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Andrew Barnsley Gets Candid About His Career, Schitt’s Creek, Advice During ‘Ask Me Anything’

Hot off the heels of his historic Emmy and Golden Globe wins, Schitt’s Creek executive producer Andrew Barnsley took time out of his busy schedule to get candid with Toronto Film School.

 

During an hourlong Ask Me Anything Q&A session, which was moderated by Class of 2017 Film Production grad Becky Yeboah, TFS students were encouraged to pepper the school’s Executive Producer in Residence with questions on anything and everything.

 

 

With no subject out of bounds, here are some of the questions asked of Barnsley:

 

What is producing?

 

“That is a good question. Producing means different things to different people. In terms of my work, on one side of my work, it’s the relationship with the creative side, which is the writers, the directors, the actors, the stars, the showrunners, that sort of thing. Then, on the other side is the relationship with the business side, so it’s the buyers, the studios, the broadcasters, the distributors, the banks, the lawyers, the agents, the accountants. So, we’re positioned right in the middle between these two big pieces of the business, and it’s our job to kind of connect the dots to pitch the show, to sell the show, to finance the show, to hire everybody. That’s my version of producing – situated between those two great big forces of the creative and the business. And every email, every phone call, we’re on. You look at my inbox in a day, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of emails because every piece of information flows through a production company.”

 

How did you get your start as a producer?

 

“I went to Carleton University and I took Film Studies there to kind of get a bit of an educational foundation in the theory of film and that sort of thing, but it wasn’t a production program. So, I had moved to Ottawa right after a federal election, and I was just naïve and didn’t know any better, but where my family lived, there was a new member of parliament in Ottawa. One day, I was, like, let me call the new MPs office and say, ‘Listen, you’re new to Ottawa, I’m new to Ottawa, let’s have a conversation.’ His name was Andy Scott, and he invited me out to lunch. He asked me what I wanted to do, what I was interested in, and I said, ‘I really think I’m interested in being a producer,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Listen, I’ve just started my job here and one thing we’re going to be doing is starting a weekly television show where we report back to the riding about what’s going on in Ottawa. It’s an interview show and if you want to host and produce it, it’s yours.’ And that was really how it began, and it set me on this path to doing what I’m doing now. That was in 1995…

 

“What’s interesting about my story is that I kind of don’t feel like my title has ever changed since the beginning, it’s just sort of the scope of the projects and the size of the budgets that have changed.”

 

What are some ways to break into the industry?

 

“An easy way to (connect) in the industry is to join organizations that are connected to the industry. There aren’t many, but a great one to start with is the Canadian Academy of Film & Television. I think student memberships are, like, $50 for the year, and all of a sudden you get invited to receptions, you get invited to panels, and you can start being a part of the industry and having professional conversations and networking. And it can happen in a very organic way. This industry really is about relationships, and part of the strategy when you’re thinking of how to build a career is putting yourself in those positions to build relationships. What’s interesting about that is that it can sound very intimidating and daunting. For me, I was not that person – I was not a schmoozy person who liked to go and hand out business cards and work the room, but what I found was that when I put myself into environments I wanted to be in, you just start talking to other people who also want to be there. When I look at how my professional network evolved, I have great relationships, but none of them were forced. They all happened organically over time by being in places where other people were and talking about things we all wanted to talk about, and that’s how you build that network.”

 

 

When you had setbacks in your early days, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep moving forward?

 

“You’re right: there are challenging days. Nothing happens overnight. It was important for me, when I had those tough days, to be really committed to achieving success in this business. It was something I didn’t waver on. I kind of lived a philosophy of ‘There can’t be a Plan B,’ because it is really easy to quit and there were lots of moments when I could have…but I never wanted to initiate Plan B. It was just something I couldn’t do, so I figured I just had to work through it…

 

“Believe me, there are tough days. It’s about staying on task, keep moving forward and not listening to how other people measure success. It really has to come from within.”

 


Have you made any big mistakes in your career? How did they help you in the long run?

