Molly Parker stars in Kissed (1996),
by Vancouver’s Boneyard Film Company.
Vancouver is experiencing a boom in film production. Television
and film studios are producing more and more of their efforts
in the Vancouver area, thanks to a skilled technical pool, a
favorable exchange rate, and a city that welcomes film makers.
Where did this boom come from? Will it last? And
what does it mean for Vancouver-based film makers who aren’t coming
from Hollywood with pockets full of cash?
MovieMaker looks at the past, present, and future
of Vancouver film making in this in-depth set of articles.
The Past: A Snapshot of British Columbia’s Film
History by Hollander Layte
John Long shooting Skid
Row (1956). Directed by Allan King, this doc was the
most acclaimed early procudtion of CBC/Vancouver.
To the eye of a camera, Vancouver, British
Columbia is visually stunning. Snow-peaked mountains rise majestically
into the sky from the base of the city. Bays and inlets shelter
sailboats, yachts, kayaks and windsurfers. Flowers drip color everywhere.
The city becomes mysterious when winter arrives. Rain beats down
relentlessly. White-capped waves crash over a seawall. Mist envelops
the city, giving the impression it has secrets.
British Columbia’s love affair with film began in
the nineteenth century. The province’s first movies were shown
in 1897 at the Trilby Music Hall on Broad Street in Victoria, the
provincial capital. For an admission price of five cents anyone
could become an armchair adventurer, panning for Klondike gold
or riding on the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Fraser Canyon.
In 1899 Jim McConahy installed Victoria’s first successful theater,
the Searchlight, in an established location on Fort Street. In
1903, John Schuberg opened Vancouver’s first permanent movie theater,
Frontier movie houses began springing up everywhere,
spurred on by enthusiastic businessmen capitalizing on the portability
of movies and projectors. Films promoting the province to prospective
investors and immigrants followed. By the 1920s, American filmmakers
were using B.C.’s novel landscapes for outdoor adventure films
such as The Alaskan, made by New York’s Famous Players/Lasky Corporation.
It was the beginning of a trend of foreign filmmaking in Canada
which continues today.
In the 1930s, an "American branch plant" was
established as a way, it was said, of overcoming a British quota
restriction on imported films. Several American films of questionable
quality followed, among them Lucky Fugitives, Secret Patrol, Lucky
Corrigan, Stampede, Tugboat Princess, Across the Border (with Rita
Hayworth),Vengeance, Convicted, Women Against the World, and the
Rin Tin Tin movie Death Goes North.
A domestic film production industry also began to
develop in B.C. during these early years. It was driven primarily
by photographic and advertising interests. Assistant Director "Cowboy" Kean,
an ex-cowpuncher, was the province’s first locally based commercial
cinematographer. He got his start in movies, according to historian
Dennis Duffy, when he filmed the Vancouver Exhibition and the departure
of troops for Europe during World War I.
Two other notable filmmakers of the era were Ross
Beasley and Jack Long. Beasley began his career in 1919, before
it was fashionable to be in the business, and for many years was
the only news cameraman in B.C. Long pioneered the use of lightweight,
portable 16mm sound cameras in the area, and at one time was considered
one of the most talented cameramen around.
Wally Hamilton and producer
Leon Shelly at the Motion Skreenadz/Vancouver Motion Pictures
B.C.’s film industry grew slowly but steadily during
the first half of the century. For a short time, provincial government
departments produced their own promotional and educational films.
The eastern-based National Film Board (NFB), a federal government
agency, made a few shorts and documentaries. Local commercial
filmmaking took off as well, as did American feature production.
Son of Lassie, Commandos Strike At Dawn, The 49th Parallel and
Corvette-222, all MGM and Columbia films, were shot in B.C.
Although scarce, some production facilities were
available in Vancouver at the time. A local company, Motion Skreenadz
L imited, was set up in 1920, and by the ’40s had gained virtual
control over all industrial filmmaking. Vancouver Motion Pictures
also existed, and it served as the city’s first motion picture
processing laboratory. A local resident, Leon Shelly, assumed control
of both companies around 1936, and under his guidance some of the
best artistic talent in B.C. was assembled. Wally Hamilton was
a technical wizard. Oscar Burrett, Ernie Kirkpatrick and Don Lytle
were all crack cameramen. Lew Parry was both art director and writer.
