Looking for Sam Wendel, Telefilm Canada’s former man in L.A.? He’s right where he has been for more than a decade – in Beverly Hills. In fact, Wendel is in the same building and office, sitting at the same desk, in the same chair he has been in for the last three years. Only the job has changed.
Wendel left his position as director of Telefilm’s L.A. operation in May, shortly before the Canadian funding agency shut down the office permanently, to accept the job of vice president of development and production for Montreal-based Cinar Films. That translated into starting up an L.A. operation for increasingly international-minded Cinar, a producer and distributor of animated and live-action kids and family programming.
Coincidentally, Wendel happened to know about some prime Wilshire office space opening up – the place in which Telefilm’s L.A. arm had been based for the last three years.
“With all the federal budget cuts, Telefilm decided to close their L.A. office, and they were stuck with a lease on this place,” Wendel says. “I was looking around for a place (for Cinar), and they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. It’s worked out great for everyone.”
Though Cinar’s plan for planting its flag in Hollywood is, for now, a modest one – Wendel and an assistant are currently the only full-time staff, though writers on various projects have routinely used the office since it opened in June – it is clear the move is part of a calculated Cinar strategy to raise its profile in the kidvid world, with occasional journeys into other programming realms, as well.
“We see (the office) as part of a potential growing operation, given the fact that our production is ramping up each year,” company president and co-founder Ronald Weinberg says. “For example, this year, we will have delivered more than 150 half-hours of original programming, compared with last year, when we delivered 100 half-hours. And we see that growing further in 1996.”
Asked why he chose Wendel, a former development exec for Norman Lear prior to his lengthy Telefilm stint, Weinberg points out Wendel knew the turf better than anyone else.
“The key for us was to find the right someone, rather than just opening an office,” Weinberg says. “Sam knows all the Canadians in L.A., how the Canadian industry relates to the L.A. industry, and he has a background in children’s entertainment.”
Wendel says he joined Cinar for more personal reasons.
“I had worked in children’s programming before, when I worked for Norman Lear, and that was because I was the only development exec at the company at the time who had a 2-year-old kid,” Wendel says. “Lear asked me to watch the kinds of shows my son was watching and help develop something different, outside of their main area of comedy.
“As my son was growing up, I always felt, if I ever got back into programming again, it would be in the realm of children’s programming. That’s because I was a joint-custody dad for 14 years. So, I guess you could say it all dovetailed, my personal life and my professional life.”
Wendel remains pleased with his choice, six months into the gig.
“At Telefilm, my job was that of matchmaker,” he says. “You could equate it with being a coach – these are the rules, here are the people to do business with, or not do business with, this is how you might bring the ball up field. Now, I’ve gone from coach to being on the playing field. It’s more exciting – a little more nerve-wracking, but I love it.”
Wendel is currently helping to develop a creative bible for the company’s recently announced plan to create a dramatic TV series out of the Cirque du Soleil circus troupe, in partnership with Toronto’s Baton Broadcasting, and the company is seeking a U.S. partner for that project.
He’s also deep into the development of an animated series based on “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” preparations for Cinar’s upcoming “Arthur the Aardvark” series for PBS next year, and the company’s development of “Wimzie’s House,” which Wendel describes as a “sitcom for preschoolers.”
Another priority project is “Space Cases,” a live-action sci-fi comedy series set to preem on Nickelodeon in February.
The company has enjoyed solid success with family fare like “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” “The Busy World of Richard Scarry” and the upcoming HBO series, “Little Lulu,” featuring the voice of Tracey Ullman. However, occasional feature films and programs aimed at older auds may become more commonplace, especially following on the success of this year’s CBS miniseries, “Million Dollar Babies.”
“Look, we’re never going to do ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Showgirls,'” Wendel explains. “But, we are looking at teenage dramas like (theatrical feature) ‘Bonjour Timothy.’ We’re currently doing a sequel for that, in fact. Mainly, we’re positioned well to do animation and live action, with a focus on family and children and teen programming. If we expand beyond that, it will only be because we are going to be passionate about certain pieces of material.”
Wendel’s office could someday end up playing a key role in making the company a higher-profile product provider to U.S. and foreign webs alike.
“With Sam in L.A., we have a nest for talent, a facility for them to work in, and a better way to find projects and partners,” Weinberg says.