Shaftesbury’s shift to TV pays off

'Listener' makes some noise en route to NBC

MONTREAL — When Christina Jennings first began producing Canuck films in the early 1990s, it was, to put it politely, not a huge moneymaking operation.

“I didn’t with any certainty know if I was going to make payroll, and I couldn’t live with that,” Jennings says of those early days at Shaftesbury Films.

But the Toronto producer doesn’t have to worry about coin these days.

Jennings figures her company will produce more than $80 million in TV movies and series this year, up from $57 million last year; in 2000, the company’s production tally was just $16 million.

Shaftesbury’s growth began when it shifted its focus from features — a business that’s hardly a profit center in Canada — to TV production. That decision soon paid off, with shows like the bioterrorism-themed drama “ReGenesis” and kids’ series “Life With Derek,” both of which have sold to more than 100 countries.

Shaftesbury recently upped its profile bigtime thanks to “The Listener,” a drama about a Toronto paramedic with telepathic powers, which has been sold to NBC in the U.S. and CTV in Canada.

It has been well over a decade since a Canadian production, Mounties drama “Due South,” aired in primetime on a major U.S. network, and Jennings is particularly proud that “The Listener” does not hide its Toronto roots.

“The Listener” will share that honor with another Canadian drama, “Flashpoint” (not a Shaftesbury production), which was recently picked up by CBS and will hit the air first.

Jennings believes there’ll be more Canadian fare on U.S. networks in the years to come.

“There’s a move toward partnership in the U.S.,” she says. “The cost of programming is so high, so if you can defray the costs, it’s great for the networks.”

And, naturally, Jennings is hoping she can provide some of that programming.

The other new Shaftesbury series that’s already sparking interest is “Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures,” a drama based on Vincent Lam’s collection of short stories that follows four doctors from medical school through their years as ER docs.

The series has just been sold to Canadian payboxes the Movie Network and Movie Central.

Shaftesbury still has a couple of films on the back-burner, but the focus will remain on the smallscreen.

“For us, film is a hobby,” says Jennings. “We can’t build the business on it.”

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