A Vancouver director arrives at a new film or TV set in the city and starts mingling with the crew.
And as the small talk unfolds, a gaffer or grip might ask the director where he or she is from: “When you tell them you live here they go, ‘Oh wow, you live here. When did you move up [from L.A.]?’” said Zach Lipovsky, recalling the lighthearted refrain heard on many a film set across B.C.
Lipovsky, a local director whose credits include the TV movie Kim Possible and the Disney Channel series Mech-X4 (both filmed in Vancouver), said it was a different situation over the summer when productions began ramping up again during the pandemic.
Data from the Directors Guild of Canada’s B.C. chapter (DGC) reveals that 100% of TV episodes filmed in the province during June were being directed by Canadians amid ongoing border restrictions.
“When television series started off, they really focused primarily on hiring Canadians because they didn’t have to pay them to quarantine for two weeks,” said Lipovsky, the DGC’s B.C. chapter directors caucus representative.
“It really shows that there was the capacity to hire Canadians when forced to. And it shows that a lot more has to be done to invest in our creative and invest in putting a spotlight on them in Los Angeles.”
Last year the DGC’s B.C. chapter launched an initiative aimed at raising the profile of Canadian directors among Hollywood decision-makers.
The awareness campaign saw the DGC facilitating meetings and flights to Los Angeles for B.C. directors to meet with producers, film showcases to raise the profile of their credits, panel discussions, career development and a new directors.ca online hiring directory.
While Ontario and Quebec are the home base for Canadian-produced content, B.C.’s film industry is more reliant on U.S. producers.
Service work for foreign productions accounted for $2.82 billion out of the $3.4 billion of B.C. film and TV production volume generated during the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to the Canadian Media Producer Association’s (CMPA) Profile 2019 report released earlier this year.
The result is that many Canadian directors based in Vancouver are passed over for jobs at the same time domestic producers find themselves challenged to compete with the big-budget Hollywood productions that can snap up local crews and studios.
This has driven other organizations to cultivate more creative talent based in B.C.
In January, the Pacific Screenwriting Program (PSP) enters its third year offering emerging screenwriters a 15-week crash course on how to make it as a TV writer.
This year, the PSP has tapped Canadian Will Pascoe as its showrunner-in-residence to lead six young writers for 10 weeks as they develop a TV show to pitch (the remaining five weeks dive more into navigating the business side of being a TV writer).
Pascoe’s previous credits include the Space channel’s (now CTV Sci-Fi Channel) Orphan Black, NBC’s Chicago Med and Fox’s The Finder, the latter of which was created by Vancouverite Hart Hanson.
“Our selection committee tells me that this year was the most difficult year in terms of choosing the applicants,” said Brian Hamilton, an executive producer at Vancouver-based Omnifilm Entertainment Ltd. and the chairman of the PSP. “So interestingly, the bar is ever higher. And we know from looking at the previous two cohorts what are some of the indicators of promise and success.”
The program’s launch was announced in summer 2018 as a five-year program funded by Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq:NFLX), the CMPA and non-profit agency Creative BC.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, Netflix revealed it was accepting pitches from Canadian writers eager to turn their ideas into a (fictional) reality.
“Speaking as a company owner, just without my PSP hat on, at the moment Omnifilm is developing more projects with broadcasters in this time of COVID than we had previous to COVID by a factor of three, so there has been a large increase in the desire of streamers and conventional broadcasters to develop that next hit show,” Hamilton said.
Even with the growing demand for content, opportunities for Canadian directors to land jobs have been up and down throughout the past year.
In January 2020, Canadians accounted for an average of 30% of directing jobs in B.C. for TV productions.
By February that had slipped to 10% before the pandemic shuttered productions across the globe by mid-March.
Despite 100% of TV productions tapping Canadian directors in June, the overall average by the end of the 2020 has dropped down again to 38%.
That's above 2019's 30.8% rate — the worst year for Canadian directors since the DGC began collecting data — but still below the 42.8% of TV episodes directed by Canadian directors in 2018.
“It’s really distressing because we have so many talented and incredible directors in B.C. that easily could do these jobs, but they’re being overlooked because they don’t live in L.A. So we’ve been trying to do a lot to really kind of reverse those numbers,” Lipovsky said.
While the COVID-19 crisis has thrown sand in the gears of the awareness campaign, the DGC’s B.C. chapter has been expanding its online hiring director and recently hired a Los Angeles-based lobbyist to raise the profile of Canadian directors among Hollywood executives.
There’s also a financial incentive to hire Canadian directors: tax credits, currency conversation on salary, reduced production costs if a film or TV series doesn’t have to pay for travel and living expenses for American directors.
But Lipovsky said those have not been driving factors for decision-makers.
“They’re considering voice, and talent and experience more than price because it’s worth any amount of money to have the right director. So when we’re selling Canadian talent to U.S. decision-makers, you don’t really lead with the price,” he said.
“We lead with: it’s not that we’re cheaper, it’s that we have incredible talent that have been doing this job, and you just don’t know about them.”