Buffalo Gal Pictures: Conquering Great Stories for 25 Years

Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky

In collaboration with Femmes du cinéma, de la télévision et des médias numériques (FCTMN), CMF Trends has set out to meet inspiring women as part of a series of articles on female entrepreneurship in the screen-based industries. For this fourth chapter, we met with Phyllis Laing who, for the past 25 years, has been heading one of the most prolific production companies in Manitoba, with more than 110 film and TV projects to date.

Art meets business

Phyllis Laing’s first steps into the world of film and TV is a prefect demonstration of the old saying, “Cinema is an art form, but it is also an industry”. After studying arts and literature, she decided to put aside her ambitions to become a writer, feeling she “wanted more of a profession”. So she went and got a diploma in… accounting. In the mid-80s, she founded an accounting firm with her spouse, at a time when the film industry in Manitoba was still in its infancy. Therefore, in terms of film production accounting, everything basically had to be built from scratch. It wasn’t long before the arts and entertainment sector became their area of expertise. Then, in November 1994, having dealt with many productions companies over the years, Phyllis decided to join the club and launch her own company.

“For me, it was the perfect marriage between the creative side and the business side, and I’m very happy that I did both, she says. The fact that I had studied in accounting allowed me to get very familiar with this industry.”

Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky
Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky

It’s all in the name

Going into business in an industry that was still in its early stages – as a woman, no less – required quite a bit of determination. The name Buffalo Gal became a natural fit for the new company, as it symbolizes a sort of feminine version of the western conquest of old, while highlighting an animal that is emblematic of the province.

Still, Phyllis Laing couldn’t avoid the challenges and prejudices that came with being a woman entrepreneur. She points out that you never hear of men being interviewed about their life as a “male entrepreneur” – it’s taken for granted. Like many other women, she felt she had to do more and always had to succeed in order to be treated equally. Still, she acknowledges that her job was made easier thanks to her “just be you” attitude and her soft skills.

“I’m still looking for mentors. It is not a question of age. It’s a question of raising the bar in terms of personal challenges. You need to challenge yourself in your business.”

Fostering the entrepreneur in you

Nowadays, entrepreneurship – male or female – is both common and trendy in the business world. Perhaps that’s why we tend to forget that, back in the 80s, women already had an interest in starting their own business, even in the cultural community. Phyllis benefitted from the support of the Women’s Enterprise Centre, which offered mentoring programs to help people develop a business plan and start their own company. That said, she believes that mentoring shouldn’t be limited to startups. “I’m still looking for mentors, she says. It is not a question of age. It’s a question of raising the bar in terms of personal challenges. You need to challenge yourself in your business. You can’t manage your company today the way you did 25 years ago.”

Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky
Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky

The key to success, however, remains to clearly define the type of business you want to run and the services you want to provide, while constantly questioning yourself in order to stick to your vision and remain true to yourself. In fact, that’s the sort of advice she’d be likely to give to young entrepreneurs (she has been on the Board of Directors of Winnipeg’s World Trade Centre for many years). She admits to being quite inspired by today’s generation of entrepreneurs. For them, she believes, work mustn’t just be about making a living. It must be about personal achievement.

Going in a different direction

When preparing her business plan as she set out to launch Buffalo Gal, Phyllis Laing went for more of a niche, boutique sort of outfit that would be creatively driven and based on writers and directors. At a time when most production companies in Manitoba had their mind and wallet turned toward Los Angeles, doing service production work for Hollywood studios, she focused on offering something different. “Service production is a low-hanging fruit you use to pay your overhead when the dollar is low, she says. There were certainly times when we went a little too far off our own path, and we had to realign to develop our own independent projects.”

Phyllis admits that one of her greatest regrets in her career is having chosen to trust other people’s opinions rather than her own judgment.

Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky
Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky
Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky

Yet, throughout her career path, one thing has never changed: every project at Buffalo Gal is people-driven. Whether these are international co-productions like Aloft or Stone Angels, or such national fare as the award-winning TV series Less Than Kind or the feature film The Forbidden Room, directed by Manitoban Guy Maddin, everything is based on how the various partners complement one another, on mutual respect and on a common willingness to work together. That’s the foundation on which the company was built over the past two decades: solid, long-lasting business relationships and, above all, a determination to find partners that truly care about quality content and creativity.

Like many other producers, Phyllis Laing acknowledges that new digital platforms have completely redefined the way the industry develops and finances its projects. There seems to be a never ending need for content. Now more than ever, producers have to seek potential partners, find ways to adapt to rapidly evolving technologies and identify new financing models, especially with documentary films. “Performance documentaries are tough, Phyllis admits. You are constantly changing the creative elements to fit the financing, whereas it should be the opposite.”

She believes that the numerous changes the industry has witnessed over the past decade will lead to even more transformations, whether it’s in terms of broadcasting, working methods or technological advances. One thing remains clear, however: people will always crave great content and excellent stories, regardless of the art form.

Phyllis Laing likes to quote, not without a certain optimism, Franco-Manitoban author Gabrielle Roy, whose words were printed on Canadian 20-dollar bills in the early 2000s:

“Could we ever know each other in the slightest, without the arts?”

The producer has no doubt that people will always enjoy being told stories that they can relate to. That is never going to change. “The rest is stuff, just stuff,” she concludes.

Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky
Photo Credit: Kristen Sawatzky

Photos by Kristen Sawatzky

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