British Columbia, favoured for its proximity to Los Angeles and beneficial tax credits, has become a production mecca for not just Hollywood films, but a new generation of scripted television. But boom times do not come without challenges, Ian Bailey reports
When Kendall Green wanted to get ahead in the film and television production industry, she came home to Vancouver.
The 29-year-old B.C. native had spent seven years in Montreal, first as a university photography and design student, then working with “low-budget” TV Web series, including the reality cooking show Bitchin’ Kitchen. Then Green checked out what was going on back home, west of the Rockies. “I heard it was hot,” she says. “Hot” as in jobs in film and TV were abundant for anyone who wanted them. “The word was, ‘There’s so much work out here.’ ”
Within a week of her March return to Vancouver, Green had an art-department assistant’s job on a major U.S. TV series. “I am 100-per-cent confident I am going to be able to move forward from this job, pretty much immediately, to another,” Green says after a long day on set. She adds she is “far better compensated” in Vancouver than she was in Montreal. “I am definitely going to dig in my heels in Vancouver and get some experience and build a résumé and attempt to climb the ladder, while the opportunity is here.”
Those opportunities could be available to Green for quite some time. Business is booming in British Columbia, largely due to foreign – a.k.a. Hollywood – productions. The city of Vancouver is touting a 40-per-cent increase in film and TV production activity in 2015 over 2014, and projects are routinely under way across the Lower Mainland – the slick new city hall in Surrey is an especially popular shooting location – and elsewhere in the province.
Why the sudden spike? For starters, Hollywood values Vancouver for its trained crews, studio space and a record for handling such major productions as next month’s feature Star Trek Beyond, or the Ryan Reynolds blockbuster Deadpool, which hired more than 2,000 local cast, crew and extras.
Geography gives B.C. another upside. It is closer to Los Angeles than such other production hot spots as Toronto and Atlanta, making it more accessible to U.S. talent and decision-makers. “They’re here in the morning, with no jet lag,” says industry veteran Charles Lyall, who just finished a gig as production manager on TV’s The Flash, one of seven Warner Bros. series shot in the region. “And they’re home for the weekend. Back on Monday. Back on Sunday night.”
The province also provides tax credits, though it has recently trimmed them in consultation with the industry because they were deemed to be costing the province too much. (A production-services tax credit for film and television was forecast to cost B.C. about $500-million in 2015-16, which was an increase from an average $313-million over the past three years.) A strong U.S. dollar helps, too.
And while TV has long been a major piece of B.C.’s production action – this is the province where the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, Da Vinci’s Inquest and The X-Files were made; the Warner Bros series Supernatural has been shot in the province since 2005, generating an estimated $509.2 million in direct expenditure in B.C., according to one study – a major new sustaining force is “Peak TV,” the so-called wave of projects from both traditional networks and streaming services hungry for binge-viewing-primed audiences. Original series for Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, for instance, are produced in a season-wide block without the risk of abrupt cancellation, which means guaranteed jobs for B.C. crews – and a crunch to find the most talented workers.
Creative BC, the provincial agency that works with creative sectors, notes that there are 12 ongoing streaming productions, up from just three last year. Some say the hunger for streaming material could even create a kind of perpetual-motion machine for the B.C. production sector – especially given a growing middle-class audience in foreign markets looking, on their smartphones and other devices, for constant entertainment. In April, for example, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said his company is hoping to surpass 100 million subscribers next year in 190 countries, up from a worldwide audience of 81.5 million. (Netflix, which only started producing original material in 2013, now turns out more new programming than HBO – 450 hours worth last year alone.)
In B.C., Netflix had five TV series and two feature films in production as of June 7, including the much-anticipated A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the Lemony Snicket novels of Daniel Handler. Altered Carbon, a science-fiction series for Netflix, will be filmed in a former newspaper plant in Surrey tasked for the effort by Skydance Media, the Hollywood company responsible for the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises. Amazon, meanwhile, has a second season of the alternate-history series The Man in the High Castle, and Hulu has the supernatural series Shut Eye.
“I think everyone’s mind is blown right now with the things that Amazon and Netflix and those producers are doing and bringing to the city. There’s a huge volume,” says location manager Hans Dayal, who’s working on locations for the Netflix feature Death Note. “How long that continues depends on how long they think they have got the money to spend.”
Asked what front-line workers make of the boom – and any possible end date – and Dayal says, “I’m sure that nobody is really thinking about it other than that they’re going to make the most of a good time at the moment.”