 

“I’ve made so many mistakes. I’ve made all the mistakes. And I encourage everybody to do that. I’ve made mistakes at every level – from partners I’ve worked with, to how we structure companies, to how money works, to bad pitches. And the truth is that you have to make these mistakes; it’s really the only way. Failure can be very scary and the fear of failure can be paralyzing. But…the path to success is probably, like, 95 per cent failure, and that’s because you’re learning along the way. It’s what you do with that failure, it’s what you learn from those mistakes and how you reorient yourself and how you grow, that’s just how it works.

 

“The easy way to answer that is just to look at how many pitches I made before I got traction on anything. I bet I pitched 100 shows before we got a single bit of interest in anything. But every single one of those rejections informed the next pitch. And not only did they inform the next pitch in terms of the creative and how we were presenting it, but every time I was in a pitch room, I had more time with the buyers, more time with the executives, and that’s how relationships evolve, too.”

 

What is your advice on pitching?

 

“To me, there are two parts of a pitch for film and TV. The first piece is creative: you need to know with precision what the world is, who the characters are, what the story engines are, how the mechanics of the world work and what is there. There has to be such precision on that because in a pitch meeting, you don’t know what you’re going to be asked and you need to be able to have some sense of how to answer any creative question. So that’s really one piece, the creative side.

 

“The other side is the team. You really have to have a team that is undeniable. You have to work at that, and sometimes, especially early on and as much as it might hurt, it might make sense to bring on a collaborator, a partner who has experience doing what you’re trying to do, to help: a) get the buyers’ confidence that it can be done, and b) it also opens doors for you and your team. So, I recommend, early on, thinking about collaboration and thinking about how you can bolster your team by addition. Because, when weighing it out, I think a good idea with a great team has a much better shot than a great idea with a good team.”

 

What makes a writer appealing to others in the industry these days?

 

“Look at what people are watching now. There was a time, in the era of network TV, where everybody would watch NBC on Thursday night. It was broadcasting because everything was broad. It was meant to get the most amount of viewers possible. The shows that do well now are not broad, they’re narrow and they’re connected to a particular showrunner’s point of view or one writer’s point of view. That’s what we’re looking for: that specificity in voice.”

 

Should an actor try to get a job on set as a production assistant (PA) to learn what that world is like while they’re waiting for their next acting gig?

 

“Yeah, I think the more you learn about the industry and the operational side of it, the better. You’re going to become a better actor if you see what a professional set looks like. I think there’s a lot of value to that. What I wouldn’t do is show up on set and try to corner the director and say, as a PA, that you want to be in the next scene. That would backfire. But, yeah, the more you can learn about the world you want to be in, the better.”

 

Emmy night photo of Andrew Barnsley with Schitt's Creek cast members Eugene and Dan Levy, as well as his fellow producers.

 

When did you know Schitt’s Creek was going to be a great show?

 

“We all loved the show from the beginning. I think when we started to get a sense that we might be on to something was in Season 1, the ‘I like the wine, not the label’ episode – that was something where we were, like, ‘Okay, we’ve hit on something in a very interesting way.’ We knew at the script stage and at the table read that there was something there, but it wasn’t until it was kind of out there. That the first moment that landed. But it was still at the beginning and it was just Canada that really had access to the show…but once that went to air in Season 1, we knew we had something and that’s when we started to feel a bit of buzz.

 

“But it wasn’t really until Season 4, when the show ended up on Netflix, that it really all of a sudden exploded and there was demand for our cast to go do live events and we started getting calls for people to go on talk shows in the U.S. and that sort of thing. A switch was flipping and it was becoming something bigger than any of us could have predicted. But, I’ll tell you, Netflix didn’t want the show for the longest time. It really had to hit kind of a tipping point where they were, like, ‘Yeah, okay, we can do this’.”

 

How do you create something extraordinary that gets accepted globally?

