(Photo: George Pimentel/Shutterstock)


A principal player for Prime Video

As the head of Amazon’s Prime Video for Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Magda Grace, BCL/JD’11, knows full well that Canadians have other streaming options. “We have to earn our customers’ trust, earn their eyeballs, and put out good content constantly.”

Story by Christopher DeWolf, BA'06

April 2023

If the head of Amazon’s Prime Video for Canada, Australia and New Zealand can pinpoint a moment that sparked her interest in the legal issues that surround the entertainment industry, it may have been the chats she had with her father about music when she was a teenager in the early 2000s.

“He’s always been interested in music,” says Magda Grace, BCL/JD’11. “We had a lot of discussions at home about MP3s and Napster and the implications of that. At the time people were getting $10,000 charges from various music organizations for illegally downloading things.”

Grace remembers being alarmed by that. “It had a big impact on young people like myself, who didn’t have a lot of money and were just looking for easier ways to consume media.”

These days, Grace herself plays an important role in how other Canadians consume their media.

She runs a branch of the world’s second-largest streaming service, which has more than 200 million subscribers around the globe. She oversees content like Three Pines, a TV adaptation of Quebec author Louise Penny’s best-selling Inspector Gamache mysteries, and LOL: Qui rira le dernier?, a comedy reality show hosted by Patrick Huard.

But as those discussions with her dad might have suggested, her first approach to entertainment was through a legal prism.

From McGill to Hollywood

After graduating from Montreal’s Dawson College, Grace completed a pre-law undergraduate program at the University of Toronto before returning home to study law at McGill. “I’m not sure I envisioned myself becoming a corporate lawyer at the time, but I wanted something that was problem solving and about logic,” she says.

She worked as a research assistant for law professor David Lametti, BCL’89, LLB’89, currently Canada’s attorney general and minister of justice, helping him with a paper about the ownership of intellectual property (IP) in the cloud. And she took every course she could find that dealt with the issues that increasingly intrigued her.

“The courses that really resonated with me were in digital rights and entertainment law,” says Grace. “Topics like that were particularly fascinating to me. It was in those courses that I really started to build an understanding that I could turn this from a passion into a career.”

Following her studies at McGill, Grace earned a master’s degree in IP and entertainment law at UCLA. Then she plunged straight into Hollywood.

“Aretha Franklin is on line one”

“My first job out of UCLA was with a talent agency,” she says. (The person who hired her was — purely by coincidence — another McGill grad.)

Half of her job dealt with non-disclosure agreements and the other half involved working with clients. “Aretha Franklin would call sometimes, and I’d get to speak with her, which was one of the highlights of that first job,” says Grace.

But it was tough, high-pressure work. “A talent agency can be a difficult place. If you’ve ever seen Entourage, it was definitely that type of environment.”

She found herself more interested in the client side of the business rather than in writing up contracts.

“I was pursuing this dream that wasn’t paying itself back in a sustainable salary or successful career. I had a lightbulb moment where I realized I don’t need to be a successful lawyer to have a successful career.”

She began applying for other jobs in entertainment. She found a position with Starz that involved selling the cable network’s shows to international digital platforms like iTunes, Amazon and Netflix. It wasn’t legal work, but Grace says her legal background proved to be an asset.

“My job was effectively negotiations so being able to read contracts and persuade buyers to find common ground,” she says. It was a good fit. In 2016, after a few years at Starz, Grace was recruited by Amazon to work on content acquisition. Soon after, the company launched Prime Video in Canada and Grace moved to Toronto to help build it up.

Going global with local content

“This was at the very beginning of the global expansion,” she says. “We just turned on these extra 200 countries. How [could] we be successful locally?”

The answer to that question, if the past six years are any indication, is local content.

It turns out people want to see themselves reflected on screen, and streaming services like Prime Video and Netflix have begun producing film and television developed by and for local markets around the world. It’s a way to win over a variety of different audiences, and it can often be the case that a hit show in one country can also resonate in another, as was the case for the Spanish series Money Heist or the French series Lupin, both on Netflix.

Prime Video’s Canadian offerings range from a Kids in the Hall reboot to The Lake, a comedy about cottage living. A documentary series about The Tragically Hip is in the works.

“What we’ve seen is that people watch such a diverse selection of content, we need to offer content that isn’t one-size-fits-all,” says Grace.

Twenty-five percent of Canadians who use streaming services watch Prime Video, according to a 2021 survey by market research firm Finder. An impressive number, but still far less than Netflix, the dominant player, which attracts 52 percent of those viewers.

And the market is getting ever more crowded, with new platforms like Paramount Plus, Apple TV, Disney Plus and Pluto TV all vying for audiences, on top of homegrown services like Crave and CBC Gem.

Grace is sanguine about the competition. “It’s good for customers — it means there’s more content being made. But it forces us to remind ourselves that we have to earn our customers’ trust, earn their eyeballs, and put out good content constantly. We can’t just sit back and hope they will continue to subscribe. It’s a good challenge for us as a business.”

When is it Canadian enough?!

There’s also the challenge posed by Bill C-11, Canada’s Online Streaming Act, which recently passed in Parliament. Streaming services may now face similar Canadian content requirements as network television.

While Prime Video has been increasing the number of shows it makes in Canada, Grace has concerns about how the new system will determine if a show is sufficiently “Canadian.”

“[For example], we have series where maybe the writer was British, so that would make it very difficult for us to qualify as CanCon, even if 95 percent of the show was Canadian. We’re already supporting the objective of producing Canadian content, but the reality is that very few of the series we make would be considered CanCon under the CRTC rules, so our position is to advocate for increased flexibility.”

In a sense, it’s a question that has brought Grace’s career full circle to those days when she used to discuss copyright questions with her dad. And it reminds her of those days as a teenager in the Napster era, when she struggled with the idea of access to content.

“One of the things I really like about the streaming space, and how and why we’re successful, is because we make it easier for people to get access to what they want.”

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