There is no direct route to success in Canada’s TV and film industry, and super-producer and CEO of Shaftesbury Christina Jennings is no exception to that rule. Jennings began her career as an urban planner, but soon found other ventures to pursue, including co-owning a restaurant with her mother and brother-in-law. Unbeknownst to her at the time, it was there that her career as a producer began, when she began meeting directors, actors, and writers trying to make a name for themselves. When she realized her business acumen would help them succeed, she opted to become a producer and hasn’t looked back since.
Jennings has produced dozens of films and TV series, starting with the feature film Camilla, and is currently producing one of Canadian TV’s top hits Murdoch Mysteries, with its spiritual successor Frankie Drake Mysteries wrapping up its first season. Through Shaftesbury, Jennings has also had a hand in developing the digital global phenomenon Carmilla, which recently released its own feature-length film. To top it all off, her awards include Playback‘s Producer of the Decade and the CFC Award for Creative Excellence.
We spoke with Jennings for our Women Behind Canadian TV series to discuss her history as a female producer in Canada, the importance of mentoring and opening doors for diverse voices, and how Shaftesbury looking to the future with digital programs.
This interview has been edited and condensed
TTVJ: You started out with a career in urban planning, but eventually transitioned to feature film and television production, so what motivated you to found Shaftesbury?
Christina Jennings: What motivated me was, probably like many 20-somethings, I came out of university not completely clear what I wanted to do with my life and I suppose I’d always been a self-starter in terms of jobs. I was a town planner, I had a business, I also owned a restaurant [Emilio’s] and a travel agency all at the same time. I was there as an overview, somebody to guide the business, and the restaurant was a partnership with my mother and my brother-in-law from Manhattan. The reason I did all of that is because I wasn’t yet 30 and I realized that the town planning thing, while it was a hugely impactful and I could see that every once in a while I was making a bit of a difference, really wasn’t feeding my soul, and the restaurant wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wasn’t really working there full-time, I was more guiding. Every once in awhile I would go and work there, more for fun to be honest, and I started meeting film and television people. I’d never been around film and TV people. You hear people talk about having dreamed of being a filmmaker since they were a teenager, but I knew nothing about any of the this, trust me.
I just kept meeting all these people who had dreams, directors and writers and producers and actors, and they all had these passion projects that they wanted to tell. If you’re determined and tenacious and passionate, you’re probably going to succeed, but they had real no business sense of, ‘how do I take this dream and raise the money?’ They didn’t have wealthy families that were just going to give them the cheque. So, ultimately, there was one guy and he had a project and he was willing to give me a shot. I had done nothing—I mean it, really nothing—and he was willing to give me a shot and I took it. I sold my half of the planning business to my partner, and I then started working at the restaurant because I needed money, and I helped this guy make a film. That really started everything. It started a friendship with Wendy Crewson, for example, and we work together constantly. It started my 30 year friendship with Jay Switzer, who bought that very first movie.
That was how it started. And because I realized that making one movie does not make a producer, I decided at that moment that what I needed to do, because I was still young and I didn’t have family, was to spend the next 18 months to two years doing every single little job in the industry that I could. So I understood, because I hadn’t gone to film school, I knew nothing. I took a job as a location assistant. I took a job in the editing room. That’s where my “producorial” instincts started coming and I could see opportunities, I could see where they could raise the money. I did that for about 18 months, and in the middle of all the stuff, I started creating my own projects. And that’s how it all started.
TTVJ: You had mentioned earlier that idea that a lot of people when they’re teenagers have a dream of making it industry. We’ve found that a lot of the women that we’ve spoken to have a similar story in that they felt passionate about stories and they kind of fell into filmmaking. It’s an interesting connection between a lot of the women that we’ve spoken with in that it’s not so much about a dream of having a certain role, but just having a passion for stories.
CJ: It has to start there and has to start with a passion for stories. And I think the other thing as a producer, in a funny way, my training and my years in town planning have really, really helped me in good stead as a producer. I’m a creative producer, but I’m also a business producer. If you start to look at the various roles of a producer, I have creative instincts, but I also can raise the money. I can also know where the money’s being spent and how to manage it. I’m a bit multi-faceted and that’s what I learned in town planning. When you’re a producer, it’s a very collaborative endeavour. You’ve got different stakeholders and you’ve got different people who are trying to do different things. You have to manage all of that to ultimately deliver the vision. You have to be able to work with a director, the writers, the cast, you have to work with the broadcaster or the distributor, you have to deal with the money, and you have to make sure that it isn’t a project is being ruled by committee because that never works. It never, ever works. So my skill set, weirdly, was perfect for moving over to producing.
