Television

Stories that matter

A production trio wants to make a difference

CHRIS WOOD March 2 1998
Television

Stories that matter

A production trio wants to make a difference

CHRIS WOOD March 2 1998

Stories that matter

A production trio wants to make a difference

CHRIS WOOD

Television

There is a pleasantly retro feel to the offices of Forefront Entertainment, home of the hit series Madison. Sunshine streams through tall windows and frosted glass partitions to warm the grey marble hallways of the seventh-floor suite in Vancouver’s funky-grungy Gastown. The company’s three principals—former radio journalist Mickey Rogers and ex-documentary film-makers Helena Cynamon and Teri Woods-McArter— occupy a decidedly unpretentious space. Yet like the leads in their longrunning teen drama, who have outgrown high school and are spending their fifth and final season wrestling with the dilemmas of young adulthood, Rogers, Cynamon and Woods-McArter, all fortysomething, find themselves preoccupied with a future offering exciting new opportunities and unprecedented risks in equal measure. This week, the three should be celebrating a remarkable nine nominations in the Feb. 28 to March 1 Gemini Awards. Instead, they are immersed, says Woods-McArter, in “an ongoing debate about what we want to do next.”

The trio’s creative collaboration, begun over brunch nine years ago, has already proven its mettle where it counts most: on screen. Forefront’s production spending, roughly $11 million in 1997, is small in comparison to such Canadian giants as Toronto-based Alliance and Atlantis. But the Vancouver group has won an enviable reputation for intelligent storytelling and wellcrafted production that is reflected in the Gemini nominations. (By comparison, industry leader Alliance, with TV production spending of $182 million last year, has 22 nominations for the statuettes, awarded for excellence in Canadian television production.) Madison, a grittier, more honest counterpart to Beverly Hills 90210, collected six nominations, including best dramatic series, a category in which it is up against North of 60, Traders and The Outer Limits. The Gemini citations come on top of the more than two dozen international awards the series—seen or scheduled for airing in 85 countries—has already accumulated. A second show, the engaging Adventures of Shirley Holmes—about the fictional detective’s great-grandniece, and produced in partnership with Winnipeg’s Credo Entertainment—garnered three Gemini nominations, including one for best performance in a youth series for its 14-year-old star, Meredith Henderson of Ottawa. (,Shirley begins airing in Britain in April and in the United States in August.)

But if Shirley’s success has guaranteed

that Forefront can face life after Madison with a measure of stability, the three principals nonetheless find themselves at a critical crossroads. ‘We do have investors knocking at our door,” says Woods-McArter. Letting them in would give Forefront the clout it needs to tackle more ambitious projects, and to break out of the youth-oriented program niche where it has prospered until now. “In this business,” says Rogers, “you’re really aware of how big companies are. We’re competing with the Disneys, the Warner Brothers, the Viacoms.”

Given more capital, the three would have no shortage of candidates for development. One series they say is already “close” to securing a broadcast commitment is tentatively titled Archer and deals with a female bounty hunter. “It’s much more than a chick with a gun,” says Woods-McArter, “It will be edgy.” In the works as a possible television movie is the story of Florence Lassandro, the last woman to be hanged in Alberta. Forefont also holds the rights to The Concubine’s Children, Ottawa writer Denise Chong’s haunting account of three generations in her Chinese-Canadian family.

At the same time, the Forefront triumvirate is keenly aware of the risk of inviting a partner—especially a large, well-funded one—into their business. On the one hand, says Cynamon, there is the allure of “having enough time and resources to seize the opportunities coming our way.” But with it, she adds, comes the challenge of “not being swallowed up.” As Woods-McArter sees it: “We’re fiercely independent. But I’d like to play in the sandbox with the big kids too. The jury’s out.”

Whatever the eventual verdict, the three Forefront women seem determined to preserve the passion—a word they all use frequently—that has infused their partnership since the outset. Says Cynamon: “The reason I got into this business was to make a difference.” Rogers speaks of a desire to “make stories that really matter.” And when Woods-McArter describes the projects that attract her, she says: “I like stories that have emotional jeopardy, where the stakes are high and we see what a person is made of.” She adds: ‘We don’t want to do violent series, or stories that are exploitive. We don’t want to do tits-and-ass thrillers.”

It probably makes a difference as well that all three partners are women with relatively young children, and that two (Rogers and Cynamon) are single mothers. Meeting a reporter earlier this month, Cynamon apologized for the mildly disruptive presence of her seven-year-old daughter, Martina, who was suffering a cold and had come to work with her mother instead of going to school. ‘We’re all hobby parents,” jokes Rogers. We each have one child.” But the flippant note clearly belies the importance all three attach to making connections, both in the personal realm and with their shows. We’re all about relationships,” says Cynamon. Adds Rogers: We look for strong woman characters in the shows we produce. But we have more boys watching Shirley than girls.”

Wherever the future takes them, the three women say they will make their decisions over the coming weeks the way they always have: by consensus. “We’re committed,” Wood-McArter observes, “to allowing our respective passions. We’re learning to trust ourselves.” Just like the now internationally famous kids of Madison.