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Fourth-year film student Andrew Gillingham, far right, 23, speaks during a filmmaking class as Professor Colin Browne stands by at the Simon Fraser University School for the Contemporary Arts in Vancouver on Jan. 24, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Fourth-year film student Andrew Gillingham, far right, 23, speaks during a filmmaking class as Professor Colin Browne stands by at the Simon Fraser University School for the Contemporary Arts in Vancouver on Jan. 24, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

CULTURE

Troubled B.C. film industry worries about migration of locally trained talent Add to ...

To build the space station set she needed for her futuristic sci-fi grad film, fourth-year Simon Fraser University film student Emma Peterson thought she’d call upon some of the art department types in Vancouver for their help. But she kept running into the same problem: The people she was contacting had left for Toronto.

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“They just couldn’t get work here. There was nothing happening, nothing that was paying enough to live here, anyway,” said Ms. Peterson, 21, a future screenwriter and producer – she hopes.

There is a lot of wringing of hands about the current state of the production industry in British Columbia. Insiders say things have never been worse since Vancouver became a centre for L.A. productions enticed north by the low Canadian dollar (now high) and tax incentives (now more attractive in Ontario and Quebec, and some U.S. jurisdictions).

If the present is this bleak, what does the future look like? And what will become of all the film students now studying in this province?

“They’re vocally saying what are we going to do? Are there going to be jobs for us?” said Wayne Bennett, a currently unemployed production manager and one of the organizers of the Save BC Film campaign.

There are more than 20 institutions that teach film in B.C., ranging from private facilities to colleges and universities. Capilano University’s sparkling $31-million Nat and Flora Bosa Centre for Film and Animation opened last year, with state-of-the-art facilities and equipment such as sound stages, visual-effects labs and professional 3-D camera rigs. With pressure mounting from the film industry on the provincial government to improve tax incentives, B.C. Premier Christy Clark has pointed to her government’s funding of educational facilities such as the Bosa Centre – which received about $16-million from the province – as a demonstration of her commitment to the industry.

Bosa Centre director Bill Thumm says he is extremely grateful for that funding, but that the stability of the industry depends on the existence of a level playing field with Ontario and Quebec.

“It’s a job well done, but it’s a job that’s incomplete,” Mr. Thumm, an industry veteran, said on Thursday. “We can’t just rest on our laurels, either as an industry or as a government, and say, ‘Okay, we’ve taken it this far; this is all we can do,’ because there’s really, really, really a lot at risk.

“The primary function of this facility was not to train people from Ontario for the Ontario business. This facility wasn’t built to train people from other countries to go back to their countries. And it certainly wasn’t built to train B.C. people to export to Ontario.”

Capilano film students were among the more than 4,000 people (according to organizers’ estimates) who attended a town hall about the issue at North Shore Studios on Tuesday night.

“I love it that they’re involved,” said Jackson Davies, a veteran actor who learned his craft on The Beachcombers and now teaches acting at Cap and was master of ceremonies at the jammed meeting.

As vice-president of the Union of B.C. Performers, Mr. Davies is well aware of how slow things are right now – not just for the U.S. shows that shoot here, but especially for local productions. “The lion’s share of Canadian domestic production is now done in Ontario and actors in B.C. are hurting. The last production numbers are the lowest since UBCP has been tracking them.”

At Simon Fraser, this has turned into an unexpected windfall for film students, who have been able to attract professional actors to star in their films. Student Andrew Gillingham, 23, was able to land veteran actress Annabel Kershaw for his grad film, about a son who’s afraid to tell his mother he’s gay.

“Her IMDB page is like huge. And she came out and did my film,” said Mr. Gillingham, who says she was paid a small sum, but she did it primarily because she loves acting and wanted to work. “It’s a tough scene for an actor right now.”

During a discussion about the industry’s fortunes in class on Thursday, this small group of fourth-year SFU film students focused less on the issue of finding jobs on big U.S. productions, and more on their ambitions to make their own films. They want to make them here, if they can.

“Western Canada has something to say that’s different than Eastern Canada or our neighbours below us,” Mr. Gillingham said. “We have a voice and a lot of people here are passionate and will do what it takes to make it work, to make people want to see their work.”

The two issues are not isolated. Canadian filmmakers have been able to hone their skills – and pay their rent – thanks to lucrative work on U.S. shows. Also, all that foreign production work here has meant the need for infrastructure – studios, rental equipment, etc. – which local indie filmmakers are able to access, routinely at a lower rate.

“It’s on us to make good films,” said SFU student Quinn Spicker, 21. “Because really all it takes is one really good film and then there’s renewed interest in Vancouver as a place for making films.’

As for the more immediate future, the Motion Picture Production Industry Association of B.C. is meeting with Community, Sport and Cultural Development Minister Bill Bennett on Thursday. Mr. Bennett told The Globe and Mail last week there was something in the works to help the industry, but it’s not the tax incentives they’re asking for.

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