Ed Taylor, who had Hollywood experience, knew how to produce, direct
and edit. Homer Powell, a veteran of the American "Red Scare," came
up to train fresh talent. The effect these key people at Vancouver
Motion Pictures had was enormous. They made technical advances,
discovered promising young filmmakers and established a pattern
of independent film production that still exists today.
"These were people who were extremely romantic
individuals, caught up in a dream of film as the theater of the
emotions," retired filmmaker Stan Fox wrote of the early days
of Vancouver Motion Pictures. "At the same time, they were
practical, innovative technicians used to solving their own problems.
No one knows how many thousands of hours were lost to actual production
while the filmmakers patiently and painfully tried to build their
own sound dubbers, printers and even projectors. No one paused
to figure out the economic implications of re-inventing rather
than simply buying film equipment. With few exceptions, the members
were poor businessmen. They wanted to make movies. If there was
money to be made as well, so much the better. But the profit motive
was a small component of an ambition to impress, to entertain and
Like others of his time, Leon Shelly was lured east,
and he took a lot of Vancouver Motion Pictures’ staff went with
him. Lew Parry stayed behind, and in 1946 formed Trans-Canada Films
Limited. When his initial shareholders eventually sold it, he bought
out another one, North American Productions. Following a name-change,
Lew Parry Film Productions was born, and it too became enormously
influential within B.C.’s emerging film community.
In the 1950s, CBC Vancouver became another important
link in the evolution of B.C. film history. Vancouver television
station CBUT went on air in December of 1953. It established a
film department right away and attracted some of the best film
talent available. "Many of the people in what came to be known
as CBC’s Vancouver Film Unit weren’t interested in television," says
Stan Fox. "What they really wanted to do was make films. It
took them about three years to accomplish their goal, but eventually
they did it. Daryl Duke and Allan King began the trend. I remember,
for example, telling Allan King that he was crazy to do a documentary
about the bums on skid row because they were a ridiculous, depressing
subject, but he said he was going to do it anyway. He came back
with a film–aided enormously by Jack Long’s camera work–and now
that film is a great Canadian classic. But that’s how things worked
there in those days. Usually if you wanted to do something, you
The rebel band of young filmmakers at CBUT thrived
during this period, aided enormously by several factors. The
television station was relatively isolated from CBC headquarters
in Ottawa and its main production center in Toronto, but here
was a large and vibrant talent pool in Vancouver. Experimentation
was encouraged. NFB film expertise was available. Even for beginners,
there was ample opportunity to learn about filmmaking.
"Black and white was an advantage in many ways," says
Philip Keatley, who excelled in film drama. "When I started
as a producer, my real bosses, who I didn’t know very well, simply
said to the technical producer and lighting director, ‘Here, take
him, teach him and don’t let him mess things up any more than you
can help.’ Coming from the theater, I had to start thinking from
the point of view of how the camera sees. Well, in fact I had three
of these things that could see, but of course all in different
ways. They also all had four different lenses on them. So the trick
was to learn how to tell the story best with these three monsters."
Today, many of the filmmakers who got their training
at the CBC say the ’50s and early ’60s were the golden years for
filmmaking in Vancouver. They had creative freedom. There were
resources and money. They were encouraged, especially at the local
level, to make good dramatic films and documentaries. A Bit of
Bark, Seeds, Object Matrimony, Skid Row, The Open Grave, Caribou
Country, Klahanie, The Overlanders, The Beachcombers, The Japanese
Canadians, The Doukhobors and several more were all made at that
Outside of the CBC, however, independent filmmaking
was slow. Few foreign films were being made, and the production
of only one feature, Timber Jack, is recorded. However, an important
new production facility–Panorama Productions Limited, with Czech-born
Oldrich Vaclavek as president and executive producer–was built. "It
was a really spectacular facility," says Justise Greene, a
longtime B.C. independent filmmaker. "I worked for a producer
who actually wanted to black out all the windows because he felt
we were staring out the windows looking at the view rather than
working. Eventually we lost it to condominiums, but at the time
it was an enormous help in getting big-name foreign producers to
consider B.C. as a possible location for making their films."
