In 2021, the Canadian independent producer marblemedia is celebrating 20 years in the business. World Screen caught up with its co-CEOs and co-founders, Mark Bishop and Matt Hornburg, to discuss how the company has evolved since its inception, its current positioning in the marketplace and the challenges and opportunities facing Canada’s independent production sector at present.
WS: How is marblemedia positioned in the marketplace, and how did its positioning help the company to thrive amid the challenges of the last year?
BISHOP: Our head office is based in Toronto, but we have made great strides in globally expanding our entertainment business across numerous international media platforms. We continue to develop, produce and distribute a vast range of TV, interactive and digital content for audiences of all ages. Initially, marblemedia was rooted at the forefront of the kids and family industry, but within the past ten years, we have gained considerable edge by creating and developing authentic prime-time content. Our evolution is continuing to happen even faster, evident from the great volume of production despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. Our strong and lasting relationships with both international and domestic buyers allowed us to keep our momentum with production commissions; at one point, marblemedia was producing over a hundred episodes.
Our widespread success includes competition series such as Blown Away, a Netflix original now in its second season, and Race Against the Tide, launching this fall on CBC, as well as lifestyle programs such as Restaurants on the Edge, also for Netflix. We launched our first scripted series this year, The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker, an interlinked live-action family sitcom. Currently, we are in production on a new family comedy, Overlord and the Underwoods, set to launch later this fall. In development, we have numerous scripted projects, including Persuasion, based on Arlene Dickinson’s best-selling novel of the same name, and The Other Boy, based on M.G. Hennessey’s novel.
HORNBURG: We’ve never sat still as a company, and while many of our ideas were well underway before the pandemic struck, we used the production downtime in the business really efficiently. We focused on developing these and other new projects on our slate, looking to both deliver something fresh to the market and ensure that they could be produced with Covid restrictions in place. We’ve always produced swiftly and efficiently, ready to pivot when required. And we’ve always put a premium on collaboration—both internally and externally. Having all of this in reserve proved a great asset last year and made 2020 one of our most successful to date. We’ve improved how we work with our own teams, which has [been] a major benefit to our development process, and while Zoom meetings do have their limitations, we have genuinely found that these more relaxed and intimate communications have enhanced collaboration with broadcasters and helped to grow our relationships. Over the past year, we have also expanded our development teams, launching an L.A. presence with our VP of kids, A.J. Trauth, and expanding our unscripted development team with Mike Armitage and growing our scripted development and production teams.
WS: What has been the strategy to diversify the company to be more than a kids’ and family producer?
BISHOP: Twenty years ago, Matt and I started marblemedia with the founding principle of producing innovative content that cultivates curiosity in our audiences. Canada is a great place to produce authentic stories that connect with people around the world. While our company began with a foundation of creating successful kids and family content, we’ve always had a passion for telling stories to audiences of all ages. We identified an opportunity to expand our brand to a wider audience base while still maintaining our founding principles. Just as the broadcast landscape continues to evolve, we also evolved as a company by diversifying, identifying and seizing new opportunities to continually grow our business. To this day, Matt and I are very much hands-on producers brimming with ideas. We find this is imperative under the current market conditions, with our goals to continue expanding our production and distribution businesses. And personally, as we watch our children grow, we are constantly inspired to create more programming that they and their friends (and even our adult friends) could watch with their families. While this reminder doesn’t completely guide our strategy, it remains essential for us to produce content that our families love.
HORNBURG: Our heritage may be firmly anchored in kids and family, and we are proud of that, but in the past few years we have quietly been building what could be termed a mini, independent Canadian studio. We produce kids’, unscripted and scripted series for global audiences. We have our own digital channel, marbleKids; we have our own international distribution business in Distribution360, based in London and Toronto; we create interactive games and social media content that support our key properties; have invested in post-production facilities; and we’re now even building sets on our 50-acre backlot—the “marble ranch” just north of Toronto, to give us even greater flexibility and control in the face of location availability and lockdowns. All these developments see us well-placed to support our business growth and diversification.
WS: What’s the unique take or lens that marblemedia has that runs through all its programming, regardless of genre?
BISHOP: When we established the business 20 years ago, we wanted marblemedia to stand for something—to reflect who we were as creators and as individuals. This is where our touchstone of producing through an “optimistic lens” comes from, and it was readily woven through our early kids and family content. Even through a global pandemic, its relevance has never wavered in our DNA and is incorporated across every genre. Global audiences enjoy optimistic, “blue-sky” content and have especially sought this type of programming over the past year. It brings people together, cultivates their curiosity, lifts moods and empowers them to make changes in their lives. I’m proud of the impact that I know our content continues to have on people around the world.
