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How Temple Street is changing the face of Canadian television by Simon Houpt

Apr 18, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

Success has a colour, and it is a distinctive orange. That’s the hue that lights up one corner of the downtown brick-and-beam office of David Fortier and Ivan Schneeberg, co-presidents of the TV studio Temple Street Productions. It comes from more bottles of Veuve Clicquot than two people can drink in one sitting.

“We usually take that stuff home,” says Fortier. “But the packaging is so nice – and my wife doesn’t like Champagne. His wife likes it a lot.” Schneeberg nods and chuckles: “I can’t bring that home!”

The bubbly has been coming through the doors a lot lately, now that Temple Street has one of the hottest Canadian-born shows in the world. Two weeks ago, Orphan Black, its thrilling sci-fi series that airs in the United States on BBC America, was included among the winners of this year’s prestigious Peabody Awards. During the show’s first-season run last year on Space in Canada, it was the channel’s highest-rated original series ever, pulling in an average 328,000 viewers. Last month, around the same time the show snagged 10 Canadian Screen Awards, Entertainment Weekly featured star Tatiana Maslany on the cover of an issue about “criminally underrated shows.” Nodding at this Saturday’s second-season premiere, the cover teased readers: “If you’ve seen it, you’re hooked. If you haven't, get ready to be obsessed.”

Meanwhile, Temple Street’s The Next Step, a faux-reality drama set in the world of teen competitive dance, is the highest-rated show on the Family Channel. When its cast visits malls, they are greeted by screaming, sobbing mobs of tweens. (Ear-splitting proof can be found on YouTube.) Next month, a full line of Next Step merchandise (backpacks, lunch boxes, etc.) will roll out in Wal-Mart stores across the country, in what Fortier and Schneeberg say is the first such partnership with a Canadian TV show.

Temple Street has tasted success before – its CV includes CBC’s Being Erica, as well as Family Channel’s Wingin’ It and CITY-TV’s Canada’s Next Top Model – but this time feels different.

“This is a volatile business, right?” says Schneeberg. “We’ve had five or six shows in production, then gone down to one show. We’ve made big-budget dramas and then we’ve made little half-hour shows. The last 18 months, we’ve worked really hard to build stability into the business by having a diverse slate, making lots of different content.” Last summer, Temple Street opened an office in Los Angeles to make factual shows. It is also expanding its digital productions.

“When you’re volatile, it’s hard to hold onto a philosophical view,” continues Schneeberg. “You know what you want to be, but you gotta keep the lights on, and you gotta keep people employed, and you gotta pay your own mortgage. With a little stability and success, we can hold much closer to our own personal philosophies – which are really creative integrity, and integrity.”

Fortier, now 42, and Schneeberg, 43, met while working as entertainment lawyers at the Toronto office of Goodmans LLP for clients that included Temple Street, a production company then involved in Showtime’s Queer As Folk. In 2003, after spending many afterwork hours dreaming up projects of their own over drinks (Strange Brew 2, anyone?), they bought Temple Street and began developing shows. Showcase’s law-office comedy Billable Hours was an early hit.

Back then, the partners say, Canadian TV had a reputation for being both cheap and cheap looking. “We would go to the markets, like MIP [in Cannes] and we would talk to the international distributors, and we’d say, ‘We’re Canadian producers, we’re making content,’” says Schneeberg. “They’d laugh at us. They’d say, ‘We’re not funding Canadian shows. You guys are making dramas for a million dollars an hour, shooting them in five days, with, like, six extras. We can’t sell them. They’re unsellable!’”

About five years ago, though, “we started to see broadcasters investing more in Canadian content,” says Schneeberg. “That allowed writers to be able to stay in Canada – as opposed to having to flee, or continue working for hire on other people’s shows. So you had a few writers who said: ‘Hey, maybe Canada’s an option.’ And our budgets went up, and distributors started to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, you’re making that show for one-million-six, or one-million-seven, or one-million-eight – and you’re shooting it properly, and I can sell that.’ And it sort of has changed the marketplace.”

As Temple Street has grown, Fortier and Schneeberg say they are mindful of the fact that the Canadian regulatory system enables them to own the content they produce. (Most U.S. networks own their shows.) “We can never forget that we hold onto those rights because of a subsidy system that has been created over time to protect people like us,” says Fortier. Writers, though, have no such protection, so Temple Street structures its deals to make genuine partners of their producers – both creatively and financially.

“The success of Orphan Black – I don’t think it’s transformed our company. I think what’s happened is, it’s legitimized our model,” says Schneeberg. “When I think about other projects that we’re working on, we’ve pitched this crap that we’re pitching you right now – about the thing and the creative and the integrity – and we’ve done it for years until we’re blue in the face, and oftentimes people don’t believe us. But every time we have a success with a show, it legitimizes that model, and people believe it a little bit more.”

© Globe and Mail