The face of filmmaking in Vancouver changed dramatically
in the mid-’60s and ’70s. Technology grew more sophisticated. The
CBC television types in Toronto began exerting more control over
the CBC television types in Vancouver. Both foreign and local production
increased. Robert Altman made his first films in B.C., That Cold
Day in the Park (1969) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Great
Coups of History was directed and produced by a local filmmaker,
Jack Darcus. Carnal Knowledge (1971), directed by Mike Nichols,
as well as several television films, were also made here during
"We had a politician here who was convinced
that a film industry was important for B.C.," says Justise
Green. "It was about the time that film commissions were starting
up in the States, so a group of us lobbied the government to have
one here. Grace McCarthy really had her eyes open to the future.
I truly believe that we wouldn’t have a film industry here today
if it hadn’t been for her."
The increase in independent production during these
decades helped make a case for the construction of two new production
facilities. The Bridge was built in Burnaby, on the outskirts of
Vancouver. North Shore Studios was constructed in North Vancouver. "A
consortium of B.C. and British investors built North Shore Studios," says
Greene, who was one of the dealmakers. "When it was completed,
we opened it with one tenant. Later on, Cannell Films came up here
with its TV series ’21 Jump Street.’ That really allowed North
Shore Studios to go ahead. Today North Shore has nine stages, The
Bridge has six and is currently building another one. Still, if
there’s anything that’s going to slow us down, it’s going to be
a lack of facilities. [They] just can’t seem to keep up with the
demand. I have a project I’m working on now, and I can’t find a
place to put it. This is a large project, about three times bigger
than the largest project in town right now. It’s about two and
a half times larger than Jumanji, which was shot here."
Today there’s no doubt that the B.C. film industry
is humming right along. In 1995 its production budgets totaled
$677.52 million ($535.23 million foreign dollars and $142.29 million
Canadian). Production facilities are filled to capacity with TV
shows and features such as "The Outer Limits," "Poltergeist," "The
X-Files," "Deep Rising" and "Smart Alec." A
new soundstage–the largest in Canada–is also scheduled for completion
"When I started, filmmakers were pretty limited
because there were virtually no studios or equipment available," says
Matthew O’Connor, one of the owners of Pacific Motion Pictures. "Now
there are lots of studios, multiple camera suppliers, electric
suppliers, a dozen caterers. A bunch of smaller industries have
cropped up, everything from propmakers to creature-effect houses,
motion-control camera equipment to digital imaging; very cutting-edge
stuff that continues to grow because of the economics and volume
of production. So we’ve definitely come a long way since I began."
Although B.C.’s film industry is thriving, there
is a downside to the equation. In 1996, the industry is still
largely foreign-driven and dependent on business from American
studios. American production is high because Canada’s dollar
is low. Economic fluctuations in such a precarious balance could
have heart-stopping results.
"What’s happened traditionally in the past–and
this is a difference between Toronto and here as well–is that
the B.C. unions are very aware of the dollar," explains O’Connor. "Every
half-point it moves, believe me, they track it. So whenever the
dollar has strengthened, the unions, guilds and suppliers here
have either initiated rollbacks or kept a lid on costs. And they’ve
had to do that because for most American films, the actual difference
in cost of shooting here as compared with there is actually only
between five and eleven per cent. That’s the number one reason
why American studios continue to produce here. It’s our dollar."
Hollander Layte is a freelance writer living in
Vancouver, The Present: Filming in British Columbia By Victoria Bushnell
Molly Parker with corpse Brian
Pearson in Kissed.
There’s good news and bad for filmmakers
in British Columbia. The good news is that production in the
province is at an all-time high, having raked in $318 million
(U.S.) in revenue last year. The bad news is that the bulk of
that production comes from outside Canada, leaving a serious
gap when it comes to indigenous B.C. filmmaking. (see Mark Bentley
Cohen’s article –ed.)
Production in B.C. has been consistently increasing,
thanks in great part to a favorable dollar exchange rate and
a diversity of locations. It’s also relatively close to Los Angeles,
where much of the feature and TV work produced here originates.
