How Dept.9 is taking bets to grow local film

· The Pulse

Dept.9 Studios is betting a new short-form series called Department of Paranormal Affairs can raise the profile of Alberta's film industry.

The show combines monster-of-the-week storytelling (think The X-Files) with comedic characters in a bureaucratic workplace (à la Parks and Recreation). Each episode follows government workers Jenny (Nancy Ngo) and Scott (David Feehan, who also served as a producer and screenwriter for the show) as they work to settle differences between humans and paranormal beings. It's like if the Ghostbusters were social workers.

"Dept.9 is willing to invest in Alberta," the company's development and production executive, Michael Feehan (no relation to David), told Taproot. "We're punching above our weight in terms of the production value that you see on screen."

Feehan served as a producer for the series, which premiered at the Calgary Underground Film Festival on April 27. The company, established in 2019, narrowed down Affairs from 10 potential scripts for a new venture because it posed the greatest chance for success for Dept.9's digital division.

"For what we wanted to do, which was produce a series that had staying power in the long term, that we could produce, hopefully, dozens and dozens of episodes of, we wanted to make sure that it had the right foundation," Feehan said. "To me, that foundation is the story engine and the format."

While shot entirely in Edmonton, the team behind the show is an "even split" between Edmonton and Calgary talent, Feehan said. Donovan Workun is one-third of the primary cast and plays Jenny and Scott's boss, the curmudgeonly slacker Greg. (Workun also plays the titular character in Jason Kenney's Hot Boy Summer: The Musical, the sold-out, runaway hit by Grindstone Theatre).

"What drew me to the role was an audition," Workun, the co-ringleader of Atomic Improv, joked to Taproot. "As a working actor, you want to work."

But once reading the script, Workun said he connected immediately. "I was like, 'Oh, this is a great little idea,'" Workun said. "They packaged it so nicely. It's in manageable chunks that are suitable for the internet or TV or whatever they want to do. I just thought it was really smart, the way they top and tail it, and throw an adventure in the middle. It's almost like an old Star Trek episode."

Three actors pose in a dimly lit office set.

Donovan Workun (left) is the Edmonton actor in Department of Paranormal Affairs, a short-form series by Dept.9 Studios. It premiered at the Calgary Underground Film Festival on April 27 and heads to broadcast on Hollywood Suite this summer. Plans for an Edmonton screening event are in the works. (Supplied)

Workun is a veteran actor and improviser who has some pedigree in the city. Yet he's also a renaissance man who does everything from corporate workshops to quirky Santa appearances.

"My girlfriend calls me 'the king of the weird gig,'" Workun said. "I developed my own career here. Before me, there were no two-man improv shows, there were no bar-style improv comedy shows like the way Atomic Improv does it, and there was certainly no market for corporate gigs. I decided to be a big fish in a small pond."

That small pond is one Feehan wants to make bigger. Entertainment is a tough gig everywhere, but particularly so outside of major centres like Los Angeles, Toronto, or Vancouver. Feehan believes Alberta has the right talent but needs a greater cachet to attract the kind of work it's capable of.

"Dept.9 Studios is worth thanking in all of this because they were willing to invest in a smaller project," he said of his employer. "I really think of it as the little project that could with where it's going now."

Dept.9 bet on the series without lining up its distribution, meaning it had no guarantee of breaking even, let alone a profit. The gamble seems to have paid off, though. Canadian broadcaster Hollywood Suite will air the first season of Affairs as part of its summer sci-fi series.

Dept.9 also leveraged public support for creators who want to make things happen for themselves. Affairs received grants from the Edmonton Screen Industries Office and the Alberta Media Fund. Its team is in the process of filing for federal tax credits from The Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office.

The company houses 26,000 square feet of facilities for filming, editing, recording audio, and more. Some of its marquee projects are about to come to fruition. Dark Match, a horror film starring wrestler Chris Jericho, was acquired for international distribution at the end of April by Blue Finch Film Releasing. The twisted tale about a wrestling match set in a town run by a cult leader will be shopped around at the Cannes Film Market later this month.

Another of the studio's major projects is Soul's Road, a film led by country megastar (and Default frontman) Dallas Smith. It follows Smith's character Ronan Garrett, a rock star who returns to his hometown in disgrace. A release announcement is still to come.

Feehan also hopes to organize a screening event for Affairs in Edmonton.

As for Workun, he's booked and busy through the summer. He serves as the infield host for the Edmonton Riverhawks Baseball Club and IFAF World Junior Football Championships, where at the latter he also serves as entertainment organizer.

Perhaps most notably, he's working as a producer, emcee, and host for a national tour called The Great Outdoors Comedy Festival. That lands in Edmonton from July 12 to 14 at Kinsmen Park. Headliners include American A-listers Shane Gillis, Kevin Hart, Whitney Cummings, and more. Edmonton expat Lisa Gilroy, a favourite on the chart-topping podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!, hosts the final show.