Tuesday, October 27, 2009

'In The Dance' on global pursuit: Producers aiming to break the mould of local productions

The Gleaner: Sunday October 11, 2009
LeVaughn Flynn, Entertainment Editor

(left)A scene during a taping of 'In The Dance'. - Contributed photos

Chris Smith is an ambitious man. But you don't become the head of one of the top artiste management companies on modesty and gutless dreams.

Smith is the executive producer of 'In The Dance', a glossy, adrenaline-inducing entertainment magazine programme, which recently wrapped up its first season on CVM-TV. His ambitious plan is to have this programme shown in every major country across the world. The wheels are already in motion, Smith recently signing off on a deal with France's Trace TV to distribute the show in Europe and Africa.

"The initial thought was, set a platform that can benefit the entire country, not just me, and one and two artistes or dancers," Smith told The Sunday Gleaner from Paris last Wednesday. "I want to showcase Jamaica in a positive light for the things that people really enjoy about Jamaica, which are the music and the dance and the overall vibe of Jamaica and that's what In The Dance is."


The spin-offs, Smith said, include international visibility, specifically for dancers and artistes, and, generally, the Jamaican culture. Smith said promotion of the show would begin in December in Europe, and in January, the host, Yanique Barrett, and select dancers will go on a promotional tour of the continent.
He said there were plans to have the programme shown throughout the Caribbean, the USA, Canada, Japan, Europe and Africa by next year. Smith also pointed out that the show used a technology called chroma key green screen which will allow the producers to change the ads to suit the market.

Smith said his investment on the first season, which included 10 episodes, was more than US$1 million.

Smith is a self-made entrepreneur who left the sleepy town of Annotto Bay, St Mary, at nine years old for Toronto, Canada. Professionally, he started out as an insurance and investment agent, but soon found his true calling.

"I caught the music bug after touring with Beres Hammond," he said.

Smith is now CEO of Chris Smith Management, a parent company that includes a record label and an athlete and artiste management outfit. Among his clients are Canadian singer Nelly Furtado, Tamia and Jamaican reggae soul crooner Courtney John.

Smith said his vision from day one was creating a programme for global export, as he refused to be associated with a product cheaply pieced together for local consumption. He wanted a programme that showcased two of the more admirable traits of Jamaica's culture, music and dance.

"I want Jamaica to be excited about it, but I also want Jamaica to know that the world is excited about it," he said, "It's not about making my money out of Jamaica and not investing in the quality of the product so that the world can see Jamaica."

Smith's venture is one that has been done in several forms before, that of capturing Jamaica's beloved, laid-back culture and lifestyle on tape and exporting it. The comedy series, 'Lime Tree Lane', 'Oliver at Large' and the drama, 'Royal Palm Estate', have all had runs overseas, some more successful than others.

The quality of local productions for the international market, however, has always been in question. Smith said in seeking local sponsors, their plans conflicted with his artistic standards and he realised that not much thought was given to the quality of the final product. Natalie Thompson, managing director of Cinecom, a film and video production company, said investors are unwilling to invest unless their brand visibly dominates the production.

"(Advertisers) see TV as something to brand their product," said Thompson. "(When this is done) it hurts the quality of production; it takes away from the artistic quality and cheapens it. No one in the international market will accept that."

Thompson added that there is a market for Jamaican programming, but that if the overall quality does not improve "we are going to have people coming down here and tell our stories. They are going to see the value and, funny enough, get assistance from some of the same investors who turned down local producers".

One of the factors that has been blamed for the sometimes low-quality production is the lack of funding by the private sector. Producers argue that the Government doesn't encourage investment in the industry with tempting tax incentives for companies as other countries do.

For 15 years, and against many odds, Lennie Little-White produced more than 400 episodes of Royal Palm Estate, before rebranding it The Blackburns of Royal Palm Estate, this year. He said the development of the film and television industry was greatly hampered by an archaic law.


"The Motion Picture Industry Encouragement Act of 1948 states that there is a 100 per cent tax right-off on profits. But the problem is a number of films don't make any profit," he said.

"We have it the wrong way. In countries like USA and Canada, there are tax breaks for investing in films, but in Jamaica the incentive is at the backend. There is no incentive upfront. It is the biggest disincentive in the film industry."

Little-White explained that in the early 1970s Canada made it mandatory to have at least 70 per cent local content on TV and allowed businesses that invested in the film industry to include the sum in their tax claims. This, he said, lured investors, paving the way for what is now one of the top film industries in the world. The Toronto Film Festival is also one of the most anticipated.

Luckily, Smith has a conglomerate of companies that can bankroll a season of In The Dance. He said he got heavy resistance from what he called the "old guards" during his meetings with potential local investors, singling out William Mahfood of Wisynco as "someone who was with the idea from day one".

"I found that people were more willing to give foreigners money to develop Jamaica than they were their own Jamaicans, like myself," he said.

Smith said he had art directors, cinematographers and producers from Canada, who had worked on major projects in that country, complement his Jamaican staff, ensuring the quality was of an international standard.

"It's not about making my money out of Jamaica and not investing in the quality of the product so that the world can see Jamaica. That's the perspective I'm taking. Invest in the quality, and I don't think that is being done consistent enough."

Bootleggers have apparently got a 'leg up' on Smith, as he told The Sunday Gleaner that the show is already being broadcast illegally on cable channels in the US and Japan.

Smith acknowledged that his investment in In The Dance was long-term rather than immediate. This project, he said, was in the works for several years as he always wanted to produce something reflecting the culture of his birthplace. He said there was a priceless satisfaction he got from seeing the dedication by the dancers and hearing stories from his mom in St Mary, of neighbours gathering by her home to watch the show each week.

"I'm not going to make any money off this for a while, but I'm happy. And I'm not a dumb businessman. I've done some pretty good things and In The Dance is right up there," he said.

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