Hollywood comes to Niverville
At first blush it seems almost ludicrous to suggest that a relatively sleepy, low-profile community like Niverville, Manitoba should ever be compared to a place like Hollywood, California, the glamourous locale of famous stars, movie moguls, and high-tech production studios. Instead it’s home to blue skies, sprawling fields of wheat, quiet summer days, and blustery winter ones.
But as the film industry heats up and flourishes around the globe, moviemakers everywhere are looking for space in which to expand.
On Thursday, March 23, dignitaries and media from across Manitoba converged at the Community Resource and Recreation Centre in Niverville alongside a team of ambitious film producers for what might be the biggest announcement to ever broadcast from this unassuming corner of southeastern Manitoba.
Niverville will soon become home to Jette Studios, one of the most cutting-edge, state-of-the-art movie production facilities in the entire world—and residents can expect the action to get underway this very summer.
The Names Behind the Venture
Chris Harrington and Michael Hamilton-Wright are primary shareholders in Volume Global, a film and TV technology company that’s intent on transforming the future of film production.
Tim Harrington, brother to Chris, operates as the company’s chief management officer.
The trio also own and manage Dovetale Media, the production company behind films such as Shelby, the Dog that Saved Christmas, starring Chevy Chase and Rob Schneider, as well as And Now a Word from Our Sponsor, a dramedy written by Hamilton-Wright and directed by Zach Bernbaum.
Partnering with Juliette Hagopian, president of a Winnipeg-based TV and production company called Julijette Inc., these make up the key players behind Jette Studios.
“[We are] what I would describe as the perfect melding between filmmaking and technology,” Tim Harrington told The Citizen. “Mike and Chris have 25 years together in producing films in a completely different way.”
Hagopian boasts more than 30 years of experience in local filmmaking and directing. In 2020, she produced a Lifetime movie called Let’s Meet Again at Christmas. It was filmed at Whitetail Meadow, just four kilometres west of Niverville.
The quartet first met through the making of King of Killers, an action-adventure film shot in Manitoba in 2022.
Harrington says the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the film industry, but not in the way you’d expect. Unlike so many other hard-hit businesses, the movie industry has picked up momentum like never before.
“The demand is so voracious that you’re seeing streamers like Netflix and HBO Max and all the big names spending billions and billions,” Harrington says. “The trouble with that is there’s not a lot of space to [shoot their films].”
Herein lies the big reason that companies like Volume Global are able to capitalize on growing demand, especially in light of the industry’s bright future.
“There’s a massive pain point right now because the streamers are having a streaming war,” says Hamilton-Wright. “It’s about the way that people like to view content, which is immediately as opposed to waiting till Thursday night at 6:00. So it’s massively competitive. Just Netflix alone is spending $17 billion this year on content. Collectively, it’s over $100 billion. They just don’t have the capacity to deliver the content fast enough.”
A New Kind of Movie Magic
In the face of such unprecedented competition, filmmakers have to watch their bottom lines closely, Hamilton-Wright says. At the same time, they can’t sacrifice quality if they’re going to maintain a competitive edge.
Cue the studio earmarked for Niverville.
The key feature of this facility will be an LED wall known as the Volume. This is a wall of LED screens that forms a 270-degree arc and on which can be rear-projected any type of background imaginable.
It’s a revolutionary, highly versatile type of technology that has been in development for a long time but only recently been pressed into service. Since cameras first began to roll in front of such LED walls, the entire industry has undergone a seismic shift.
Even those with scant knowledge of film production may have heard of “green screens” and how they are used to create digital effects. Basically, an actor performs in front of a wall or curtain that is made of a solid colour, usually neon green. Afterward, in postproduction, through the use of computer software, the green colour is replaced with the intended background. The actor may have been standing against the green screen in an empty studio during the initial performance, but after the background is digitally replaced it will look like they were standing somewhere else entirely—perhaps on the surface of the moon, or on an interstellar ship hurtling through the cosmos. The possibilities are endless.
That said, the process is expensive and tedious. And this is the primary means by which special effects have been married to live-action footage for the last several decades of movie-making. For many budgets, it’s also cost-prohibitive.
Locals who frequently drive along Highway 59 will likely have noticed Chroma Ranch, a farm just north of Île-des-Chênes that is filled with green-painted buildings. This is a green screen studio, and many films and commercials have been shot here.
That’s yesterday’s technology. The LED wall—the Volume—has changed the game.
When filming in the Volume, a film crew can travel, virtually, to any location on this world or any other. Unlike with a green screen, very little postproduction work is required. Rather, the work is all done upfront. The actors stand against the LED wall, which showcases the finished background, and the camera is able to capture both the actor and the virtual environment live at the same time.
Appreciate, too, the effect that the Volume has on an actor. Gone are the days when they are called upon to react blindly to green screen effects which haven’t yet been created—and likely won’t be created for several months to come. They may be told, “And now you’re being charged by an army of six-hundred-pound gorillas. Action!”
