Michael MacMillan, The Canadian Television Chief Who Brought The ‘CSI’ Franchise To The World, On Doing It All Again With Blue Ant Media

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EXCLUSIVE: Michael MacMillan retired from the world of television 17 years ago. Except, he didn’t.

The Canadian film and TV producer and business exec had made his name as CEO and Chairman of Alliance Atlantis, the company that built the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise into a worldwide phenomenon, before its broadcast unit was sold off in 2007 to Canwest Communications and Goldman Sachs — making a lot of cash and taking a well-earned early retirement.

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However, just four years later, he was back to do it all again.

MacMillan launched Blue Ant Media in 2011, originally as a Canadian channel operator, much the same as Alliance Atlantis had operated. However, just like his previous company, network ownership was only a means to an end — owning content was always the real play.

In the 13 years that have followed, Blue Ant has transformed from a channel operator to a content company playing in the international rights ownership game, with shows such as Canada’s Drag Race, Doomlands, Blown Away, Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell and Casey Anthony: Where the Truth Lies.

Crave’s Canadian version of Drag Race, a co-production with World of Wonder, has run to four seasons, with the latest also launching on streamer WOW Presents Plus in more than 160 countries. That partnership has also spawned Slaycation, which sees Drag Race stars vacationing in a winter cabin together. The company has offices in LA, New York, Singapore, London, Washington and Sydney.

MacMillan, who launched Atlantis Films as a student and won an Oscar for short film Boys and Girls in 1984, recalls how he and his fellow Alliance Atlantis managers would provide a “glib” response when people asked what the company was aiming to be. “Our line was, ‘You ever hear of a company called Universal?’ — a major integrated international player producing, owning and selling TV shows that is involved in other related areas giving it strength and stability. That was the sniffy answer we’d give, but it did ultimately describe Alliance Atlantis because we did that. When people say, ‘What are you doing with Blue Ant?’ we see that as an inspiration, and there is a similar opportunity here.”

This week, Blue Ant’s international sales team will be in the UK showcasing its latest slate at the London TV Screenings launching shows such as Ghosting with Luke Hutchie and Matthew Finlay, Charles III: The Coronation Year and natural history show Airborne to international buyers — a manifestation of MacMillan’s desire to control content and shop it globally.

The business is arguably best known for its wildlife network Love Nature, which is distributed as a linear channel, branded block and/or international subscription streamer depending on where you are. The brand original started as Canada speciality channel Oasis Network, which Blue Ant bought via an acquisition of High Fidelity HDTV in 2011, and was rebranded as an originals-driven service under its new name four years later making 200 hours of content a year. It rolled out internationally and now an established global co-producer in the natural history space. In the U.S., it averages half a billion minutes streamed per month, up 37% year-on-year.


“We started as a small, regional Canadian broadcaster because that was what was available to us, but the hope was always to be a creator and owner of interesting programming around the world,” says MacMillan. “With Love Nature, we basically went from renting programming for Oasis in Canada and changed the geography and business premise. Instead of renting local Canadian rights, we did the far more ambitious and expensive thing of actually commissioning and owning programming worldwide. Over the next eight years, we were able to take Love Nature out and it’s now an offering in 110+ countries.”

Asked how he sees the business today, he takes a thoughtful pause and responds: “I would still tend to think of us a scrappy international player. I hope we never give up that scrappiness, ambition and energy — that willingness and eagerness to work with everybody.”

Acquisitions of companies such as Choice TV and David Haslingden’s Asia-Pacific firm Racat Group, including Singapore’s Beach House Media, followed, while more recently there has been a major focus on launching FAST channels such as HauntTV, Total Crime, Homeful and Love Drama, with at least 75% of shows on each one exclusive to the service.

The latest step in Blue Ant’s trajectory has been acquiring Canadian compatriot MarbleMedia. The deal, which included sales business Distribution360, has led to a restructure of the operation that will see sales and production brought under one roof, with MarbleMedia bosses Mark Bishop and Matthew Hornburg named Co-Presidents of the currently unnamed unit.

MacMillan calls the purchase “another step in the general direction” of international business, and notes it was a “long term” bet on the future that disregarded the general narrative around the perilous state of entertainment. “The climate in film and TV land has been pretty chilly over the past few years, but as we plan for the next 5-10 years, we’re thinking that there will be ups and downs, recessions, mergers and new technology,” he says. “We’re looking out longer term to build a significant enterprise.

“The fact it’s a difficult time for the industry didn’t even come into our heads. We were fortune because Blue Ant has a strong balance sheet and Marble did too, so the difficult economic circumstances didn’t matter. We think people worldwide will continue to watch great programming on what I will call TV.”

Mark Bishop and Matthew Hornburg
Blue Ant studios bosses Mark Bishop and Matthew Hornburg

Soon after the MarbleMedia deal was secured, sales chief Solange Attwood exited and later launch her own venture, Serial Maven Studios, and more change was to come. This month, Blue Ant sold Beach House, which makes the likes of Netflix’s Missing: The Lucie Blackman Case and Ice Cold: Murder, Coffee and Jessica Wongso, to Fremantle earlier this month in a something of a surprise move.

