Spotlight On: Sullivan Entertainment

Anne of Green Gables

Most Canadians who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, whether they like it or not, probably have a story about the first time they saw one of Sullivan Entertainment’s productions. Whether it was the ubiquitous Anne of Green Gables (and its sequels), its spin-off Road to Avonlea (which launched Sarah Polley’s acting career) or Sunday night staple Wind at My Back , there’s no doubt that Sullivan Entertainment made an industry out of wholesome Canadian family entertainment.

Founded in 1981 by Trudy Grant, current President and Executive Producer, Sullivan Entertainment really began to flourish when the company’s Director and creative force, Kevin Sullivan, purchased the rights to L.M. Montgomery‘s classic Anne of Green Gables book series in 1984. The first 4-hour miniseries starring Megan Follows was released in 1985 and was an instant hit for the company. It was released theatrically in Israel, Europe and Japan and became one of the highest rated  programs of any genre ever to air on a Canadian television network, even affecting tourism in Prince Edward Island as legions of tourists flocked there to extend their Anne experience any way that they could. The telefilm also pulled in some serious Downton Abbey -like ratings for PBS when it aired in the States in 1986. Many awards (including a Gemini sweep and an Emmy) followed and suddenly, this little Toronto-based production company was a big-time player on the worldwide market.

From there, Sullivan went on to create a whole series of adult-geared dramas (or Kevin Sullivan puts it, “[films that] will give you a good dose of period reality with gripping human-interest stories”) including The Piano Man’s Daughter starring Stockard Channing, Love on the Land starring Rachel Ward and the award-winning Butterbox Babies , all of which did their part in cementing Sullivan Entertainment’s reputation as a home for thoughtful and detailed period productions.  “I like the era of 100 years ago as that is the time period my father grew up in.” Sullivan revealed “My brother and I were born when my father was in his sixties. He was born in 1895, so when I was a boy all of my aunts and uncles were very old. Consequently I knew a great deal about this time period. Almost as if I had grown up in it myself. I enjoy making period films, mostly because I’ve become skilled at it. It has allowed me to put an original imprimatur on my body of films as well.”

Despite this success with “grown-up” films, Sullivan Entertainment’s heart stayed with its family fare.   Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel was another bonafide hit for them in 1987 and the spin-off series Road to Avonlea began airing on CBC in 1990 and ran for 6 years, even inspiring a series of books that continued the stories beyond the TV screen. Sullivan also began to focus on an even younger demographic with Anne: The Animated Series and Rupert Patterson Wants to Be A Superhero , ensuring that there was something for just about every age group on the company’s filmography.  Heck, the Anne of Green Gables series has even been studied in U.S. film schools as a model for TV drama with multi-generational, multi-cultural appeal. That’s a pretty cool achievement when most production companies strive mainly for that supposedly all important teenage boy demographic.  “My goal during the course of developing material was for it to enlighten an audience as well as entertain people.” insists Sullivan. “The shows speak for themselves I feel.”

In recent years, Sullivan Entertainment has branched out into documentaries ( Mozart Decoded and Out of the Shadows ), art exhibition (a Toronto gallery that exhibits a wide range of contemporary abstract pieces by American, European and Canadian artists)  and film restoration,  “For the past two years we’ve worked with NHK restoring over 140 hours of Anne of Green Gables from the original negatives,” said Sullivan. “We’re looking at expanding [the] franchise. The last film we produced was in 2009, with Shirley MacLaine and Barbara Hershey. We’re looking at producing more episodes with Canadian broadcasters. We have all the copyright to all of our works, plus all the trademarks to Anne and all the related properties.”

They also have a real, live classic Hollywood-style studio and backlot right here in Toronto, containing 2.5 acres of period sets (originally created for   Wind at My Back ) – the largest ever mounted for a Canadian television production – just waiting to become the home to whatever spectacular production is next on the roster. So, how does Kevin Sullivan know what’s going to be the next production to set the hearts of Canadian families aflame?  “I’m not the person to ask. One creates and then one shows it to the masses. We’ll just have to see what happens.” He continued, “The only way for a filmmaker to tell a story is to believe implicitly in the world they create on film. If fans and audiences like that world ““ great!”

 


Kristal Cooper has been a film buff since the age of two when her parents began sneaking her into the drive-in every weekend. Since then, she's pursued that passion by working for the Toronto International Film Festival and the Canadian Film Centre as well as spending many a happy hour inside Toronto's wonderful theatres (she still mourns the loss of The Uptown). She is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture and feminist issues, and continues to slog away at her day job as a small cog in the giant machinery of the Toronto film community.

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