Producer John Wesley Chisholm is desperate for more iridescent gold paint. Inside his Tudor revival home in south end Halifax, he’s two colours in on an eight-colour mural for the Jimi Hendrix Foundation. It’s an unlikely assignment that transpired after Hendrix’s sister heard about his latest TV production – the story of how a female Volkswagen restoration crew in St. Augustine, Fla., revived a van to its former Woodstock glory. That show is one of the many factual programs that have helped repaint Nova Scotia’s film and television landscape.
“The demand for content is huge and growing faster all the time,” said Chisholm about factual programs – the modern, catch-all term to describe documentaries and reality television. “It’s the kind of shows that take you to a place you’ve never been before and tell you a real-life story.”
In the last few years, Nova Scotia’s factual film scene has boomed. The province has always had a healthy documentary industry, but it’s now the No. 1 type of production made here, representing more than half the projects approved for funding under the provincial film tax incentive.
“The landscape of the type of production that’s happening in Nova Scotia is very different from what it used to be,” said Laura Mackenzie, executive director of the industry group Screen Nova Scotia. “Right now we’re seeing a lot of documentary and unscripted style productions thriving.”
Nearly four years ago the film industry in Nova Scotia suffered a blow when the province’s Liberal government axed a provincial film and television tax credit and replaced it with an incentive fund that boosted local productions over foreign projects. While the numbers show the same amount of production is happening here now, the kind of work has shifted and some say this comes at a cost.
Once hailed as Haliwood for its reputation as a production hub for U.S. scripted television series and movies, Halifactual may be the more fitting moniker.
Sixty per cent of productions that received provincial funding in this 2018-19 fiscal year were documentary. Drama followed with 17 per cent; comedies 13 per cent; varieties 7 per cent; and thrillers 3 per cent. The year before saw a similar breakdown, with docs making up the largest piece of the pie at 59 per cent.
A breakdown of scripted (dramas and comedies with a director) versus unscripted (real-life characters and without a script) productions that received announcement of funding from the province since the switch to the tax incentive (September 2015 to January 2019) also show the majority, 58 per cent, are unscripted.
It’s shows like The Curse of Oak Island, a doc series about two brothers searching for treasure on the famed Nova Scotia island, co-produced by Halifax’s Tell Tale Productions, that are redefining the province’s film scene. The show is in the top five non-fiction series on cable in the United States, averaging 4.4 million viewers in 2017. It also conquered cable ratings on Jan. 15, beating out every other broadcast that night, according to the website TV by the Numbers.
Other factual shows putting Nova Scotia on the map are Brojects, a renovation show viewed internationally, and Bad Chad Customs about a rural, cash-poor car artist who makes outrageous vehicles. Airing now in the U.S. on Discovery, several industry insiders predict it will be the next Trailer Park Boys.
Arcadia, another Halifax production company, is set to double the number of hours of television it makes this year to 60, owing to the Halifax company’s reverse business model of selling to international broadcasters first and then later accessing Canadian film and television funding.
Best known for its show called Hope for Wildlife, about rescuing and rehabilitating animals in Nova Scotia, which airs in Canada on the Blue Ant channel in March and on CBS in the U.S., Arcadia also just finished filming a spin-off about the wildlife show’s veterinarian, which just sold to PBS International.
Chisholm also cites Arcadia’s recent growth to the “huge” demand for factual content. He says 70 per cent of the hours on television are factual, a shift that came about as a result of stiff competition from Apple and Netflix. “That means most of the work, most of the jobs in Canada and certainly to people in entry level positions, the opportunities are in factual,” he said, adding that broadcasters are willing to spend more on content than ever before.
This insatiable demand for real-life, factual programs combined with Nova Scotia’s still young film and television production incentive fund undoubtedly helped steer the film scene into these new waters. Back in 2015 after the tax credit was cut, film budgets plummeted and some specialized crew left the province due to fewer well-paying union jobs.
But now nearly four years later, the industry is turning around. The Nova Scotia government recently announced it’s injecting $6-million more for a total of $26-million this fiscal year into its film and TV incentive fund. Production has gradually increased over the last two years to $102-million in 2017-18 and is in line with the 10-year average before the province axed its film tax credit. Volume has remained “somewhat constant,” according to the government, with between 1 and 2 per cent of a total Canadian production volume.
It paints a rosy if not robust outlook for an industry that some worried would be obliterated by the loss of the tax credit.
Mike Volpe, chair of Screen Nova Scotia and co-producer of the CBC comedy Mr. D, which just wrapped its eighth season, agrees. “We took a stumble,” admits Volpe. “But we’re back on our feet.”
Mackenzie says the main difference between the tax credit and the new incentive is the volume of local Canadian content that can be made will never be able to create the same volume of economic activity as its predecessor. “That’s the crew being paid an A tier rate and the amount of money put into local businesses,” she said. “The kinds of productions that are taking the greatest opportunity of the incentive are, for the most part, not hiring union workers. So we can’t keep the skilled labour pool growing. Obviously, this has long-ranging impacts and one is all of the film schools in Nova Scotia are just exporting workers.”
Still, Mackenzie is hopeful. She’s working to get a sound stage, an equity fund and encouraging the government to tweak the current film incentive tool so the province can attract more foreign productions, which she says is crucial to maintaining a healthy film and television ecosystem. The work these productions provide fills gaps for film crew between local shows and keeps them current with best practices.
Chisholm also laments the loss of the province’s tax credit which he helped to set up in 1994, but is focused on continuing to produce factual shows, which are helping propel the Halifactual renaissance. Discovery just ordered another season of his back-to-basics science technology series Mega Marine Machines, financed by Sky Vision, then licensed to Discovery Science U.S. and later to Discovery Canada. He’s hiring an additional 20 people this year, bringing his staff roster up to 50.
“I think Nova Scotia is still kind of stuck in this old model about hoping a Hollywood production will come and give everybody jobs,” he said. “It’s just a passive, old-timey way of looking at it, when there’s this whole giant swath of industry that’s factual where the demand is off the scale.”