Effort to follow international pre-sales financing model

TORONTO — Even as the Canadian production and distribution industries struggle with market fragmentation and the dominance of reality TV, Ellis Entertainment is a midsized old-timer that has managed to thrive by applying to new trends the skills it’s learned from being a longtime producer and distributor of wildlife programming.

The company’s nimbleness is underpinned by a formula put in place back when NFB veteran Ralph Ellis started up the company 41 years ago. He suspected the Canuck market could not support a producer on its own, and so he launched both a distribution and, with partners who were later bought out, production company.

“Our distribution efforts give us an ear to the world market, which lets us know what’s working where and where there might be opportunities to make shows relevant to Canadians and Americans, and to give them legs internationally,” says Ellis scion Stephen, who joined the company in 1972 and took over as president in 1986. (Ralph remains chairman.)

Effort also allowed Ellis to follow an international pre-sales financing model instead of relying on the less-stable and more bureaucratic standard Canadian funding model. That scheme revolves around equity investment from Telefilm Canada plus other government incentives including tax breaks.

Ellis’ first of many nature series was “Audubon Wildlife Theater” in 1967, though the company is best known as producer of the long-running worldwide series “Profiles of Nature.”

“We’ve seen more cheetah kills than a cheetah” is how Stephen Ellis puts it. Nature programs are reasonably inexpensive to produce and have a virtually unlimited shelf life — plus there are no cast residuals.

When so-called reality programming began overshadowing factual programming about five years ago, Ellis diversified within the wildlife genre, producing wildlife comedy and wildlife kids’ quiz programming.

“Then we realized that the skill set we had in making wildlife programs could be applied to anything,” says Ellis, who calls wildlife “the original reality form. You go out and try to capture what actually happened and turn it into a story in a tight format.”

Accordingly, the company, which spends C$7 million ($5.6 million) to $8 million producing about 20 hours of programming per year, set up lifestyle, faith, science, history and wellness programming streams, all of them influenced by what Ellis terms “the newer style of presenting reality.”

The quick timeline of reality programming allows producers to keep current with public tastes, and longtime U.S. clients such as the Discovery Channel allowed Ellis to feed Discovery’s expanding stable of more than a dozen other channels. When Ellis learned that Discovery Health was looking for a scientific examination of human infant behavior, for example, the company responded by producing six-part series “The Baby Human,” which has sold worldwide and won numerous awards.

On the Canadian front, Ellis has been evolving as well. In 2003 it formed a joint venture with Canadian faith-based broadcaster Vision TV. A satellite to both Ellis and Vision, Vision Intl. produces and sells programming to the domestic and international market, with each partner playing to its strengths.

“We wanted to be secure in the knowledge that it was a long-term commitment without having a foot inside each other’s businesses,” Stephen Ellis says.

Vision Intl. programs include “Divine Restoration,” a “feel-good” reality show in which old churches are given the makeover treatment that will air in the spring on Vision in Canada and TVOne in the U.S.

Company also has been expanding its distribution library and actively soliciting ideas from independent producers. The first such project in development is “Battle Ready,” a reality-style chronicle of the restoration of military tanks.

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