Secrets of an entertainment exporter

Written by Susanne Baillie

Who says too much TV is bad for you? For two Canadian women, it’s a healthy business: Lisa Olfman and Joy Rosen and are reaping the rewards of stepping up to the global TV market. They’re co-founders and presidents of Portfolio Entertainment Inc., a Toronto-based firm that develops, finances, produces and exports a wide range of television programming, notably children’s shows and primetime drama. Recently, they won the Export Award at the 2003 Rotman Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

The secret to Portfolio’s export success lies in maintaining long-distance relationships. “We have developed a very strong network of contacts in every country we deal with,” says Olfman. “And we don’t wait for our phone to ring,” adds Rosen. Instead, they’re regularly in touch with foreign clients and contacts via telephone and e-mail, and maintain an up-to-date database to keep track of industry changes, such as personnel moves, industry trends and new channel openings.

Olfman and Rosen founded the company in 1991 after the production / distribution firm where they both worked stopped operating. “We like to say it’s the upside of being downsized,” says Rosen. The pair secured a $15,000 new ventures loan from Royal Bank, and found early success almost immediately with its first series, “Groundling Marsh”, which went on to a five-year run on YTV and many international awards. Since then, other successful productions have included “RoboRoach”, an animated series now in its third season on Teletoon (with foreign rights sold to Fox Kids Europe), and “Stolen Miracle”, a prime-time drama produced in 2001 for CTV in Canada and Lifetime in the U.S.

At the start, the duo launched an export / distribution arm to bring in revenue and help the firm understand the needs of broadcasters around the globe. “We recognized that cable channels all over the world were cropping up and needed programming,” says Rosen. Using the expertise and contacts gathered in their former jobs, they saw exporting as an untapped niche they could fill. “We started to call producers across the country and we assembled a small catalogue of programming that we became agents for.” Today, Portfolio’s sales are close to $20 million (an increase of approximately 200% over the past year), 70% of which come from exports to more than 90 countries, including the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and France.

Portfolio also advertises in trade magazines and takes booth space at each of the four major international trade shows each year. “That’s our opportunity to sit down face-to-face with our clients and talk to them.,” says Rosen. “Our goal is also to meet new ones and increase our base of contacts. Without having those eyes and ears on the ground in other places, we’d be doing a lot of walking around in the dark.”

Rosen advises Canadian exporters to pick foreign partners, including clients, agents or distributors, carefully. “Get to know them very well, find out about their reputations,” she says. “Then, once you have made a commitment to them, trust them, let them do their job and rely on them.” Face-to-face meetings can tell you a lot about whether you share the same values as someone and whether or not you’re comfortable doing business with them, she adds. And remember that potential foreign clients and partners are checking you out, too. “That’s why it’s important on our side that we do good business.”

What’s on next for Portfolio? The company is working on two new productions, “Carl 2” (Carl Squared), an animated series in development with Family Channel (Canada), and “Tracking the Hunter”, a prime-time movie-of-the-week in development with CTV. It’s also beefing up its distribution export catalogue by acquiring two new series. Beyond that, Olfman and Rosen are flirting with a strategic acquisition or branching off into a related area. What they do know for certain is that they’ll rely on their exporting contacts and expertise to help them find new opportunities. “We’ve spent 12 years cultivating those long-term relationships,” says Olfman, “and that’s what really makes us successful exporters.”

© 2003 Susanne Baillie

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