Lisa Klink, a self described 'mid-career' TV writer (Painkiller Jane, 1-800-Missing; Earth: Final Conflict; Voyager) has a new blog over at What It's Like and is presently penning an episode of the new Flash Gordon series. Lots of good thoughts and insight into the TV series writing process, including her take on US shows that shoot in Canada (of which she's worked on several). Most all of what she says below is true, and though it can be irksome for a lot of us up here already, Klink cleanly and efficiently lays out the realities of working for these types of shows...
I’ve worked on several shows that were technically Canadian productions, that shot in Canada, but with a writing staff in Los Angeles. “Flash Gordon” is one of these as well. It all comes down, as most things do, to money. It’s cheaper to shoot in Canada, particularly when the foreign exchange rate is in our favor. There’s also a tax credit and some direct funding available from the Canadian government for shows that meet its Canadian content requirements.
According to the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office, the “individual who controls and is the central decision-maker of the production” has to be Canadian, as do a majority of the key creative personnel. There’s actually a point system: two points for a director or screenwriter, one point for the highest paid actor, etc. There are limits on how many non-Canadians can hold a “producer” title. That’s why I (an American) have been a “creative consultant” on my last several staff jobs. The WGA allows its members to work on Canadian productions through a waiver system. I also had to join the Writers Guild of Canada and pay dues there.
You may ask, if it’s a Canadian show, why not just hire Canadian writers? Some do just that - there are plenty of all-Canadian shows which air in Canada. They don’t tend to play as well in the U.S. Their style is just different. To snag an American audience, production companies turn to American writers. Not to mention that the talent pool is simply larger in L.A. This is where people who want to work in TV tend to congregate.
If you work on a Canadian show, do you have to move to Canada? Generally not. There are some shows who ask their American writers to relocate for the duration of the season, but most will keep a writing office in L.A. The upper-level producers will usually fly back and forth, and sometimes, the writer of each episode will go to Canada for their shoot. When I worked on “Missing,” the Canadian executive producers stayed in Toronto (where we shot) year-round. The U.S. writing staff went up there for a couple of weeks at the start of the season to discuss story and character arcs and lay out the first few episodes, then stayed in L.A. the rest of the time.
It basically works, but the geographic separation of the writers and production team is unfortunate. You never really get to know most of your colleagues. Some you never even meet. A kind of “us vs. them” mentality can develop. This happens to some degree on all shows, I think, but it’s worse when you’re not working face to face. I got spoiled on my first job: “Voyager’s” writing office and soundstages were on the same lot. On other shows, I’ve missed the ability to walk on over to the set anytime I wanted and watch them shoot, schmooze with the make-up people, raid the craft service table. And I think the cast and crew like having closer access to the writers. Sure, they can call us from Canada if they have a question about a line, but just don’t tend to do that as often. What they tend to do is change the line themselves, which can aggravate the “us vs. them” dynamic when the writers watch the daily footage and hear the change for the first time.
The Canadian content issue isn’t as big a deal for lower level writers as it is when you get into the producer ranks. One showrunner-level American friend is currently hacking through the paperwork to get landed immigrant status in Canada. His wife is Canadian and still owns property there, so legally he can be considered a resident. It’s a huge, bureaucratic pain in the ass, but it probably will open up more career opportunities for him on Canadian shows.
Ah yes...the American "Creative Consultant" or the orchestrated "landed immigracy"...I know all to well of which she speaks. I worked on several of these kinds of series while living in Canada, and I also saw how it worked when I was in L.A. and shuttling back and forth (or up and down).
When we moved into the new millennium, a lot of these shows began to insist that whoever they hired needed to be primarily located in L.A., yet they still wanted the tax credit benefit of hiring 'Canadians' (very loosely defined). For me, that meant living there only to be sent back to Canada to work. A lot of it's the 'system that's in place, and it always felt a little 'ass backward' or even 'wrong' to me, but that's just the way it was/is.
Anyway, thanks to Lisa for joining blogland. I'm heading out the door but feel this topic warrants more discussion...more at a later date.