The two and a half hour flight from L.A. to Vancouver is painless,
compared to the logistics of driving from, say, Simi Valley to
Orange County. The continued business has enabled B.C. to strengthen
its pool of talent–both cast and crew–as well as build up its
support services and post-production facilities. The B.C. Film
Commission has made a concerted effort to make the province appealing
to out-of-towners. And Canadian unions, after resolving a number
of labor conflicts last year, are arguably more supportive than
some of their U.S. counterparts. Add to that the opportunity
to shoot in an idyllic city in the middle of a rain forest, and
who could say no?
Apparently, producers like what they can accomplish
in B.C. Features shot in Vancouver this year include Excess Baggage,
Firestorm and Free Willy III, as well as Disney’s Deep Rising which,
at press time, was utilizing Vancouver’s largest soundstage, as
well as a number of others, in order to recreate the expensive
and expansive interior of a luxury liner in the South China Sea.
At any given time there are about twenty projects
being shot in the Vancouver area, including a plethora of TV movies,
series and cable projects. "Since 1987," says producer
John Kousakis, "it’s grown here to such magnitudes that I
have to strain to remember when there were barely three or four
shows shooting at the same time." Kousakis and Chris Carter
are co-executive producers of "Millennium." (Carter created "The
X-Files," which has been shot in Vancouver for the past three
years.) "Professionally I think the crews are fantastic up
here," says Kousakis. "From the beginning, what I appreciated
was the fact that there were people who may not have initially
had the depth of experience, but they had deep passion for filmmaking."
It’s also a beautiful and safe city, which is a big
plus when you’re spending a long period of time working on a project. "My
experience has been wonderful," says "Millennium" co-star
Megan Gallagher. "I understand there’s a lot of precipitation
at other times of the year, but every time I’ve been here it’s
been spectacularly beautiful. I love a city where you can walk
around in a certain amount of safety. If I have a favorite city,
it’s New York. And this to me feels like a cleaner, safer New York."
Like "The X-Files," "Millennium" depends
heavily on having access to a variety of locations, which B.C.
is happy to provide. "In the current episode we’re doing," notes
Kousakis, "our locations span from Tacoma to Pueblo, Colorado
and end in Rockford, Illinois, so we’re now out scouting locations
for those areas. We feel we’ll be successful in establishing all
those looks, whether it’s mountain ranges or the flatlands of Illinois,
out in Ladner and Langley."
B.C. recently pulled itself out of a series of labor
problems which characterized 1995 and caused one studio to cease
filming for a year and a half. The two actors’ unions here, the
local chapter of ACTRA and the UBCP (Union of British Columbia
Performers) continued to battle over the same turf, but earlier
this year resolved their differences. The solution has been for
all members to belong to the UBCP, which still maintains ties to
ACTRA in Ontario.
Natasha Morley and Jessie Winter
Mudie at an animal burial in Kissed.
There were also a number of misunderstandings with
below-the-line unions which always seemed to end up in front
of the labor board. However, the B.C. Council of Film Unions
put a stop to those disputes as well, offering what they refer
to as "one-stop shopping" to producers looking to film
in the area. The Council, in conjunction with the B.C. Film Commission
and negotiating producers of the L.A.-based Alliance of Motion
Picture and Television Producers, drafted a master labor agreement
earlier this year that effectively simplifies the production
process, making filming costs more predictable.
"The resolution of those issues has created
stability," says Pete Mitchell, director of the B.C. Film
Commission. "I thought it would take a year for that to work
into the system, but the fact is we’ve had a very quick response.
We have Warner here shooting Free Willy III, and that’s purely
a result of Section 41 [the Labor Code to which the agreement refers].
Prior to the signing of that agreement, they said they weren’t
bringing anything to B.C. As soon as the agreement was signed,
they came back."
John Kousakis, on the other hand, says he’s yet to
have a problem with the unions. "I do know it has existed
on visiting productions that are not here on a permanent basis,
but by and far I have been sequestered from it. I’ve had nothing
but good experiences with unions and the Film Commission."
