Silver anniversary, silver screen: Epitome develops Degrassi feature

by Sean Davidson
Playback Magazine

The makers of Degrassi: The Next Generation had a good month in May – bringing in a movie script and $50,000 in spending money just as they are closing in on the silver anniversary of their successful youth franchise.

Producers Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn of Epitome Pictures have, for some time, been looking to take their CTV show to the big screen, and, late last month, received the draft script from series writers Tassie Cameron and Aaron Martin.

“We have the first draft in hand,” says Stohn. “It just arrived.”

The proposed film is in development with help from Telefilm Canada, which no doubt sees the popular Degrassi brand as a better-than-average shot at becoming a commercially successful English-Canadian film. Telefilm also has a hand in the Trailer Park Boys feature, set to shoot this summer in Nova Scotia.

Stohn would not comment on the broader plans, but sources close to the project say Epitome is courting U.S. director Kevin Smith for a late summer shoot. Smith (Dogma, Jersey Girl) guest starred on three TNG episodes last season, along with his sidekick Jason Mewes, and is an outspoken fan of the Degrassi shows.

“We need to absorb this draft and talk with the people that might be involved,” says Stohn, possibly going back for more funding for a second draft. Whether the movie will come together “is still anybody’s guess.”

Two books and a TV documentary are also in the works. Toronto-based Madison Press will unveil its behind-the-scenes collection Degrassi: Generations and a branded student planner at this month’s BookExpo Canada – the former will be on shelves in Canada, the U.S. and Australia by fall – just as 90th Parallel Productions puts the finishing touches on a one-hour Degrassi retrospective for CTV.

The doc features franchise star Stefan “Snake” Brogren in informal chats with past and present cast members.

“My marching orders were ‘Give them what they want.’ ‘Them’ being the fans,” says director Mike Sheerin. “It focuses mainly on the older, classic Degrassi, but the new show is definitely in there.”

It is in post with editor Nick Hector (Dying at Grace) and is expected to air in the coming season. Smith appears in the documentary and also wrote the foreword to Degrassi: Generations.

Meanwhile, the series won $50,000 and the first Shaw Rocket Prize on May 25, voted best Canuck kids show by a jury of some 400 schoolchildren and five international broadcast execs – besting Poko, Franny’s Feet and Shoebox Zoo.

The show has “plenty of plot integrity, sophistication and depth,” according to one student jurist. “It also has realistic conflicts and is definitely thought-provoking.” The win follows and in many ways echoes a glowing review that ran earlier this year in the New York Times Magazine, which cheekily proclaimed TNG “tha Best Teen TV N da WRLD!”

Stohn notes that the Times piece, the doc, the book and movie are putting a lot of momentum behind the Degrassi name, just as its next season gets underway in Toronto.

Season five of TNG will also see the return of showrunner James Hurst, who left the series last season to help launch Epitome’s other teen drama, Instant Star. TNG writer Shelley Scarrow takes over on Star, now shooting its second run.

TNG marked a high point in October when it drew its highest ratings ever, just under one million according to BBM, with a controversial episode about bullying and school shootings.

TNG airs on The N in the U.S., where its edgier stories have been known to cause a stir, and is also carried in the U.K., Australia, and France.

It is the fourth series to bear the Degrassi name, following Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, all of which aired on CBC in the ’80s and early ’90s. Stohn and Schuyler turned out an MOW in 1991 and then took the latest series to CTV in 2001.

The coming season is being trumpeted as the franchise’s 25th anniversary.

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