In 1998, Glen Salzman and Katherine Buck launched Montreal-based Cineflix Media with one of its first series, “Dogs with Jobs.” Unable to secure Canadian financing, they pitched the series at the Banff World Media Festival to international broadcasters during a market simulation session.
From there, the company produced five seasons of the factual series, which continues to sell internationally. More impressively, it was the beginning of Cineflix growing from a company with three factual shows into one of Canada’s largest independent producers, with creative, production and distribution arms in Montreal, Toronto, New York, London and Dublin.
Over the years, Cineflix has brought marquee talent and shows like “Property Brothers,” “American Pickers” and “Mayday: Air Disaster” to global audiences. Today, the group includes Cineflix Productions, Cineflix Rights, and Cineflix Studios, as well as joint venture companies Buccaneer, Connect3 Media, Husk Media and Shiny Screens Entertainment.
It boasts more than 5,500 catalog hours, employs 141 corporate employees (and an average of 150 on production in any given week), and has launched four FAST channels.
“We’re preparing for more growth, we’re making some key hires and diversifying, and we see a lot of opportunities coming,” Salzman tells Variety. “We see our strength as we’ve diversified the company over the last 25 years, starting with a small team in Montreal and building that up gradually.”
Ahead of the company’s 25th anniversary party at this year’s Banff World Media Festival, Variety sat down with the CEO to discuss the company’s impressive growth, finding key talent and partners, and the challenges ahead in the ever-changing film and television landscape.
When you founded the company, did you picture eventually growing and diversifying the way you have?
Katherine came from a real estate and construction background, and after a few years, we wanted to open a distribution company. We only had 100 hours to do it with. When we went to see a lawyer, they said we shouldn’t do it, we were too small. Katherine said, “Well, if you’re going to build a big company, you need a strong foundation. Otherwise, the building will fall over when it gets really tall.” So that was the message: we were going to build a big company. It wasn’t clear how big, and we’ve become a mid-sized company, but our size is one of our advantages right now.
Why was getting into distribution such an essential early step for you?
When we launched “Dogs With Jobs” we couldn’t find enough money in Canada. Telefilm Canada, which it was at the time, or the Canadian Media Fund now, said it wasn’t culturally significant and wouldn’t qualify for Canadian content. We appealed it and lost, so we looked for money internationally. Not getting the easy money was the best thing that happened to us. We went to England, found the money, and made the series. That built the company. The lesson was to go international, don’t rely on Canadian money. It came from necessity. We learned we could do it and sell shows internationally.
Finding international partners is more standard when putting the financing puzzle together in Canada these days, but was it that way back then?
Most producers relied on the Canadian system to finance their shows. Back then, in the late 1990s, you had to line up outside the CMF building with your envelopes, and it was a first-come, first-serve basis. People would pay others to stand in line so they could get their companies and projects to the top of the pile. And you would still have to wait to get funding in April and go into production in June, July, August, September. That was a dumb system and not a very healthy way to do business. So we decided to skip that and find partners.
Back then, you grew a healthy slate of factual series—what was the secret sauce?
Our timing was really good; it’s a lot harder now. Back then, the cable networks in Canada were just starting, and there was a big demand because they were growing quickly. They needed content. So we provided that content. It was easier to do then. These days, starting a company can be tough for young producers. Our timing wasn’t genius; it was fortunate. We were in the right place at the right time with good ideas.
What makes it harder today?
The networks are more risk-averse. Money is tighter. They’re looking to take less risk by focusing on long-running brands or rebooting old shows that were successful. It’s less risky than building a show from scratch and becoming a recognizable brand. Networks are putting more money into commissioning returning series that have already been established as brands. We have a couple of those. We built “Property Brothers” from zero. “American Pickers” has been around for 15 years, and we just got a reorder of that for 40 episodes. And we’re in our 24th season of “Mayday,” which is unbelievable.
You’ve recently gotten into scripted programming with series like “Coroner,” “Marcella” and “Wynonna Earp.” Why was it important to extend the business into that space?
Initially, we built the company on unscripted and built a distribution company to help that business. But as the company evolved, distribution became a lot bigger and more important than we thought it would be. Now we’re more of a studio and scripted started when (president) Peter Emerson joined the company. He came from eOne Television International, knew how to do it, and had the expertise. We both learned some lessons along the way about what not to do because you can blow up pretty quickly in scripted by making the wrong bets. But there seemed to be a lot of streamers coming; it was time to get into that business.
What were some of those learnings?
Our first scripted series was in 2012 with BBC America and Global called “Copper.” It was good but went way over budget, and we didn’t have the distribution strength to do it yet. We only went for two seasons. We learned we needed deeper pockets and stronger management to ensure shows stayed on budget. You also have to be able to walk away from shows and not do everything that comes your way. When they get too expensive to produce, you walk away, say no thanks, and let someone else take the risk. We’ve walked away from many things but also taken some good swings, like when we found an Israeli show, which became “Tehran” with Apple TV+. There was a big deficit when we got involved, and we put up 50% of the budget, so it was a big swing. But budgets in Israel aren’t quite as big as elsewhere. And it became a big, worldwide success and is now shooting its third season.
How important is it to pursue joint ventures and partnerships to produce competitive and financially solid projects?
We started that model about seven years ago because we wanted to grow our scripted business, and it was a key move. We invested quite a bit of money. There are some great models of how we can co-finance a project and stitch the financing together, like “So Long, Marianne,” the upcoming Leonard Cohen project. Buccaneer led the project creatively, and Bell Media and some Canadian money came in. Then Cineflix Rights stepped in as a distributor. We’re really excited about that series.
How do you see Cineflix’s mid-size as an advantage?
It’s our strength. Some of our competitors as a distributor have 100,000 or 150,000 hours in their catalogs. And many producers don’t want to be in that catalog because they feel they will get lost or their show buried. So producers come to Cineflix because they get a lot of attention; we’re investing money in them. We have assets and financial strength, but we’re not too big yet, so we can make decisions quickly and be nimble while still taking risks and adapting to market conditions.
What challenges are ahead, and how are you addressing them?
Some of the biggest challenges are rising costs. Because of inflation, production costs are hard to manage right now, and demand for crews has been strong. Keeping the costs in line with licensing fees is another challenge. We’ve brought in the next generation, like J.C. Mills (president and head of content for Cineflix Productions) and Tim Mutimer (CEO Rights). We’ve made key hires to take the company to the next level and position it for success so we can keep growing and be strong — so that we’re not ageing out as some companies do. We’ve positioned the company for growth and for the next generation to lead it.
Are there other company strengths you see, given the current industry trends?
We’ve learned that our older brands have a lot of value. Some can be repurposed, and we’re looking at how to do that. Diversifying is the other thing, so we can pivot if one thing becomes the flavor of the month or year. For the last few years, it has been scripted programming. Now factual is coming back. Maybe FAST channels are hot. We’re across all of those things. Having that diversity is our biggest advantage and why I think we will do well going forward.