Pier 21 Films’ strategic focus on fresh comedic voices

Oct 28, 2021

Founder Laszlo Barna and COO Nicole Butler share how Run the Burbs is part of a longer strategy to attract global buyers with in-demand domestic talent.

Laszlo Barna and Nicole Butler are bringing Toronto boutique Pier 21 Films into its next phase, with a comedy-heavy slate of hits to pique the interest of international buyers.

The company is currently in production on Run the Burbs, a scripted CBC sitcom co-created by Kim’s Convenience star Andrew Phung and creative partner Scott Townend, set to premiere in winter 2022. Phung stars in the series, as well as serving as executive producer.

Barna, the prodco’s founder and former head of TV at Entertainment One, tells Playback Daily that Phung’s work on the prodco’s satirical news comedy The Beaverton compelled producers to develop a series around his talent.

Butler, chief operating office, says the Run the Burbs felt “fresh and unique” as well as deeply relatable for a wide audience. The series was in development for less than a year before it was greenlit by CBC, according to Barna.

Like many global production companies, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the producers at Pier 21 Films knew the best strategy was to focus on development. As a result, the company has 12 projects in various stages of development with different networks, including seven comedies, four dramas and one factual series.

The titles include Land Back, a half-hour comedy from The Beaverton‘s Tim Fontaine; Fort Puleyne, a half-hour comedy co-developed with Brightlight Pictures for Bell Media’s Crave, with Humphrey Ker (Mythic Quest) and Evany Rosen (New Eden) attached; Late Bloomer, a half-hour comedy from Jasmeet Raina, with Russell Peters attached as EP; and one-hour drama A Good Wife, adapted from the Samra Zafar memoir, with Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady attached as the screenwriter.

Butler says the focus on comedy is also part of the company’s business strategy, as it leans into the strength of their development team, led by SVP Bill Lundy and VP Karen Tsang, who are well-equipped to “nurture creative talent.”

She adds that their creative comedic talent have a bigger stake in their projects, often coming on board as performers and producers as well as writers, and that larger investment brings more value to the material. “They really want to go deep with the development of their projects,” she says.

Other creatives currently in development with Pier 21 include Amber-Sekowan Daniels (Diggstown), Catherine Hernandez (Scarborough), Nelu Handa (A Little Late with Lilly Singh), Miguel Rivas (The Beaverton), Roger Bainbridge (Baroness von Sketch Show), Adam Frost (Castle) and Michael Konyves (Bad Blood).

Barna says the company is also deeply invested in promoting underrepresented voices. The name of Pier 21 Films comes from the historic immigration facility in Halifax, N.S., where Barna arrived as a refugee from Hungary, and represents the beginning of his journey in Canada. That connection to his origin story speaks to the company’s direction in development, as Barna says a number of their comedic voices are children of immigrants, including Phung and Raina.

Butler points to the international sales deal with Endeavor Content for Run the Burbs as a core payoff of that strategy, with Phung’s writing and skills as a performer attracting market interest before the series went to camera.

Barna says international market interest in Canadian productions “is nothing like I’ve seen before,” noting that there were six different distributors vying for the rights to Run the Burbs. While he says it’s never been easy to get a greenlight from Canadian broadcasters, the interest from global streamers is helping to offset the difficulty in securing full financing for domestic productions.

The largest change Barna has seen is the interest in various cultural perspectives. He recalls a moment approximately a decade ago, producing the series The Bridge while at eOne, where a U.S. network executive asked for the cast to receive a dialogue coach to get rid of their Canadian accent. Fast forward to 2021, Run the Burbs is partially spoken in Vietnamese, and the feedback from buyers is “the more, the better,” according to Barna.

“It’s a change in our audience, it’s a change in our broadcasters and it’s the way to change the way the world talks to one another,” he says.