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Ottawa-based Shopify to open TV, film production house in Toronto

Shopify Inc. is branching out beyond its e-commerce roots to launch a TV and film content development and production house, but the company says it isn’t gearing up to become a competitor to heavyweights like Netflix or the CBC or a branded content creator.

The Ottawa-based tech giant revealed Wednesday to The Canadian Press that it is launching a venture called Shopify Studios that will involve developing, producing and financing projects for both streaming platforms and traditional networks.

Among the first wave of content Shopify will release is a series of 20- to 30-minute videos on entrepreneurs called Studios Films, which will feature episodes on jeans brand Hiut Denim Co. and New York-based streetwear designer Colm “KidSuper” Dillane. Shopify will also release a docu-series called “And Nowhere Else,” which will examine the relationship between where individuals live and what they choose to create, and a weekly podcast called “Vanguard,” which will explore secret economies and debut with the story of an artist who has created a bespoke tarot card deck to explore Black identity.

The first round of content will be available on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Play, but Shopify said future offerings could just as easily be released for streaming on platforms like Netflix or Hulu or to air on a television network.

“We’re looking forward to building relationships with a variety of distribution partners, and our overall goal is to ensure Studios’ content is available to the broadest possible audience through premium distributors,” Jason Badal, the head of Shopify Studios, told The Canadian Press in an email.

“Shopify Studios is our opportunity to bring thought-provoking and entertaining stories to viewers that showcase the real people powering commerce today — encompassing a diverse range of industries, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures.”

Badal said Shopify doesn’t have plans to extend the work of its Studios unit — headquartered in Toronto, but with operations in New York and Los Angeles — to include branded content or content for companies already using its platform.

Shopify refused to reveal the budget for its Studios venture. Netflix was estimated to budget $8 billion for original content last year, while Hulu was said to be spending $2.5 billion in previous years.

However, Shopify did say that it has already signed deals with Anonymous Content, Spoke Studios and Saville Productions to develop entrepreneur-focused documentaries.

Anonymous Content is behind hit films and TV shows including “13 Reasons Why,” “Spotlight,” “Boy Erased” and “Mr. Robot.” Spoke Studios was created by former ITV America chief executive Brent Montgomery, while Saville Productions has worked with “Crash” director Paul Haggis and Barry Levinson of “Rain Man” fame.

Badal said Shopify has “multiple” long-form series in development with those partners and will continue to debut new short to mid-form original content on Shopify’s YouTube channel, but wouldn’t share more about the projects.

“We’re always looking for additional partners,” Badal hinted.

Shopify’s announcement caught some analysts and experts off-guard because it strays so far from what Shopify is best known for: providing e-commerce solutions to 600,000 brands including Nestle, Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics and Kanye West’s Yeezy Store.

Cannaccord Genuity LLC senior analyst David Hynes Jr. told The Canadian Press in an email he didn’t think the announcement was an indicator that Shopify will change its core values and look to conquer competitors in the entertainment space.

“I don’t think Shopify is aiming to be the next Netflix,” he said. “My sense is that they’ll use this as a platform to kindle entrepreneurship, along the way reinforcing the Shopify brand and reminding prospects that they are the go-to partner for business creation needs.”

Source: Global

Vancouver’s powerhouse film, gaming industries yields VR arcades

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Vancouver’s fast emerging virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) sectors have emerged from its strong existing film, video game and tech industries. Vancouver has built the third largest film & TV production centre in North America and one of the top visual effects and animation clusters globally, but it is the convergence of film, visual effects, animation, games, and technology that might explain the growth of YDreams.

Since 2013, YDreams has been working with virtual reality for its clients. They were originally based in Brazil, but with Vancouver’s VR strength, as well as the grants and funding available to tech companies, YDreams decided to move its head office to Vancouver. West Tech Report took the time recently to speak with Daniel Japiassu, an avid gamer, director and chief executive officer of YDreams.

