January 25, 2013

Part 3: How City’s Package Deal Turns Brain Drain Into Brain Gain

Etan Vlessing / Playback

“It’s all changed,” Andrew Orenstein, the creator and executive producer of the City comedy Package Deal,says of TV scribes on both sides of the border after Hollywood’s 2008 writers strike. American network bosses now see the appeal of Canadian TV shows, ideally structured as coproductions,acquired for their prime-time schedules. First there were one hour dramas like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue. Then, after Corner Gas and Little Mosque and the Prairie proved Canadians won’t just sit still for New Girl and Mike and Molly, came commissions for comedies like Seed and Package Deal from Rogers Media.

Then came other comedies in the works like Satisfaction and Spun Out from CTV.

The shower of upcoming chucklers continued with the Eva Longoria-starring animated comedyMother Up!, again from Rogers Media.

News of the homegrown laughers, while raising the stakes for their local broadcasters, have their Canadian producers eyeing potential U.S. and other foreign sales.

Orenstein insists Americans won’t care if Package Deal is set in Toronto. “Where the Americans, as anyone outside Canada, will care is if they don’t get the inside jokes,” he adds.

The result is usual industry practice has been reversed: Los Angeles is where Canadian producers now look for what they traditionally found back home: homegrown writers and producers that can churn out Canadian shows with a Hollywood sensibility after working in the studio trenches.

Water flows due to gravity.

And since the Hollywood writers strike, first scripted dramas like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue and now comedies like Orenstein’s Package Deal, Tim McAuliffe’s Satisfaction and Brian K. Roberts’ Spun Out have reversed Canada’s traditional brain drain to Los Angeles and given the country gravitational pull.

The result is discreet cross-border producers now maintain rosters of Canadian writer/producers in Los Angeles that can impress U.S. studio execs whose first question after being pitched is: “Who’s the showrunner?”

Additionally, producers are keen to get the tone and pacing right on local sitcoms so they can stand up next to popular U.S. comedies on Canadian schedules.

An example: Jay Malone brings both his stand-up comedy background and sitcom experience in Los Angeles, like the upcoming buddy comedy Dumbbells, to Package Deal. “I wanted to do this type of show, this type of show doesn’t exist in Canada, therefore I went to the States,” he insists.

Harland Williams, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1990, said he feels like a dual citizen on the Vancouver set.

“I feel Canadian when I’m out walking and not in the studio. But when I get in the studio, it’s hard to tell the difference between a Canadian soundstage and an American soundstage,” he says.

Here the Canadians are taking an established TV model and turning it on its ear by making a multi-camera comedy traditional to the U.S. market in Canada.

“It feels like the tools are in place to do a funny show,” Williams insists.

The wonder is it took Canadians so long to return to making four-camera comedies, as CTV orders the pilot for the Dave Foley-starrer Spun Out.

The workplace comedy comes from creators Jeff Biederman, Brent Piaskoski and Brian K. Roberts, who came to Canada around the same time of the Hollywood writers’ strike and has since been buttressing the new Canadian production model with projects like the TV movie

Memory Lanes, the series All The Comforts and The Debaters on the CBC.

You have to go back to King of Kensington, Trouble with Tracy and Mosquito Lake to remember when four-camera comedies were last in vogue here.

More recent comedies like Less Than Kind and Mr. D are single-camera efforts. Orenstein argues the Canadian industry went for virtually a generation without doing multicamera comedies because it lacked the bench strength to do something so American as a sitcom.

For example, the cameramen on Package Deal have little experience working on scripted dramas or movies shot in Canada.

They worked on another multi-camera TV series for Thunderbird Films, Mr Young, which was created by Toronto-born TV scribe Dan Signer, who returned from Los Angeles to oversee the Canadian comedy.

Instead, the camera people on Package Deal are mostly ex-CBC sports cameramen that know how to quickly cut to the action.

“They can follow the puck,” Orenstein insists.

Multi-cam comedies, he adds, are different from the dramedies that single-camera sitcoms often feel like, and are the closest thing to live theatre.

There’s an energy and high for the performers and the set-side creative team from taping in front of an audience.

“It works or it doesn’t. And the audience will let you know,” Orenstein says.

What’s more, the show-runner isn’t relying on trickery or quirky camera angles for comedy.

“It’s just funny people standing on a soundstage in front of an audience, saying funny lines for laughs,” he insists.

What Orenstein might also have added is Canadians don’t tend to do multi-cam comedies because, as in the U.S, they mostly fail.

The U.S. network model, where the odds on success after pilot development and production are slim, but the reward for success immense, has allowed Hollywood studios in a far larger U.S. market to hedge their bets and thrive at that game.

But, post-Hollywood writers strike, the Americans are co-producing with Canadian or other foreign producers to secure series.

And back in Canada, City is expecting in Package Deal a homegrown comedy that can stack up well against popular U.S. comedies on its prime time schedule like Modern Family and 2 Broke Girls.

“The show has to have the look and feel of what you’re competing again. I don’t think it’s unfair for the audience to expect that,” Orenstein insists.

He adds one-hour Canadian dramas like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue, which sprang up after the Hollywood writers strike, are succeeding against the American competition.

Orenstein is hopeful the current crop of Canadian comedies, which includes Seed on City and, can replicate that success at home and abroad.

Read more: http://playbackonline.ca/2013/01/24/part-3-how-citys-package-deal-turns-brain-drain-into-brain-gain/#ixzz2J2AHTC8F

“While I’m here in the tunnel, I believe the show (Package Deal) looks wonderful,” he declares.