Norm Bolen - Part 1: Canadian Media Producers Association

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Banff World Media Festival on June, 2011

 My name is Norm Bolen; I am President and CEO of the Canadian Media Production Association based in Toronto and Ottawa and Vancouver. I live in Ottawa. Our job is to represent the interests of the independent production sector in Canada: film, television and, increasingly new media, digital online content creators. We do labour relations on behalf of the producers with the unions and guilds and we lobby the government. We do regulatory work at the CRTC, all with one purpose: to advance Canadian content and the role of independent producers.

 Fraser. That is an increasingly complex environment; one small change can have huge consequences.

 Bolen. The biggest concern is that something will slip by us. There are so many reviews and regulatory and legislative processes. We have to participate in all of them. It is a huge volume of work. One small change, as you suggest, can have massive, unintended consequences. So we are always trying to monitor the review work that's going on and make sure that the views of independent producers are considered. Then we caution people not to be too quick to adopt new, radically different, ideas without thinking them through and considering all the different impacts they might have on the system.

 These days there's this popular idea that regulation is passé, that the free hand of the marketplace will take care of everything, that our regulated environment of cultural policies and regulations is holding back innovation and preventing Canadians from having reasonable access; there is some truth, of course, in all that. But it is not an absolute thing. Yet, people advocate for it in an absolute way. We have to be careful to keep all the institutions we have created that work so well… keep what's good about them and change what is not.

 I often feel that we're battling against people who think we should throw institutions out and that the market should take care of things. They would like to position people like me and my members as dinosaurs because we don't want to change, but we do. We want to adapt and we want the system to adapt. But we want to do it in an intelligent and calculated way, without damaging cultural institutions which have been so important to Canada, its identity and citizens.

 F. We heard this morning how increasingly important lawyers are in the media business.

 B. More and more dollars in every production are spent on legal and business affairs. Contracts have expanded so that they’re ridiculous and almost impenetrable. Smaller production companies have a really hard time functioning in this environment. You almost need your own in-house legal department to manage the paper work and contractual activity or serious legal counsel on retainer. There are a lot of reasons for this situation: contract creep… vertical integration. Smaller companies that used to operate a little closer to the ground become bigger companies and more corporate, more risk averse and more concerned about liability.

 I'll tell you a story. In 1997, I was hired by Robert Lantos and Phyllis Yaffe to launch History Television. I was their only employee. We were launching a channel that meant to serve millions of Canadians and we were spending millions of dollars on content right out of the gate. We had to in order to launch the service. We were doing about 15 original series in the first six months of the channel and lots of one-ofs and all kinds of deals with producers. And I was put in the position of writing the contracts myself with no legal help. We didn't have a lawyer. We didn't even consider it necessary to have a lawyer.

 We just phoned up friends in other companies and ask them to send us copies of their papers. They would send us some two-page agreement; we’d cut and paste pieces and put it together so that it looked like a reasonable contract. We would have a lawyer look at it and the lawyer would say, “That’s ridiculous.” Finally, we got one lawyer and then a legal department like every other company. In the early days of specialty television in Canada in the 1990s, things were a lot less complex in terms of the legal aspects of what we do.

 F. There was a lot more trust.

 B. Yes, when you're dealing with big, vertically integrated companies and when there is conflict in the marketplace, because of power imbalances, the trust starts to break down and paper becomes important. Ironically, I found in my own personal experiences, it's not often that we actually referred to the paper. But we spent endless hours trying to get to “Yes.”

 I'll give you another example; when I was at Alliance Atlantis, we entered into a partnership with BBC, to launch BBC Canada as a co-venture. We went to London and spent many weeks in person, on the phone, by e-mail working on the contract together. When the contract was finished, it was a couple feet thick. We launched the channel; we worked together; we developed a partnership and I don't remember ever once going to refer to the contract -- because we developed trust. And whether we were following the letter of the contract, who knows. All we knew was that we were running a successful venture, our relationship was good, and we weren't having any major differences.

 As any independent producer will tell you, it's frustrating having to refer anything to a lawyer. Lawyers get paid by the hour, usually. This is not a slag against lawyers. It's reality. The more work lawyers do, the more they get paid. They are also concerned about their own liability and due diligence. Small matters that cannot get resolved through amicable conversation or negotiation go to the lawyers; and then they explode exponentially. The issue that was small becomes larger. And sometimes it becomes much harder to resolve and intractable. My advice to producers is to always be absolutely clear when they're having conversations prior to getting the legal process going, to just be simple, to boil it down.