VR has been a fast-growing industry over the past decade. The hardware has seen a lot of improvements over that time, and more recently, it led YDreams to launch a location-based, entertaining VR solution called Arkave VR. The Arkave virtual reality platform is an ultra-modern arcade, or more specifically, a gaming arena that brings the most immersive experience of virtual reality. The firm plans to open a location in both Vancouver and Toronto in 2019 to mimic the success of their first virtual reality arcade in Brazil. “Arkave VR was a product that would have what we considered the most important features for gamers in virtual reality: multiplayer. So it would be a social encounter, [with] freedom of movement to create fully immersive content and that included a full-body gameplay,” explains Japiassu, who leads a team of about 40 full-time staff.

World’s most advanced multiplayer VR experience
Since then, the technology continued to develop, which allowed for certain upgrades to the Arkave VR product. Partnering with HTC, their systems feature the HTC Vive and conventional computers, building some of the world’s most advanced multiplayer virtual reality experiences.

When asked about their decision to move from Brazil, Japiassu explained that their choice of location was made due to Vancouver’s strength as an amazing hub for VR: “There are a large number of companies here generating great content. The community is very open to collaboration and there is a sense of ‘growing together’ that is hard to find.” Another key element was how active the government of British Columbia and the Federal Government were in helping companies develop. “We were looking for different options for bringing YDreams to North America and different options for investment and funding,” says Japiassu. Funds for startups and tax incentives for growing tech companies were very helpful for growth, but it also helped that there were people interested in investing directly in the company: “We were invited by a group from Vancouver to take the company to the Canadian Ventures exchange, and for us, when we visited both Vancouver and Toronto, we discovered the VR ecosystem here, and we loved it.”Y

YDreams has seen their share of challenges as well. The project and service-based business model is still difficult to work through, explains Japiassu: “Although it is great to work with big brands in highly innovative, customized projects, it pushes our team to keep ahead of the game, to keep up with new equipment and new techniques and, at the same time, it forces us to be nimble.” YDreams Global have developed over 1,300 projects for clients all over the world, such as Disney, NBA, Adidas, Cisco, Nokia, Nike, Mercedes Benz, Coca-Cola, Santander, AmBev, Qualcomm, Unilever, City of Rio, and Fiat. But, still, it is unpredictable, as Japiassu explains: “In one year, they might have several large-scale projects, which demand a large team, and the next year the market can switch and you might have to work on smaller projects, but in higher quantities. It makes it hard to plan ahead and keeps you on your toes.”

YDreams have been successful by making sure that the company has different sources of revenue and ideally at least one product that has the potential to scale and offer a steady flow of income to the company. That makes it easier to navigate through the rapid changes that they see in technology. “Have something for the present while working on something for the future,” advises Japiassu. “You can´t slow down your innovation or you will be left behind, but you can´t be solely innovative; you have to offer something that will be useful for a while and provide some stability. That´s how we see it.”

But overall, Japiassu feels that this is a great time to be an entrepreneur and to work in technology: “The evolution in the whole ecosystem has been tremendous in the past 10 to 15 years. There is a formula for creating startups that you learn along the way, and different levels of investors who can give you boost at every milestone.”
Perhaps one day, our gaming world will converge on other areas such as education. It may present new ways to train a police team to react to a sudden threat, or it might teach kids how to use math in a group setting. Either way, YDreams and Vancouver’s Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality industry will work tirelessly to make a big impact on our future lives.

Source: EPT

Sask. film industry seven years after the provincial tax credit cut

It was almost seven-years ago when the Saskatchewan Film Tax Credit was axed, an industry that once saw multi-million dollar movies made now is barely hanging on.

“We’re not gone, we’re just smaller,” ACTRA Saskatchewan Union Branch Representative Mike Burns said.

“We certainly are productive and we are still creative, and the industry is funded by Creative Saskatchewan which does a good job with the resources that they have. Unfortunately, resources they have are under what required to attract larger productions here.”

