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Netflix deals could pave way for Vancouver-made breakthrough hits

As Toronto TV production companies are partnering with digital platform services, local digital producers still struggle to score a runaway success
Vancouver Web Fest founder Suzette Laqua (centre) turned her sitcom pilot Last Chance Casting into a web series after all the major Canadian networks passed on the show. 

A quick browse through the Netflix Canada queue is all it takes for viewers to uncover TV offerings such as New Mexico-set Breaking Bad and the U.K.’s Derek.

Both shows aired on TV in their respective countries before the streaming video service helped propel them to wider mainstream and international audiences.

But when it comes to Vancouver-made content breaking out to mainstream audiences via digital platforms, the pickings are slim.

“Vancouver itself has limited access to distribution channels,” said Suzette Laqua, who created and produced the Vancouver-set web series Last Chance Casting.

Her show, which is available on YouTube, began as a sitcom pilot the big networks in Canada took a pass on. She and producing partner Brad Whitlock then re-cut the pilot into a 10-part web series.

Last year, Laqua founded the Vancouver Web Fest in a bid to push locally produced digital content to international audiences.

“We want [the festival] to become the marketplace for digital content,” she said.

“Because of the online content revolution, [digital content producers] are still looking for buyers and distribution, and everybody’s still trying to figure that out.”

Although Netflix has given a lot of promotion to Vancouver-filmed/American-financed series such as The Killing or Once Upon a Time, the city’s homegrown creative talents have yet to produce a Canadian series that has broken through to mainstream audiences.

Meanwhile, Toronto-based shows like Rookie Blue, Flashpoint and Orphan Black have attracted followings in the U.S. while mostly playing coy about their Canadian settings.

But the fear of a show being too identifiably Canadian for international audiences appears to be waning. At the same time, Vancouver-based production companies appear positioned to develop a breakout hit via digital platforms.

On October 20, video-streaming service Shomi – a joint venture owned by Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI) and Shaw Communications (TSX:SJR)– announced it was partnering with Netflix to produce the original Canadian sci-fi series Between.

And in March, Netflix and Toronto’s Entertainment One (LSE:ETO) (eOne) reached a deal to produce new episodes of the iconic comedy series The Trailer Park Boys – one of the few Canadian series to find international success without hiding its setting.

A Netflix-eOne partnership could also pay dividends for Paperny Entertainment and Force Four Entertainment, the two Vancouver-based TV production companies eOne acquired over the summer.

David Paperny said one of the reasons he sold his company to eOne was because the parent corporation has the resources and industry contacts to help the new subsidiary get involved with more digital platforms.

In May, eOne announced it had taken an equity stake in the Toronto-based interactive agency Secret Location. Paperny said his division, which has developed reality shows like Yukon Gold and Chopped Canada, is teaming up with Secret Location to produce multi-platform productions.

But Creative BC CEO Richard Brownsey, whose organization promotes B.C.-based film and TV productions, said the explosion of digital platforms could be a “double-edged sword” for local talent.

“The market is, in a sense, finite,” he said. “If you have a small number of productions that are seen all over the world, then you’re probably going to get a higher price than if you’ve got hundreds of productions that are seen everywhere because you’re still dealing with the same audience.”

Brownsey added that part of the challenge of figuring out Vancouver’s place in the world of digital content is the pace at which new platforms are changing the industry.

“Five years ago, would we have been talking about Netflix or Hulu? Would you be talking about the streaming services of all of the television networks?” he said.

“How we’re going to take advantage of the Hulus and the Netflix, that’s something we’re going to have to find out and deal with very quickly because that kind of change just keeps happening to the industry.”