With labor problems set aside for the present, the
most pressing problem now is a lack of stage space. There are two
main facilities in town–North Shore Studios and The Bridge Studios–but
due to the wealth of new business, there is constant demand for
more. Offering to help fill the gap in available production space
is a joint venture between Vancouver-based New City Productions,
Mainframe Entertainment (the B.C. company which produces "Reboot")
and Trillium Corporation, a Washington-based developer. The companies
are currently meeting with city planners in an effort to gain approval
for a complex which would be built in 1998 and contain four soundstages,
as well as spaces for industry professionals to live and work.
"Why does six billion dollars worth of production
leave L.A. every year?" asks Mitchell. "One of the reasons
is that it’s awful to shoot there." To keep B.C.’s burgeoning
production industry from falling into the same pit, the Community
Marketing Group has been formed, which is a Vancouver association
comprised of local film-related business hoping to ensure that
locals aren’t at odds with the crews working here. "Those
companies have all contributed money, including half of one of
our employee’s salaries, to try and market the industry to the
local population, to keep things under control and film-friendly," says
Mitchell. "It’s in its infancy, but community relations are
becoming a bigger and bigger part of the success or failure of
the industry. This is a move in the right direction and at the
Mitchell goes on to add, "This group has been
very successful. They lobby on a variety of issues that make it
easier to film here. We also have someone on the street every day
to listen to complaints and deal with them. He goes to the set,
and if someone’s upset because they don’t like a light shining
in their window, he goes out and deals with it and just makes sure
the relationships between production companies and the local population
all work out."
Now the bad news. The province might be successful
at wooing out-of-towners, but the federal and provincial governments
are seriously remiss when it comes to supporting local filmmakers.
Telefilm, the government body that funds Canadian production, supports
companies in Quebec or Ontario, but B.C. has often been left in
the dark. John Taylor, who runs Telefilm’s western office, says
there’s not much he can do in terms of getting funding for the
"The impression that some people have is that
Telefilm has at its discretion allocations that could go in one
region or another," he explains. "It simply doesn’t work
that way. There are two production investment funds. One is feature
and the other is broadcast. But before we can invest, according
to the terms we were given by the government, a broadcaster or
distributor must already be triggering the project. And if we don’t
have applications that are triggered by a broadcaster or distributor,
we can’t consider the application. I find that some producers are
so busy in the so-called ‘service’ side of the sector that they
may have less time to go beating the bushes for broadcast licenses
from the Canadian side. So I think oftentimes we get blamed for
not investing enough, but our hands are a bit tied depending on
where broadcasters are licensing their programs."
Taylor notes that there are local producers who’ve
managed to get out and do interesting projects, Telefilm or not. "Like
Forefront Productions," he notes, "which does ‘Madison,’
and is about to launch a new series in co-production with Credo
out of Manitoba. That, in my recollection, is the first co-production
between two western companies for a series to be broadcast in Canada.
And that’s quite exciting and an example of entrepreneurship."
Taylor says that after this fall’s Canadian Radio
and Television Commission application hearings, there could be
at least one new west coast-based broadcaster in Vancouver or Victoria
(or both), which should help even out the equation. "Who it’s
going to be," he says, "we don’t know. But whoever it
is, they will have certain Canadian content requirements–which
is likely to benefit producers with good ideas. Similarly I think
the CBC is interested in making plans for new production opportunities
for the west, including British Columbia."
To meet the demand, another association, B.C. Film,
has been formed to assist local filmmakers and help develop talent. "There
were two principal reasons for getting it started," says Wayne
Sterloff, who runs B.C. Film. "One is that the B.C. industry
was growing, but becoming very dependent on foreign producers shooting
here on location. And as everyone knows, this is an industry that
exists on eighteen wheels. It can be in and out of town overnight.
So the thought was that we needed to start developing above-the-line
talent–writers, producers, directors, actors–the key creative
staff that, if they lived here, would have a natural allegiance
to the town. And, there would be a good chance they would stay
here. The second reason for B.C. Film’s creation was because the
federal government was investing a lot of taxpayer money into so-called
indigenous and domestic TV, but B.C. was not participating."
