"We have a love for this magical place... it's a major blessing."
Steven Brandman is raving, nay, gushing about being in Halifax again. The Emmy Award-nominated producer is preparing to make the fifth edition of the popular series of CBS-TV movies, starring Tom Selleck, about Robert B. Parker's fictional detective Jesse Stone. This one is called Thin Ice. The other four, also produced by Brandman, were: Stone Cold, Jesse Stone: Night Passage, Jesse Stone: Death in Paradise and Jesse Stone: Sea Change. This series of Movies of the Week, in association with Sony Pictures Television, has proved such a ratings winner for CBS that the first three are available to rent on DVD and are being aired again this month on the American cable channel Hallmark. This latest instalment will air on CBS during the February sweeps. Selleck has also just been nominated for an Emmy for Sea Change.
The series is such a big deal, in fact, that Brandman doesn't think of them as TV movies.
"We don't like to call them Movies of the Week," he says on the phone from his recently opened Halifax production office. "We like to call them the Feature of the Week." He claims the Jesse Stone movies have become the most successful TV movie franchise in the history of television and says it's partly due to "Tom's popularity, representing a guaranteed viewership" as well as "this place and the team here."
In this 500-channel TV world, the ratings are jaw-dropping. It was reported that approximately 18 million viewers tuned in to the first picture, Stone Cold, which aired in 2005, and the numbers were in the 13 to 14 million range for each of the three following movies. That kind of success means that if the movies had been a weekly series, it would likely have been a top-20 hit, comparable with Lost or Heroes. That success also explains why Brandman keeps coming back to make more, although it becomes harder and harder to do so.
"We're committed to this place," he says, even though "other hubs are enhancing incentives," such as tax breaks. Then there's the strong Canadian dollar, which discourages American productions like Brandman's from shooting in Canada where their money no longer goes as far. "There are cost increases. We took a $200,000 loss in currency exchange from last year. This year I had to defend Nova Scotia in a more vehement way."
On the plus side is a reliable crew they know can do the job and the fact the production now controls a huge array of assets associated with the movies. "We own production vehicles, set dressing and props," says Brandman. "Rather than spending rental dollars, we these costs over multiple pictures." Still, "CBS won't greenlight the next Jesse Stone until the last has aired and the ratings are in. Next year it will be a harder argument. As filmmakers we are increasingly challenged to deliver...to work with smaller budgets."
Jesse Stone: Thin Ice will be the first of the series that hasn't been directly adapted from the series of Robert B. Parker novels. This one is an original script based on the characters from the books. Otherwise, much is the same, from the locations (the exteriors for the town of Paradise are shot in Lunenberg) to the director, Robert Harmon, who helmed the previous instalments and brings a feature-film quality to the productions. Harmon also has a previous Halifax connection: He directed Haligonian Laura Regan as the lead in the Vancouver-shot 2002 horror feature They.
Brandman, an American who grew up in Toronto, is always happy to come back to Canada to work, though his business requires that he has a headquarters in Los Angeles.
"It was kind of a no-brainer," he says of bringing the production to Halifax in the first place. "Nova Scotia was perfect...it's a fictitious town somewhere outside of Boston, a small, coastal touristy locale. The landscape needs to be an equal character and of equal importance." He also credits his star and executive producer, Tom Selleck, for being a big part of the reason for the repeated Nova Scotia shoots. "He had done Reversible Errors about a year before and had fallen in love with . He loved the town and the people and we continue to thank his wisdom. We made the right choice."