Close-Up: Christina Jennings & Shaftesbury
By Cory Angeletti-Szasz ● February 08, 2018 08:30
A Profile of Christina Jennings and Her Company, Shaftesbury
Christina Jennings – innovator, visionary, risk-taker, leader. These are some of the words that come to mind after meeting with Jennings at the Shaftesbury office in Toronto to discuss her career, her company and her content.
Jennings is the founder, CEO and Chairman of Shaftesbury, one of Canada’s leading content creation and production companies of award-winning and original content for TV, film, digital and brands. The company behind such critical and commercial successes as Murdoch Mysteries, Frankie Drake Mysteries, Slasher, ReGenesis, The Listener, Life with Derek, Carmilla and The Carmilla Movie, among many others.
Jennings is being presented with the fifth annual CFC Award for Creative Excellence on March 21, 2018 in Los Angeles. We are extremely proud to present Jennings with this award in recognition of her innovative storytelling, critically and commercially accomplished body of work and her creative and business contributions to the Canadian and international entertainment industries.It will be the latest in a long list of honours that Jennings has received over the course of her 30-year career. She was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2017 Content Innovation Awards presented at MIPCOM, she’s been named to Maclean’s Power List of Canada’s 50 Most Powerful People, has been Playback’s Producer of the Decade, has received the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television’s prestigious Academy Achievement Award, the PROFIT Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship at RBC’s Canadian Woman Entrepreneur Awards, and the Innovative Producer Award at the Banff World Television Festival, to name a few.
While Jennings is surely one of Canada’s most celebrated and prolific producers, she is also one of the CFC’s most celebrated and accomplished alumni, one very deserving of CFC’s highest alumni honour.
Jennings was among the first few groups of residents to attend the CFC. She joined as a producer resident in 1990, the third year that the Resident Program, now the Cineplex Entertainment Film Program, had been running. Jennings was one of 13 residents that year – in the company of other talented Canadian creators like novelist Michael Ondaatje and theatre director Richard Rose – a diverse group with different backgrounds and skillsets.
Christina Jennings on her first day in the 1990 Resident Program at the CFC (far right)
But Jennings didn’t always know that she wanted to work in the entertainment industry. She came to that realization as she was busy pursuing other careers and building other businesses.
THE EARLY YEARS
After university, Jennings began working as an urban planner. A businesswoman from the very beginning, she quickly built up an urban planning business, found a partner and established clients across Canada. But she yearned for something more. Inspired by her love of travel, Jennings decided to buy a travel agency, and simultaneously pursued an opportunity to partner with her mom and brother-in-law on a restaurant, Emilio’s, all before the age of 30!
It was also just before turning 30 that Jennings realized urban planning wasn’t her passion. So, she sold her shares in the business to her partner, and started making sandwiches and tending bar at the increasingly popular Emilio’s, in Toronto’s east end.
It was there that Jennings got her first taste of the entertainment industry. “Emilio’s attracted a very artistic crowd,” Jennings recalls. It was next door to CityTV, so individuals like Jeanne Beker and the late Jay Switzer and people from MuchMusic would often come in to grab a sandwich or a drink after work. “I met some really terrific filmmakers – I met directors and writers and producers. And I had never been around such passion! This passion that, ‘I have a story to tell and I’m going do everything to get my story made.’ And I just loved that passion,” explains Jennings.
"I had never been around such passion!"
- Christina Jennings
On the entertainment industry
But the businesswoman in Jennings swiftly realized that many of these creators lacked a plan – the business piece to the business these individuals were trying to run was missing. So, in her true go-getter, self-starter fashion, Jennings convinced one of the restaurants patrons to let her be a part of his filmmaking journey – she helped him make the film, she sold the film, and she met many individuals in the industry along the way. Through that experience, she caught the bug, was hooked, and wanted to continue in the industry – and so she did.
Christina Jennings (bottom right, holding a puppy) at Peter O'Brien's Farewell Luncheon at the CFC in 1991
After three or four years working in entertainment, Jennings decided to apply to the CFC. At the time, she had recently completed 13 hours of content for a documentary series about famous Canadians going down the big rivers of Canada in canoes and she wasn’t sure how to go about distributing it. She had also commissioned a screenplay by Paul Quarrington (for Camilla), had sent it to film star Jessica Tandy, and received a three-page letter from Tandy in response saying she would star in her movie – and Jennings wasn’t sure how to proceed.
