April 25th, 2016

We got the TV network to say “Yes”

By Sylvie Peltier, President

We recently were part of a Canadian delegation of factual documentary entertainment television producers that went to the UK to promote coproductions between producers and television networks the two countries. As part of the event, attending producers presented demos of their work, as well as info on their companies.

When it was our turn to present, we showed our reel, which heavily featured our series “Mushers: Conquering the Yukon Quest” a factual documentary about the Yukon Quest 1000-mile dogsled race, that we had recently delivered to Quebec-based cable network Canal D for airing on their channel. Following the presentation, a number of Canadian producers were curious to know how we’d managed to sell a production about a dogsled race to a TV network. Many of them had tried to pitch the idea to networks before but had failed.

The fact is that the Yukon and Alaska have been in fashion in the factual world (the term factual denotes everything from documentary to lifestyle to reality television) for quite a few years now, and almost every television network has been pitched a dogsled race when featuring this rugged, remote and unforgiving region.

So, how did we do it?

Back in 2010 we had just completed a documentary about the French-speaking population in British-Columbia and we thought it might be interesting to do a similar documentary about the French-speakers living in the Yukon Territory.

In order to get a broadcaster interested in doing a documentary on the subject, we needed to do some preliminary research, at our own expense, to know if there may be something worth making a film about. With a population of less than 34 thousand, of which less than 2,000 are considered francophones, we didn’t know if we could do something worthwhile in the Yukon.

Every summer Red Letter Films hires a student to come and help with our projects. It’s a significant help to us, but also gets them valuable work experience. Sophie, our summer student that year loved the thought of featuring French speakers in the Yukon. She came to me and said, “If you let me do the research, I’ll pay my way there.”

I loved her offer because it showcased her initiative and passion. I wasn’t going to let her pay for her trip, but I knew she wouldn’t demand to stay in 5-star hotels either.  Sophie and I quickly came to an agreement and off she went. As a result of her work, I was able to get a deal with a broadcaster and three years later we delivered the delightful documentary “Yukon Speaks French”.

As we worked on that documentary, we kept our eyes open for other subjects we might do in the Yukon and the Yukon Quest dogsled race caught our attention.

Now, you might be thinking, “Why on earth would a dogsled race catch your attention, especially when so many other producers pitch Yukon races and get denied?” The answer to that question requires a shift in perspective.

I hired Mathieu, another former summer student, to go and meet with people during the race to see how we might tell this story. Mathieu confirmed that a good number of French-speakers were involved with the race. We approached the French language network, Canal D, with the idea. They liked the French-focused angle and we had our green light to begin production for the 2014 race.

Our entire team was very excited. We had huge plans for how we were going to capture this story, and we were invigorated by the challenge of filming this logistical nightmare. To make things even more interesting, days before we needed to submit the project to the Canada Media Fund, our broadcaster asked me to cut 20% of my budget!

I was petrified. Not only were we filming something that took place over 1,000 miles, we were filing in -40 degree temperatures and there were few roads following the trails. The logistical challenges and the cut to our budget made us question if our team could really deliver on such a difficult project. We had to change our approach, cut staff and become extremely cost effective.

Fortunately, thanks to my partner, Greg Nosaty, and a fabulous crew, we managed to film the race and tell its story without too many hang-ups. Mathieu, who had done the first research ended up writing on the series too. We premiered it in Whitehorse at the end of the 2016 race to a standing room only crowd. The response was wonderful and I’m delighted that we didn’t go bankrupt in the process!

If you’re curious, you can watch the series in English here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/yukonquest

One ironic and somewhat comical note: a few months later, we were approached by a French (from France) production company to coproduce a film about the Yukon Quest.  It was pure coincidence as they didn’t know about our own series. Their hook was that they followed a musher who raced with rescue dogs. Many years ago, someone shot a film on the Yukon Quest that followed a musher from Jamaica.

The moral of this story is that just because one network might not be interested, there are many other networks, and many other angles that may interest a good number of TV stations. Exhaust your possibilities, and when that’s done, examine your angles, brainstorm for new stories to tell and pitch again. There is always a fresh way to tell a compelling story!