From 16 mm to tablets
Michael MacMillan and his friend Seaton McLean co-founded Atlantis Films in 1978 while studying film at Queen’s University. In the beginning, it was a straight-up film and TV production company and the pair distributed their programs by lugging 16mm film tins around the world.
In those early days, before specialty and satellite channels had mushroomed, people talked about the importance of producing content, says MacMillan. But that wasn’t where the money was. “Distribution was king,” he says.
Even though Atlantis hit the cinematic jackpot as a relatively young production house—it won an Academy Award for the short film Boys and Girls in 1984—it added distribution to the mix that year by setting up Atlantis Releasing.
That entity originally only distributed Atlantis’s own productions, but soon began distributing other companies’ programs. “Controlling the key access points [to content] was what made it possible to be successful in content,” says Macmillan.
The late ’80s and early ’90s saw Atlantis expand globally as it set up offices in Amsterdam, Sydney and L.A. In the mid-’90s, Atlantis got in the broadcasting game and launched Life Network. It was the first of several specialty channels it would operate; after Atlantis merged with Alliance in 1998, the mega-company cornered the specialty TV market in Canada. If you recall programming about building a shed or mixing a soufflé from back then, it probably aired on one of the 13 specialty networks Alliance Atlantis Communications operated, including HGTV Canada and Food Network Canada.
Then, in 2007, CanWest Global Communications acquired Alliance Atlantis and MacMillan, who was executive chairman at the time, agreed to serve as a consultant during the transition.
For someone who stepped away from an executive career while the party was still good, it’s surprising he chose to come back to the working world at all.
For a long while, he didn’t think he ever would. But he “couldn’t help but keep an eye on the media scene” during his quasi-retirement.
And one development struck him as huge opportunity: the invention of the tablet. He believes tablets will only increase how much people enjoy reading, watching and listening. “I think lots of other change will follow from it,” he says. In MacMillan’s mind, that’s a very good thing for consumers and content creators alike. “I find that creating cultural products, shall we say, is fun and interesting and undergoing huge change.”
But even with all that change, he recognizes the money is still overwhelming in established media. Blue Ant keeps its hands in it, says MacMillan, “to thrive and grow in the new areas.” While he says some online services “have hit the ball out of the park online,” it’s less clear which content plays will thrive. He points out, though, that some of the content that’s done the best online so far originated in print, citing The Wall Street Journal and Maclean’s. “It’s an interesting balancing act there.”
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Update: The print version of this story erroneously identifies Seaton McLean as Michael Seaton. This has been fixed in the online version. Marketing regrets the error.