'Heartbreaking': Sask. film industry's operating revenue slashed in half over last decade

A recent report from Statistics Canada paints a picture of a dying film industry in Saskatchewan, with annual revenue falling to just over half of what it was in its heyday about a decade ago.

The operating revenue generated by film, television and video productions in Saskatchewan in 2017 was $21 million, compared to $42.2 million generated in 2007.

Meanwhile, Manitoba's film industry generated a comparable $39.7 million in 2007 and has grown to bring in more than $100 million in 2017.

Life after the film tax credit

Saskatchewan's film tax credit was eliminated in 2012, causing many production companies and film crews to leave.

"Everyone had to make the choice to relearn something else and stay in the province or move away and do the thing that they love, which is working on film," said longtime set builder Danny Scavuzzo.

"Most of the people just packed up and left and it was kind of heartbreaking to watch some of the hardest working, smartest Saskatchewan people pick up and leave the province."

Other provinces have benefited from Saskatchewan's dwindling film industry. Manitoba film operating revenue of $103.7 million in 2017 was an all-time high. In Alberta, that number was $162.8 million for 2017.

Scavuzzo said he stayed in Saskatchewan to raise his family, but had to switch from building sets to building houses after more than 15 years working on movies. He started his own construction company when the film industry started to dwindle. Last year, he was reunited with many former film colleagues while working on a film in Winnipeg.

I do know a lot of people would love to come back home and work again. -Danny Scavuzzo

He said nearly everyone, from the film's producer to the crew, had moved to Manitoba from Saskatchewan in order to keep working in the industry.

Scavuzzo said Saskatchewan-based productions are now often made with the help of volunteers rather than people who have established careers.

"When the film tax credit was cut, it hurt so many people, including myself," Scavuzzo said.

"It was a young, growing industry and then the government just went and chopped it off at the knees and that was the end of it. And I haven't really worked [on film] since then in this province.

"I do know a lot of people would love to come back home and work again."

Just last month, Rob Bryanton closed his award-winning company Talking Dog Studios, citing a downturn in the film industry in the province. At its prime, the studio employed 23 people and provided sound and music for Corner Gas and Mind's Eye Entertainment movies.

Relying on grant system

Saskatchewan is now one of two provinces, along with Alberta, that doesn't have a film tax credit. Instead, it funds artistic endeavours through Crown corporation Creative Saskatchewan.

Creative Sask. receives more than $7 million annually to operate, $3 million of which is allocated to screen-based media, including TV, digital media and film.

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"The film and television industry is an extremely competitive industry, but it also requires a high level of public investment needed to sustain it," said Candace Caswell from the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport. "Within the challenging fiscal environment in Saskatchewan we needed to ensure that public resources were spent where they will most impact the citizens of Saskatchewan."

Greg Magirescu, CEO of Creative Saskatchewan, said producers can apply for grants that cover as much as 30 per cent of Saskatchewan-based labour or production costs, for a maximum of $600,000.

Demand is so high, the grants for TV and film productions usually close for the year within six weeks of opening.  

Alberta's screen-based production grant, in comparison, covers up to 30 per cent of costs to a maximum of $5 million. Those grants are open to applicants four times a year.

The province of Manitoba offers more than $31 million through its film tax credit. 

"When you look at the numbers coming back in terms of revenues and return on investment it's all basically relative to the investment that's put in," said Magirescu. "So if we're looking at a big vibrant sector, lots of jobs, lots of opportunity, we are not in that same competitive position."

'We have a state-of-the-art facility'

Scavuzzo said he thinks the film industry in Saskatchewan could still be revived, in part because of the existing sound stage in Regina.

He said the Ottawa Film Office is investing $40 million in building a sound stage campus of its own. In other cities, he said production companies are using abandoned warehouses.

"Finding spaces to shoot is always an issue and we have a state-of-the-art facility here that's not being used," Scavuzzo said. "We've got one of the most amazing sound stages in Canada, never mind North America. That's a huge draw."

B.C.'s film industry finished 2017 with the highest operating revenue of any province or territory, at $3.3 billion. Ontario's film industry had the second-most successful year, with revenue of $2.7 billion.