HORNBURG: We are also passionate about finding the broad appeal in unique worlds and making them accessible to everyone. Blown Away is a great example: we have created a successful, joyful and compelling competition show that highlights the difficult and challenging work of a fairly discrete group of dedicated practitioners while also ensuring that their skill, artistry and beautiful creations are marveled at around the globe. A similar thought process is behind our two recently announced new competition shows: Best in Miniature, featuring the design of miniature interiors, and A Cut Above, showcasing the extraordinary talents of woodcarvers working with chainsaws. Positivity is also front and center in All Round Champion. Now with a fourth season commissioned, this competitive sports series featuring teen athletes not only inspires and encourages young people to try different sporting activities, it also promotes values such as hard work, teamwork and sportsmanship in obtaining your goals.
WS: What are the greatest challenges, and opportunities, facing the Canadian independent production sector at present?
HORNBURG: One key practical challenge for independent producers in Canada at the present time is securing crew and studio space. Both Toronto and Vancouver have seen a massive rise in service production from U.S. studios and streamers hopping over the border and brandishing larger paychecks, which can often block out vital resources for long periods at a time. The flipside to this is that we are now branching out into regions like New Brunswick for filming with our new series Race Against the Tide. We have a lot of amazing places where we can film in Canada and which have very receptive local communities. However, we do need to see support from the government to support infrastructure and skills development if these places are going to be able to fully compete over time.
Navigating the forever shifting media landscape in Canada has always been a big challenge for independent producers in this country. But that’s not new news—it simply requires producers to be resourceful, have grit and be highly innovative—both creatively and in business. There are now more opportunities than ever before for Canadian producers and show creators, especially in the global market, and the past decade has seen countless examples of Canadian shows—scripted and unscripted—that have found a broad audience internationally. Canadians are great storytellers, and our ideas are commercial and exportable. It’s not surprising that Netflix and Amazon have opened offices here and so many of the U.S. buyers continually look for co-production opportunities north of the border. Some of the Canadian domestic broadcasters are also taking interesting risks, moving away from obvious third-party formats that have been successful in other countries and choosing to roll the dice on new ideas that have originated here, with the idea of sharing in its international success. The Canadian sector is going to explode in the coming years. It already has. We’ve seen it with our own company and the community at large.
BISHOP: The domestic broadcast landscape remains a major challenge to independent producers who have had to rely on international partners instead of the usual commissioners, many of whom have drastically downsized or do not have the budget to greenlight locally made content. We are grateful for supportive public broadcasters in Canada, including CBC, TVO and Knowledge Network, but many private broadcasters have seen a decline in their independent content commissions. Interestingly enough, this decline in demand at home is happening at a time when there has never been more global interest in Canadian content. While it’s brilliant that Netflix is establishing an office here and is committed to telling authentic stories, we are equally delighted that the recent proposed legislation, Bill C-10, will ensure that the streamers commit a proportion of their annual revenues into Canadian content. They will be making direct contributions back into the local independent production sector. Alongside this, we are still looking for the government to help secure a healthy and robust CBC, amongst other things, to ensure that Canadian broadcasters continue to play a vital role in maintaining and nurturing homegrown talent and IP ownership. We need to ensure domestic formats can be created and promoted by the local broadcasters in addition to being supported by the funding bodies. Historically, many funding agencies in Canada have not supported unscripted original competition and game show series—that needs to change in order for domestic producers to create homegrown hits that can travel internationally.
WS: As you look out at the 12 months ahead, where do you see the greatest opportunities in the international TV business and for marblemedia?
HORNBURG: Throughout our 20 years working together, the future of television has often been discussed, but one thing is certain, as the landscape continues to evolve and as how audiences find and engage with content changes, the demand for great quality programming will remain strong. People will always want to be entertained, amused, challenged and informed, and television still remains the perfect medium to achieve all those things.
BISHOP: For marblemedia, there are several immediate opportunities. For one, we continue to expand our slate, and reputation, for unique competition shows. We will begin to roll these out internationally as formats through Distribution360, which is also growing its business in line with changes in the market. Another is to take advantage of the constant demand for great premium scripted content. We have all the building blocks in place and a number of great new shows in development. Expect to see more from us in this space soon. In addition, should we continue to face periodic lockdowns and travel limitations over the next 12 months, there is a great opportunity for us to work with international broadcasters and producers who need partners on the ground in Canada. We are very happy to work in partnership and have successfully produced a local version of the Banijay Rights format Landscape Artist of the Year Canada for Blue Ant’s Makeful and CBC last year. We were able to prove that marblemedia is a viable partner for international formats.
Finally, we have strengthened our team to leverage international opportunities. Based in L.A., we have AJ Trauth, our VP of kids, as well as in London, we have Diane Rankin, D360’s senior VP of rights and executive producer. We have been working closely on developing and financing unscripted content such as Best in Miniature, which had discovery+ UK and Ireland come on board at the same time as CBC.