However, Colleen Nystedt of New City Productions,
who has successfully joined up with a number of companies, including
Universal Pictures for Bordello of Blood, argues that working
with companies in the U.S. is still the best solution for her. "I’m
selling in the States because I don’t believe you can put successful
projects together using Canadian financing," she says. "Now
that there are no more capital cost-allowance tax shelters, there’s
really no incentive to do Canadian content. The new regulations
regarding the tax rebate program are so onerous as to render
the programs unworkable. So my tactic continues to be working
in Los Angeles, selling stories and packaging material with strategic
Nystedt just signed a deal to produce "Tricks," for
Showtime, which is a perfect example of Canadian ingenuity. "My
strategy there is yes, I’m producing for Showtime,’ but they’re
also looking at a variety of my projects to produce up here. So
I develop a functional relationship and translate that into a creative
Originally from L.A., Victoria Bushnell is now based
in Vancouver and writes extensively about the film industry for
Dennis Miller with Angie Everheart
in Bordello of Blood.
Vancouver, The Future: Telling Our Own Stories By Mark Bentley Cohen
One of the hardest things for most British Columbian
independent moviemakers is having to explain to their parents
why they’re not yet millionaires. After all, our film business
is booming. Depending on your source, Vancouver is either the
third or fourth largest film center in North America, running
neck-and-neck with Toronto, just behind Los Angeles and New York.
By all estimates, direct revenues from film production will easily
top 500 million dollars this year. Bill Barlee, whose Ministry
of Small Business, Culture and Tourism has recently been made
responsible for all aspects of the provincial film business,
estimates that the B.C. film industry as a whole "will be
a billion-dollar business by the end of 1999. I think it will
gain a little over one hundred million [dollars] a year."
So why is it that our indigenous filmmakers produce,
at best, one or two features a year?
It occurred to me earlier this year, during British
Columbian Motion Picture Awareness week (May 1-7), that someone
ought to dispel one of the most egregious myths surrounding our
indigenous film community: the popular misconception that all this
robust, lucrative film activity somehow relates to them. It does
The subject of feature filmmaking in this province
is as vast, diverse and complex as Canada itself. The issues encompass
everything from the domination of our own theaters by American
films to the lack of regional capital needed to adequately finance
our own projects.
Mort Ransen’s Margaret’s Museum epitomizes the
imbroglio that defines Canadian film (or BC film–or is it UK
film?). Ransen began working on Margaret’s Museum five years
ago while he lived in Montreal. When he moved to Salt Spring
Island four years ago, the project came with him. Did that make
it a B.C. film? Keep in mind that Ransen’s co-writer is from
Montreal. The film was shot in Cape Breton. It was financed with
help from the federal government, Quebec, Nova Scotia and England.
It starred Helena Bonham Carter, a British actress, and Kate
Nelligan, a Canadian.
In this country, a great deal of our desire to define
ownership of a film stems from the fact that feature film projects
are financed with the support of Telefilm Canada, our federal film
agency. There are many people in B.C., as well as most of the other
provinces (with the exception of Quebec and Ontario), who claim
this province has never gotten its fair share of Telefilm money.
The hard, cold dollars-and-cents balance sheet shows that less
than one percent of Telefilm’s funding has been allocated to B.C.
in the past five years. Although it’s not clear how Margaret’s
Museum fits into those statistics, since it’s not clear which region,
if any, can claim ownership, one thing is certain: the film satisfies
our cultural need to tell our own stories.
According to Ransen, feature films are a vital part
of our cultural mirror. "We’ve been telling stories to each
other for millions of years around the fire," he says, "and
feature films are just our way of doing it these days." When
we hold this mirror up to ourselves it enables us to see who we
are, which allows us to create and discover our own unique identity.
Without our own stories we have no identity. We’re lost.
Here in British Columbia we’re undoubtedly enjoying
the fruits of being Hollywood North. If you figure that roughly
three times the amount spent directly on film production gets streamed
into the province’s economy as a result of indirect spending, we’re
well into billions of dollars of added revenue–something Cape
Breton would probably be tempted to trade for one Margaret’s Museum.
