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
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, the Electric.
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.
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 could.”
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 time.
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 this period.
“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 soon.
“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, B.C.
Vancouver, The Present: Filming in British Columbia
By Victoria Bushnell
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.
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 right time.”
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 little guys.
“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 partners.”
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 relationship.”
Originally from L.A., Victoria Bushnell is now based in Vancouver and writes extensively about the film industry for several publications.
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 not.
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 as well.”
Is the local film community worth supporting? Culturally, yes.
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 species.”
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 it gets.”
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, they do.”
This doesn’t mean that local filmmakers aren’t envious of the money they see being pumped into big-budget shoots aroundthe 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, just one.'”
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.