was also Professional In Residence at the Canadian Film Centre, and until March 31/07 was the Creative Consultant at Showcase Originals, a post I’ve held for 7 years. I’m retiring that post to focus on production. I am a writer but I don’t do the hard work of writing much anymore. I used to call myself a Script Evangelist, but some people mistook that for something religious and confused my zeal for narrative as a zeal for something else.
I wear a lot of hats, writer, producer, story editor, executive producer, creator, consultant, mentor, coach, trainer, industry ambassador, evangelist, and champion. I try to make stuff happen so I might start just introducing myself as a “Possiblist.” (Though people will probably think I’m trying to be the next Reveen or Chris Angel.)
Will: Did you have a mentor coming up in the business? Or someone that you admired or emulated?
Al: I had a couple of great mentors. The most impactful is Norm Bolen, who showed me how to do most of what I know how to do. Norm is a television God. Joe Novak now of Joe Media gave me a lot of opportunities. Clark Donnelly at Westwind was a real mentor both professionally and personally and created a lot of opportunity for me. Back in the 80’s I got to apprentice with Lionel Siegel a Hollywood pro who relocated to Canada. He was a show runner on Six Million Dollar Man, and Bionic Woman; and I also got to work with David Doritort who ran Bonanza. They taught me a lot. Debby Bernstein used to look out for me when I started out and I always appreciated that.
I always admired Steve Jobs for the way he disrupted our relationship to technology and made it accessible. I am a loyal Mac user. I read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill when I was young enough to take on its lessons and not be cynical, and one of the things the book suggests is an imaginary counsel of people you admire from history. So I’ve used this idea to various degrees of success finding inspiration from the courage of Martin Luther King, the creativity of Salvador Dali, the wisdom of Robert Kennedy, the mad persistence of Francis Ford Coppola and the good comic fortune of Jerry Seinfeld, to name a few. In our industry I’ve always admired Wayne Clarkson, and Bruce MacDonald, and Danny Iron.
Will: You are one of a handful of Canadian producers who is successfully producing both lifestyle and scripted material. What are the differences in working in the two genres for you? Are there similarities? Do you prefer one over the other?
Al: The difference is – lifestyle is way harder and pays much less. Scripted is more fun and pays way more. I guess that’s why we do so much lifestyle. The main difference is in the production cycle and production model. It’s possible to conceive, pitch, produce and deliver a lifestyle series in about 20% of the time it takes to make a scripted series.
What I love about lifestyle is the speed of production, the amount you get to learn about a subject, working with the talent, collaborating with the broadcasters, and that you have to invent the story all the time. There are real similarities in that it is still all about telling great stories with strong characters. I don’t really have a preference. The goal is always to make something that will present a fresh creative challenge for myself and our team and have some impact for our broadcasters and audience.
Will: Talk a little about the development process at Magee TV. Are all ideas generated in-house or do they come from outside/freelance producers and writers as well? Is it the same for both the lifestyle/non-fiction and the half-hour scripted areas of the company? What are currently your development priorities?
Al: Our development process is really taking off. We have a new Director of Development, Shelley Gunness who’s job it is to find material, take pitches, beat the bushes for interesting talent and projects, and manage the day to day on the projects that we have in development. In the past I’ve generated all of our ideas, but I’m bored with the noise in my head and am much more interested in other people’s ideas right now. So we have two documentary series in development with the super talented Rick Green, Creating Creativity, about creativity, and How to Cheat at Poker, about how the science and rules of playing poker impacts everyday life. We have a project that is so close to getting a green light at Food Network Canada that I’m afraid to jinx it. We are developing two lifestyle series with proven talent that we have exclusive arrangements with. And we’re preparing to pitch two scripted comedies.
I’m also very interested in new voices and mentoring emerging writers and producers and am setting up a system to work with new talent. We’re looking for high impact lifestyle series for women, ideally something for Slice and something for the W Network. And we’re looking for half hour scripted comedy for Showcase and CBC. Last month we had our first D-Day, a very rigorous full day brainstorm with 18 of our team going thru an idea generation clinic and 7 idea games. We got about 200 good ideas out of that and really transformed the creativity at our company. That first D-Day was subtitled “The Hidden Talent” project. I’m looking for a theme for our next D-Day.
