Cambridge ON-based Digital Wizards made history earlier this year as the first Canadian interactive producer to collaborate with an Australian counterpart on a new media project.   Erky Perky is a co-production between Digital Wizards and Omnilab Australia on the interactive media side, and Toronto-based CCI Entertainment and Ambience Entertainment on the broadcast production side. The series will air on Corus Entertainment Inc.’s YTV specialty channel here, and on Seven Network in Australia, and the interactive project is 70% funded by the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund and 30% from the Australian Film Commission (AFC) via a pre-licence sale to Seven Network. The four-way production features the adventures of Erky and Perky, two dirt-loving bugs who accidentally get transferred from their beloved hot dog cart to an immaculate kitchen. While the broadcast property is shot in 3D computer animation, the online portion features a "virtual animation engine" dubbed Bug-O-Vision that lets kids make their own adventures starring Erky and Perky. "I’ve managed a lot of productions in Canada, but I’ve never managed one 30% of the actual programming and critically important labour roles are being done in Australia, so it’ll be a nail-biter, a little bit," says Digital Wizards president Diane Williamson. While she says she’s thrilled to be making Bell Fund history and broadening her portfolio with international partners, Williamson says collaborating with others literally half-way around the world can pose logistical obstacles. "Email is wonderful, because of course you’re shutting down for the night and sending things off to them…they’re turning things on and starting their day," she says. Even something as simple as a telephone conversation requires planning, Williamson notes. "They start a little earlier, and we work a little later….You can’t just pick up the phone and call any old time," she says. "Everybody seems to be really gung-ho to make sure this works well, but 14 hours time difference and not being personally familiar with the folks who are going to be doing the work in Australia ." Erky Perky is also one of four finalists in the Banff World Television Festival’s iPitch competition, which will award $10,000 worth of development funding to the winner. Representatives from Digital Wizards’ broadcast partners on the project – Corus Entertainment VP and GM of interactive Lucie Lalumiere, and CCI Entertainment CEO and co-chairman Arnie Zipursky – will support Williamson in her presentation to the iPitch jury next month. Digital Wizards had initially submitted Erky Perky to the Bell Fund as a solely Canadian production during the October 2005 round of funding, but wasn’t successful. Williamson says she approached fund executive director Andra Sheffer for some feedback on how to improve the application, and Sheffer urged her to press Erky Perky’s Australian partners to help put together an international co-production submission for the next round of funding in February 2006. Working with Ambience, Williamson did manage to compile all the necessary material, and was ultimately announced as a winner on April 4. As noted by some in attendance at the New Media Business Alliance’s iSummit conference earlier this year (CNM, March 31/06), the level of funding for interactive entertainment in Canada is the envy of the world. "You always get producers, both interactive and TV, complaining that there’s not enough money, but when we went to Australia they just do not have the programs that we have," Williamson observes. "We’ve got a $50,000 recoupable advance . The AFC gives them $50,000, but they have to pay it back. And what can you build for $50,000?" And it’s not just the available pot for funding new media projects that’s smaller in Australia, Williamson adds – it’s the number of organizations willing to take a chance on interactive productions. "There’s virtually no other funds ….Broadcaster pre-licences are rare," she says. "So, they’re generally way behind us in interactive productions." Australia’s broadband penetration rate also lags Canada’s, necessitating a backwards-compatible approach to content. "I remember when we were visiting with , they said that when they’d done some licence deals with Decode , the actual interactives had to be retrofitted for slower bandwidth," Williamson says. " because this is Flash that we’re building this in, the file sizes shouldn’t be too large." Finally, the AFC’s submission approval process is on a different schedule than the Bell Fund’s, which means the Australian partners have had to wait for funding after Digital Wizards received its payout. "Until they get the paperwork from the AFC they won’t give us a contract," Williamson says of the Australian broadcasters. "It’s always a challenge with these productions: you have to get into production quickly to be able to get the thing produced, and yet the money is hanging out there six weeks away." The project will have a benefit far beyond the fortunes of the four production partners, however. Canada’s new media community will also be able to avail itself of Digital Wizards’ experience with deal-making in the Australian market in order to improve both the likelihood and the quality of future co-productions between producers in the two nations. "We’re happy to provide lots of feedback on the upside and downside of these interactive co-productions," Williamson says. "We know it’s the first, and so we’re hoping it will be a huge success, but we’re going to provide as much feedback as we can to the Bell Fund and Telefilm."