If that sounds difficult, you’re right. Actors have long struggled with the challenge of trying to generate compelling performances with nothing to go on. But when they’re performing in the Volume, they don’t have to use their imaginations. The environment is right before their eyes.
The chief technical officer at Volume Global, Dante Yore, was there at the start of the technology’s development. It began at Industrial Light and Magic, the oldest major special effects studio in Hollywood and the one founded by George Lucas to produce the first Star Wars movie in 1977. They have long been pioneers in the business.
Since those early days, the technology has come a long way. The brain trust behind Volume Global is confident that the LED wall is well on its way to becoming the default. The only limitation right now is a lack of studio space.
There are only a handful of studios currently equipped with LED walls in North America. One is located in Los Angeles, where it is primarily used by Disney, and another can be found in Toronto, where it is used by CBS Studios to produce the latest Star Trek shows.
What will be the difference between those facilities and the one in Niverville?
“There aren’t any differences, except that our technology will be better than that,” says Harrington. “We will have better LED panels. We will have the latest panels that are even more advanced than the ones people are saying are the most advanced. It’s very ironic and interesting that people can say ‘Here’s the latest’ when it really isn’t. We will have the latest-latest. Our techs are the guys who started with Industrial Light and Magic, at the very beginning, at the acorn of this technology.”
The Demand for Studio Space
Volume Global is currently constructing its first studio, complete with LED wall, in New York City (pictured). Niverville will soon be home to their second studio in North America.
According to Hamilton-Wright, a cost study was recently performed on the shooting of The Mandalorian, a Disney+ series which takes place in the Star Wars universe. In its second season, the production team saved 30 days of shooting, 40 days of postproduction work, and $20 million just by being strategic.
Some of these time and cost savings are able to be realized simply by the fact that producers no longer need to send countless production vehicles and crew, trailers and actors to various shooting locations around the globe.
For example, Hamilton-Wright says, you no longer have to go to Wiltshire, England to shoot a film at Stonehenge. The Niverville and New York film studios will be able to recreate a virtual Stonehenge on screen capable of fooling even the most discriminating eye.
At the same time, government incentives across North America are helping to drive film companies towards greener initiatives. In the end, filming in a Volume Global studio just makes good fiscal and environmental sense.
“That synergy leads to content that is cheaper, more green, and faster to market,” Hamilton-Wright says. “And [the streaming companies] need it faster because they need to have a movie out every week. They’re going anywhere and everywhere where there’s soft money, which is the tax credits in Canada.”
In recent years, Manitoba seems to have taken notice of the economic promise behind the very lucrative film industry.
While most provinces and states offer incentives to entice production companies to film in their locales, Manitoba’s new policy exceeds virtually every one of them.
“Manitoba’s tax credits are the best in the world,” says Hamilton-Wright.
According to the Manitoba Film and Music website, film companies can receive a credit of up to 65 percent on their paid salaries while filming locally. Alternatively, they can choose up to a 38 percent credit on their cost-of-production expenditures.
Hamilton-Wright says that most film credits on production expenditures in North America average around 25 percent.
But Manitoba goes even further, providing filmmakers with savings beyond production rebates.
“The cost of everything that surrounds the peripheral expenses to productions are much cheaper in a place like Manitoba, as opposed to downtown Toronto or Vancouver,” says Hamilton-Wright.
To sweeten the pot just a little more, the provincial government also removed one further impediment, one that moves Manitoba right to the top of the game.
In October 2022, the province collaborated to create direct flights between Winnipeg and Los Angeles, thus reducing travel time between the two cities by almost 50 percent. The burden and headache of having to endure multiple layovers and flight changes are a thing of the past for directors, actors, and producers.
“If an executive from Netflix can get up and be on set [in Niverville] in the morning, basically walk around, say hello and be back [in L.A.] at the end of the day, they love that,” Hamilton-Wright says. “They want to get home at the end of the day like anyone else.”
But Why Niverville?
It should come as no surprise to residents of the community that local developer Ray Dowse, of Dowse Ventures, has been instrumental in sealing the deal between Niverville and Volume Global. Dowse, after all, has had his hand in many new business arrivals to Main Street and the west side of town in recent years.
Dowse also rallied hard to help pull together Niverville’s MJHL team, the Nighthawks, which has made a strong impression since their debut last fall.
Dowse says he first became aware of Volume Global’s interest in investing in Manitoba during the summer of 2021. In May 2022, he received a call from Hagopian. The company was setting out to find the perfect prairie location and hoped to get the venture off the ground as quickly as possible.
“I was aware of the list of criteria required to enable the development and operations in a timely manner, but also what the site needed in order to support the long-term needs and vision,” says Dowse. “I knew Niverville had some competition from other communities throughout the province who had pitched to the studio group as well, so I went to work.”
Niverville had it in the bag for a good number of the company’s criteria. The town lies in close proximity to major interstates and highways, and it’s also within a short driving distance of Winnipeg and its international airport.