Will: How about "The Prairie Talent" project? Next question…very important: fav band/musician of all time?
Al: My favorite band of all time is the Rolling Stones. Perhaps a bit of a cliché but I first saw them in the 1970’s, followed them thru the 80’s and 90’s, and saw them again in Ottawa in the summer of 2006 where they were even more impressive with age.
Will: I believe we first met way back when in Toronto (’94?) when you were consulting on our mutual friend Stephen Hall’s show ‘Utopia Café’ and you guys invited me to observe a focus group test of the program. I totally dug that experience of spying through the one way mirror on the participants viewing and criticizing the program, though it could be pretty hard on the ego (or Stephen’s at any rate). Do you ‘test’ all the shows you are involved with and how much cred do you give to the process?
Al: I go along with the testing of shows if the broadcaster wants to test them. We used to do a lot of testing back in the nineties at CBC and those tests were sometimes useful. We transformed Utopia Café as a result of the audience testing. I’ve attended tests in the USA where the audience gets little dials to register their enjoyment. They spend the first ten minutes figuring out how to use the dial and always seem to err on the red side of the meter, which is a bad thing when you’re the one being tested. If the person running the test knows what they’re doing, it can be useful. If they don’t it’s a destructive nightmare unlike no other and you may as well become a dentist.
Will: Whhhhrrrrrrr! Ahhhh!
TO BE CONTINUED...
Thanks Al. And thanks to Caroline for supplying some of the questions. More to come….please stay tuned.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Or if it was ending my stint at Banff with a conversation that began: "Now, I know I shouldn't be the one to tell you this..." --- words you don't ever want to hear, especially when they're regarding a gig you had high hopes for...
Or my lovely but not that old eldest daughter talking very seriously about wanting to move to New York, or Vancouver, or back to Toronto...
Maybe it been too much jazz lately, and not enough rock n' roll...
Or perhaps it was just the veal --- but to steal a page from the book of McGrath, this Daddy needs to take a little break.
I know I'm sitting on a monster interview with smokin' busy Canuck TV producer and Creative Consultant and Mentor To Many not to mention all round good guy Al Magee...and I owe Julie at Rouge Wave a post from her 'overcoming adversity in this biz' tag...but for right now, it'll just have to wait.
More after the jump.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
If you aren't a natural 'performer', pitching can be a difficult, tension-filled ordeal, especially at events like Banff where you generally get only 10-15 minutes with network or company execs...people whose days are PACKED with dozens of pitch meetings like yours. And most times nothing fruitful comes from it on the day (though I suppose if they shout "I'm in!" and plop down a development deal contract in front of you then yes, you could take that as something positive, but that usually doesn't happen). You're really just hoping to just strike a chord or create some interest or at least make a decent impression.
Here's how most go: there's the introduction or reconnection...the casual "how ya doing/been" chit chat that dovetails into the "What are you working on these days?" question. And so you start your pitch (or pitches, as it may be). They listen. They nod. There may be some questions (a good sign), but most times you hear the "That's not really right for us." OR "We've already got something like that" shutdown.
But if at any point the pitch recipient gently touches your arm and says "Hang on a sec" and then reaches into his/her bag for a notebook and begins to WRITE SOME THINGS DOWN...and then says something like: "That's interesting, please continue" or "I'd like to see more on that one" --- you should chalk that up as a small victory.
Because I've taken A LOT of those meetings over the years and most of the time, they don't reach for the notebook.
Today someone did.
In other news, the St. James was crowded and LOUD tonight...tough to converse. But met some more friends/fans of the blog, and Epstein and McGrath are a pair to be reckoned with...very entertaining lads, they be.
And at the end of the day, it's just a toy.
So it goes...
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
First and foremost, it's the only time in ten visits to the Banff TV Festival I didn't bring my rain jacket, and it's been pouring, a lot...listened to some panels, like the one with The Doyle (and The McGrath called it all "bullshit")....caught up some old friends and colleagues (The Mohan, The Raskin, The Leiren-Young, The Rouloff, The Hansen, and The Harvey)...gained some Insight from The Murray...put some faces to names like The Callaghan...apparently I've graduated to the old guard camp as several newbies sought me out to 'pick my brain'....the niche of one's blog is an important thing, to some...gaped at the mess that is the main street construction but then had to chuckle when a gas main broke and all the restaurants on the west side of the street had to send away customers because they couldn't cook any food (prompting a 7pm mad rush to the eating establishments on east side of the street)...but mostly played good dad and spent a good part of the afternoon and evening hanging with The Eldest Daughter...