Both of these experiences made Jennings realize, “I was trying to do something without the proper training, and I was on the cusp of maybe breaking through, but I needed some help.” So, Jennings reached out to Peter O’Brien (the Executive Director of the CFC at the time), got him on the phone and asked, “What are you doing up there on Bayview Avenue?” She later met with O’Brien, explained her dilemma about her documentary series and her screenplay and O’Brien invited Jennings to participate in the Resident Program. The rest is CFC history.
Christina Jennings (far right) at the CFC during her residency in the Resident Program.
“The experience was truly game-changing for me,” explains Jennings. This was largely because of the incredibly talented group of residents that she was a part of, who inspired and pushed each other forward, and also because of the mentors she met through the program, “It [the Resident Program] brought in this extraordinary group of people from around the world.” Jennings recalled David Putnam, Neil Jordan and Bruce McDonald being some of the guests when she was a resident. “The ability to learn from other people, that mentoring, it makes it [the filmmaking process] very personal and you realize, ‘I can do it – they did it’.”
"The experience was truly game-changing for me."
- Christina Jennings
On the CFC
But the most game-changing experience that Jennings had at the CFC was when she met producer Simon Relph ( Reds). She asked him if he would read her script and showed him her letter from Tandy. A month later, Relph called her and said, “I’ve read it and I think it’s completely brilliant.” He decided to be Jennings’ producing partner on the film, “And that changed everything. […] And it was because of the CFC.” Within a couple years of completing her residency at the CFC, Jennings and Relph went on to produce Camilla together.
BUILDING AN EMPIRE
After wrapping Camilla, Jennings made the decision to take her fees from the film and invest it in a company and in people, “I knew I wanted to keep doing this.” So, she invested it in Shaftesbury and built a company that would become known for its innovative, groundbreaking and award-winning content.
Despite experiencing significant success in its early years – Shaftesbury made five fairly big budget features in five years (one a year) – Jennings quickly realized that the feature film business wasn’t sustainable. “Every year there were about two or three months where I would have to face, ‘If this money doesn’t come through, I’m going to have to lay off people.’ Then I thought, ‘Wait a second, this isn’t a business!’” After the fifth time this happened, Jennings realized that the company had to move into TV.
THE SHIFT TO TELEVISION
With Shaftesbury’s move into television production, Jennings looked to literature much the same way that literature shaped her early work in feature films. One of the company’s first TV productions was the TV movie External Affairs, adapted from Timothy Findley’s play The Stillborn Lover. Jennings also looked to literature when Shaftesbury began producing for kids and youth – they adapted Roy MacGregor’s The Screech Owls novels into a TV series of the same name.
In fact, Jennings traces most of her early work back to literature. She would read a book and think, ‘Let’s make that into a TV movie or a series.’ This is what led to the creation of one of Shaftesbury’s most well-known and loved productions, Murdoch Mysteries, based on the novels by Maureen Jennings. This is also one of Shaftesbury’s productions that Jennings is most proud of – not because of its critical and commercial success, but because it was ahead of the curve in terms of period procedurals and period content. It became wildly popular among viewers and fans (despite naysayers who told Jennings that a period drama would not work), and is now in its 11th season, remains Canada’s #1 drama and is seen in 110 countries around the world.
Similarly, Shaftesbury’s TV series ReGenesis holds a real place of pride for Jennings. It originated because Jennings wanted to create content in the area of science, “One of the reasons that I wanted to do ReGenesis was to get people to realize that science is a really exciting field – it’s really, really fun.” So she took a chance on the production, and it ended up performing and selling well, and remains the only Shaftesbury production that Jennings has a creator credit on. It was also this production that ushered Shaftesbury into digital content creation.
BREAKING INTO DIGITAL
If you ask Jennings the reason why Shaftesbury decided to get into the digital space, she’ll simply say, “instinct.” Shaftesbury’s evolution and expansion into digital content was born out of a feeling that Jennings had about the potential of digital content – both as standalone content, and as companion content for their existing productions. That, and an idea that Jennings had to create a companion documentary series to ReGenesis. Once completed, they hosted the series on a website, and it just kept growing, as did Jennings’ ideas for more companion content. Shaftesbury teamed up with Xenophile Media to create ReGenesis: Extended Reality Game, an alternate reality game linked to the television series in which clues to the game would appear inside the drama. This, only their second digital endeavour, earned them an International Emmy Award in 2008 for Outstanding Interactive Program (this was the second International Emmy Award that the company won; they won Best Children and Young People Program for Dark Oracle in 2005).