And while big films are appreciated, it’s TV that reliably employs workers. “That’s where mortgages are financed,” says Pete Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of Vancouver Film Studios, which has 12 purpose-built sound stages in East Vancouver and is home to Arrow and The Flash. Producers of the two superhero shows are, this summer, shifting production on yet another series, Supergirl, from L.A. to Vancouver. (The move, reportedly part of a cost-cutting effort from U.S. network The CW, prompted B.C. Jobs Minister Shirley Bond to post an effusive tweet, surely the first time a provincial cabinet minister has tweeted about Kara Zor-El. “Any time we can bring a popular series like that to film in British Coloumbia, it means we have an advantage,” Bond explained later.)
In the 2014-15 fiscal year – the last year for which statistics are available – foreign-made series accounted for $874.6-million in spending in B.C. out of a total $2-billion in production spending.That compares to $658-million for feature films.
Dayal has been in Vancouver for 21 years. He moved west from Brantford, Ont., because he thought opportunities in the production sector would be more accessible on the West Coast. It has worked out and then some, with gigs on more than 25 productions including X2, Watchmen and Steven Spielberg’s new film, The BFG. While Dayal sees upsides in the ongoing prosperity, he says there are challenges in the Peak TV boom. “There’s a lot of people that work in the business, but not a lot of very experienced people that work in the business. It’s hard to tap experienced crew.”
Industry vet Lyall agrees that it’s all very striking. “It’s unbelievable. It’s unprecedented. You just show up and you have a job, a full-time job. And you might have a little bit of skill – or no skill – and you can get in by doing.”
Unlike Toronto or Montreal, large cities with varied streetscapes, both modern and vintage, there are limits in the Vancouver region. “We don’t have like 40 blocks of downtown that you can drive through,” says Dayal. “When you’re doing a downtown, urban scene, you’re battling with other productions to get into spaces.”
For example, the same downtown area of the city around Burrard, West Hastings and West Pender Streets has shown up again and again in series ranging from The Flash to Arrow to The 100. “There’s only so much downtown,” says Dayal. Other cities such as Burnaby and Surrey are building up new streetscapes – Surrey’s stylish city hall framed by an aerial SkyTrain track and with a large public square is especially popular. “The looks will be there, but there will still only be a certain kind of look. It’s never going to look like Chicago where you have got skyscrapers that have been around for 40 or 50 years or longer,” Dayal adds. “It’s pretty limited. But it’s not undoable.”
Efforts to elicit comment from U.S. producers on the B.C. gold rush came to little more than terse statements, or less. But some homegrown experts spoke of a particularly Canadian challenge amid all the blockbuster Hollywood films and series dominating the landscape.
Last year, B.C.-based producer Dylan Jenkinson presided over the production of his first feature film, a thriller entitled Numb, about a couple whose search for treasure in the wilderness takes a sinister turn. It took five years to develop the script for a shoot in the Vernon, B.C., area in 2015. Jenkinson declined to disclose the budget, but says it was about the cost of an episode of a typical Canadian TV program and was financed by a mix of provincial tax credits, Telefilm Canada support, presales and private investors.
The good news, says Jenkinson, is that he was able to negotiate deals on equipment rentals because suppliers are doing well on the production boom and could give him a break. However, he says the film was also made in a lull when crews were available. “If I tried to shoot something now, it would be incredibly difficult. It’s 100-per-cent more busy than when we were shooting,” says Jenkinson. “I’d have a hard time finding a film-school student to work with me.”
Dayal also says it’s tough to make homegrown films because crews and resources are committed to larger, non-Canadian productions. “I know that when it has been slow times and I’ve said, ‘Let’s do something, let’s make a film,’ there’s really not that many ways we can get money easily, even though the people that are making the film might have the best résumés or crew,” he says. “Even though we have learned from these geniuses and masters of filmmaking, there’s nowhere for us to go if the business falls apart.”
While Kendall Green has thought about making her own projects, too, she says she does not know enough about how to get a film or series off the ground. “It’s not why I am interested in working in the industry,” she says.
Despite his concerns about the issue, though, Dayal says his run in B.C. production has all been worthwhile. “I’m a sci-fi geek, a little bit of a child of the seventies and eighties. I worked with Spielberg last year. When I left Ontario, I never thought, for a second, that in Vancouver I’d get a chance to work with the maestro,” he says.
“If I finished the business today and I was done, I’d say I had the best run. I couldn’t ask for more.”