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Banff Boss Talks Post-Strike Dealmaking, AI Hollywood Rocky Mountain Retreat

Banff Boss Talks Post-Strike Dealmaking, AI Hollywood Rocky Mountain Retreat

It’s perhaps fitting that as top TV creators and execs facing an industrywide contraction head to the Canadian Rockies for the 2024 Banff World Media Festival, one of the panels they will encounter is called “Moving Mountains: Canadian Producers Tackle the Rocky Landscape.”

Indeed, this year’s confab, which focuses on content in the development phase, arrives at a tenuous moment for the global television sector, as the major streamers trim their spending and the industry continues to struggle to rebound after last year’s dual Hollywood strikes.

As the Peak TV bubble bursts, the advice from Banff World Media Festival executive director Jenn Kuzmyk comes down to this: Adapt or perish. “The ones that are innovative, the ones that look at different models, the ones using technology and paying attention to global trends and what audiences want — will thrive,” says Kuzmyk. “Those that do not adapt, will not.” 

And that, Kuzmyk says, is where Banff comes in, offering a host of keynotes and panels featuring execs from Netflix, Lionsgate and Amazon MGM Studios to help industry insiders and content creators navigate a rapidly changing global television landscape. But it’s not all shop talk — the fest will also present its signature Rockie Awards, which pit American shows against the best of the world. Nominees this year in English-language categories include Abbott Elementary and Poker Face for best comedy series, while the dramatic competition includes American shows Succession, Gen V and the The Last of Us, alongside the U.K.’s Happy Valley and The Newsreader from Australia.

Kuzmyk talked to THR about the existential issues facing the global TV sector, the need to maintain DEI initiatives, and surviving in an age of “enshittification.” 

The end of the dual Hollywood strikes last year also signaled the end of Peak TV and splashy content spending in Hollywood. How will Banff’s 2024 programming reflect the TV industry’s existential challenges?

When there are times like this, that are really an inflection point in the industry, both in Canada and worldwide, frankly, people need to gather. There’s even more of a need and a drive to get together and figure it out. We’re benefiting from that. We’re trying through our conference program to look at all the things you might imagine, including consolidation and M&A, AI and changes in viewing habits and a contraction of commissioning here and around the world.

Industry players coming together need to work together, perhaps, as less TV content is being made and major studios and streamers get pickier about what they greenlight?

What that means for most is more partnerships and that’s a good thing for festivals and events. That’s where people find and build relationships to do co-productions and do multi-territory financing. So we’re seeing there’s more interest from that standpoint.

Banff always catered to established and emerging players. But this year industry newbies may never have known a post-strike industry where Hollywood money doesn’t flow freely. You have programming aimed at emerging talent?

That’s part of our secret sauce. We’re at a high level [as] an international media leaders event, but we bring in fresh faces, new talent and that mix — plus a bit of the mountain air — is what makes Banff special. Because it’s really easy in this industry to become jaded. But when you have new people, they’re excited about what they do. That leads to more content being commissioned out of the festival.

What about established players able to see beyond current uncertainty to meeting market needs two or three years down the road?

This year, we’ve got a panel on mergers and acquisitions and private equity and investment in IP that we haven’t done in that way before. The session title is “Deal Making and Investment Post-Correction.” That’s more on building the industry, investment in production shingles, in media companies, obviously, mergers and acquisitions at a higher level than investment in content. This is about building businesses, building global brands. There’s been a lot of movement in that realm.

Is that about Hollywood players doing more than cementing their gains amid industry contraction to winning as others lose?

In times of great change, there is always opportunity. The ones that are innovative, the ones that look at different models, the ones using technology and paying attention to global trends and what audiences want will thrive. Those that do not adapt, will not. And really a lot of what the festival is going to be about is just seeing different scenarios for the way things are going to land amid a lot of disruption.

On that theme, Banff has a panel entitled “Disrupt or Be Disrupted: The Media Industry in the Age of Enshittification.”

It’s got quite an interesting title. It is going to be presented by Adam Cunningham, chief strategy officer for Allied Global Marketing. It’s meant to be provocative. Adam is pretty smart and consults with the biggest media brands in the world and helps to give them guidance about where to move their companies and their strategies. It’s meant to get people’s attention, of course, but really, it’s meant to chart a path in some ways, to ask more questions than it answers. But generally, the industry and, for lack of a better phrase — traditional media companies and how they are adapting and what they’re up against — is different than it’s ever been before with all of the social media platforms, the TikToks, etc. Within a few years, the industry is going to look very different than it does now as the competition for eyeballs is greater than it has ever been.

Just as linear TV networks are losing share to streaming platforms, will digital TV services in turn fall prey to TikTok and other social media platforms?

