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Toronto Film Company Gets 'Southern Exposure' : Entertainment: Debuting Thursday, "Due South" will be the first Canadian-produced series to appear on an American television network in prime time.

September 18, 1994|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TORONTO — The cast of the new CBS action-comedy series "Due South" perches precariously in a canoe floating, incongruously, in a set built to represent a Chicago sewer tunnel.

Series co-star Paul Gross and guest star Leslie Nielsen are suited up in the red-jacketed ceremonial uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The other series co-star, David Marciano, sits in mid-canoe, playing a brash, sarcastic Chicago cop.

In the rapid-pace dialogue of the scene, Marciano's character worries about rats in the water, while Gross' frets about scuffing the borrowed boat on the sewer wall.

Here, in 15 seconds, is the central joke in "Due South"--the cultural collision of the naive, ramrod-straight Mountie from the Far North with the gritty American urban-scape.

"Due South" was cooked up by former CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky and Robert Lantos, chairman of Canada's largest film production and distribution company, Alliance Communications.

The program is a landmark here, not only for Alliance, but also for the entire Canadian film industry. When "Due South" debuts Thursday it will be the first Canadian-produced series to appear on an American network in prime time.

"Selling a prime-time television series to a U.S. network has pretty well been the exclusive domain of a relatively small number of companies, all of which are Los Angeles-based," Lantos said in a recent interview. "Reaching that point (for Alliance) . . . was something that has been under way a long time."

But it is only part of a rising American profile for Alliance, a Toronto-based diversified entertainment company founded by Lantos in 1985.

The company, which went public a year ago, has three more series and 10 movies-of-the-week in development or production at American networks and cable channels, said Michael Weisbarth, senior vice president for television at the company's Beverly Hills office. (Alliance also has offices in Montreal, Vancouver, Paris and Shannon, Ireland.)

The company just wrapped up four television movies based on the mega-selling Harlequin romance novels published by Toronto-based Torstar Corp., which CBS will counter-program to Fox's Sunday NFL broadcasts this fall.

Alliance has an exclusive arrangement with Torstar and envisions a string of Harlequin films, eventually repackaged as videos that can be sold next to the books at retailers across North America.

Alliance Releasing, headed by longtime Lantos business associate Victor Loewy, is the leading Canadian-owned film distributor here. It recently cut a deal to distribute Miramax films in Canada, giving it Canadian rights to Robert Altman's upcoming "Pret-a-porter" and Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," among many others.

In February, the company and Miramax will release the Alliance-produced "Exotica," written and directed by Atom Egoyan. The film, typical of the low-budget, director-driven projects the company long has been associated with, made a splash at this year's Cannes Film Festival, winning the International Critics Prize. Another Alliance production, "Whale Music," opened the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8.

In partnership with American companies, Alliance is moving into bigger budget movies, as well.

"Johnny Mnemonic," a futuristic adventure based on a novel by cyber-fiction author William Gibson, is in post-production, and at $23.4 million is the most expensive Canadian movie ever made. "Johnny Mnemonic" stars Keanu Reeves and is a co-production with TriStar.

The company recently launched a new division to produce low-cost action movies mainly for the cable and video market and in January will go on the air with its own cable channel on Canadian television, Showcase.

"It's very informal, very high energy, very demanding and very exciting," chief operating officer Gord Haines said of the company he joined two years ago. "It's like being in the middle of an explosion."

About the only thing that hasn't exploded is the stock price, which has only recently begun to rise after months of staying close to the $13 a share sold at offering. Alliance stock closed down 12.5 Friday at $15.625 on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Revenue was up 45% for the year ended March 31, with after-tax profits of $5.36 million on revenue of $79.56 million.

Roger Dent of the brokerage firm Wood Gundy Inc., one of the few analysts who focus on entertainment companies here, is very high on Alliance and attributes the slow rise in the stock price to cautious Canadian investors unfamiliar with the industry.

Alliance is very much the creation of the Hungarian-born Lantos, 45, described by "Due South" executive producer Paul Haggis as "a real character, a larger-than-life producer."

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