The province’s Creative Sask. gives the film industry two million dollars through grants. A study commissioned by the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and Sask Film that was done in 2012 said the industry generated $44.5 million in economic spinoffs and created about 850 jobs when the tax credit was available.

“We do continue to see activity in the province although it has declined, some film producers have chosen not to film in Saskatchewan, but overall we have not seen an impact in our provincial economy when it comes to that,” Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sports Dep. Asst. Minister of Stewardship Candace Caswell said.

“In Manitoba, they had a $220 million in business in 2018, in Alberta, almost $300 million, this isn’t small business this a big business,” Burns said.

While the industry still sees independent and low budget films using what Saskatchewan has to offer, Burns hopes to see bigger budget films make their way back to the province.

It would take a plot twist in this year’s provincial budget, which the premier has already said it’s going to be tight.

“We think eventually there will be a bigger and better film industry here again,” Burns said.

Source: Global

Chill, Netflix: Toronto’s independent theatres are enjoying a moviegoing renaissance

Questions about how we consume and engage with movies have ramped up lately with the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which saw the acclaimed film unveiled on Netflix and simultaneously given a limited theatrical run.

While purists shudder at the idea of someone watching a film on their phones, streaming also makes it possible for viewers outside of major cities to access such work altogether. As the landscape changes, the communal aspect of going to the cinema could appear to be a fading ritual – and yet Toronto is a city blessed with several independent theatres that are finding ways to adapt to the times, suggesting that a movie-going culture and the age of streaming may not have to be mutually exclusive.

A recent surge of independent film series in the city is proving that the theatrical experience is alive and well, offering not only an ideal technical presentation but the chance to share a unique experience with others.

It’s how local independent venues such as The Royal Cinema and Revue Cinema are adapting and succeeding even as streaming makes a larger impression on consumer habits. Alongside longer-running monthly series at The Royal like Neon Dreams Cinema Club, which started in 2015 and screens a wide array of neo-noir films, and Ladies of Burlesque, which started in 2016 and pairs films with live burlesque performances, new programs are finding – and creating – an enthused audience, largely consisting of millennials.

New to The Royal in 2018, Eastern Promises showcases an eclectic range of Asian cinema, while No Future highlights subversive portrayals of childhood in genre films.

Themed series that not only showcase interesting work but spark discourse through curator introductions and post-screening discussions demonstrate how a film is contextualized, and can transform the audience experience and reception. It may be difficult to motivate people to leave their living rooms when they have so much at their fingertips, but the promise of a communal experience and lively discussion offers something Netflix can’t.

Sarah-Tai Black, a Globe and Mail contributor and one of three directors at The Royal, along with Kathleen Prinsen and Richelle Charkot, is the curator of that theatre’s Black Gold, a series that celebrates black icons and filmmakers. Since March 2017, the series has programmed such films as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason and offers free tickets to the black community. Coming up on Feb. 20, Black Gold and Ladies of Burlesque are co-presenting a 60th-anniversary screening of Black Orpheus on 35 mm with a performance from burlesque artist Zyra Lee Vanity.

“Cinemas have been historically racially coded spaces,” says Black. “I wanted to create a space where black people can see themselves on screen but also see themselves reflected in the seats and the programming.”

Initially part of the Festival Cinemas chain that collapsed in 2006, Revue Cinema in Toronto’s west-end reopened in 2007 as a not-for-profit, recognizing that second-run programming wasn’t sustainable, and has continued to expand its regular and limited series with guest curators, particularly since Eric Veillette joined as programming director four years ago.

“Silent Revue is one of the longest-running series in town and in the past five years we’ve built a really good roster of curators who deliver good movies and an entertaining program,” says Veillette. “It’s important that it’s varied enough to attract different audiences. As isolated as we’ve become, people are yearning to come out.”

