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Posted by: theneil, December 26, 2008, 6:24pm
B.C. Film Commission: A good 30 years
By Marke Andrews VancouverSun.com December 25, 2008
Pete Mitchell is the director of the B.C. Film Commission Photograph by: Ian Smith/Vancouver Sun files
In the 1979 horror film Prophecy, a scientist and his pregnant wife bring the cub of a giant, mutated grizzly bear into camp, unleashing a firestorm of action.
As art, Prophecy was a stinker. But as metaphor, the movie is classic. That’s because Prophecy, shot on Vancouver Island, was one of the first American films lured here by the brand spanking new Film Promotion Office (later named the B.C. Film Commission), and it did, indeed, unleash action which may be termed a firestorm in Los Angeles, but in an industry north of the border.
Prophecy made Paramount Pictures $18 million in box office and home video revenues, not a fortune, but profitable given how much the studio saved on labour and other costs filming in Canada.
That last point has become a mantra over the last 30 years, ever since the film commission began. Not only could Los Angeles producers get great scenery and tax breaks, they could do business in their own time zone and save money on a Canadian dollar that ranged anywhere from 10- to 35-per-cent below the greenback.
And all the time it made service productions for American studios, the industry created an infrastructure that enabled British Columbians to make their own films and television shows.
The Film Promotion Office/Film Commission was created by the provincial government in October 1978, the result of meetings between the government, unions and emerging leaders in a fledgling industry. It was a division of the Ministry of Tourism, whose minister at the time was Grace McCarthy. Justis Greene, who had worked on film productions in Vancouver, was appointed film consultant (later, the position would be called film commissioner), and was instrumental in attracting Prophecy, acknowledged as the film that triggered the move to Hollywood North (a term, it should be pointed out, that most industry people here loathe).
In 1978, when the film commission began operating, three productions worth a total of $12.5 million were made in the province. In 1979, the first full year of the commission, those numbers climbed to 11 productions worth $40 million, and it has grown steadily over the years, peaking at $1.4 billion in production in 2003, and 230 productions in 2006. Vancouver is now — and has been for at least two decades — the third leading city in making movies and TV shows, behind Los Angeles and New York.
One reason for the success of the industry, a low dollar and tax breaks aside, was how quickly an infrastructure rose from the ground. The B.C. Film Industry Association formed in the 1970s, and by 1983, with Dianne Neufeld the new provincial film commissioner, the association’s members — key industry people and union representatives — promoted the province at every opportunity. The unions here showed flexibility to do what the studios wanted.
“We were following a very specific vision,” says Neufeld, who was B.C. film commissioner from 1982 to 1994, “and that was to become a production centre, not just a location.”
Panorama Film Studios in North Vancouver, now defunct, housed productions in the early days. American TV producer Stephen J. Cannell shifted his series Stingray here in 1986, and stayed to produce 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy and Scene of the Crime. In 1989, he built North Shore Studios to house his productions, and that studio, setting up shop two years after the provincial government opened the Bridge Studios in Burnaby, began a trend to either convert existing buildings into studios, or construct new purpose-built studios.
After the Bridge and North Shore, Mammoth Studios, Canadian Motion Picture Park and Eagle Creek began operations in Burnaby, and Vancouver Film Studios opened in the city, just blocks away from the Bridge.
American service productions basically grew the industry. Tradespeople learned their craft through unions and guilds, which included the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (Locals 891 and 669, the latter for camera crew), ACFC West, Union of B.C. Performers, Directors Guild of Canada and the Teamsters.
Most executives in the industry began with service work. Peter Leitch, president of Mammoth Studios and North Shore Studios and chairman of the Motion Picture Production Industry Association of B.C., worked for Cannell Films Ltd., and he took over North Shore Studios six years after it was built.
Shawn Williamson moved from managing stage productions at the Arts Club to managing American film and television productions to co-founding, with Stephen Hegyes, Vancouver production house Brightlight Pictures in 2001.
“My first shows were all American-financed,” says Williamson, whose company splits its time between service work and its own Canadian productions. “I benefited from the early years of the film commission when they sold B.C. as a destination.”
By the time he launched Brightlight, Williamson said the infrastructure was in place. The crews were top-notch, many of the studios and sound stages were running, and film schools were in place.
Brightlight is one of two dozen Vancouver production houses working in film and television. The bigger ones — Brightlight, Insight Film Studios, Infinity Features, Anagram Pictures, Omni Film, Reunion Pictures and Paperny Films — keep a steady roster of projects on the go.
Vancouver has become a centre for animation, with a dozen companies in town, among them Rainmaker Animation (which makes full-length feature films), Studio B Productions, Bardel Entertainment and Nerd Corps Entertainment. In the past five years, the city has also become a hub for visual effects, with more than 30 companies working in this area. And scores of companies provide production equipment and post-production facilities.
Post-secondary schools offer film and animation programs to create the industry’s next generations. Some of them are for specific skills, such as the Art Institute of Vancouver (animation, visual effects, digital filmmaking), while others are broader in scope, such as the highly rated Vancouver Film School.
So with the infrastructure in place, where is the industry headed? Will we see the B.C. Film Commission celebrate a 50-year anniversary?
Brightlight’s Williamson believes Vancouver will always be a major production centre, but will become less reliant on service work, as more companies finance and make their own productions.
“The industry will now increase with more sophisticated producers locally who can finance projects in different ways to increase our ability to generate our own work,” says Williamson. “That’s the future of the industry here.”