In a donated office on a studio lot in North Vancouver where there are currently zero productions shooting, a group of unemployed film workers are working on their own big production: a town hall meeting planned for Tuesday night, to discuss the dire situation in the B.C. production community. They’re trying to keep the momentum going on their Save BC Film campaign, even as the government says it will not increase production tax credits in the province. There may, however, the minister responsible strongly hints, be a consolation prize in the offing. But will it be enough to save an industry that members say is suffering a severe decline and troubling unemployment?
“It hurts the economy massively. And it’s hurting a lot of people,” says David Markowitz, a first assistant director with 29 years of experience whose recent projects include AMC’s The Killing. “My business has dropped, I’d say, 75 per cent in the last four years.”
It’s been clear for some time that the production industry in B.C., worth $1.18-billion in 2011, was heading for trouble. As the Canadian dollar rose, Ontario and Quebec improved their tax credits. B.C. did not keep up. This province offers a credit of 33 per cent on labour costs, but in Ontario and Quebec, the rebate is 25 per cent of the total spend.
Even a temporary levelling of the playing field would make a difference, says Peter Leitch, chair of the Motion Picture Production Industry Association of British Columbia. “This is the most serious situation I think that we’ve faced in the 25 years that I’ve been in the business,” says Leitch, also president of North Shore Studios and Mammoth Studios. Some U.S. jurisdictions have also increased tax credits, and the repeal of the HST in B.C. will further hurt the industry.
The issue has gained steam this month. When word emerged, via a Freedom of Information request by B.C. NDP culture critic Spencer Chandra Herbert, that B.C.’s Jobs Plan did not include support for the industry, there was outrage from the production community.
Currently unemployed assistant director/producer Lee Cleary put out a “call to arms” on Facebook, and industry members posted messages about the issue on Premier Christy Clark’s Facebook page. Their posts – hundreds of them – were deleted en masse by Clark’s communications team, and a separate stream was created specifically for the topic.
“You [need to] have some sort of filter so that a one-issue campaign does not dominate the Facebook page,” says Clark’s communications director Ben Chin. “The intent is never to block comments.”
That’s not how the film community saw it. “That basically was the kicking point for everyone to react, because the word spread very quickly … that we were being shut out,” says Markowitz, one of the administrators of the Save BC Film Facebook page.
An online petition was also set up; by Friday afternoon it had attracted some 22,000 signatures.
Determining the severity of the decline can be challenging. Production figures for 2012 from the B.C. Film Commission will not be available until at least late February, but last year those numbers showed B.C. had slipped behind Ontario to rate as the fourth-largest production centre in North America.
But there are other indicators.
The Film Commission’s current list of productions shooting includes only six series and no big-budget features. Leitch says that in good times, B.C. has seen about 30 productions shooting.
At IATSE Local 891, business representative Paul Klassen says early figures show their payroll was down just 2 per cent in 2012 from 2011, but down 15 to 20 per cent from 2009 – with three straight years of declines.
Statistics from the Directors Guild of Canada, B.C. show that while the number of their productions was up in 2012 over 2011, the vast majority were low budget. In 2011, there were nine features with a budget over $20-million. In 2012, there was one.
Chris Helcermanas-Benge, a stills photographer and past president of IATSE local 669 representing cinematographers, says the union puts out a list every few days of projects being shot and rumours of projects that have been green-lit for B.C. “Those used to run 10 or 12 pages; now they’re down to one,” he says. “Our members have dropped their rates to accommodate the industry because we want to keep it here.”
Some insist the rate of unemployment in the industry locally has reached, or is about to reach, 90 per cent. “If you say there are between 24,000 to 25,000 people who are directly in this industry ranging from every department …, well there’s enough shows right now on the books to support about 1,000 to 1,500 people employed,” says Markowitz. “So if you do the math, it works out to we’re over 90 per cent unemployed right now.”
Anecdotally, there are many stories such as Cleary’s. Despite his track record and 32 years of experience on franchises such as X-Men and Fantastic Four, he had three weeks of work in B.C. last year, on a pilot that ended up leaving town and shooting elsewhere.
At a news conference last week, the premier called the 90 per cent figure “inaccurate” and suggested increasing the tax credit to match Ontario’s and Quebec’s would be a “race to the bottom.”
Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Bill Bennett confirms that in the short term the tax incentives will not be increased. “If our fiscal situation in British Columbia was different, it would be a longer conversation,” he said in an interview. “It’s not that we don’t understand what Ontario and Quebec have done, but it’s that are we going to invest disproportionately in one industry and drive the province into deficit position? And the answer to that is no; we can’t do that.”
He did, however, suggest that the government can help in other ways, such as establishing a support agency similar to the Ontario Media Development Corporation. “I’m looking very closely at it ... so hopefully we’ll have a positive announcement … in the next 30 days.”
That may not be enough. Leitch, who travels to Los Angeles regularly to meet with studio executives, says the first thing on the table these days is the tax credit.
“We’ve been told by our customers that we’re going to lose our industry here effectively if we don’t take some steps.”