Tax breaks are important, but not the only factor that has compelled one of Hollywood's key visual effects and animation studios to move most of their operation to Vancouver, an executive with the company said this week amidst celebration of its new B.C. home.
"Incentives aren't enough, on their own, to make it work," Randy Lake, executive vice-president and general manager of Sony Pictures Imageworks, said Wednesday night as the company opened its new headquarters, which covers an entire floor in a renovated downtown department store.
Instead, Mr. Lake said you also need an "ecosystem" of companies in one place that helps creates an environment in which prospective employees will want to set roots.
"We need to have a constant source of employees and a place where our employees can feel that they will have opportunities beyond the specific project that they are working on. So having so many visual effects companies in town really helps. It's not just about the incentives. It's about the entire ecosystem. It's about the talent base, and the universities support that as well. It all goes together."
He suggested this environment has evolved with Vancouver's vibrant visual-effects community that includes such giants as an outpost of Industrial Light and Magic, created by George Lucas in the 1970s to engineer the necessary, ground-breaking images for Star Wars.
Imageworks, which is about 20 years old, is leaving 25 per cent of its staff – or about 200 employees – in Los Angeles, but basing its future in its new 6,900-square-metre space, which has room for 700 artists at terminals in several "neighbourhoods" or work clusters across a floor in the former Sears building in the heart of the city.
The building, across the street from the Vancouver Art Gallery, has been renovated by Cadillac Fairview, largely for the venerable U.S. retailer Nordstrom. However there is room for Imageworks and fellow tenant Microsoft, among others. Imageworks has signed a 10-year lease in the complex.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who attended the opening along with Premier Christy Clark, said it was important the province remain "consistent and committed" in managing policy around the industry. "We need to keep seeing steady support from the B.C. government. That's going to be a key to our success going forward," Mr. Robertson told reporters.
Ms. Clark told the opening ceremony her government supports the industry. She recalled meeting years ago in Los Angeles with Mr. Lake to make the case for an Imageworks pledge to B.C. She said she was committed to a "stable tax policy" as well as policies for skills training to supply the grads the industry will need.
The premier also said her government would support a "progressive immigration policy" to welcome people from around the world who could also help the sector.
The 2015 B.C. budget expanded the 17.5-per-cent Digital Animation or Visual Effects tax credit to include eligible post-production activities for productions that began on or after March 1, 2015. The credit was introduced in 2003 at a 15-per-cent rate.
"We've worked really hard to make sure we can continue to attract your business and help you grow your business," Ms. Clark told Mr. Lake, who was standing nearby.
Imageworks is currently working on about seven projects including Hotel Transylvania 2, Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass for Disney and Suicide Squad for Warner Brothers. Future projects include work on a new live-action Ghostbusters movie starring Melissa McCarthy.
James Griffin, president of the venerable Vancouver Film School, said in an interview the Imageworks shift was a remarkable development that means employment and opportunity for qualified graduates of his school.
"It creates a density here. If Vancouver is known for visual effects, which it certainly is, this makes it more of an epicentre than it has been," Mr. Griffin said. "It's not a trivial decision for them to [move here]. I think there have to be a lot of things right for them to do that."
He said he doesn't see any downturn ahead in the demand for visual effects produced by such companies as Imageworks because of international demand, especially in China, for the kind of spectacular films the Sony company works on.
Imageworks initially came with an office in Yaletown, opened in 2010, but announced last year that it was moving to its new 74,000-square-foot studio displayed Wednesday night.
Mr. Lake, sitting in a conference room where the big-screen TVs were playing images from the 2014 Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow (one Imageworks project), said Vancouver has become a major "outpost" for the visual effects sector, with most key players having some office in the city.
Mr. Lake said the company has 100 openings left to fill between now and the fall and hopes to find those workers in Vancouver, though that is tough because of competition for talent.
"Artists are getting opportunities to leave projects mid-stream and go somewhere across the street," he said.
Mr. Lake, who plans to remain largely working in Los Angeles, said he hopes Imageworks will stick around in Vancouver. "I certainly don't want to go. We like it here. We've been really successful here."
Sony Imageworks was created in 1992 with five employees as a unit of Sony Pictures. Since then, it has worked in animation and visual effects, providing imagery for the feature films featuring Spider-Man, Charlie's Angels as well as Men in Black. It has also worked on such recent productions as Guardians of the Galaxy.