MFG Special Feature


A Q & A with Andrew Johnson, Commissioning Editor of CBC's new documentary program THE LENS.


Interview originally published in CBC MontrealŐs i-Wire Newsletter, January  1st, 2006. Reprinted with permission.


ROUGH CUTS is being rebranded and relaunched as THE LENS on Tuesday, January 24th. Why the rebrand? 


When ROUGH CUTS was started in 1994, production budgets were much lower and many of our filmmakers were making their first one-hour documentary.  Those filmmakers are now much more experienced and even the newer producers are making docs with larger budgets and higher production values. Just as the Canadian documentary community has grown and developed in the last decade, so too have the films seen on ROUGH CUTS. The new title reflects the higher quality of films shown on the strand while remaining a showcase for original Canadian documentaries.


Will the commissioning priorities of THE LENS differ from those of ROUGH CUTS? 


We continue to search for one-hour documentaries exclusively from Canadian filmmakers.  We seek films that are innovative and compelling  with up close, personal and dramatic stories with new perspectives; films that inform, provoke and entertain while giving fresh insights into contemporary Canadian society.  In 2006 we'll be looking for films with higher production values and strong appeal to audiences across Canada.  We're interested in documentaries that are bit more populist than in the past.


What are some of the titles you will be programming in the first season of THE LENS?


Some of the most interesting films coming on THE LENS include:

- The Cross and Bones (January 24th): Dinosaur-bone hunters, bikers and a Passion Play come together in the Alberta Badlands in a dramatic collision of ideas around evolution, creationism and hedonism.  Directed by Paul Carriere.

- Lifelike (January 31st): A hilarious and fascinating look at the quirky world of taxidermists who stuff and mount everything from deer and ducks to the family dog. Directed by Tally Abecassis.

- God Only Knows: Same Sex Marriage  (February 7th): Family values and religious beliefs clash when a gay pastor from Vancouver and a Christian fundamentalist from Calgary walk a mile in each other's shoes.  Directed by Brent Kawchuk.


What are some of the Quebec-based documentaries you have in development/production for THE LENS? 


The Cross and Bones and Lifelike were made by Montreal producers (AmerImage and InformAction respectively).  Also upcoming are Braindamajd'd: Take II (March 14 -Apartment 11 Productions), Very Secret Agents (Orbi-XXI), and Mommy, Mommy from Rezolution  Pictures. Montreal is a major source of documentary programming for us.


What are the key elements you look for in a documentary proposal?


This depends on what stage the project is at when submitted: are you seeking for development or production funding?  To start we need a concise summary of what the film is about (1 or 2 pages) and we then start asking other questions:  what's unique and/or original about the content and/or approach?  Is there special access to a situation?  What will unfold on-camera?  What's at stake?  Who are the main characters?  Will people across Canada want to watch this film?  We also need information about the budget, financing & the team making the film. 


Do you prefer to receive written proposals or a verbal phone pitch?


I prefer to receive proposals in writing (especially by email) which can be followed up by a phone conversation if we're interested. All proposals for the CBC Independent Documentary Unit should be emailed to for logging & inclusion in our database.  If possible, indicate which strand you think is most appropriate. Submissions specifically intended for THE LENS can be cc'd to me at but they must also go to Christine.


How many proposals do you receive a year? How many do you move forward with?


In recent years, "Rough Cuts" received about 400 proposals per year, this includes everything from submissions for development, completion & commissioning to finished films looking for an acquisition.  We broadcast about 22-26 new films per year, half of them are full commissions, the rest are a mix of 2nd windows, English premieres of films initially made for a French broadcaster in Canada (esp. SRC/RDI)  and some acquisitions.


On average how many proposals do you develop each year? What is your average development-production ratio? 


We develop about 12 projects per year.  In recent years about half of our commissions started with development, but in the coming year we may increase the number we develop, while maintaining the number we commission. 


What elements do you think need to be in place for a documentary originally conceived for the francophone market to work for your audience? 

We have commissioned several films that have a French-language lead broadcaster, especially SRC and RDI.  We look for strong stories that will appeal to English-Canadian audiences.  Sometimes a topic or person is famous in Quebec, but is relatively unknown in the rest of Canada.  Background information is often needed for clarity, but a good story can overcome viewer resistance to sub-titles.  We also participate in productions that are shot in both languages and then versioned slightly differently for each broadcaster.  We try to avoid 100% sub-titling and will be considering partial or full dubbing on future productions.


How long is the time slot for THE LENS? 


We currently have 42:30 available for documentary content (including max. 40 seconds of credits).  The packaged program is a couple minutes longer.


Do you ever program feature-length documentaries?  

Very, very rarely although THE PASSIONATE EYE has a longer slot available on Newsworld on Sunday nights.  It's best to think of THE LENS docs as TV-one hours.


THE LENS airs on CBC Newsworld every Tuesday and Saturday night at 10:00pm and 1:00am, starting on January 24th. 



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