Calling the city a world-class centre for visual effects and animation production, Sony Pictures Imageworks is relocating its headquarters to Vancouver. The move from Los Angeles is not only a high-profile boost to Vancouver's digital effects industry, but also speaks to the city's growing importance in the sector.
"We've reached a tipping point where we have the confidence that we can shift the majority of our resources across the board up there and continue to deliver to our clients the same quality of work that Imageworks has historically been known for," Randy Lake, executive vice-president and general manager, digital production services, at Sony Pictures Digital Productions, told The Globe and Mail in an interview from Culver City.
The company, which first opened a Vancouver production office in 2010, expects to move next April into a 6,800-square-metre, state-of-the-art production facililty at Pacific Centre that can accommodate up to 700 employees. With work on several productions on the go – including Guardians of the Galaxy, Pixels, the Angry Birds movie, Hotel Transylvania 2, and the untitled Smurfs movie – its two existing facilities in Vancouver's Yaletown are expected to be at capacity, with about 350 artists, by early next year. The company will "absolutely" be hiring, Mr. Lake said.
"It's phenomenal news. It's a great vote of confidence in Vancouver, in the talent that we have and in our capacity to deliver on major projects," said Richard Brownsey, president and CEO of Creative BC, which encompasses the BC Film Commission. "Whenever you have a major studio such as Sony Imageworks deciding that Vancouver is the place that they wish to base their production, that validates the entire community and all of the other companies that are involved in digital production in Vancouver."
Crucial to the decision are generous tax credits. For qualified visual effects or animation work done in B.C., the combined provincial and federal tax credits can amount to 58.42 per cent of the wages, salaries and remuneration paid to B.C. residents.
Mr. Lake says the company is under pressure to perform the same quality work at a lower cost, and tax incentives are an important factor. Those incentives have helped develop an industry – and a talent pool – that is attractive to companies with a presence here, including Industrial Light & Magic and Digital Domain.
"With more and more of our competitors there, it's really become a hub for the industry," said Mr. Lake, who believes if it hasn't already, Vancouver is poised to take over from the United Kingdom as the number two industry hub, after California.
But Daniel Lay, the L.A.-based activist behind the VFX Soldier blog, says the tax credits are not sustainable.
"I think it's a race to the bottom," said Mr. Lay, adding work is now moving to Montreal because of incentives there. "So it's going to be a matter of time until even British Columbia is not going to be able to keep up the pace of paying 60 per cent of people's salaries. And then when that decline happens, you're going to see another … cycle of displacement. We're against having taxpayers pay for movies for U.S. producers who are down in L.A. and are very, very rich."
Imageworks will keep a smaller presence in Culver City. Some key people have already moved to Vancouver, Mr. Lake said, and as artists finish work on shows in Culver City, if they don't have another production there to work on, "we'll either ideally transfer them up and, if not, then some of those positions will go away."
In Vancouver, the company will occupy the fifth floor in the redevelopment of the former Sears building. Microsoft recently announced it would open a facility at Pacific Centre, more than doubling its work force here with 400 new jobs.
"The whole digital world is where our economy is going," Mr. Brownsey said. "And we are establishing Vancouver, British Columbia, as being at the very heart of that activity."