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Canadian actor Louis Ferreira (formerly Justin Louis) portrays Col. Everett Young in Stargate Universe. (Carole Segal / Canadian Press)
Canadian actor Louis Ferreira (formerly Justin Louis) portrays Col. Everett Young in Stargate Universe. (Carole Segal / Canadian Press)

Television

Hollywood North wraps in Vancouver Add to ...

It's been a tough week in Hollywood North, what with Superman hanging up his Smallville cape (or, in fact, slipping into it) and the crew of Destiny meeting theirs on Stargate Universe. The two series finales signal the end of an era in British Columbia's Lower Mainland, where the Stargate franchise and Smallville have provided years of big breaks and steady work, and have helped foster an industry that's worth $1-billion annually to the provincial economy.

Tom Cruise and the Twilight series may bring giant budgets - and international attention - to Metro Vancouver. But the city owes its production reputation, infrastructure and skill set to the small screen.

"There's no doubt that television built this town," says Crawford Hawkins, executive director of the Directors Guild of Canada B.C. District Council . "This town would not exist on high-budget features."

Stargate and the Superman prequel Smallville - which wrapped Friday after 10 seasons - have been a big part of that. Now they're going off the air at the same time.

"In one sense, they're just another series, and we typically do 15 to 20 a year," says Pete Mitchell, president and COO of Vancouver Film Studios, a 13-sound stage facility which has been home to Battlestar Galactica and more recently Caprica and Hellcats. "At the same time, Stargate spawned so many spinoffs and other shows that came along with it, that it was, I would say, particularly important. And Smallville, if you were to add up the number of man hours it employed people, it was tremendous. "

For some, the loss is more personal. Brad Wright, Stargate's co-creator and executive producer, is still smarting months after the announcement of SGU's cancellation - after two seasons - with a renewed sense of outrage this week, as the final episode aired.

"It was a good show, and that's the kicker," he says. "When you do something that you're really proud of and you think everybody should be watching and you get cancelled, it's kind of frustrating."

Smallville, by contrast, had a long run. It was one of six series that Warner Bros. shot in the Vancouver area last year (one of which, Human Target, was cancelled this week by Fox in the first of the network fall line-up announcements).

"There's a tipping point or a critical mass that you really need to become a full-fledged production centre," said Michael Albrecht, vice-president of public affairs for Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. He says a sufficient crew base, plentiful equipment and purpose-built facilities are imperative for studios seeking locations - and the Lower Mainland has developed all three.

Vancouver, in fact, has become the third-largest production centre in North America, behind Los Angeles and New York. Provincial tax credits and the once-low Canadian dollar were important factors in luring productions here, but local infrastructure and expertise have kept them coming back.

It didn't happen by accident: the BC Film Commission was established in 1978 with the objective of growing a business that essentially "didn't exist," according to Justis Greene, who became the province's film commissioner that year. Things really began to change with the arrival of the network series 21 Jump Street to Vancouver in 1986 and MacGyver the following year. 21 Jump Street signalled the beginning of the city's long relationship with Hollywood producer Stephen J. Cannell, who brought many projects to Vancouver.

"He pretty much established the city as a production centre," says J.P. Finn, who started on 21 Jump Street as an assistant director and went on to produce The X-Files. "People could make a decent living ... and suddenly the whole industry started to spring up like mushrooms in a lush forest."

Today there are eight purpose-built studios in Metro Vancouver with some 60 stages, and plans for more. Thousands of people make their living in the industry, many of whom have worked on the franchises winding up this week.

"Every single actor I know did a gig on Stargate," says Bill Marchant, who about a decade ago landed his first recurring role: a billionaire with an incurable disease on SG-1.

Marchant, now head of acting at Vancouver Film School, notes that such a thing didn't exist for actors back when he was learning the craft. "Those cheesy sci-fi shows were my education. It was a brilliant place to learn the lessons that the Americans knew by rote. If you look at the early Jump Street and X-Files, you can see how Canadian acting styles have shifted toward a more naturalistic and filmic approach. It's quite a leap."

The X-Files sparked something else, of course: Vancouver's long association with science fiction. "It really did put us on the map for sci-fi," says B C Film Commissioner Susan Croome. There have been myriad films and series since, including Sanctuary and V.

"I think it's the weather," says Mitchell of Vancouver Film Studios. "Somehow it's okay to be grey on distant planets."

All that science fiction work has played a leading role in Vancouver's development as a production centre. Wright says Stargate alone (in its various forms) spent close to a billion dollars, employing thousands of people over the years.

The genre has also been key in developing what has become a world-class visual effects industry.

"Without all those opportunities on the science fiction shows, we just would not have established the visual effects centre that Vancouver is now on the global map," says Marianne O'Reilly, a visual-effects producer whose credits include SG-1, Night at the Museum and Vantage Point. "It's a go-to city."

And not just for series shot here. O'Reilly points out that the city's visual-effects houses now attract work on features shot elsewhere - for example Tropic Thunder and Blades of Glory.

As for the importance of Stargate, she says, "so many people's careers, lifestyles, livelihoods really point to that show. ... Any time a show ends, you just hope that there's another show everyone can move onto."

B.C. is losing both shows at a precarious time: The Canadian dollar is high (making it harder to attract productions north of the border) and the future of the HST (a tax the industry likes) is uncertain.

The state of the local industry will be clearer next week, when the rest of the networks announce their fall line-ups. Finn is watching particularly closely, hoping NBC picks up his 17th Precinct.

Wright has hopes of his own; that (spoiler alert) stasis doesn't mean finished.

"My feeling is that ... the concept of Stargate is too big to just let go. Somebody at MGM is going to say 'hey we've got this show; let's do something with it,'" he says. "I don't think it'll happen really quickly, but I think somebody is going to bring the show back."

 

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