September 30, 2016

Ivan Fecan: The producer bringing popular play Kim’s Convenience to TV

Do not be fooled by the shiny hardware in Ivan Fecan’s office. There are rows and rows of gleaming tchotchkes: Gemini Awards, a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, armfuls of laurels from TV festivals in New York and Houston and San Francisco. But they don’t belong to him. After decades as a suit at CBC and CTV, he left the executive suite six years ago, and no longer has his own office in Toronto. So, even if he looks comfortably at home – reading a script with his feet up, relaxing in an untucked striped dress shirt, a navy blue sport jacket and spotless white tennis shoes – he’s just squatting here, in the Yorkville HQ of his wife, the TV producer Sandra Faire.

Still, Fecan (pronounced “Fetz-ann”) does have one such trophy, a lifetime achievement sort of thing known as the Academy Board of Directors’ Tribute that he got, he quips, “for surviving.” But don’t feel bad if you didn’t see Lloyd Robertson hand it to him during the Canadian Screen Awards last March. “I wasn’t in the broadcast, that’s why you missed it. It was among the 500 other awards,” he chuckles. “Executives don’t get in the broadcast.”

But now, almost 40 years after he started in TV as a producer on Toronto’sCityPulse News, Fecan, 63, is back in the guts of the business with his first on-screen producer credit in decades, shepherding a high-stakes TV project that CBC is giving one of its biggest launches in years.

Kim’s Convenience, scheduled to debut Oct. 4, is in the sweet spot of CBC’s mission: a family-friendly prime-time sitcom, adapted from a popular and award-winning play about a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood and struggling (sweetly) with intergenerational conflict amid the gentrifying, multicultural city.

If some may view its arrival with cynicism – promotional efforts touting its on-screen diversity could seem a little too Trudeauishly self-congratulatory – the show is warm and winning, and has the ring of authenticity. But if Kim’s is a portrait of the new Canada, the play’s transition to the screen is also a reminder of the similar beginnings of those who make up the Canadian establishment.

For while Fecan is now a godfather-like figure in the TV business, he is also the child of refugees whose hardscrabble lives gave him an appreciation of both the struggles and the rich legacies of those who followed in their footsteps.

Fecan started in the business as a freelance radio producer right out of York University’s fine arts program. (He was in such a rush to start his career, he says, “being a smart ass, I talked my way into the second-year classes.” But at the end of three years, though he had done the fourth-year courses, he didn’t have enough credits to graduate, so he left. Apparently, there were no hard feelings: In 2006, York named a theatre after him and his wife, in recognition of a generous contribution; in 2008, the university conferred honorary doctorates on them.)

He began in CBC Radio, working on the first year of Quirks & Quarks, left for a few years at CITY-TV, then came back to CBC for a quick series of jobs that ended with a stint as head of variety programming. He came to the attention of Brandon Tartikoff, the wunderkind NBC programmer (Cheers, L.A. Law, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld) who hired him, at age 31, to head up the network’s creative development. Tartikoff was a mentor, and taught him the business of programming. But after two years, CBC offered him a job as head of its English-language TV network back in Toronto.

“I really love programming,” he says. “If you’re a carpenter and you want to be a carpenter, then you should start being a carpenter somewhere. I didn’t want to go through the wait, I wanted to start doing that right away, and CBC gave me the opportunity. And my wife was here and she didn’t like L.A. particularly.”

Under Fecan, CBC programmed The Kids in the Hall, Street Legal, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, CODCO and Road to Avonlea. He expanded the audience forDegrassi Junior High by moving it from the afternoon to prime time. He programmed the landmark movie-of-the-week The Boys of St. Vincent.

In 1993, he was wooed away to Baton Broadcasting, at the time an Ontario-based operation that owned a small share of CTV. The network was riven by fractious ownership, and losing money. Over the next few years, Fecan helped orchestrate a takeover that set the table for CTV’s current dominance in Canadian network television. With him as president and CEO, CTV bought TSN, Discovery, CP24, Bravo, Space, a smorgasbord of other cable channels and the A-Channel network, and launched Sportsnet and The Comedy Network. As the company thrived, so did Fecan’s net worth. Suitors came calling, including Bell parent BCE, which bought the company in 2000, sold off part of it (to the owners of The Globe and Mail), then sold the rest of it in 2006, only to buy it outright in 2010.

“When I joined Baton, it was trading at $6 a share, and when we sold to Bell the first time we sold for $37 a share. And there were [stock] options and all that stuff. I think I sold that company four times.” He chuckles. “And twice while it was a public company. There were changes of control that triggered options, and all that stuff.”

Nice work if you can get it? he is asked. He smiles and chuckles again: “Right time, right place.”

When BCE bought CTV in 2010, Fecan was exhausted and ready for a change. He stepped aside to let the new owners run things their way, and announced he was retiring. He bought a place in Santa Barbara and began to renovate it. In December, 2011, though, just before he was headed off to California for the winter, Albert Schultz, the artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto’s Distillery District, asked him to sit in on a rehearsal of a new play.