The benefits for us have been extraordinary: an estimated 8,500
jobs; a host of locally owned service and equipment suppliers;
post-production facilities which rank among the best in the world;
the capacity to assemble twenty-five entire film crews within hours.
Can we really complain?
No, and no one is. But claiming that this has anything
to do with telling our own stories is like claiming that record-breaking
profits at Mac-Blo (MacMillan-Bloedel, B.C.’s controversial timber
giant) will be a boon to our filmmakers. If anything, it’s a double-edged
sword. Although our own filmmakers have benefited in small, mainly
technical ways from the Hollywood machine working here, they’ve
also been hidden by the shadow of this five-hundred-million-dollar
Speaking recently in Vancouver at one of the monthly
breakfast meetings sponsored by the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television,
Dr. Hedy Fry, the Liberal M.P. from Vancouver Quadra, illustrated
the kind of misconceptions that cloud the real issue of filmmaking
in this province: namely, the difference between telling stories
and supplying services. "[I]f we consider that 26.9 jobs come
from every million dollars spent in the film industry," stated
Fry, "that tells you that we’re bringing in a lot of jobs.
And it’s not just jobs . . . they’re infrastructure jobs. They’re
the kinds of things that will allow our young people of B.C. to
think, ‘I know what I want to do when I grow up. I want to go and
learn how to be a terrific cartoonist. I want to be able to be
a producer. I want to be a director. I want to write screenplays
and stories. I want to be involved in that industry.’ "
Most of "that industry" is comprised of
American features, with a mixture of American and Canadian TV series,
American pilots, movies of the week and straight-to-video films.
We supply the technical people–the boom operators, electricians,
and location scouts–and they supply our young peoples’ dreams.
Steve Heyges has been working in film in this province
for ten years. He’s worked with John Pozer on The Grocer’s Wife,
and was the co-producer of Mina Shum’s Double Happiness. "The
service industry is both good and bad," he says. "It’s
good in the sense that it provides us with a very solid foundation
of equipment suppliers and very top-notch crews; you won’t find
better anywhere in the world. But it’s important that the governments
that are funding the programs to help indigenous filmmakers recognize
that to develop writers and directors, which we need more of
here, the money has to be available to help them achieve their
goals. And sometimes the government, I think, perhaps sees it
as this booming industry–which it is, from a service point of
view–which means that technical [people] and even some actors
are getting a great deal of training. But we’re sorely lacking
in the directing and writing departments–and for that matter,
producing too. And that’s something that’s important to support
Is the local film community worth supporting? Culturally,
From a business point of view, supporting an indigenous
film industry is the only hope we’ve got for a sustainable film
economy. At the moment, the infrastructure Dr. Fry so glowingly
refers to would collapse without the Americans. But the smokescreen
of cash flow helps the government wear blinders.
Brenda Collins, administrative director of the British
Columbia Motion Picture Association–the sponsors of Motion Picture
Awareness Week–sees the inherent danger in the government’s lack
of investment in the indigenous film industry "They say, ‘There’s
nothing wrong with this picture. You guys make more money, there’s
more revenue, more productions every single year. You don’t need
our help.’ But the only thing that’s driving that portion of the
industry is the exchange rate. As soon as the exchange rate goes,
we’ve lost our favorable situation. Even if we’re in the same time
zone [as the Americans], even if we look like them and talk like
them and have the locations, we’re going to lose that business."
Wayne Sterloff, president and CEO of B.C. Film, the
province’s film financing corporation, concurs. "The government
thinks everything is fine because of this huge amount of service
work. What’s going to anchor this industry is not service production,
it’s companies that own the ongoing rights to their projects. Because
then their revenue and profits come back to B.C., not to a Hollywood
studio. And they haven’t understood that yet. The economics are
based on shifting sand at the moment, and we need to anchor this
fantastic industry in B.C. companies."
The support needed to create successful feature films
is enormous. It begins with script development money and continues
through production to post-production money to distribution deals.
And the problem facing many B.C. filmmakers is one shared by filmmakers
everywhere: lack of money. Sterloff might be exaggerating when
he says, "Most of our features are made for the price of the
catering budget on Jumanji," but only because so few of them
are made with so generous a budget.