 

“You can’t manufacture that, it just has to happen. Everybody goes into producing a TV series thinking it’s going to be a hit, but very few of them are. When you’re looking at the network model in the U.S., there’s no guarantee shows are going to last more than one season, there’s no guarantee they’re going to find big audiences. And everybody making those shows thinks that they’re doing it the right way. So there’s no cookie-cutter way to create a hit. It’s a really difficult question to answer. You just have to really believe in it, you have to hire the right way, you have to control the variables you can control and make sure that the standards are high, the writing is where it needs to be, that you’re hiring the right directors and creative team. And then hope that, when you release it to the world, that it finds its audience.”

 

What’s your favourite movie filmed in Toronto?

 

“I would have to say My Big Fat Greek Wedding because I lived on the Danforth for a long time and it was fun to see – even though the movie wasn’t set in Toronto, it was set in Chicago – it was so cool to recognize restaurants that I went to and various landmarks, and just feel a connection to this movie. It was kind of a real underdog of a movie and it ended up blowing up to be one of the greatest indie films, box office-wise, of all time. So that’s one when I think about a movie and I think about Toronto and what this city can offer, it was a real early-days success story for Toronto. And, like I said, having lived on the Danforth, there was just pride in that neighbourhood and knowing we were part of something great just by living there.”

 

What’s the most important quality of a filmmaker?

 

“For anybody who has a creative drive, it’s important to remember and recognize that what you’re doing is a craft and you have to work those muscles – you have to work very, very hard and commit to your craft. And a big part of that is knowing your voice, understanding your voice, understanding your sensibility. When you look at directors that have had great careers, (the) showrunners who are having great careers, what connects all of their body of work is a sensibility and a confidence…And that doesn’t just happen. It comes from working really hard and figuring out what your voice is…

 

“To me, the biggest piece of advice is, if you’re a writer, you need to be writing. You need to be writing every single day, you need to be figuring out what your voice is, what your sensibility is, what your process is. And it’s the same with directing, producing, acting. You need to work at this. Nothing is handed to anybody.”

 

 

About the panelists:

 

Becky Yeboah's headshot

Becky Yeboah

 

Becky Yeboah is a Toronto-based independent film producer, line producer and production manager from Winnipeg, MB. An alumnus of Toronto Film School’s Film Production program (Class of 2017), Yeboah has since produced, line produced and/or managed more than 50 different projects spanning short films, feature films, and web/broadcast commercials. Past years have also seen Yeboah become a recipient of the Ontario Arts Council Media Artists Creation grant, as well as complete an internship with Canadian film financing company JoBro Productions through the Canadian Media Producers Association’s Ontario Production Mentorship Program.

Since that fruitful internship, Yeboah has gone on to line produce and production manage exciting features with Hangar 18 (a subsidiary of Raven Banner Entertainment, the distribution company of Toronto Film School’s own Michael Paszt), such as Gone Upriver, directed by the Rue Morgue‘s Rodrigo Gudino, and V/H/S 94, the reboot of the cult-classic horror franchise of the same name. Keeping things in the family, Yeboah has also had the opportunity to line produce alongside current TFS faculty members Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer on their debut feature film Violation, which recently screened at both the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as the Sundance International Film Festival.

 

 

Andrew Barnsley's headshot

Andrew Barnsley

 

Andrew Barnsley is the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning executive producer of the CBC’s hit comedy series Schitt’s Creek. In addition to Schitt’s Creek historic 2020 Emmy wins, Barnsley’s work on the Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara fronted show has also garnered him three Canadian Screen Awards (2016, 2019 and 2020) for Best Comedy Series.

As the CEO of Project 10 Productions, Barnsley splits his time between Toronto and Los Angeles, where his 2020 development and production slate also includes CTV’s Jann, Amazon Studio’s Kids In The Hall reboot, and the Family Channel tween series, My Perfect Landing. He also previously served as the executive producer on CTV’s Spun Out starring Dave Foley, the TMN/Movie Central documentary series Sports On Fire,and the HBO Canada documentary feature Spirit Unforgettable.

Barnsley is Toronto Film School’s current Executive Producer in Residence, as well as a member of the Canadian Media Producers Association, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (USA) and the Academy of Canadian Film & Television.