At his kid’s summer camp in Vancouver, Mark Miller is known as “Crazy Larry.” That’s the guy who takes a stunt plane and buzzes their airspace with the smoke machine on full blast.
“Camps have legends and basically I’ve become part of that lore,” laughs Miller, 53, in an interview in Toronto.
Miller bought the plane, a Harmon Rocket, for his Discovery documentary series Air Show, which looked at the lives of pilots in one of the world’s most dangerous professions.
In typical fashion, the hard-driving Miller ended up having to do the camera work since it was hard to find a cinematographer who could also fly an airplane.
In other words, guys watching other guys do crazy stuff.
But Miller may well have perfected the genre with his Vancouver-based Great Pacific TV, a division of Thunderbird Entertainment Group Inc. Great Pacific was acquired by the publicly traded media company in 2014, where Miller is now the president.
“I never want to make a television show that I can’t sit down with my kids to watch,” says Miller. “With something like the Housewives franchise you’re laughing at them because in many cases they’re dysfunctional. It’s escapism into a negative space. We have escapism in what seems like a negative space, but there is always a positive, hopeful outcome.”
Take the Season 3 premiere of Discovery Canada’s Heavy Rescue: 401 (airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m.). Crews had to find a way to clear the nation’s busiest highway of 42,000 pounds of tomato juice during rush hour.
“I think anyone can relate to the shows because everyone at some time has white knuckled it down the highway in the rain or snow,” says Miller. “The show could appeal to everyone, including the guy who has a snowmobile in the garage and is choosing to watch my show or fix the fuel filter.”
Canadian production companies such as Thunderbird are largely invisible to the public. But they are the unsung storytellers, a production lifeblood exporting Canadian stories and intellectual property outside our borders.
Canadians watch a steady diet of imported television, mostly from Hollywood, but traditionally we have not been good at burnishing our own history for global consumption. Thunderbird has proven that they can beat the Americans at their own game.
“The hardest part getting started for me in the business wasn’t getting the courage to do a show. It was getting the courage to talk to the big American channels. You grow up thinking that Canadian television is inferior, when we really have some of the best talent in the world,” says Miller.
Miller is also something of a poster boy for life after journalism, as downsized news and media companies are increasingly battered and disrupted by technology.
For Highway Thru Hell, his first big break, he put together a “sizzle reel” sales pitch for his show with a hefty $ 50,000 budget. It worked. He pitched to the National Geographic Channel, History Channel and Discovery, getting offers from all three before settling on the latter. The show first premiered in 2012.
Miller, a former Parliament Hill reporter for Global’s BCTV and later a correspondent for Discovery’s Daily Planet, found that his background was ideal for creating factual television. He hates the term “reality” TV since it suggests that parts of his shows are scripted. In the case of Heavy Rescue, three camera crews are run in eight-hour shifts for 24 hours over five months to capture the action.
“We run it like a fire station and a newsroom,” says Miller, who is married to Michelle Miller, a veteran reporter and anchor who worked for Global and CTV in Western Canada.
“What I do is really not much different than when I was a reporter,” says Mark Miller. “At the beginning of the day you’re going to your assignment desk and pitching a story. Sometimes you get a yes. Sometimes you get a no. But your success rate usually goes up because you get better at pitching with more experience. What we’re doing, whether it’s pitching to investors or to broadcasters, is basically the same thing but maybe on a different scale.”
As president of Thunderbird, Miller now has a much broader mandate, since the company, under CEO Jennifer Twiner McCarron, has grown dramatically through strategic acquisitions, producing a diverse portfolio that includes shows such as the well-regarded CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience, Netflix’s Beatles inspired Beat Bugs and A-list movies such as Blade Runner 2049.
The company, with offices in Toronto, Vancouver, London, Ottawa and Los Angeles and a staff of more than 600, has several projects in the pipeline, including an upcoming factual series for the CBC. It is also working on scripted series based on actual events.
“We are laser focused on what we do,” says Miller. “Would we do a zombie show? We won’t make cheesy drama or horror that may make money in the short term but doesn’t make the world a better or more informed place. But at the end of the day it’s applying a Canadian sensibility to what we think are interesting stories. And it seems the rest of the world are interested in Canadian stories, too.”
Tony Wong is the Star’s television critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @tonydwong