Other series include culture writer and Globe and Mail contributor Nathalie Atkinson’s Designing the Movies, which moves the spotlight away from actors and directors to the often overshadowed artists working in production design and costuming. Then there’s the Revue’s playful series Dumpster Raccoons, in which pop culture critic Anthony Oliveira pairs “trashy cult classics” with live performances.

The rise of independent series isn’t limited to cinemas, either. Vertical Features at the AGO’s Jackman Hall is helping fill a gap in radical programming with a focus on non-fiction cinema. Initially supported by Ryerson University, Vertical Features was started by local programmer Jesse Cumming in collaboration with Dan Browne and Olivia Wong.

“The aim is to present exceptional examples of documentary (or documentary-adjacent) filmmaking that haven’t yet had an opportunity to screen in Toronto,” says Cumming. “We work to ensure that the screenings feel like special occasions, commissioning original writing on the films and hosting filmmakers to discuss their work.”

To kick off its upcoming season, Vertical Features will be hosting two of the key figures of Vancouver’s experimental film scene, Ryan Ermacora and Jessica Johnson, on Jan. 15 for a showcase of their work, which interrogates notions of nature and place. And in February, Turkish-American filmmaker Nazli Dincel will be in attendance to present a selection of her shorts.

With the restored Paradise theatre in the Bloorcourt neighbourhood set to open some time this year, Toronto’s movie-going culture has the potential to continue growing in the so-called age of Netflix. For curators, it’s not a matter of competition but co-operating to stimulate interest and satisfy an appetite for new points-of-view.

“Paradise is opening at the perfect time to complement and grow the smart, ambitious film programming already happening in Toronto,” says Jessica Smith, the theatre’s director of programming, noting the Paradise will host live music and comedy showcases in addition to film screenings. “Our programming will be eclectic and responsive, connecting and engaging audiences through singular experiences.”

Seemingly against the odds, 2019 may prove to be one of the best and diverse moments in ages to actually go out in Toronto and experience a film.

“I started programming because I was angry I didn’t see myself in the cinema landscape,” says Black. “I think that’s why these series are blossoming. Once one person starts doing it, it opens a door.”

Source: Globe and Mail

Why Canada’s reputation as a kids’ TV production powerhouse is under threat

Boat Rocker Media had a hit on its hands. The Next Step, a tween-targeted show about an elite dance troupe, drew the highest ratings the Family Channel had ever seen for a premiere at the time, with 574,500 people tuning in. Over five seasons, the Canadian-made series found an audience – in more than 120 countries, viewers were following the drama of a telegenic squad of teen dancers as they competed to win championships, formed friendships and rivalries, and pursued their dreams. The company drew in viewers to its YouTube channel as well, where it posted dance sequences regularly watched by tens of thousands online.

“It built a global juggernaut,” said Jon Rutherford, president of rights at Toronto-based Boat Rocker.

But by the sixth season, Boat Rocker’s financing in Canada was no longer enough to get production off the ground. DHX Media Ltd., which now owned the Family Channel, was still paying a fee to license the show, but “their total financial contribution was much lower,” Mr. Rutherford said. So last summer, Boat Rocker turned to U.S. channel Universal Kids, seeing an opportunity to work out the first deal for the show with a major American TV broadcaster. In August, Boat Rocker announced that Universal Kids had acquired the rights to the first five seasons and would be a production partner on the sixth.

It might seem surprising that a hit show would face an investment shortfall in Canada. But it didn’t come as a surprise to Boat Rocker, because they had already noticed the landscape in kids’ TV production start to shift drastically. “In the golden era,” Mr. Rutherford said, “you could get upwards of 80 per cent of your financing in Canada” to get a show off the ground, when taking into account the broadcasters’ investments as well as government-led incentives for Canadian content. (A “semi-scripted” show such as The Next Step – scripted, with improvisational scenes – typically has a budget of roughly $375,000 to $500,000 per episode.)

In this new era, Canadian financing often falls short. The Next Step required financing from both the U.S. and Canadian broadcasters, other international partners and funds Boat Rocker itself put up for the show to go on. It was hardly an isolated case.