The community’s size and steady growth points to the availability of a solid employment base and plenty of housing opportunities for outside crew to make Niverville home.
Of course, Dowse says, the upcoming Blue Crescent Hotel is also a key driver since the community will need to host movie bigwigs and visitors of all stripes.
For Dowse and others, it’s been a very busy year dealing with the various parties, including both the municipal and provincial governments, to ensure the project could come to fruition. Along with Len Peters, the developer of The Highlands who has been instrumental in making this happen, a plot of land on the corner of Highway 311 and Wallace Road was rezoned last year in the hopes that the film studio would see its potential.
In the end, Dowse says, the community really sold itself.
“Juliette indicated to me that she has filmed all over the province and when she produced a movie around Niverville several years back, it was one of the most positive experiences she and her crew had ever had due to their interactions with the locals,” says Dowse.
Even so, Hagopian admits to visiting every community within a certain radius of Winnipeg before making the decision to bring the studio to Niverville.
“I liked the idea of Niverville,” says Hagopian. “It’s one of the fastest growing communities in Canada—and there’s good coffee there.”
This last part is said with a grin. She’s referring to her infatuation with Negash Coffee, Niverville’s famous little roastery and café.
Hagopian is set to become Volume Global’s primary manager of the Niverville studio. When asked what her title will be, she responds tongue-in-cheek: “She-Woman of the Universe.”
What Can Niverville Expect?
Due to the overwhelming demand for film studio space, Volume Global intends to get a rapid start here. If all goes as planned, the doors will open for business in the fall of 2023.
Initially, they will begin by erecting a 20,000-square-foot inflatable tent-like structure, known as a pop-up soundstage (pictured). Harrington and Hamilton-Wright explain that this is the optimal size.
“A soundstage of 20,000 square feet provides enough space to build multiple sets, including large-scale sets, and to store equipment such as cameras, lighting, and props,” says Harrington. “At this size, filmmakers can easily adjust the set layout and lighting to suit the needs of different scenes, providing greater flexibility in the production process.”
He says that a facility of this size also allows for the precise control of acoustics, which is important for capturing high-quality sound during filming.
“A soundstage of this size is also generally considered cost-effective,” Harrington adds. “It is large enough to accommodate most productions, but not so large that it becomes prohibitively expensive to rent.”
This initial pop-up soundstage will take a mere 120 days from the start of work to ready-to-shoot completion.
Hamilton-Wright anticipates that bookings for the pop-up will begin immediately.
“Once this thing gets built, we hit the ground running,” Hamilton-Wright says. “It’s going to be something so cool that I think it’s going to be a model [for others], in a sense.”
The pop-up soundstage is just the first phase of development. By 2024, Hamilton-Wright anticipates the completion of phase two, which will include the first brick-and-mortar part of the studio. And based on the sizeable plot of land the studio will occupy, there’ll be plenty of room for expansion into the future as demand requires.
Effects on the Economy
It must also be said that the economic spinoff from this news will extend far beyond the studio itself. The town and surrounding area can expect to enter a boom period of commercial development. When production companies roll into town, Hamilton-Wright says, they will take up short-term residence. Local restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and every conceivable business will benefit from the large number of visitors.
And those visitors are poised to become a constant stream.
“You’re going to see a giant circus of trucks coming in and they will be looking for any support they can get locally, because they don’t want to drive anywhere else,” Hamilton-Wright says. “You’ll find some real [demand] for certain supplies and certain services that, if the town can follow the energy… they’ll be able to take advantage of that economically.”
The other side of this coin is the rapid increase in local jobs that will be created here.
“There’s never enough people on a production,” Hagopian says. “So we’re always training and I’m hoping that Niverville will come to me and say, ‘I want a job.’ If they have some talent in something, we can put them somewhere.”
Hamilton-Wright says that it isn’t inconceivable to imagine the studio working together with the local high school, providing jobs and training to students interested in film production. It’s a model that’s helped them build community relationships in other locations too.
“We’ve had high school art departments working together with our art department doing designs [for us] locally,” Hamilton-Wright says. “These kids were saying, ‘I don’t need to go to L.A. or Toronto or Vancouver for this job that I’m dreaming of. Hollywood is right in my backyard.’”
A Thrilling Venture
As for Dowse, he couldn’t be more thrilled with the bold move that the province has taken to initiate economic growth on this scale.
“You look at how Alberta has been able to attract people and business with the oil and gas industry and that has been a significant driver for the growth within that province,” says Dowse. “From a Manitoba standpoint, what the province has done with the Film Tax Credit program, it has really put this province on the map as a destination for one of the fastest growing industries globally.”
Likewise, Hamilton-Wright says they are thrilled to finally touch down in Niverville to begin writing their story—because, ultimately, they are storytellers.
“This place, for generations, will tell more and more stories,” Hamilton-Wright says. “But our story is, ‘Let’s do something really cool in Niverville and create something memorable for the partnership, but also for the community.’”
Evan Braun and Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporters, The Niverville Citizen