Vancouver businesses land lead roles in film, TV productions

Downtown Eastside diner and other landmarks used as backdrops for big-budget shows 

The Ovaltine Cafe is in the Downtown Eastside, but there was a time when it was a diner in Nazi-occupied America. And another time when it was a diner in a Chicago of 2035, run by robots.

“Customers will come in and tell us, ‘We saw you on TV!’” said Rachel Chen, who owns the cafe with her mother, Grace.

As Metro Vancouver’s reputation as Hollywood North continues to grow, many small businesses are getting their time in the limelight.

2015 was a record year for film and television productions in the City of Vancouver. It reported hosting 353 productions, up 40% from the previous year, and gained $710,000 in revenue from street-use permits alone.

And recently in B.C., Star Trek Beyond spent more than $69 million, Deadpool more than $40 million and the latest season of Supernatural $38.6 million, according to the Motion Picture Association of Canada (MPA-Canada).

Supernatural also used the 73-year-old Ovaltine Cafe, whose retro look and classic neon signs make it a favourite for Vancouver productions. Will Smith and Ben Affleck have sat in its seats.

“I really wanted to keep this an old diner,” said Grace Chen.

She has an affinity for diners; she ran the Save On Meats diner between 1999 and 2010.

The Chens charge productions a minimum of $5,000 a day. The entire cafe closes and designers come in to redo it as distant locale. Recently, it became a diner in 1965 San Francisco for Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon.

Richmond’s old fishing village of Steveston has also been used regularly for television productions. Since 2011, it’s frequently redecorated to become the fictional town of Storybrooke, Maine, for ABC’s Once Upon a Time.

The show celebrated its 100th episode earlier this year, with congratulations by Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who thanked ABC for helping raise Steveston’s profile as a tourist destination.

“It depends on what they’re filming, but if it’s a big scene, we can have up to 300 [fans and tourists wanting to see the production],” said Sharon Gallaher, an employee of Serenity Home Decor Boutique in Steveston.

The show’s production investment in B.C. since 2011 sits at approximately $276 million, according to MPA-Canada.

Aside from locations, small businesses also offer many props for productions.

Heather Baker, who owns 43-year-old antique store Baker’s Dozen Antiques on Main Street, said the street is a popular destination for production staff. Main’s eclectic mix of shops that sell antiques, furniture and knick-knacks makes looking for props convenient.

At Baker’s, items are rented out at approximately 20% of their cost, usually calculated by the week. A damage deposit is required; some of Baker’s items are worth thousands of dollars.

“I’ve rented everything from a human skull to little pieces for a mad lab,” said Baker.

But it’s impossible to predict what productions want.

“It’s a turkey shoot – speaking of turkey, I have a taxidermy turkey right there – but you just don’t know,” said Baker, adding that a business just has to have a good and varied inventory.

Movie rentals have been part of her business since the beginning, and it’s grown over the years.

“It’s a very important part of the Vancouver economy,” said Baker. “It covers an enormous group of Vancouver people – hairdressers, caterers – self-employed, for the most part.”

One reason why Vancouver is so popular for screens is its visual diversity, said Kirk Adamson, a location scout and manager of 17 years who has worked on The Revenant and Man of Steel.

“Vancouver’s got multiple looks,” said Adamson. “Everything is sought after, modern and old. You can duplicate Hong Kong, you can duplicate New York, you can duplicate L.A. and Seattle.”

Aside from look, tax credits and a low Canadian dollar have helped draw Hollywood productions to B.C.

In fact, the tax credits were so good for productions that Finance Minister Mike de Jong said in May that the province could no longer afford them at their current level. The basic production services tax credit will consequently be cut to 28% from 33%, if approved by legislature in October.

The tax credits cost B.C. taxpayers $491 million in the last fiscal year, up from an average of $313 million in each of the previous three years.