Fur Harvesters NWT: making hit TV on a shoestring

Fur Harvesters NWT: making hit TV on a shoestring
Hay River trapper Andrew Stanley heads out to check his traplines on Fur Harvesters NWT, a reality TV show profiling his life as a subsistence trapper.Photo: Artless Collective.

The winning moment in the Fur Harvesters NWT series comes in the final episode when Andrew Stanley talks up the joys of cycling through Helsinki and connects his experience in the bush with the world of international trade and fashion.

It’s validation for Stanley, whose pelts were judged by experts in Finland to be among the very best in the world, and for the series that has found legions of enthusiastic viewers on Wild TV and is now airing on NWTel Cable and Vimeo on Demand.

Stanley, producer Maxim Bloudov, and the Artless Collective of Pablo Saravanja and Jay Bulckaert, who filmed the trapper at work last winter, were at the Top Knight last Friday to screen the 10-part series for more than 100 fans.

In its first season, 90,000 viewers tuned in to each episode on Wild TV, where the series is projected to draw 2.4 million by the finale. The show currently sits in the top six of the network’s 97 programs. Produced at a total cost of $180,000, it may be the lowest budget and most real series in Wild TV’s stable.

Whether Fur Harvesters NWT gets a second season – or more – depends on whether the show’s sponsors like what they see and believe they are getting value for their investment.

“A program about fur trapping was an idea that was floating on the minds of everyone in the North who is interested in documentaries,” Saravanja recalled in an interview with The Journal.

Stanley was already on YouTube with about 60 self-made videos about what it was like to be a trapper in the contemporary North, and had a following of 10,000 subscribers, mostly Americans, “who were into what he was doing.”

“His videos are 20-minute monologues full of energy, heart and colorful language. After coming off a couple of seasons of working on reality TV, which is anything but real, I fell in love. He just blew me away with his honesty,” Saravanja said.

The Artless Collective guessed correctly that their friend Francois Rossouw, who heads up the territorial government’s fur marketing program, could connect them with Stanley. He did, and also suggested Western Fur Auctions as a sponsor.

“In Ontario there are 10,000 trappers alone, with maybe 100,000 in the U.S. It’s a huge community,” Saravanja said. “Suddenly Andrew was blowing up, everywhere. He was the model of the modern trapper, the ambassador to promote the business. They realized the impact he would have internationally.”

The North Bay auction house put up about 75 per cent of the money for the project, and gave the video team total creative control. Buffalo Airways, the territorial government and Hay River MLA Jane Groenewegen put up the rest.

Saravanja is confident the same model can be applied to almost any film and TV project in the NWT to create a specialty product that one client likes, but that also appeals to a larger audience.

“By accident we’ve found a way to make television in a place where there is no money,” Saravanja said. “It’s documentary/reality TV meets hosted fishing show – a pay-to-play model that doesn’t depend on big federal grants or huge tax incentives.”

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