I’m not a pundit. I’m an observer. But no, I don’t think so. There is still a great place for premium content. There’s a great place for long-form series and feature films and those streaming platforms are doing that in an incredible way. There’s still more, probably, mergers and acquisitions and partnerships. We’re seeing alliances and almost a coming together of what looks a lot like how cable bundles used to work. We’re seeing sports content [rebundling] being embraced by the streamers that looks a lot like how cable channels used to look in some ways. For premium content, that still has to be financed, but there’s a desire from audiences to watch that and the social platforms are as yet not creating that kind of content in a major way. There’s bigger budgets. You look at Mr. Beast and things like that. Those are incredible examples. But I do think that they still serve two different needs.

For premium content, is there an argument as never before that Canada and its soft money and currency savings and locations and talent is part of the solution?

Within the next year or so, all eyes are going to be on Canada, frankly. Already the biggest productions in the world are shot here from a U.S. service production standpoint. The crews are here. And part of that business happens in Banff, with the establishment of studios and big production deals by U.S. producers, that’s part of it. As long as Canada continues to serve the need and has both the infrastructure and the financial benefits from a foreign location shooting standpoint, absolutely we see different regions and different cities are continuing to do what they can. Alberta is one of those and that’s a focus for Banff, bringing international productions to the doorstep of the festival.

That brings us back to international co-productions and co-financing dealmaking. That’s been the Canadians’ bread and butter over the years.

Canadians are really good at that. They understand that, their system is built for that. So in terms of making high-end content that works globally, Canadians know what they’re doing. And so it really feels a little bit like horses at the starting gate to me, I hope. It’s a really challenging time. But I think that producers in Canada are well primed to take advantage of the challenges.

Is it helpful Banff is focused on hatching new TV shows and concepts, rather than selling finished product, when the industry is debating what content will work with global audiences in a post-Peak TV era?

It does work to our benefit. At the end of the day, you still keep need to keep feeding the machine. New content has to be made to attract audiences. It might not be as much as before. But that stems from that very fundamental place of an idea and Canadians are just as great at making shows that will resonate with global audiences. The multicultural makeup of this country, the diasporas, is very unique and it helps to make our content travel.

Banff has always been about conversations around equity, representation and inclusion. How is your programming moving those debates forward this year?

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That is a big piece of what we do and we do it better and greater and more than any other conference or market in the world in terms of recognizing the value of content made and created by diverse writers and directors and producers. We do the indigenous Screen Summit. Nobody else is doing that in that way. Last year, we had 14 producers pitching and we had eight of those projects financed. That’s working.

So you remain bullish on the industry, that more content will get made over next few years, even as programmers are more picky about what gets greenlit?

At the end of the day, shows are still going to get made. Shows are still going to be pitched and then there’s still going to be commissions. So it’s never been easy. I think it might be harder than it’s been in a long time right right now. But great stuff will rise to the top. Three things remain true. One is people will always be driven to make and create things. Two, audiences always want to watch content, regardless of the platform, regardless of the format and, third, people will always want to buy things. So we’re seeing a resurgence of advertising into the streaming universe. Those three things have always been true and always will be true. And with that drive for new content to be made, we want to be the place where that happens.

Banff has a panel on AI this year. Will that be about talking about innovation, while encouraging guardrails?

It’s AI, but also new technologies. If you’re talking about new technology, yes, people are embracing it, the smart ones in ways that are ethical, hopefully. That’s exciting. It’s going to lead to entirely new experiences for audiences. And yes, some efficiencies, yes, some casualties. But we’re at a time when people want to figure it out. So a lot of discussions are going to happen.

You have panels with titles like “Disrupting Racism: A Call to Action,” and “Beyond the Backlash: Addressing the Retreat of DEI in the Entertainment Industry.” You feel the industry needs encouragement to maintain progress in those areas?

I don’t think the industry is turning its back on diversity, equity, inclusion and representation. I think the conversation needs to evolve and continue. There’s are greater opportunities than ever before in embracing content that is representative of the global audience. And Banff is the place where you should be able to have some pretty candid conversations about needs in the industry and, at the end of the day, there are actual business and financial reasons to embrace diverse content. We have another panel on the Pink Triangle study [on 2LGBTQ+ representation.] In order to be the kind of media industry that most of us would like, we have to keep your foot on the gas and that’s what we’re doing.

The TV business remains increasingly global and that’s a big focus for Banff?

Yes, more than ever, it’s an international industry. This is where the social media ties in. We all are exposed to global content and global stories more than we ever have been before. And the thing that still excites me is the rise of non-English language content as well. Some of the absolute best shows in the world — many of which will be showcased at Banff through the Rockie Awards and elsewhere throughout the festival — that globalization is very real. For the next generation, it’s just the water they swim in, just part of part of who they are, having that global mindset and watching the show from Sweden or Germany or Korea or Australia or Canada or Quebec. It’s so natural, more than it ever was before.

Can you talk a bit about Banff’s tribute to Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts?

That’s a very big deal. She is one of those industry personalities who is well known, but perhaps one of the reasons she’s coming is she has her own production company [Rock’n Robin Productions]. And the best thing about Banff is that it’s such an interesting cocktail of people in the industry that you will find nowhere else. And when you get Robin Roberts in a room with some of the other impressive people at the festival, and some emerging talent, cool things happen.

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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