Kim’s Convenience had enjoyed a sellout run at Toronto’s fringe theatre festival the previous summer, and even though its mainstage debut at Soulpepper was still weeks away, there were high hopes it could also morph into something else. (Indeed, in a review published in January, 2012, Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck suggested the play felt like an updated version ofKing of Kensington, the 1970s sitcom about a merchant in Toronto’s Kensington Market, writing: “you can imagine this being the pilot for a CBC remake: Kim of Regent Park.”) Fecan had first met Schultz in 1991 when he gave his stamp of approval of the actor as a new principal on Street Legal.

“I was blown away by the play in rehearsal,” said Fecan. He, Schultz and Ins Choi, a first-time Korean-Canadian playwright who mined his extended family’s story for the play, went to lunch. Over burgers and salads, Fecan told Choi about his parents, Ukrainian refugees who had arrived separately in Toronto in the early 1950s and worked long and gruelling blue-collar hours: his mother washing dishes in the Sears cafeteria, his father sweeping the city streets.

Fecan explained that his parents’ marriage didn’t last long, and that he was raised by his mother and grandmother on Lippincott Street, on the outskirts of Kensington Market, where merchants like Mr. Kim (albeit non-Korean ones at the time) were aplenty.

Choi was impressed. “That’s a very generous and vulnerable act, to share your story, right?” he said during a phone interview this week. “So I was very touched by it. Especially because, we leave the rehearsal hall and we go through the atrium at Soulpepper, which is called The Ivan Fecan and Sandra Faire Atrium – so I’m kind of intimidated. Like: ‘Wow, this guy is a big guy.’ For him to humble himself and reach out to me with his story, that meant a lot.”

Still, nothing came of the meeting. Soulpepper mounted the play to strong reviews and appreciative crowds, including large numbers of Korean-Canadian theatregoers, then toured the show across the country. Choi and Schultz began to meet with production companies to explore the possibilities: Could it be a TV show? An indie movie?

The meetings left Choi cold. “I was scared. I didn’t want to make a mistake,” he explained. He had heard cautionary tales of other creators who had lost control of their projects when they failed to ensure their voice would be heard. “I didn’t want that to happen,” he said. “I wanted to not have anything, rather than have a bad thing.”

As it happens, Fecan had a similar concern about his own work. In 2013, Frank Giustra, the billionaire mining magnate who had founded Lionsgate Entertainment, and the film executive Tim Gamble, visited him in California to ask whether he might join their new venture, Thunderbird Films. He put in some equity and became its executive chair. “One promise I made to myself when I left [CTV] is, I’m never purely going to work for somebody again. I will always be a part owner or an owner of whatever it is I do.”

One of the first calls Fecan made after joining Thunderbird was to Schultz, leading to a deal that gave the company a first look at all of the works coming out of Soulpepper.

Schultz, who is an executive producer on the TV show, says Fecan’s experience has been invaluable – not just during production itself, but also in navigating the byways of the business, including how exactly they should shop it to the networks. Schultz recalled a meeting where he, Fecan, Choi, Kevin White (the show’s co-creator) and Soulpepper’s executive director Leslie Lester met with a large team from CBC that included programmers and marketers.

“Ivan was really specific about who would speak when, where people should sit. Even though it was a CBC meeting, Ivan had this ability to make sure that we could tell the narrative of what was special about [the show],” said Schultz. “He could walk into large meetings and very gently make sure that the agenda goes in a particular way.”

It also helped that the play was a known property. In reviews of the stage play, Mr. Kim, an irascible and obliviously racist sort, is often compared to Archie Bunker. And if his prejudices have been sanded down for prime time, the TV show still dabbles in areas that could prove thorny in the wrong hands. So, during pitch meetings, the show’s success on stage went some way to assuring anxious network executives that the material would land.

“There’s a fair amount of politically incorrect stuff in there,” notes Fecan. “And I could just imagine if that script came in without it being road tested, there might be some: ‘Well, how are people going to react to it?’ We know how people react to it, because there have been a few hundred performances! We know exactly how people are going to react to it.”

Fecan says he’s pleased to be back at his alma mater, in part because, “I really believe in the CBC’s public broadcasting mission.” And he seems gratified that his first scripted show as a producer is a reflection of the changing face of Canada.

“When you think about the demographics of the country, the demographics of the city – half of the city is born outside of Canada,” he notes. “This is a very Canadian show. There’s no foreign money in it. We get to tell the story of immigrants, and immigrant issues our way. Think about it: If you take foreign money for a show like this – when it’s actually being produced, as opposed to selling it after it’s made – well, money has demands. They’ll want [to offer] notes. Think about how immigrants are viewed in Europe right now, and in America.

“I’m not sure we’d have been able to do the same show, if it was financed outside of Canada.”

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