Ailing film industry disappointed by B.C. ‘creative economy’ funding plan

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Film workers say their industry is in big trouble unless the province helps out soon

Like most Vancouver residents, I got used to seeing film and TV productions doing location shoots, their big trailers taking up large swaths of street, fat cables snaking along the sidewalk, with lighting providing a surreal glow even in daytime.

Hang around and you might spot a star you recognize doing a scene. Vancouverites got a charge out of seeing their city and province showcased in big-budget Hollywood movies and TV shows. Most weren't yet put off by the inconvenience of having their streets blocked.

Well, you rarely see those big productions on the street anymore. British Columbia's once thriving billion-dollar film and TV sector has been bleeding to death due to the high Canadian dollar and competition from lower cost centres in the U.S. and Canada.

[ Related: B.C. film industry seeking ways to survive ]

The filming of blockbusters such as the Twilight series, X-Men, The Last Stand and TV series like Stargate was even considered a tourism draw, with visitors offered the prospect they might see familiar Hollywood faces on Vancouver's downtown streets.

No more. For the first time in a long time, the B.C. Film Commission web site's film list includes no major movie productions, only a handful of TV series. At its peak, the biggest production centre outside of Hollywood, Vancouver has had to hand its Hollywood North crown to Toronto.

The industry's leaders have been pleading with the B.C. Liberal government to rescue them by matching tax credits offered in Ontario and Quebec, where much of the work has migrated.

What they got this week was a $6.25-million plan called B.C. Creative Futures that promises vaguely to boost the province's "creative economy."

The program was announced Thursday by Bill Bennett, minister of community, sport and cultural development. It's a launching pad for growth in all sectors of the creative economy, the minister said, according to the Vancouver Province.

Most of the money will go towards arts and scholarship programs, with $1 million earmarked to set up a new agency, Creative B.C., to foster help creative industries find new opportunities, the Province said.

The announcement, four months before the poll-lagging Liberals face voters in a provincial election, landed with a thud among local studio execs and increasingly unemployed production workers.

"It is not going to save 25,000 jobs," veteran film worker Patrick Stark yelled at Bennett after the announcement at the Vancouver Art Gallery. "It is not good enough. Thanks for nothing."

Stark told the Province later he's had to scramble to find work to provide for his family.

Peter Leitch, chairman of the B.C. Motion Picture Production Industry Association, estimated employment in the sector is down as much as 50 per cent from this time last year, reported Business in Vancouver.

Factors include a Canadian dollar that's at par with the U.S. greenback, as well as Ontario's 25 per cent tax credit on all production expenses. B.C., by contrast, offers a 33 per cent credit but only on labour costs.

"We're burning all the good will that we've built over the last years, where we had a level playing field on the tax credit," Leitch said.

"Now I feel the numbers are dictating more where productions are going than they used to. Part of it's the dollar, obviously, but the tax credit differential becomes magnified when we have got a dollar at par."

Premier Christy Clark last month signalled the film and TV sector should not expect B.C. to match Ontario's tax credit, saying the current annual tab estimated at $285 million is generous enough.

"The cost to the taxpayer in B.C. (to match Ontario) would be $100 million to do that," Bennett told the Province. "We can't do that right now."

But industry types remain galled by the B.C. government's recent announcement it was spending about $10 million in a deal to bring the inaugural Times of India Film Awards to Vancouver this April, a month before the May 14 election.

Province columnist Michael Smyth said the extravaganza is pure politics aimed at corralling some of the crucial Indo-Canadian vote.

"With the election looming, Clark and her cabinet ministers will be swanning around for photo ops with Indian film stars," Smyth wrote this week. "I'm told the government and the Liberal Party have already been swamped with ticket requests."

[ Related: B.C. loses film industry jobs as Ontario and Quebec gobble productions ]

The New Democrats, who if current polling trends continue will crush the Liberals in May, haven't missed the political opening. NDP leader Adrian Dix went to Los Angeles last week to meet with Hollywood executives, though he apparently made no promises.

"What I was doing was talking to them about what at their issues were and listening to our customers as to what steps we will take next,” he told CBC News.

“We're going to continue to consult with people here and press the government to take this issue seriously, which they haven't done for some time."