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‘It feels like the engine is now going’: Newfoundland’s TV industry takes off

The period drama Frontier, created by St. John’s production company Take The Shot, accounted for about half of all production activity in Newfoundland last year.

Aquaman is calling.

Judging by Peter Blackie’s calm demeanor, it is now normal for him to clock an incoming call from Jason Momoa. Having just sat down for an afternoon coffee at The Battery Cafe, a snug outpost just above the St. John’s harbour, Blackie flips over his phone, vowing to call the Frontier and Game of Thrones star back after he reaches the bottom of his mug.

Yes, that’s right. Blackie, a Newfoundland writer and producer whose name you may not recognize, will simply call back Hollywood on a direct line. Thus begins our inside viewing of the unique power dynamics shaping Newfoundland’s motion picture industry, which just propelled film and television on The Rock through the province’s best-ever $50-million year.

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Central to that success was a trio of multiepisode national and international television series – CBC’s Little Dog and Caught, and the Netflix/Discovery Canada period drama Frontier – that at first glance appear to have very little to do with one another aside from the fact that they were all partly filmed in Newfoundland. They range in period and subject matter from boxing and 1970’s-era drug-running to the 18th-century fur trade.

Pause for a deep look at the shows’ credits, though, and a handful of names, many of whom remain off-screen, begin to repeat: Sherry White, Allan Hawco, Rob Blackie, Peter Blackie, John Vatcher, Mary Sexton, Joel Thomas Hynes, Adriana Maggs. The list could go on. Each are successful writers, directors, producers and actors in their own right, and each have tunnelled their own connections to Hollywood. Linked by their shared geography, they have formed a web with deep attachments to Newfoundland, one that underpins a transformation in the province as it markets to an increasingly global audience.

Elsewhere, one might refer to a group such as this as powerbrokers. But in the small community that is Newfoundland, Blackie, the co-creator of Frontier who forms one-sixth of the low-profile, but highly influential, St. John’s production company Take The Shot (actor Allan Hawco, star of Caught and of Republic of Doyle fame is also a partner) likens them more to a loose-knit “extended family.”

Peter Blackie on the set of Frontier.

“The reality is, we have all decided that we all want to be working [in Newfoundland] because we love living here and don’t want to be anywhere else,” Blackie said. “In some ways, that has made it much harder for us to make a go of it than it would have been in other places,” he said, adding: “But it’s been worth it. Together we’ve been able to get a critical mass of work … it feels like engine is now going.”

It has coughed and sputtered with promise for years. While Newfoundland’s economy has always been fickle, the province’s cultural veins have long been bright. Traditions of storytelling and making music are as entrenched in Newfoundland as the hard greyness of life on the island. But attaining professional success has often required decamping to the mainland.

It was partly to staunch that outflow – and the economic losses associated with the export of Newfoundland culture – that the provincial government established the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation (NLFDC) in 1997. The Crown corporation has spent two decades refining and bolstering its tax credit and equity programs and subsidizing industry training with an aim to make Newfoundland not just competitive with other areas of the country, but comparatively attractive.

Over the past three years, the spoils have begun to pool; film development corporation numbers show that total production for the industry since its inception adds up to more than $450-million.

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“Their goal was to get to a place where the industry was dropping hundreds of millions of dollars in the province,” Hawco said. “It is extremely difficult to produce world class work on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic. In many ways it would be a lot easier for us to produce all of our shows in Hamilton.”

Instead, he and his partners have dug in on The Rock, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years via their production company alone.

“On such a small island, everybody feels it,” Hawco said. “The money just spreads.”

The key to having that kind of beyond-industry impact seems lately to have less to do with making big budget feature films and more with selling a multiseason TV series.

“TV series are the bread and butter. They’re extremely good for the crew and talent base,” said Dorian Rowe, executive director and film commissioner at the film corporation. “They are what everybody hopes to achieve and keep long-running.”

Over the years, those aspirations have proven mighty.

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“We couldn’t stay here, we just couldn’t do it at the time. You have to be a jack of all trades in order to stay here,” recalled the actress Mary Walsh, who starred in the infamous sketch comedy show CODCO. Poking fun at Canadian stereotypes of Newfoundlanders and often touching on the province’s cod industry, the show aired on CBC from the mid-1980s through 1992. Although its success launched several careers – that of Walsh and actor Andy Jones – it fell short of having much industry impact in Newfoundland. For access to film production equipment the show had to be made in Nova Scotia; the local economic spin-off benefits were slim.

John Vatcher directing Frontier with Jason Momoa and Alun Armstrong.

Artist

Years later, Walsh would try her hand at creating another Newfoundland-based show, a sitcom called Hatching, Matching and Dispatching. Set in the fictional outport community of Cats Gut Cove, but filmed outside of St. John’s in Petty Harbour, the show centred on a family who owned a combination ambulance, wedding and funeral business. Although the program would win Walsh a Gemini Award, it was cancelled by CBC after its first season.

The cancellation, though, did not snuff out the alchemy that had formed between actor/writers Walsh, Sherry White, Joel Thomas Hynes, Adriana Maggs and executive producer Mary Sexton. Walsh said they formed “a nucleus.” They have gone on to repeatedly work with one another – sometimes on purpose, others by happenstance – on several feature films and TV shows in Newfoundland, including the new work coming out of the province.

