Alberta's film industry faces 'devastating' historic shut down over coronavirus

Alberta's TV and movie industry is completely shut down and facing an uncertain future due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Work stopped this month on all movies and series being shot in the province, leaving thousands of workers facing the prospect of months with no income.

The year 2020 started strong for the industry, with two movies in production and several big budget series in various stages of production, all happening at the beginning of the year.

But that early optimism vanished with the global COVID-19 outbreak.

The list of Alberta productions that ground to a halt in March includes the movies The Land and Moonfall, along with three series: Wynona Earp, the Netflix show Black Summer and a new Amazon series about to start filming called Outer Range.

"It's had an incredible impact," said Robert Hilton with the Alberta District Council of the Directors Guild of Canada.

"It is completely up in the air. We're waiting to find out what they're going to do," said Hilton.

"I've been doing this for 30 years and I've never encountered anything like this," he said. "It's by far the greatest impact I've ever seen."

Submitted by Robert Hilton

That impact means more than 1,850 film industry employees are out of work with more than 5,000 spin-off jobs in Alberta also affected, including stores, hotels and gas stations. 

"Working in this industry, especially in Alberta, when you get the opportunity on a show you tuck the money away because you don't know what the time is going to be between work," Hilton said.

This time it could be a long wait.

Hilton and others project it could be later in the summer or even early fall until things get back on track. One big factor will be when borders reopen and American actors can travel again.

"This is absolutely devastating. It's having a major impact for the motion picture industry as well as the local theatre scene," said Damian Petti with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 212.

"These shows all typically require hundreds of jobs and this has happened North America wide," said Petti.

"These workers are working in the gig economy and they can sometimes fall in between the cracks of things like Employment Insurance."

Appeal for financial support

The focus now is on appealing for financial support from government and the U.S. companies behind the productions.

"We're lobbying the feds right now to have a relief package for entertainment industry workers and we're seeing bits and pieces rolled out but we're expecting an announcement specific to entertainment industry workers," Petti said.

Petti said the theatre industry is also going to take an unprecedented hit.

"Some were operating in the margins as it was and we hope this isn't devastating to the degree that some theatre companies might not be able to withstand the stoppage," Petti said.

Netflix has announced a $100-million relief fund and some of that money is expected flow into the Actors Fund of Canada.

"We still don't have wage replacement here to cover emergency needs like food, shelter and childcare," said Petti.

"It's going to be a challenge and we're doing all we can."

The industry is also in talks with the provincial government to discuss moves to soften the blow.

The province said it's already announced a number of measures to support businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, including small and medium businesses like many of Alberta's local film companies.

Justin Brattinga, a spokesperson for the economic development minister, said in an emailed statement that the support comes in addition to the $180 million provided to the film industry in the 2020 budget. 

"The film and television industry has faced production suspensions across Canada, the problem is not limited to Alberta," the email read.

Brattinga said in the last two weeks the premier has announced $2 billion in tax relief for businesses, as well as other measures.