Vancouver cinephiles can frequently spot the Marine Building standing in for a Manhattan tower in Hollywood productions filmed in the city.
But what of the prospect of Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome standing in for BC Place the next time Vancouver is depicted on screen?
As Hollywood productions flood into B.C., pushing up costs as they snap up talent and studio space, local producers like Erin Haskett are under increasing pressure to find creative ways to deliver domestic content.
“Any time that there’s a boom in your industry it raises the cost of rent, it raises the cost of car rentals, it raises the cost of edit suites,” said Haskett, the president of Vancouver-based Lark Productions Inc.
Her company produced the Paramedics: Life on the Line documentary series, which debuted this month on the Knowledge Network, and the scripted police procedural Motive for CTV.
Both shows were filmed and took place in Vancouver; however, Haskett spent the first week of April scouting locations in Calgary for an upcoming TV series set in B.C.
“With some of our domestic productions, we can’t afford to set them up in Vancouver,” she said. “So we look to other [jurisdictions]. In the past we’ve looked to Winnipeg, we’ve looked to Alberta, because the cost of production in Vancouver from when we started Motive however many years ago … has gone up.”
Much of that can be pegged on Hollywood productions beefing up their West Coast presence.
The volume of film and TV production in B.C. reached $3.58 billion in the last fiscal year, according to the Canadian Media Producers Association’s (CMPA) Profile 2018 report released March 28.
That’s up 20.6% from a year earlier when production volume reached $2.97 billion.
However, growth was dominated by foreign productions, which grew 31.5% to $3.04 billion year-over-year.
Domestic TV productions from B.C.-based producers fell 15.1% year-over-year to hit $438 million and domestic film productions from B.C.-based producers fell even more dramatically, tumbling 74.4% year over year to $11 million.
“I’m a strong believer in a balanced ecosystem in B.C. and Canada between [foreign] service and domestic because I think the service is how we grow and build great technicians, creative execs. But on the domestic side we build writers rooms, we break directors, we create a homegrown IP-creating industry,” Haskett said.
“We need both, and right now it’s a little bit skewed in B.C.”
Among the initiatives being undertaken to spur growth in the domestic industry is the Pacific Screenwriting Program, a five-year program funded by the CMPA, Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq:NETFLIX) and Creative BC.
The program’s first cohort kicked off a 10-week writers room in January under the supervision of screenwriter Sarah Dodd (Motive, Cardinal) in a bid to develop a series idea to be pitched to domestic and global buyers.
“In the past if you were an aspiring screenwriter you would need to leave the city of Vancouver, leave your hometown, to get your advanced professional development,” said program chairman Brian Hamilton, an executive producer at Omnifilm Entertainment.
“Now you can do that locally, which will limit the brain drain, it will provide more opportunities for writers rooms to happen here in Vancouver and it will give local producers like myself more of a strong community of writers to choose from when we staff up our writers rooms.”
Companies like Omnifilm, meanwhile, have also been forced to shift their business models amid a splintering of financing for domestic productions.
The CMPA report found that financing has been steadily declining due to reductions in private broadcasters’ licence fees, federal and provincial tax credits and the Canadian Media Fund (CMF).
In the 2017-18 fiscal year the CMF amounted to $260 million for domestic TV production funding.
That’s down from $278 million during the previous fiscal year and the $286 million available during the 2015-16 and 2014-15 fiscal years.
Hamilton said production companies like his now have become less reliant on single sources to account for their shows’ budgets.
“Twenty years ago, when we were planning on how to finance domestic productions, it was simple in the sense that as long as we managed to sell our idea to a Toronto-based broadcaster like CBC or CTV at the time, their contribution, plus the tax credits, plus a modest contribution from an international distributor would be enough to fund the budget and move forward with the production,” he said.
Omnifilm’s 2018 scripted historical series, The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, was financed primarily through a Canadian broadcaster, a British broadcaster, an American streaming service and an international streaming service.
“I need stronger relationships in London and stronger relationships in Los Angeles and other world centres, but in a way you could view it as a plus because it means that being a producer not based in Toronto is no longer as significant a competitive disadvantage,” Hamilton said.
“If Toronto is less the centre of the universe for our domestic community, Vancouver becomes better placed to be a global player.”
Boughton Law entertainment lawyer Heather Watt explains how B.C.-based producers are struggling to stay competitive against big Hollywood productions coming to town on the BIV Today podcast.