The deal hadn’t actually been announced when we speak with MacMillan, and he later sends a statement explaining the move: “We had many years of creative collaboration with Donovan Chan, Jocelyn Little and the whole Beach House Pictures team and we wish them, and Fremantle, all the best on this new chapter. Right now, Blue Ant is committed to investing in its newly formed studios business, under the leadership of Mark Bishop and Matthew Hornburg, with a key focus on North America — and the UK for distribution.

“That said, we may look to international markets to grow that side of Blue Ant’s business in the future, but not at this time. Asia-Pacific remains an important market for Blue Ant, in particular for global channels and programme distribution.”

When to apply the gas

MacMillan maybe lowkey about his own achievements — including co-founding and co-owning Closson Chase Vineyards and Winery and a Order of Canada award — but he clearly has heady ambitions for growth in Canada and internationally but that comes with its own challenges.

As noted, both locally and globally, networks and streamers are struggling economically. In Canada, a microcosm of that is evidenced through the lack of streamer spend, with the likes of Disney+ pulling out altogether, and networks reducing tariffs as they seek to make savings. However, Canada’s tax rebate system, local funding structures and production stages still make it an attractive proposition.

“There’s more and more choice ever year, with on-demand helping to drive that, and we see increased demand for what we do,” says MacMillan. “Though our focus is international, a lot of what we physically make is in Canada, and it remains a great place to make programming, even when you’re aiming at the whole world. The fact we have a strong international distribution business for programmes and our channels, along with our Canadian channels bundle, helps turbocharge our production business.

“You may think I’m avoiding talking about the economic challenges in the industry, but it is in those times that it can be when you want to grow, so when you do come out of the duldrums, you’re well positioned. We had a town hall at Blue Ant and the metaphor I was using for these recession times was that it’s like driving a car: you come to a turn in the road, so you apply the brakes as you approach. But when do you apply the gas? You actually hit the gas before you reach the turn. Metaphorically, before things improve is when you want to be setting up.”

Going forwards, resources will continue to pump into owned channel/platforms, program sales and production, with the “extremely competitive” FAST market a particular focus thanks to its “explosive growth.” MacMillan has in mind a 2030 date for when over-the-air and streaming distribution truly converge, and “the proof will be in the eating of the pudding.”

“The only reason we were able to jump into FAST so effectively — and with Love Nature, which was already a subscription product in most countries — was because we owned the IP,” he adds. “If we hadn’t, that would not have been possible. Our first priority is allocating resource to content we can produce and own.”

Though a different era, well before streaming, Alliance Atlantis (and even before that its predecessor Alliance Films) had built operations on similar foundations. The CSI franchise, now owned by Paramount Global, continues to grow — just this month, the third season of CSI: Vegas, launched its third season on CBS.

‘CSI: Vegas’ is the latest edition of the ‘CSI’ franchise that MacMillan’s Alliance Atlantis turned into a worldwide phenomenon
‘CSI: Vegas’ is the latest edition of the ‘CSI’ franchise that MacMillan’s Alliance Atlantis turned into a worldwide phenomenon

MacMillan says that being willing to share rights and windows will become ever more important, and that despite his penchant for content ownership, being a “good partner” is something to be cherished. “There’s a lot of thought, led by necessity, going into making sure others come out of our deals well. Being inflexible is not for us.”

He also an issue with the inflexibility of categorizing distribution platforms, saying it misunderstands consumers. “As an industry, we should stop using ‘linear’ in the way most of us do, because it confuses the delivery mechanism, scheduled versus on-demand, or the choice of technology,” he says. “The proof is in the pudding: people like them all.”

In the shorter term, expect Blue Ant to stay nimble and internationally-focused, striking deals such as the one for the library of UK distributor Drive Media Rights in June 2022 or MarbleMedia a year later.

“Like everybody else, we can change our mind, or change tactics and reshuffle the decks,” says MacMillan. “Don’t assume everything we’re doing will be our favourite tactic next week. Having said that, we are really intrigued by the growth and success of Love Nature and our other, smaller FAST channels. Can we build from scratch, adapt or acquire another or more international content brands? Can Love Nature have an international sibling that’s just as robust?”

And while many question whether its possible to be a successful mid-sized entertainment company in a world of tech giants and consolidated U.S. studios, MacMillan takes a typical sideways position.

“You can compare us to Apple, Amazon, Paramount or Warner Bros Discovery and we are very small, but on the other hand, in direct comparison with companies in most countries, we’re actually a decent size. We can be small enough to keep track of what we’re doing and be responsive to the projects we’re making and the creative needs of writers, talents and co-producers and be able act on it, and big enough to have resources and opportunities to bring to bear. I kinda like that size.”

Michael MacMillan: scrappy to the last second.

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