TTVJ: You were producing films and eventually television in the 90s and 2000s, and there’s this understanding that in the world of producers, it’s largely a boy’s club. What was your experiences as a woman becoming a producer?
CJ: If I was to cast my mind back I would probably realize there weren’t a lot of women around doing what I was doing at that moment, probably, in Canada at that point. Even with Camilla, which was my first feature, there was not another woman involved. We were doing the deal with Miramax. They were all men. My partner in the U.K. was a man, they were all men in positions of power and decision-making. We had various funds that we tapped into, you know, but I never thought about it. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say, I just never thought about it. It was my first film that was truly my own. 10 million bucks in the day. I just knew I wanted to make this film and I knew that I wasn’t gonna give up.
Now we’re predominantly making television and many of the decision-makers are now women. But I don’t know if it that makes it easier to be honest because at the end of the day it comes down to the projects. Is the project good enough? Is it the right project? Have you picked something that is of the zeitgeist of the moment? It is definitely a different world. When I step back and look at it, there are more women, for sure.
TTVJ: You have a long history as a producer in Canada, and have even been named producer of the decade. Have you had an opportunity to mentor any up and coming producers in the industry? What has that experience been like?
CJ: People were very good to me when I started out. I had a bunch of mentors and they were always there for me when I needed them for counsel. To be honest, for me it’s always been about, once I got somewhere and I wasn’t worrying about the rent anymore, that we made time as a company, not just me but as company, to mentor. Not just producers, but actors and writers and directors. I have a list of people that I can actually say I gave them their first shot. It makes me very proud to see these people go on, because all we ever really need in life is the first shot. We just need someone to give us a break and then we’ll prove ourselves, and if we prove ourselves and we’re tenacious, it’s not going to stop. We give back as a company. We’re a sponsor of the Etobicoke School of the Arts, we’re very involved in the Canadian Film Centre, where I went however many years ago. I was one of the first residents at the CFC. I believe in that place so much in terms of what it did for me and what it continues to do in our community. So we give back a lot to the CFC, we give back to Sheridan, Humber and Ryerson. I’m going to teach at the Rotman School of Business. And it’s not just me, all the senior people in the team [mentor as well].
It’s important to do and it’s important as a company, actually, to stay in touch with the young people coming up behind us. If you’re there at the CFC, at Sheridan or Humber, and you’ve given some time, you’ve done a course, you had them in to intern here at the company, and they have a project, they may just come to you first. It’s always about looking for the next generation of people behind you. And we think the way to do that is to give back.
TTVJ: I’m glad you brought up the CFC because I know you are the Chair for the Board of Directors and many of the people we’ve spoken to for the series are actually among its alumni. From your perspective, what do you think the CFC has done to foster even more diversity in Canadian talent?
CJ: CFC has got its various pillars. It’s got its producing pillar, showrunning pillar, directing pillar, and its new media pillar, you know, how tech interacts and interfaces with content. It really, really has touched every single part of our industry. We say it all the time: content is content, it doesn’t actually matter anymore how it’s deployed, you know, whether it’s the digital series or a feature film or a TV series or a branded series. If it’s scripted, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a story. And what I am so impressed with the centre is that the CFC continued with helping all Canadians, [regardless of] gender and race, in the basics of directing, screenwriting, producing, tech and digital, and all of that.
It’s also done more than just that in my opinion, and this is the message that I think we in this industry have to give constantly, is it isn’t just about teaching people skills. It’s actually about helping them to start businesses. If you’re a producer as I am, and we’ve got 35 people working full-time probably at any time. There’s probably another 50 working for us as various writers and creative people, and then of course when they go into production we’re employing hundreds of people. So we are generating jobs in the creative industry. That’s what impresses me about the CFC, that many of the people that have come through the CFC has started companies, whether it’s Damon D’Oliveira, Clement Virgo, whether it’s Tassie Cameron. She may not have a big company, per se, but she’s show running a bunch of shows at one time. That’s business, that’s creating jobs. That’s one of the things I’m particularly impressed with the centre. It’s not just giving you skills to do your directing, writing or acting craft better, it’s giving you the skills to actually go out and, perhaps, have a business. They’re really got their pulse on the future in a weird way. What they’re often doing is so ahead of what others are doing.
It’s the CFC I credit with really helping me launch myself into this world. If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t have found my U.K. partner for Camilla, Camilla put me on the map. I think we’re very, very lucky and I think on your point about diversity, often it’s just about giving people a break. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who you are, you just need a break to prove yourself, whether it’s the CFC or production companies hiring across the board, you just got to give people a shot to prove themselves and learn. You get in there and you do it, make some mistakes and you learn to get better. I think the current awareness about diversity is important and we can see it’s making a change.