Stories such as these are echoing across the Canadian TV production landscape. As viewing habits shift – particularly among the youngest audiences – and competition from streaming services such as Netflix has increased, the television broadcasters that have traditionally funded Canadian content production are spending less on funding kids’ shows. Recent regulatory changes that give broadcasters more freedom to choose where they want to spend money have contributed to the shift. So have restrictions on advertising that make kids’ shows less lucrative for broadcasters.

The result is massive industry upheaval that has upended the traditional funding model for shows and led to an alarming decline in production: Children’s and youth production fell by about 17 per cent in the fiscal year from April 1, 2016, to March 31, 2017, according to the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA).

Joy Rosen, chief executive and co-founder of Portfolio Entertainment, says she began noticing a shift in the industry about two years ago. “It’s been very slow,” she said. “The number of shows getting picked up is limited.”

Portfolio has adapted, Ms. Rosen said, by depending more on global players to commission its content. It also made a move some years ago to ensure the business was not solely dependent on production, but is also involved in distribution. And it has seen a major pickup in so-called service work, an industry term for work on shows that aren’t technically based in Canada. “The companies that will suffer the most are the ones that don’t have those global relationships,” she said. “And the ones doing the best are those that are funding shows elsewhere and viewing Canadian funding as supplementary.”

Under the industry’s longstanding financing system, Canadian broadcasters were the first stop for production companies seeking funding – both because they would invest in commissioning those shows, but also because each broadcaster oversees an “envelope” of funding from the $350-million annual Canada Media Fund, a partnership funded by the federal government and Canada’s cable and satellite distributors. Broadcasters can choose to contribute CMF money to any show where they contribute a certain level of funding (in the case of English-language children’s and youth shows, the contribution must be at least 25 per cent of overall production costs). Having a domestic broadcaster on board can also trigger tax credits.

The system helped build a global reputation for Canada as a powerhouse in kids’ content – thanks to factors such as the National Film Board’s early investment in animation, starting in the 1940s; the CBC’s support for groundbreaking programs starring Ernie Coombs (a.k.a. Mr. Dressup) and Fred Rogers (a precursor to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood called Misterogers); and what some say is a particular Canadian sensibility that sells well in kids’ entertainment (think Paw Patrol and the many Degrassi spinoffs).

Now, some in the industry are raising the alarm that this system is disappearing. The federal government is responding by reconsidering its approach to the industry, with a review of the Broadcasting Act. In a report in May, the country’s broadcast regulator acknowledged the current model for regulating the industry is “unsustainable.”

But some – including Lisa Olfman, Portfolio’s other founder – believe the changes may come too late. “I think many companies will not make it,” she said.

The pressures that kids’ producers face now are partly because of regulatory changes that were intended to keep pace with a TV industry in flux. In 2010, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission introduced a new licensing policy that allows broadcasters to spread Canadian content spending across the networks they own. Before, spending levels were dictated channel by channel.

The CRTC wrote at the time that the change would “benefit the broadcasting system as a whole” by giving broadcasters “greater flexibility” to direct spending to the TV channels that were most effective in drawing audiences and revenue. But broadcasters still had to fill about half of each channel’s schedule with Canadian content (including mandated exhibition in prime time). Then, in 2016, quotas changed to 35 per cent. Kids’ producers say that’s when they began to take a hit.

One reason was ad revenue. Regulations on advertising to kids limit how lucrative children’s TV can be. Canada’s Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children restricts the types of ads that can appear during kids’ programming, as well as how much a network can sell: No more than a total of eight minutes of advertising is allowed per hour and the same commercial cannot run more than once in a half-hour period. (In Quebec, commercial advertising directed at children under 13 is prohibited.)

For most broadcasters, it’s simpler – and more lucrative – to sell ads during programming targeted at adults. And under the new CRTC policies, they had more freedom to invest in that programming.

