Young Lawyers Storm Banff

by Karen Hill

  Last year, two young lawyers went to Banff last year to pitch a show. This year, they're executive producers with a deal for one of CTV's three Canadian series set to air this fall. Funnily enough, it's working title is Young Lawyers.

That 1999 trip to Banff sealed their fate. This is their story.

Greg Ball and Steve Blackman soon tired of law after their call to the bar in 1998. Ball, who was practicing at Fraser Milner, a large corporate and commercial film maintains that it wasn't so much a distaste for law, it just didn't provide him with a creative outlet. Blackman, though, makes no bones about it. He was doing divorce law and hating it.

Ball, 28, and Blackman, 29, both completed their LLBs at the University of Alberta and met while articling. It was at a party that they decided to team up and turn their energy to screenwriting. Blackman had written plays before and soon after forging their new partnership, the Edmonton-based pair ended up writing a 300-page screenplay. They soon switched to writing for TV.

"Early on we decided we wanted to try television," says Blackman. "No one really took it from The Paper Chase. We thought, 'Let's write what we know.'"

What they knew was the trials and tribulations facing young professionals starting out building their careers in a corporate environment. Thus Young and King was born, punning on Toronto's nearby Bay St. corridor of big law firms. Now christened with the working title Young Lawyers, the show tracks the story of five newcomers to a firm as they try to survive both in and out of the courtroom. Unlike This Life, the critically acclaimed British series drama which covered similar ground, Young Lawyers will focus primarily on the characters in their workplace.

Young Lawyers tracks the stories of five characters, three men and two women. There's a Brit, an American and three Canadians. Blackman says it was done with an eye to opening up the possibilities for stories at foreign offices for the international firm, and agrees that it will make things more attractive for foreign sales as well. And though they had a grip on the concept, the form was completely new.

"We just sort of taught ourselves," says Ball. "We put a package together, we read every book, anything we could get our hands on."

That entailed a trip to the Television and Film Institute in Edmonton, where they scooped up as many bibles as they could. They ordered teleplays on-line to get a sense of the form and to figure out the format for one-hour series drama. And they hung on to their day jobs.

Ball and Blackman worked 12-days lawyering and then would retreat to Blackman's apartment where, over the course of a year, they'd write until two or three in the morning. Then followed serendipity. They heard about the Banff Television Festival in their backyard and decided to go by, see who they could meet and possibly drum up some interest in their project.

"Our master plan -- we didn't plan it out like this -- was whenever we had our bible, to get to Banff and see if we could talk to people," says Blackman. "Our goals weren't lofty. Our goal was to get meetings."

"A week before Banff, somebody said to us, 'How many meetings do you have?' Greg and I looked at each other and said, 'Are you supposed to arrange the meetings?'" he says.

Ball went on-line and got 120 email addresses of the people they thought they should meet: Michael McMillan, Izzy Asper, Ivan Fecan and the like.

"We decided that everyone is pitching stuff, they get a lot of boring emails and pitches and we felt we'd have to be off the wall to get their attention," Blackman says. "We sent out a wacky, zany email basically saying, 'Here's who we are, here's what we're doing, you've gotta meet us. We're a bunch of lawyers struggling, we'll buy you a drink, we'll give you free legal advice but you've got to meet us. We weren't even staying at the Banff Springs Hotel, we were staying at the Red Carpet Motel.'"

Blackman says he was amazed to check his email the next day and discover nearly 40 responses. "We got them from all the big people, Michael McMillan, Izzy Asper," says Blackman. "They all responded and said, 'Funniest email I've ever read. Gotta meet you.' And they had cc'd it, saying to their underlings, 'Meet these guys.'"

It almost came to a screeching halt, though, when conference organizers tried to heave them out after the two days they had paid for were up. Ball and Blackman recovered by rescheduling all of their meetings and set up shop in a bar. During those meetings, they had very early interest from Tecca Crosbie and Virginia Rankin, development executives at CTV.

"They have been great," says Blackman. "They have championed our cause from the time we met them. We worked very hard with them to get this off the ground. They really have been amazing."

Rankin says they were taken with them from the start. "They were charming, they were smart. For every question we had, they had an intelligent answer. They had really done their research. You get people pitching you sometimes who just don't have a clue and these guys knew the industry."

"You don't meet that many people who are completely to the scene," she adds. "To be honest, it's rare that you find someone who just walks in and says, 'Hi, I'm a farmer but I can do a great pitch about farming.' Usually, everybody's been around." A professional looking package including a bible and a pilot, coupled with some amusing anecdotes, reasonable expectations and a lack of pushiness made them a pleasure to chat -- and later do business -- with.

"I would say that what's happened to them is the most extraordinary thing that could have happened," she adds.

They continue to plough ahead with the writing and are preparing to make the move to Toronto. And it seems that the extraordinary nature of their success is starting to take hold. "Banff was amazing for a lot of reasons," says Blackman. "Banff is just wonderful ground to try to break in."


Canadian Screenwriter summer 2017 is on newsstands now. View excerpts, and subscribe here.

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