Firm mines pre-sales, Canadian incentives in clever biz model

Barely 3 years old, the Los Angeles-based TV arm of indie Entertainment One has made a mark in the network and cable biz by bringing to the table that most precious commodity: financing.

EOne Television, headed by CEO John Morayniss, leverages its heft as a producer and distrib of film, TV and home entertainment fare in Canada, the U.K. and other territories to cobble together coin for TV series in the same way that many indie features are funded, through a combo of foreign pre-sales and advance commitments. It mines the lucrative Canadian system of production incentives and premium license fees given to shows that lense in Canada but also air on a major U.S. network.

This patchwork quilt of funding sources allows the company to offer some series to U.S. networks at a steep discount, often in exchange for big upfront commitments. Its highest-profile series to date has been the adaptation of John Grisham novel “The Firm,” which landed at NBC with a 22-episode order.

The legal ensembler wasn’t that much of a gamble for NBC at a license fee said to be around $1 million, less than what top cablers pay for original drama skeins. Between the coin received from Canada’s Global TV and a big sale to Sony’s suite of AXN-branded international channels covering more than 140 countries, eOne didn’t need big bucks from the U.S. to cover its costs; it needed the outlet to attract name thesps (notably Josh Lucas and Molly Parker) and to ensure the premium license fees from its other partners.

“There’s a proliferation of channels that are hungry for American programming that is a certain genre and tone,” Morayniss said. “When an opportunity comes along get a branded series like ‘The Firm,’ Sony’s AXN came in without the condition of a U.S. sale because they knew we were heavily in this market.”

In many respects, “The Firm” will be an interesting test case for whether the eOne model can survive the big leagues of network primetime. The Big Three have been experimenting with Canadian imports for the past few years, but most of these shows have been relegated to summer runs, as ABC has done with eOne’s cop drama “Rookie Blue.”

“The Firm,” on the other hand, landed a regular-season slot and was touted at NBC’s upfront presentation last May. On the downside, “The Firm” has been mostly panned by domestic critics and got off to a weak start (a 3 share in adults 18-49 weak) in its two-hour premiere Sunday. It will face tough competish in its regular Thursday 10 p.m. berth.

But even if “The Firm” doesn’t go the distance, the eOne model has piqued the interest of the creative community. Indeed, it was Grisham, scribe Lukas Reiter and his reps at CAA that brought the project to eOne after seeing what the company had done with “Rookie Blue” and the Syfy drama “Haven.”

NBC, for one, is negotiating with eOne for a multi-episode commitment to another drama, medical vehicle “Saving Hope,” that has also been ordered by Canada’s CTV. Filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson came to eOne last fall with a concept for a supernatural procedural drama, “The Reel,” that will be shopped overseas long before it seeks a U.S. home.

Timing was everything for eOne’s push to build its U.S. TV business. In fall 2008, the company bought Blueprint Entertainment, the production shingle run by international TV vets Morayniss and Noreen Halpern, who is now eOne’s prexy of drama programming. Morayniss and Halpern had been pursuing the Canadian content/foreign financing model on their own, but the backing of eOne gave them deeper pockets.

Moreover, eOne’s rollup of Blueprint and other TV companies came on the heels of the 2007-08 writers strike, which was the shock to the system that spurred the major nets to look for new and cheaper sources of programming.

“We’d always had a more global approach,” Halpern says. “All of a sudden that coincided with an interest in the U.S. of putting shows together in a different way — bringing financing out of international markets, using the advantage to be able to bring a significant amount of money out of Canada and other countries as a way to do high-end shows for lower license fees.”

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