Opinion: Focusing on finding financial success in film from Ottawa

Industry veteran shares advice on breaking into the business

I recently interviewed screenwriter Sharon Buckingham, best known as the writer/producer and creative force behind Sticks & Stones, a CTV made-for-TV movie.

It won both the Shaw Rocket Prize for Best Canadian Family TV program and Best Foreign Film at the International Family Film Festival, and was nominated for a Gemini and a Canadian Film and Television Production Association Indie Awards as best movie for television. Ms. Buckingham currently makes Ottawa her home base, although she is frequently seen going down the road to Toronto and Los Angeles.

FIRESTONE: Sharon, you’ve experienced everything, including the highs of living on three acres on Mulholland Drive in L.A. to, well, the lows that come by just being in the business. So how do you cope with the highs and lows of your business and what advice can you give “artpreneurs?”

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BUCKINGHAM: Someone once said, “Dream big, start small,” and that still seems like good show business advice to me. Even your smallest and earliest successes are stepping stones that will take you to bigger accomplishments.

FIRESTONE: Reality television has kind of taken over TV-land. I know you are working on some projects in the field. Can you share one or two of these with us?

BUCKINGHAM: I can’t share specifics, but I can say that I’ve recently given up on one project I thought had tremendous potential both here in Canada and internationally, because I discovered that financing reality programming in Canada is nearly impossible.

At this time, the two principal financing sources for television programming here are the Canadian Media Fund and tax credits. Neither allows funding of programs that contain reality television elements. They would also be unlikely to find a broadcaster willing to air it because under present (Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission) policy, any program with a competition component does not qualify as “priority programming.” Given this, Canadian broadcasters fill their non-priority time slots with American shows that cost less to acquire.

FIRESTONE: Well, it’s been my view for a long time that the CRTC represents the dead hand of regulation hurting Canadian talent. You’ve just confirmed it.

BUCKINGHAM: I didn’t exactly put it that way.

FIRESTONE: Right. Let’s move on then. What was the one “can’t miss” project or idea that did?

BUCKINGHAM: Sometimes the reason a “can’t miss” project hasn’t sold is because the timing’s not right, which has nothing to do with whether the idea is any good or not. It’s basically a one-in-a-hundred shot to go from idea to production and, while it’s true I’ve beaten the odds so far, a couple of my “can’t miss” ideas are “resting” in my file cabinet until, as I tell myself, the timing’s better.

FIRESTONE: I have quite a few of those myself! There’s been a lot of criticism of Hollywood over the years for producing lousy writing. With all the smart people running around, how come there aren’t more Cameron Crowes (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) and Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing, The American President)?

BUCKINGHAM: My best guess is that getting a movie or television series made has more to do with what those doing the financing and distribution think audiences will pay to see than it has to do with the quality of the writing.

FIRESTONE: What advice would you give a fledgling Canadian screenwriter who is trying to get into the TV or film biz? Do they need an agent, for example, and, if so, how would they get one?

BUCKINGHAM: Before any practical advice, let me just say this: if you can’t take rejection, you need to find another outlet for your creativity. If you’re someone who can take rejection and you have a healthy ego, then you’ll need to “armor up” because you’ll be tested.

OK, with that out of the way, what you need to get into the TV or film biz is a first-rate writing sample. People who want to work in features need to write an outstanding feature script on spec. Those who want to work in TV need to write a sample episode of a show that’s presently on air. Many cities, including Ottawa, offer workshops and courses in screenwriting. Algonquin College, for example, has a highly respected screenwriting program.

And yes, you do need an agent because most production companies and producers will not look at unsolicited material. Period. They will look at material an agent recommends because they are the industry’s gatekeepers.

Like good writing, getting an agent takes time and effort. The standard approach is to first get a list of Canadian agents. The Writers Guild of Canada’s website (www.wgc.ca) offers a list of Canadian agents.

FIRESTONE: If you could do one thing over again in your career, what would it be?

BUCKINGHAM: I consider that I’ve had a successful career, at least on my terms, and I think many people would agree, so I don’t know that I would change or do over anything much. Different projects have given me the opportunity to travel and live and work for periods of time in Europe, Africa and Australia.

It’s possible I’d have had a more financially successful career if I’d put more time in on the business side, if I’d been more ambitious or if I’d chosen to continue to live in California, but money alone has never been a good enough motivator for me. It’s also true that some of my choices … and that includes moving back to Canada … have been made not for business, but personal reasons, allowing me to spend more time with my family, and that’s definitely something I wouldn’t change for anything.

Professor Bruce M. Firestone is entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management; founder of the Ottawa Senators; executive director of Exploriem.org; and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc.

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