Walsh said she is often asked why Newfoundlanders appear so devoted to working with one another.

“You want to work with people who share a common vision and, let’s face it, we are an island,” Walsh said. “We are by nature insular. It’s not like we don’t like working with people from all over the place … but there is something about us,” she said. “We have a certain unspoken understanding.”

Many of the old Hatching crew showed up in credits together again this year in Little Dog, a half-hour melancholic comedy show created by and starring Hynes as the redemptive super welterweight boxer Tommy “Little Dog” Ross. White, who is Hynes’s former partner and has a son with him, executive produces the show. Maggs, White’s long-time writing partner, also works on the show, which aired over the winter and is shot in St. John’s despite the fact that both Hynes and White now call Toronto home.

“There is a community there that was so integral to forming our voices and launching us in the beginning,” said White, a sought-after writer/producer who penned the original script for the 2016 film Maudie (produced by Mary Sexton) and whose recent production credits include the shows Ten Days In the Valley, Rookie Blue and Orphan Black.

“It’s such a tight community,” she said of the Newfoundland film industry. “But it is almost impossible to maintain a career there and keep climbing.”

After years of grinding, Hawco and his production partners may have figured out how.

Republic of Doyle, which starred Hawco and spawned the partnerships that formed the basis for the production company that includes the Blackie brothers and director John Vatcher (who has credits for directing recent episodes of Frontier, Little Dog and Caught), made Newfoundland TV history when it ran for six seasons, from 2010 to 2014.

The cop drama set in Newfoundland did more than captivate Canadian audiences – several U.S. networks began airing the show, elevating its success.

All of this came after Hawco and his partners, including Peter Blackie, who is a trained architect, had to literally build their own studio once the show was greenlit so they would have a place to shoot it. Doyle benefited from the NFDC’s subsidy programs, which Hawco said made producing the show at a high quality and maintaining momentum possible.

No one had ever cracked the nut of the long, ongoing series,” Hawco said in a recent interview. “My dream all those years ago when I went away to theatre school was to create film and television that was shot and produced in Newfoundland. It wasn’t only a creative inspiration. I also wanted my friends and neighbours to have employment.”

“When we finished Doyle after six seasons, we had a top-notch crew that could compete with anyone in the industry anywhere.”

Allan Hawco filming Caught, based on the novel by Newfoundland writer Lisa Moore.

That crew was behind Hawco’s newest show, Caught, which is based on the novel by Newfoundland author Lisa Moore. Aired on CBC over the winter, the 70s-era miniseries is about a revenge-seeking drug-runner who escapes from prison and takes place outside of St. John’s, in New Brunswick and in Mexico. It has not yet been announced for a second season.

Take The Shot’s real juggernaut, though, is Frontier, the fur trade drama that Blackie and his brother Rob co-created and write together. Staring Momoa, whose Hollywood star power has doubtless given the show lift among global viewers, Frontier is in postproduction for its third season and will air on Discovery Channel Canada in January, 2019 (Netflix distributes the show outside the country).

Massive in its ambition and scope, Frontier accounted for about half of all production activity in Newfoundland last year.

“Just as a representation of what’s possible, it was a big, big change,” Peter Blackie said, adding that what he calls “the Netflix of it all” was “transformative.”

“It’s no longer a group of Newfoundlanders here telling Newfoundland stories for a Canadian or Newfoundland audience,” he said. “It’s much more about telling a bigger story.”

Christopher Mitchelmore, Newfoundland’s Minister of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation, said the province “certainly sees value in what Netflix has brought to the table.” He said being on the radar of the streaming service will hopefully open even more doors for Newfoundland-made content.

But it was the Blackie brothers’ connection to the Rock – and relationships they forged in childhood – that ultimately gave Frontier its first breath of life. The Blackie brothers grew up in Gander, which was also home to the Hollywood director Brad Peyton.

“I just pitched the story to Brad after we’d written the script when he was here at Christmas,” Blackie said. “That was what essentially got us in the room [with Netflix]. It matters who you know.”

While there is not a lot of overlap between the Hatching and Doyle alum, the few links that exist between them appear to be growing stronger as the province’s industry orients itself towards bigger budget TV.

The Blackies’ connection with White has allowed them to tap her as a writer and writing mentor for Frontier. Maggs, who works on Little Dog, has lent her pen to both Caught and Frontier. Meanwhile several of the Take The Shot folks – director Vatcher and executive producers Rob Blackie and Alex Patrick – have worked on Little Dog. And while the show seems very Canadian on its surface, it, too, has Hollywood ties. The show’s co-producer is Cameron Pictures, a joint venture between Canadian sisters Amy (a former CBC TV exec) and Tassie Cameron (alum of Rookie Blue and ABC’s Ten Days in the Valley).

“If you look at the group of people that are so successful now, they are all standing on the shoulders of people who came before them,” said Mr. Rowe, the film development corporation executive. “They tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves about wanting to be here and to work here. And they’ve done it,” he said.

“But this is not an overnight success. This is 20 or 40 years of dedication and perseverance,” he said. “And now we’re competing on the world stage in a way we never have before.”

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