Insight Productions


Insight’s 2020 vision

Insight Productions CEO John Brunton is moving back into scripted and is looking ahead to 2021 with optimism. He talks us through his strategy and the shows on his Industry Suites playlist on Content Canada.

This year should have been a long list of parties, celebrations and champagne toasts for Toronto-based Insight Productions as it celebrated its 40th year in business with its best year to date in terms of production volume and finances.

John Brunton
John Brunton

Instead, says CEO John Brunton, it’s been “a year of Zoom calls and one cancellation after another. What’s the best way to describe it? Probably a clusterfuck. Brutal, like it has been for everyone in the industry.”

Nevertheless, Brunton remains optimistic and sees light at the end of the tunnel, for Insight and the Canadian TV sector as a whole. “It’s getting better day by day,” he says. “We have only 250 to 300 cases of Covid-19 in the whole of Canada, so we’re getting back into production. Insight is back in business, with extreme Covid protocols in place for our shows resuming production this fall.”

Having so many shows cancelled or postponed – The JUNO Awards, The Canadian Screen Awards, Big Brother Canada, The Amazing Race – forced Insight to get its Covid protocols set up early, focus on new development and the post-production of shows that had already wrapped and experiment with new things, like casting reality shows over Zoom.

“We’re already loaded into the studio with Top Chef Canada and will start production in September. We did the casting for that show all virtually, which is a first for us. And we’re going to be doing the same for Big Brother Canada, casting via video clips and Zoom. Our casting has all shifted from in-person to virtual and Zoom calls,” says Brunton.

Another show that is starting production soon is the new season of NHL players and Olympic skaters series Battle of the Blades, an original format from Insight for the CBC. “We’re excited to be bringing back that big, live show and we’ve done some really interesting innovations for it,” says Brunton.

These include an arena surrounded by video screens of remote audiences from communities across the country. “They’ll be able to react to the performances from their homes or from their skating or hockey clubs across the country. We’re trying to avoid that dead experience of live sport with no crowd reaction,” explains Brunton.

Another original format that Insight debuted recently is Wall of Chefs, a reality show produced in partnership with Corus Entertainment that airs on Food Network in Canada. It features four amateur home chefs per episode competing in culinary challenges, judged by a panel of prominent Canadian chefs and restaurateurs.

“Wall of Chefs probably won’t go back into production till next year, hopefully in the spring of 2021. But that’s a show that is still broadcasting, with shows we produced in the previous year,” says Brunton.

As well as original formats like Blades and Chefs, Insight’s playlist on Content Canada includes two feature documentaries. Brunton describes the first, How to Change the World, as “a look at the history of the first 10 years of Greenpeace,” an organization that began in Vancouver in 1971. The 2015 coproduction with MET Films has aired on Sky (UK), CTV/Bell (Canada) and Netflix (US/Rest of World).

“I was involved in Greenpeace all those years ago and we originally wanted to tell the Greenpeace story as a scripted series,” explains Brunton. “But everyone remembers history in different ways, so we thought it would be a good idea to do a documentary first.”

The second feature doc on the Insight playlist is Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, exploring the career, music and influence of the eponymous Canadian musical icon. “Gordon’s been a friend of mine for 40 years and I’ve tried to make a documentary about his life for 30 of them,” recalls Brunton.

“We’ve completed that film and it’s been through theaters in Canada and broadcast on the CBC, and it’s still being screened as a virtual movie release in the US. We’re in negotiations for US broadcast and worldwide distribution at the moment.”

Although Insight is best known for big awards shows, entertainment formats and feature docs, Brunton points to another, lesser-known side of its business: scripted series. “It’s interesting because in the very early days of Insight we were largely producing scripted shows for Disney, HBO and Showtime,” he says. The company was also involved in drama Falcon Beach, which aired on Global and ABC Family 15 years ago and is distributed by Fremantle.

“But over the years we became known for live music shows and unscripted hits like Canadian Idol, Project Runway, Big Brother Canada and Deal or No Deal. So, about two years ago we decided we would start to invest heavily again in scripted development. We have four or five scripted shows in development with the CBC. We’ve got scripted shows in development in the US. We’ve got a number of comedy projects, some with some big streamers. We’ve gone back to our roots.”

All told, Insight now has 15 or so scripted shows in active development and has used the lockdown period to focus on that side of its business. “A lot of people, writers and showrunners in particular, have become available under lockdown. Everything else was on pause so we’ve really put a big push to develop our scripted slate,” he says.

Following the success of How to Change the World and the growing importance of the ecological movement, Insight has also partnered with US-based Participant Media to revisit the original idea of telling the Greenpeace story as a scripted series.
In fact, Brunton sees plenty of opportunities south of the border as US networks are starved of original productions and their eyes turn north for acquisitions to fill gaps in their schedules.

“In the US, we’ve been a little focused on the streamers up until now, but there is way more acquisition on the part of the US networks right now. And they’re more interested and open, as much as the streamers are, in terms of coproduction partnerships, getting involved on the ground floor with development and being able to share with Canadian broadcasters. The idea of partnering is becoming more and more of a trend in the US for a variety of reasons. So, it’s a huge opportunity for us in the future.”

Putting 2020 and its cancellations behind him, Brunton is now looking forward to 2021. “We’ve got a great slate lined up and a number of new shows are on the verge of being greenlit. So if everything stays reasonably normal, in 2021 we will have our biggest year with the most productions and the biggest volume of production in the history of the company.”

Keep that champagne on ice.