TTVJ: You mentioned CFC’s focus on digital, and I know Shaftesbury has played a large role in developing Canadian digital content in the last decade. Carmilla was a huge hit, you developed Inhuman Condition, and you’re now distributing on Barbelle. What inspired you to take that leap? Were there risks involved then?
CJ: Oh sure, there still are. But we started our digital work before we bought Smokebomb Entertainment. We won an Emmy for the interactive work we did on ReGenesis. How it started was we were doing a primetime series for The Movie Network and, it sounds so odd to say this, but YouTube was beginning and the WorldWide Web was starting to become very prevalent. We decided, well, we’re doing this extraordinary series on science fiction, that if someone wanted to get more information, where would they go? We created a website, of course, but we went beyond that. We had clues, we had games. If you liked the series, you could go play a game and you’d have to go down various levels. The next thing we did was a kid series called Life with Derek and the inspiration was you’ve got this series on television, it’s 22 minutes long but fans want more, and how can you give them more? We did a little digital series and we actually took our actors and put them into different situations outside of the series. It was hugely popular again, and in both of those cases won us awards.
That was the point at which we decided that we needed to really amp up our digital work and that’s when we bought Smokebomb. We’ve been doing this for 13 years and the business model has not caught up to the reality of what we’re doing. Everybody’s trying stuff and everybody’s trying to figure out how to make it work. I don’t know that anybody’s quite got it, you know. So when you say risk, of course we’re taking some risk. Carmilla was a risk. It became a success, but that first season we didn’t make a penny. We were lucky that fans found it. Then it was funded by U by Kotex, which was a different model of financing something right through. When you’re in the middle of an industry that is being disrupted, the thing you do is you remain focused on your creative content that it has to be as good as it possibly can be. It doesn’t matter what platform it’s on. The story has to come first and the story has to be executed well.
TTVJ: As you mentioned, Carmilla has become a huge web hit, and a valued piece of representation for the LGBTQ community. Was there any sense that it would be this popular when it was first produced?
CJ: We didn’t set out to make a series for the LGBTQ community. We set out to retell a piece of literature written in the mid-nineteenth century. And, yes, that piece of literature was a novella that was a cautionary tale about ‘don’t let women get too close because they might become lesbians’, but we didn’t actually say ‘we’re going to do this.’ But it became very clear that we were just telling a series about two women who fall in love. One of them happens to be a human and one happens to be a vampire. It just touched this community who fell in love with it and kept wanting more. And it was great that we have U by Kotex. Brands getting involved in scripted content is still the exception. It really found a nation and what’s great is that it found a global fandom. All these digital shows that we’re doing are global, they’re not Canada-only.
TTVJ: It seems like there’s so much potential with digital.
CJ: Digital is a place where we can not just experiment with content in the story, but we can actually give a lot of breaks to people. People who’ve never written before have their writing produced, directors or actors who have maybe some theater but never done [film or television]. We’ve really been able to incubate some extraordinary talent. Look at Rebecca Liddiard (Frankie Drake Mysteries). She had come out of school, and I think she’d done something with us on Murdoch and then she got the lead role is our series MsLabelled. Then because of that work on a web series she got picked to be in Houdini and Doyle opposite Steven Mangan and Michael Weston.
TTVJ: What are some of the projects Shaftesbury is working on heading into 2018?
CJ: Without naming too many titles, I can tell you that I’m very excited this year. We have a New Zealand co-production, which literally was myself and the CEO of a New Zealand company coming together and saying we’re going to find a project that works in our two countries. We sat down over dinner and we’ve come up with a terrific project that we’ll be announcing shortly. It’s a Canada/New Zealand scripted hour. We have another one which is a Canadian-led series which will be set in London and very international. Right now we are partnered with a big German company. These co-productions have really gained some traction. We’ve been really wanting to do an hour-long soap in the vain of Nashville or Riverdale and I think we might have found one. We’re working hard to see if we can make that work this year. We’re working on our renewals and we’re working on new shows and all of that. We’re feeling very good about 2018.
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Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV serieshere.
Associate Editor Kelly Townsend always had strong opinions on TV growing up, so it was only natural to evolve from couch musings to online journalism. She can't ever choose a favorite series, so please don't ask. Her writing has also appeared on IndieWire and Tribute.ca. You can find her on Twitter at @kellybtownsend.