Ottawa’s Gusto TV cooks up global expansion plan

Chris Knight
Gusto TV founder Chris Knight has opened up his own production studio. Photo by Mark Holleron.

Chris Knight hopes the new television studio he’s just built to serve his booming food network could set the table for a resurgence in Ottawa’s film and TV production industry.

The local entrepreneur who founded Gusto TV in 2013 loves his hometown and wanted to continue to grow his upstart specialty network from his base here in Ottawa. After years of wondering whether a long-rumoured sound stage would ever materialize in the capital, he decided he couldn’t wait any longer and spent $1 million to construct his own studio.

“It was either build my own place or move to Toronto where they have lots and lots of studios,” he said during a recent interview at the new stage located in Gusto’s south-end head office.

“I was leading this desperate, transient gypsy life of renting warehouses and going in and shooting for three or four months and then leaving and storing things in giant sea containers until I could find another (place to shoot). It was kind of crazy.”

Opened in early November, the cutting-edge facility features a 3,500-square-foot sound stage, a 1,000-square-foot commercial kitchen and post-production services. It will serve as the production hub for Gusto’s food and cooking series such as One World Kitchen and the Urban Vegetarian and will also be available for other producers to lease.

Ottawa isn’t known as a hotbed of TV production, but Knight is used to thumbing his nose at conventional wisdom.

“When we launched Gusto, I went to see sage, learned elders of the broadcast industry in Canada and to a person they told me, ‘You’re out of your mind,’” he said.

“There were five companies – Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Telus and Videotron – who owned 90 per cent of television channels and 90 per cent of the distribution. They owned everything. But there was something to be said for not knowing any better. I think the siren call for any entrepreneur has to be five words: How hard can it be? You just go out and do it.”

Once considered virtually a licence to print money, specialty channels are facing tough times as more and more Canadians cut their cable cords and turn to internet streaming services to satisfy their hunger for televised entertainment. But Knight believes he’s hit on a recipe for producing popular shows on a comparatively shoestring budget.

Labour, hotel and other production costs are lower in Ottawa than in larger centres such as Toronto, he notes, and operating out of his hometown allows him to cash in on additional tax credits given to producers who film outside the Greater Toronto Area.

“We’re in a business where you’ve got to squeeze a dime out of a nickel,” he explained. “Every penny counts.”

After going it on his own for a couple of years, Knight sold the Canadian rights to his productions to Bell Media two years ago. Under the deal, his production company, Gusto Worldwide Media, produces exclusive programming for Bell while retaining the rights to its productions in all markets outside Canada.

It’s all part of Knight’s drive to turn Gusto into a global brand. Today’s over-the-top internet technology means producers no longer need access to expensive satellite services to broadcast programming around the world, he said.

“There are a tremendous amount of opportunities in all of the content we do for all of this global expansion push,” he said. “It’s out of a business park in Ottawa, which I think is kind of cool.”

Now at 47 full-time employees, Knight’s company is aiming to make a major foray into foreign markets in 2018.

Gusto expects to launch on Amazon Prime south of the border this month, and Knight is in the process of hiring an agent in Hong Kong with the aim of cracking the massive Chinese market soon. He believes global consumers, particularly women, will eat up Gusto’s programming and is eyeing a move into other major markets such as Germany, India, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

But he’s also more than happy to share the fruits of his success by offering up his studio to producers in Ottawa and beyond on the 100 or so days a year when Gusto isn’t shooting its own content. He sees it as another step toward making the nation’s capital a viable alternative to Toronto or Montreal as a TV production centre.

“I hope that opening this studio is the beginning of some really great opportunities and that we play some small role in growing the industry here,” he says.