Resurgent film industry shifts its focus to talent

Training expands, employment up as rising tide of productions flows into B.C.

Vancouver Film Studios has enjoyed seemingly pandemic-proof business, with B.C. setting a record for the number of simultaneous productions being filmed in the province | Rob Kruyt

Steve Rosenberg had spent at least a year ahead of the pandemic eyeing a potential second campus in downtown Vancouver for InFocus Film School.

But when B.C.’s film sector went into stasis mode in the immediate wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Rosenberg, the film school’s executive director, was nervous about what that meant for the future of his students.

“March, April, May, June – we weren’t getting that many people signing up. But right now it’s still very hot,” he said, referring to enrolment numbers. “And it has been since, I would say, late September.”

September also marked a milestone for B.C.’s film industry.

After suspending all productions in March and then deploying a reopening strategy in June, the province was home to 70 productions running simultaneously the week of September 20, 2020, according to data from the Directors Guild of Canada’s B.C. chapter.

That pandemic resurgence beat out the previous record of 57 simultaneous productions set in September 2016.

Meanwhile, last month alone the province added 10,200 jobs within the information, culture and recreation category.

But Ken Peacock, chief economist at the Business Council of British Columbia, said most of January’s job gains documented by Statistics Canada in that category would have come from the province’s film and TV sector.

For Rosenberg, the resurgent film sector has given him enough confidence to secure that second campus for InFocus Film School.

The new facility sits along a stretch of Seymour Street known for international language schools. But with COVID-19 putting a pause on immigration, many of those facilities have been sitting empty.

The new campus will remain empty for a few months as British Columbians await mass COVID-19 vaccinations. But when students make the full transition from online to classroom learning, they’ll be greeted by larger rooms to make physical distancing easier.

International students typically represent about 30% of enrolment, but the school has been marketing only to domestic students during the pandemic.

It remains unclear, though, how much the industry’s 2020 resurgence has been worth to the provincial GDP.

Film and TV production volume in B.C. reached $3.4 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to the Canadian Media Producers Association’s (CMPA) Profile 2019 report released in April 2020.

Most of the activity in B.C.’s film industry – $2.82 billion – was service work for foreign productions.

Big gains were made that year in Canadian TV productions in B.C., which grew 9.3% year-over-year to $482 million.

However, all the data was compiled for a fiscal year that ran from April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019.

The next annual report would presumably not reflect the full effect of the pandemic if it were to cover the fiscal year running from April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020.

“The three things that constrain the industry are facilities, people and locations,” said Pete Mitchell, president and chief operating officer of Vancouver Film Studios Inc.

“We’re going to need a lot of people in this film industry over the next 10 years as it grows substantially. And I think there’s opportunity for people to come from some sunset industries around B.C. and Western Canada that could easily fit into the film industry.”

The full-service production facility straddling the Vancouver-Burnaby border features 12 sound stages that have long been in high demand for big foreign productions.

Mitchell said activity has been sizzling after the industry began to reopen over the summer.

“Our principal competition is Toronto and Georgia right now, and they just haven’t been able to come back the way we have.”

But he recalled “a few dicey moments” last spring wondering if Vancouver Film Studio’s customers would honour their rental agreements when productions across the province were suspended.

“They knew that if they bailed on us that when the industry did come back, they would be out of space and unable to continue,” Mitchell said. “I’ve got to give them credit for standing behind us.” •