Micheline Charest and her husband, Ronald Weinberg, do not have to look hard - at home or abroad - for signs of success. On a recent family holiday in Jerusalem, they spied a television broadcast of Are you Afraid of the Dark? "Every time I see one [of our shows] when I'm travelling around the world, it gives me a thrill," says Weinberg, co-founder and president of Montreal-based Cinar Films Inc. The thrills are getting easier to find. The publicly held company produces a wealth of children's programs for broadcast in 150 countries, including the Emmy Award-winning animated series Arthur. With record revenues of $93.7 million and a profit of nearly $13 million for the 1997 fiscal year, the industry has also taken notice. In December, the daily Hollywood Reporter ranked Charest, who shares duties as Cinar's chief executive officer with her husband, No. 19 on its list of the 50 most powerful women in the entertainment industry - ahead of such Hollywood heavyweights as Barbra Streisand (32) and Madonna (34). But Charest refuses to hog the limelight: "We did it together, Ron," she tells her husband. "I didn't do it on my own."
Since forming Cinar in 1976, the couple has turned it from a fledgling film distributor into one of Canada's leading producers of children's television programs, along with Toronto's Nelvana Ltd. With strong finances and a knack for creating appealing, nonviolent shows, Cinar wins raves from stock market analysts and television programmers alike. And the company shows no signs of slowing down, with its biggest-ever production slate and a recent expansion into educational publishing. "They're an incredible success story," says David McFadgen, an entertainment analyst with Griffiths, McBurney & Partners in Montreal, who praises, among other things, Cinar's success in placing its shows with U.S. broadcasters. That success has been mirrored on the stock market. In the last three years, the stock price, adjusted for a two-for-one split in May, has risen from a low of $6.63 to a close last week in the $32.50 range.
Charest and Weinberg hold fort in Cinar's Montreal offices where a huge stuffed bear - a replica of the star of their animated Adventures of Paddington Bear series - sits in the reception area. With a staff of more than 400 and a few hundred more on contract, they have distanced themselves from day-to-day production. Weinberg, 47, originally from New York City, focuses on financing and marketing while Charest, 45, concentrates on production development and international markets. "We've always played good cop, bad cop," says Charest, who grew up in Quebec City and studied at the London International Film School. The couple met in 1976 at a New Orleans film festival that Weinberg was organizing. Charest, then a freelance producer at the National Film Board, ended up helping him with the festival. "The rest," says Charest, as she and Weinberg share a laugh, "is history."
They started out by distributing foreign-produced films to U.S. theatres and in 1979, moved to New York where they became involved in television distribution. A few years after relocating to Montreal in 1984, the couple decided to start producing their own programs. Circumstance led them to children's shows. "The kids' business was a good place to start," Charest says. "This is where a lot of independents with no track record and no money could actually do something." As parents of two young sons, Eric and Alex, now 12 and 13, Charest jokes that they had their own "in-house focus group."
Their timing and their decision to focus on nonviolent programs proved fortuitous. There was not much competition, says Weinberg, in producing children's programs and the emerging specialty channels in Canada and the United States needed family programming. Early on, the couple concentrated on putting together partnerships. For their first effort in 1987, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a half-hour animated version, they brought in Japanese and American partners. "They have been exceptionally good about putting together international packages," says Peter Moss, programming vice-president at YTV, a Canadian youth specialty channel. Moss notes that while Cinar's shows are made in Canada, financing can be spread around the world. "As a broadcaster, you aren't really carrying the full weight of production."
The turning point came in 1993 when the company began producing the animated series The Busy World of Richard Scarry with Paramount. Still airing on the U.S. cable channel Nickelodeon, the show is based on the best-selling toddler books about life in Busytown by the late American author Richard Scarry. The program gave Cinar credibility with other authors, Charest says, but finding literary properties with marquee value remains a daily preoccupation. In fact, many of Cinar's successful shows are based on well-known books such as the Paddington series or endearing characters such as Lassie. "They've always had great taste," says YTV's Moss. "They've always bought properties that were very appealing and worked very well in the market." Arthur, based on the award-winning book series by American Marc Brown, is a case in point. The animated series about an aardvark, which airs on CTV and TV Ontario, nabbed Cinar a Daytime Emmy Award in May for best children's animated program. It is the No. 1- rated children's show for six- to eight-year-olds on PBS, which also runs Wimzie's House, another acclaimed Cinar show with Canadian airtime on CBC. Alice Cahn, the director of children's programming at PBS in the United States, says of Cinar: "They recognize as a company the enormous impact that television has on young children and have consistently developed highly entertaining, responsible television."
Charest and Weinberg hope to parlay Cinar's TV success into the classroom. In the past year, Cinar has acquired two American companies that publish school supplies ranging from activity books to charts and maps. The move is an opportunity to expand its product line by using characters from its TV shows. Charest acknowledges that educators have historically been resistant to companies trying to elbow into the classroom. But she and Weinberg believe that Cinar, with its reputation for content and quality, is well positioned to succeed where others have failed.
With more than 340 half-hour programs to deliver by the end of 1999, Cinar's production slate has never been larger. The company, which owns a 20-per-cent share of the Canadian Teletoon cable channel, also makes an increasing number of live action shows. Among them is Sci Squad, which recently began production for the Discovery cable network and TV Ontario and features a group of teenagers who investigate scientific phenomena. Although the couple plans to keep expanding production, Charest maintains that the company's growth will come from complementary revenue streams. "We would like to think of Cinar as a children's company," says Charest. "And that's broad." For a company bent on growth, a wide playing field is an appealing prospect.
Maclean's August 24, 1998