“If you talk to a broadcaster, they’ll say, great, that’s what we needed,” said Mark Bishop, co-CEO and founder of marblemedia Inc., which creates shows it has sold in more than 150 countries. “If you talk to anybody else in the industry, they’ll say that was the kiss of death.”

The two biggest children’s broadcasters in Canada, Corus and DHX, have faced challenges that have forced them to assess how they invest in content. Corus has taken a “pause” on commissioning as much kids’ content as it used to, said Lisa Godfrey, vice-president of original content for the company that owns YTV, Teletoon and Treehouse among its portfolio of specialty channels. Corus is looking to “optimize” content investments to focus on channels “that we can monetize the most,” Ms. Godfrey said.

Last October, Family Channel owner DHX launched a “strategic review” to fix what ails the company. Following a $345-million (U.S.) investment in 2017 for the rights to the Peanuts franchise and Strawberry Shortcake, DHX’s financial results slipped, triggering questions about its management. The stock lost half its value in a year. Less than a year after buying the Peanuts stake, DHX sold half of it to Sony Corp. The strategic review is ongoing. Production companies say DHX, which has financed shows in the past such as The Next Step and animated series Fangbone!, isn’t commissioning as much as it once did, though a company representative denies this, saying it has commissioned 16 projects from 10 independent producers over the last three years. “I can’t speak for the whole industry, or to why individual producers might say we aren’t commissioning,” spokesperson Shaun Smith said in an email. The company declined requests for an interview.

Public broadcasters such as CBC and TV Ontario (TVO) continue to invest in kids’ shows, but their budgets can’t make up for the shortcomings that now exist as private broadcasters change their priorities.

Vince Commisso, co-founder, president and CEO of 9 Story Media Group, says his company hasn’t had a commission for a show from a Canadian broadcaster since 2015.

The traditional funding model was never perfect, he says. “It was perhaps unwieldy and perhaps placed too great a burden on the broadcast entities. But the way to deal with it is not to have it come to a screeching halt.”

Regulatory changes are just one part of the story: Streaming platforms are also changing the ways that kids consume entertainment.

Gone are the days when broadcasters only competed against one another. Now, they’re vying for kids’ attention with streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube.

From 2011 to 2016, the hours spent viewing traditional TV each week declined most sharply among teens of ages 12 to 17, according to the CRTC, while declines among kids under 11 were more gradual. At the same time, kids have led the way in the growth of digital viewing: In its surveys of Canadians’ digital media habits, Toronto-based consultancy Solutions Research Group has found that households with children under 12 consistently report more video viewing on digital devices than households without kids. And while for some time they lagged in cutting the cord, the same research found that this year, 21 per cent of households with kids reported having no TV subscription compared with 15 per cent of adult-only households.

At the Kidscreen conference in Miami earlier this year, producers noticed that Netflix sent a much larger team of people than it had in previous years. Apple recently hired Tara Sorensen, former head of Amazon Kids, signalling that children’s content is a priority for the tech giant. In June, reports emerged of a deal that will see Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind Sesame Street, produce kids’ content for Apple. And children’s entertainment juggernaut Disney has announced plans to launch its own streaming service.

In one sense, the rise of such services is good for kids’ TV producers because there are more buyers looking for content. But producers trying to sell to the likes of Amazon and Netflix also face more intense competition – from producers all over the world – than they contended with in the past, when their first sale was to Canadian broadcasters. Deep-pocketed streaming services have also raised the bar on production values, many in the industry say, making it harder for budget-strapped Canadian production companies to compete.

And kids’ TV habits are changing fast.

“We are now programming and producing for a generation of kids that were born with Netflix in existence,” said Jennifer Dodge, executive vice-president of Spin Master Entertainment, a division of the toy company Spin Master Corp. “They were born having tablets. They pick and choose things they’re interested in, and fall down that YouTube rabbit hole where there are a million videos suggested based on what you’ve watched and what you like.”

Source: Globe and Mail

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