A lower loonie and a boom in foreign productions means opportunity for media entrepreneurs in the province.
Kyle Hou and Alex Godfrey were getting plenty of work as technicians in Vancouver's bustling film industry, but they were tired.
Literally. One day a couple of years ago, as a nearly-24-hour shoot wrapped up, they were carrying muddy sandbags and drenched in sweat. They looked at each other and decided it was time for something else. "This is ridiculous," Mr. Godfrey remembers thinking. "I don't wanna do this any more."
So they didn't. Instead, they used their experience with the city's film boom to their advantage: Last year, they opened up Ironwood Studios (below) in the south end of the city. The converted warehouse is already home to an international production – Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events – and bustling daily.
With the city boasting a 40-per-cent increase in film activity from 2014 to 2015, as Netflix and numerous American studios flood the city, entrepreneurs like Mr. Hou and Mr. Godfrey are seizing the moment.
Bold career turns can mean travelling bumpy roads, though. Getting a piece of Vancouver's film-scene action led to some tough moments for Ironwood's founders. "We're trying to sell air," Mr. Godfrey says. "The plan was, literally, 'Build it and they will come,' which is the worst business plan to invest in. But in our case, we knew it was there, we knew it was coming."
A Series of Unfortunate Events, starring Neil Patrick Harris, has been using Ironwood's 177,000-square-foot facility since April, with a year's commitment. It's not a bad start for the studio, considering that Mr. Hou and Mr. Godfrey had significant trouble finding and financing their dream space after they first came up with it.
The pair had crossed paths on film sets a few times over the years in Vancouver, and became friends on the set of the just-released movie Warcraft. When a different production wrapped in late 2014, they decided they wanted more out of their film careers. Creating dedicated space for productions was one way to do that.
They spent a year developing a business plan and seeking out buildings. Buying property outright was out of the question. "For a couple of entrepreneurs, it's difficult to drop $10- or $15-million on a commercial property and go that route," Mr. Godfrey says.
But finding space to lease, Mr. Hou says, wasn't easy either, and it meant recalculating their costs each time. "Every single building that we looked at, we would have to redo our business plan, because all our numbers had changed," he says. "And every single building, we were competing against other companies, so we'd have like a week to redo all of our numbers, all of our budgets, to even see if it'll work, while at the same time putting an offer in. We didn't sleep much."
As purpose-built studios have booked up and production companies clamoured for space, Vancouver has seen a rise of temporary "pop-up" studios that convert other large spaces for film or TV work. While Mr. Hou and Mr. Godfrey couldn't build Ironwood from the ground up, they wanted to offer something more permanent and designed-for-film than a pop-up.
They needed a big enough space for feature productions, the ceiling height to make it happen, plenty of office and workshop space, and building design that didn't compromise light or sound, in order to minimize post-production costs.
Then came financing. Mr. Hou says that without many pre-existing assets, major banks "wouldn't even look at us," and that he and Mr. Godfrey had trouble qualifying for the Canada Small Business Financing Program. It was only after connecting with National Leasing that they were able to finance some building improvements and upgrades. For other fundraising, they had to turn to friends and family, often promising the world.
"We weren't afraid to talk to anyone to borrow money for this venture," Mr. Godfrey says. Adds Mr. Hou: "We were willing to offer not only a piece of equity, but also their money back in terms of a high-interest loan; just to really lock into some of the investors who were on the fence."
The pair signed for their current studio, on SE Marine Drive in south Vancouver, last June. After renovations, it now has seven sound stages, all insulated, with 27 to 31 feet of clear height. There is a paint shop, storage, and office space.
And a tenant, too, bringing upwards of 400 film workers milling about on a given day. A Series of Unfortunate Events signed on late last year, beginning production in April. "It's great when we have a new studio come in, especially one of this size," says Phil Pacaud, a long-time Vancouver location manager who connected the production with Ironwood.
"The way they were looking to design the space was basically perfect for this show," Mr. Pacaud says. "With the dollar the way it is right now, with the industry as busy as it is, it's definitely a positive for Vancouver, and for the industry."
There were 78 films, 45 TV series, 16 pilots and 158 commercials produced in the city in 2015. And it's still hitting record highs: Sandi Swanigan, the city's senior manager of film and special events, says that as of May 30, the city had issued 35 per cent more street-use film permits than in the same period in 2015.
"We've got an incredible amount of momentum happening, and it's changing the way that we work," Ms. Swanigan says, referring to the number of street permits issued and new studio spaces, including pop-ups and conversions, in Vancouver.
Pete Mitchell, president and chief operating officer of the purpose-built, 12-stage Vancouver Film Studios, says that Mr. Hou and Mr. Godfrey's entrance into the studio sector "is a really smart move."
With all of the city's largest purpose-built studios booked up – there are four or five major studios about Ironwood's size or bigger – Mr. Mitchell says that converting a space specifically for film is enticing, since it saves production companies from resorting to less-ideal locations with bad soundproofing or lighting. And, he points out, if the film boom busts, Ironwood or the property owner could convert the space for another use.
Mr. Hou says he was happily surprised by the support Ironwood has had from alleged competitors. "We work together to make sure that the industry survives as a whole," he says. He and Mr. Godfrey say they're prepared to adapt for whatever comes next for film in Vancouver. Expansion is in their five-year plan, but they are willing to adapt.
"It's all gonna be on the demand," Mr. Godfrey says. "If there's no demand, we'll focus elsewhere, and if there's demand we'll focus on that. We've done it once, we've fine-tuned it and certainly can pull it off again at a much cheaper rate. So we know what we're doing now."