B.C. Film has roughly 4.5 million dollars a year
to distribute to local filmmakers. Most years, this provincial
investment money, coupled with investment from the federal film
agencies of Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board (both of
which are currently being eviscerated beyond recognition) do not
hit double digits. Investment from the private sector is negligible.
Sharon McGowan, the producer of the successful Lotus
Eaters, which was shot on Quadra Island, is used to living around
the poverty line, despite being in the film business for over twenty
years. She’s noticed a change in the film community. "The
independent film scene is in the worst crisis it’s been in for
about 15 years." According to McGowan, this change has been
brought on by two things: "A lack of political will, coupled
with all of the fiscal restraint. [E]very single day in the last
six months there’s been a new funding agency or broadcaster or
investment possibility that’s gone into crisis. It’s very gloomy.
A lot of independent filmmakers across the country are filled with
complete despair because there are massive cuts everywhere. The
smaller, independent, entrepreneurial filmmakers are an endangered
Dr. Fry stated that the lack of indigenous B.C. films
cannot be remedied by throwing money at the situation, and suggested
we concentrate on "finding creative ways around the situation." I
wonder if Dr. Fry would like to find a creative way around living
without her salary, a situation common to most filmmakers in this
country. If it weren’t for finding creative ways to make films
for little or no money, not a single film would be made in this,
or any other province.
Out of the estimated $70,000 raised by the people
at the Boneyard Film Company Inc., not a cent of it was used to
pay first-time producer Dean English or writer/director Lyn Stopkewich.
Stopkewich outlines the simple rules of independent film budgeting
thusly: "Most people budget a film by saying, ‘Okay, here’s
a screenplay, this is what it’s going to cost us to do it.’ What
we said was, ‘This is how much money we’ve got–how are we going
to do it?’"
Stopkewich’s career exemplifies the B.C. film dichotomy.
Her career as a production designer began when John Pozer hired
her to design his local low-budget independent film, The Grocer’s
Wife. She parlayed that experience into gainful employment as a
production designer in the local service industry, working for
Keystone Films. Now she’s investing her cumulative experience (as
well as her life-savings of $30,000) to shoot her own local low-budget
film. The rest of the money she needs was raised by passing the
hat among her service-industry cronies, friends and family.
What would motivate someone to put a lucrative career
on hold and invest their life savings in something as dubious as
a feature film? For Stopkewich it was basic. "My first intent
was to find a story I thought was engaging, compelling and moving,
and to realize that and have people see it. That’s as simple as
B.C. filmmakers have become a favorite charity
of local people working in the service industry, many of whom
would like nothing more than to use their skills and talents
to make great Canadian films. They donate time, services and
resources to help support Canadian film efforts in any way they
can. "This is a very flush time for the film industry," says
Stopkewich, "and if they can give something back to the
[local film] community and start to develop their own filmmakers,
This doesn’t mean that local filmmakers aren’t envious
of the money they see being pumped into big-budget shoots around
the city. A single episode of "X Files" would easily
fund ten Boneyard productions. Producer Dean English takes it in
stride though. "There is a certain sense of humor to watching
three huge monster trucks roll up with equipment for, let’s say
a series or something, and then having one local independent filmmaker
roll up in a station wagon and say, ‘I need camera holds, please,
Despite the perks and small benefits from the service
industry, B.C. is still losing many of its local filmmakers. People
talk about the brain-drain as talented locals head south of the
border, or east to Toronto, for greener pastures. For those who
stay, their film school dreams of creating their own Boneyard Films,
Inc. dissipate as the comfort of high-paying service jobs becomes
too painful to relinquish.
And yet, despite the odds being stacked against them,
the gloomy news of cutbacks, the ever-increasing bottom-line mentalities,
the nonexistent distribution deals and the calls for homogeneous
product, there remains a local community of filmmakers who live
solely to tell their own stories in their own way. The next time
you see someone on bended knee next to one of those big equipment
trucks, you’ll know who it is. MM
Mark Bentley Cohen is a writer living in Vancouver.
Besides movie scripts and freelance articles, Mark has a weekly
computer column on national radio and teaches computers to kids.