The following year, Shaftesbury created a webseries accompaniment to their popular kids series Life of Derek that won them a Gemini Award in 2009 for Best Children's or Youth Fiction Program or Series. They were on a roll. After this, Jennings realized that if Shaftesbury was to continue in digital, they would need to invest in digital, so they made the decision to acquire Smokebomb Entertainment 10 years ago, and they have been leaders in creating digital content ever since. It’s an important area of the industry that Jennings feels passionate about, but admits that it’s still an experimental space and that, “It still doesn’t quite have the business model that television continues to have.”
THE FUTURE OF THE INDUSTRY
The digital space isn’t the only area of the industry undergoing rapid change and disruption. Jennings spoke of how one of the challenges of working in the entertainment industry today is that the industry as a whole is facing disruption and is undergoing a big period of change – change that presents new opportunities, but also new risks. Jennings suggests that companies like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are largely responsible for a lot of the change, as is consolidation in Canada, because there are far fewer buyers for content now than there were 10 to 15 years ago.
"We’ve just had to be more resourceful. We’ve had to make the same great content at a lower price point, because our small country can’t afford the American budget. We have to be nimbler and smarter."
- Christina Jennings
On Canadian content creators
But Jennings remains hopeful in the face of these new challenges because Canadian content creators have a history of being crafty and perseverant, “We’ve just had to be more resourceful. We’ve had to make the same great content at a lower price point, because our small country can’t afford the American budget. We have to be nimbler and smarter.” However, if Jennings is concerned about one thing moving forward, it’s Canadian stories: “I am quite worried that there are going to be fewer and fewer of them. And they do define who we are – we’re not American, we’re Canadian.” So, how do we tackle this? We don’t get discouraged; we create!
Jennings encourages new and emerging creators to “Just try things. […] You have got to go out there and just do stuff. You can’t be frightened of failing.” Partner up with friends, help each other out – get out there and do what you need to do to create content. Furthermore, she recommends taking advantage of any opportunities to learn and hone your skills – whether through formal training or education (like the CFC!), or informal learning opportunities. “I encourage people to apply to the CFC,” shared Jennings. “If you’ve come through the CFC, it’s a stamp of approval, it really is.”
"Just try things. You have got to go out there and just do stuff. You can’t be frightened of failing."
- Christina Jennings
After mastering feature films, TV and digital content, what’s next for Jennings and Shaftesbury? You can rest assured that Jennings is always thinking about next steps.
“We’re in the middle of this branded entertainment play,” explains Jennings. “We’re ahead of it [branded entertainment] because we’re doing scripted content that’s not product placement inside the show.” In a few short years, Shaftesbury has already experienced a considerable amount of success with their branded content. Carmilla, the low-budget webseries that they created for U by Kotex®, became a worldwide hit, amassing millions and millions of views in its three-season run and fans in nearly 200 countries, and it has been translated into 20 languages. Most recently, the series was adapted to a feature film, The Carmilla Movie.
Jennings explains that experimenting in branded entertainment has been exciting and she’s passionate about continuing to focus on this type of content, “It will be interesting to see just how many more brands will start to embrace it.”
Another objective and focus for Shaftesbury moving forward is how to extend their brands ( Murdoch Mysteries, Carmilla, etc.) beyond just the screen and video content, i.e. how can they connect with fans in different ways? One area Shaftesbury is exploring is the idea of live extensions – live events that invite fans to engage in the brand and with each other. They are planning a Carmilla live experience in 2018, and are always looking for new ways to continue their relationship with fans. “Fans are a big part of what we do here,” explains Jennings. “We’re connecting with fans, making content for fans, so that will be the next part of what we do – how to extend our brands into live.”
Christina Jennings will receive the CFC Award for Creative Excellence at a private reception in Los Angeles on March 21, 2018. Emmy® Award-winning actress Tatiana Maslany and CFC founder and Chair Emeritus Norman Jewison will present the award. Stay tuned for a recap of the evening celebration on March 22, 2018.
This article has been edited and condensed for publication.