So it goes...
Sunday, June 10, 2007
So in today's Toronto Star I've got a short article about ending TV series and how it relates to the series finale of The Soprano's. Writing to a word count was a brand new experience for me and I thank Garnet Fraser at the Star for that opportunity. It was trimmed down slightly so a 'Director's Cut' is below. Copy editors...whaddya gonna do?
In The End It Doesn't Matter (How It Ends)
What a ride! After more than seven years, The Sopranos glorious 86 episode run wraps up this Sunday evening. But the question squirreling through every entertainment newspaper and blog and website out there right now is how will creator David Chase bring his epic story to a close? Will Tony live or die? Will Phil take over New Jersey? Will Carmela and Tony stay together? Take it from me, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever happens happens.
I’ve played a role in ending a couple of TV series. One was Psi Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal, a syndicated one hour episodic that ran for four years in the late ‘90’s. The other was Mentors, a series that had a five year run on Family Channel here in Canada. And when it came time to 'end' both series, that’s when and only when we thought about 'how' to conclude them. That’s how television series works. You map out the beginning, but you really have no idea how long a road your series might travel or where it might end up.
Mentors followed the adventures of two teens that, with the aid of a time machine, brought forward famous individuals from the past to inevitably teach them some life lesson. But no one from the original cast or creative team was still with the series. We brainstormed for a weekend and decided to come full circle. The teens brought forward the historical figure from the pilot, Albert Einstein, but this time to resolve a mystery and reveal he was in fact the father of one of the lead characters. See, with time travel, you can do that kind of stuff.
Psi Factor was about a team of scientists investigating paranormal phenomena. Only a couple of us remained from the original incarnation of cast and creative, and like Mentors, there was no master plan. We came up with a case involving regressive hypnosis therapy for one of our investigators. It basically was an excuse to blow up the team’s secret lab. But based on a directive from the studio to leave some doors open in case another network wanted the series, we had the investigator wake up at the end of the episode leaving the viewer to wonder whether it really happened or was just a dream.
I know, a cop out --- but whaddya gonna do? Of course our dreams weren’t allowed to be anywhere near as surreal as some of Tony Soprano’s, but we still had the investigator head off to see a therapist…pronto!
At any rate, with both shows we had only a few months notice of our cancellation so we just concluded the series in the best way we saw fit based on where our characters and the evolution of various storylines were to that point.
David Chase, creator and overseer of the Sopranos, has had to deal with no such wango tango. His hit series redefined television drama, and is the only pay TV series to ever win a Best Drama Emmy. Without the Sopranos we probably wouldn’t have Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Dexter, The Wire, Brotherhood, and many more. Not to mention a spillover effect onto cable and conventional networks with Rescue Me, The Shield, and Nip And Tuck. Its influence is felt even up here in Canada with Intelligence, Durham County and Regenesis.
So nobody was going to tell David Chase when and how to end his groundbreaking show. He’s built to his conclusion on his terms and at his pace. That said, no studio or network ever wants to completely say goodbye to a successful franchise. There’s talk of a feature film, specifically the idea of a prequel with Tony as a young boy a la Godfather II. Only time will tell.
Nevertheless, Chase couldn’t have known how The Sopranos was going to end way back when it began. For example, at the beginning of the third season, the actress who played Tony’s mother Livia, Nancy Marchand, unexpectedly passed away. As integral as she was, the series had to go in a new direction without her. If Chase had an ‘ending’ in mind involving Livia, he had it no more.
TV series is not some self-contained entity with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. Movies? Yes. Novels? Yes. TV Series? No. They’re an organic, constantly evolving creature --- and the end is discovered, not predetermined.
So will Tony meet his maker in the series finale? Or will he survive only to be left broken and alone? Neither conclusion might feel satisfactory, but don’t judge a series on how it ends. Relish instead in the ride thus far, and give thanks to David Chase and HBO for blessing us with some of the finest drama ever to grace our TV screens.
Remember, when it comes to television series it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey --- even if it takes us through the messy moral swamps of New Jersey.