Shortage of skilled TV and film workers could threaten Alberta's production boom

·5 min read
Jason Nolan exploring the mountains just west of Bragg Creek for the perfect spot for a scene. He collects photos of each spot to present to the producer of the project.  (Axel Tardieu/CBC - image credit)
Jason Nolan exploring the mountains just west of Bragg Creek for the perfect spot for a scene. He collects photos of each spot to present to the producer of the project. (Axel Tardieu/CBC - image credit)

When a script requires a mountain top monologue, a riverside romance or a battle in the badlands, Jason Nolan gets a call.

He's a location manager and a scout in Alberta, and he's the one tasked with finding the perfect location for a scene in a TV production or a film.

Many days Nolan will find himself exploring some of the province's undiscovered nooks and crannies, but he has to admit, working in a place like Alberta makes the job a lot easier.

"We have such a variety of landscapes here in order for someone to tell their story," he said.

"Within an hour, you can pretty much get it all."

Even so, Nolan's job requires a lot of skills that he's honed over his more than two decades in the role — relationship building, photography, storytelling. It's why many companies seek him out when they come to the province with their project.

But now, it's gotten to a point where he can't keep up.

"I'm extremely busy right now. I've been turning down projects one after another," Nolan said.

"Ten years ago, I'd say we'd have one to three productions a year. Now we'll be over a dozen easily."

Alberta is experiencing a major boom in production activity with dozens of multi-million dollar projects choosing the province as the backdrop for their stories.

Axel Tardieu/CBC
Axel Tardieu/CBC

Just this past year, Alberta did approximately $560 million worth of production in the province, according to Luke Azevedo, vice-president of creative industries, operations and film commissioner with Calgary Economic Development.

In 2019, the last comparable year, he says, it did $255 million.

Industry workers attribute the boost in activity to several factors: a low Canadian dollar, a post-pandemic push for content creation and a recent change to Alberta's film and television tax credit.

In March 2021, the Alberta government removed a cap that limited film and television productions to a maximum $10 million tax credit claim. Corporations producing content can now get more cash back if they hire Albertans and spend money in the province — to the tune of a 22 or 30 per cent tax credit.

"It's changed our environment here, it's changed the ecosystem and it's changed the way that Alberta is perceived on the global marketplace," said Azevedo.

Axel Tardieu/CBC
Axel Tardieu/CBC

But while the incentive has drawn interest, the pandemic has slowed the pipeline of skilled workers able to take on the jobs. Over the past two years, many productions restricted access to only essential personnel on sets, meaning workers couldn't get much-needed hands-on experience.

And for some of the bigger productions, a seasoned workforce is a must if they're bringing their project here.

"They want the most experienced people possible to allow them to get the best product on screen," Azevedo says.

Some worry the lack of available skilled workers will mean big budget productions will look elsewhere, tax credit or not, if something doesn't change.

Work to be done

Gerry Dubbin has worked as a script supervisor in Calgary for more than 15 years. He says there are about 10 other people with his title around the city, and only a few more throughout the province.

He'd like to be able to train more people, but all of the sets he's worked on recently still have their pandemic restrictions in place.

"They can't come on to set and shadow us, which is what they need to do in order to qualify to be a script supervisor," he said.

He's not sure when the restrictions will be dropped, but he does understand why the industry is cautious.

"On a film set, if one person gets sick then it affects everyone, and it jeopardizes the show."

CBC
CBC

Dubbin's position is just one within the motion picture industry that's feeling the pinch.

Set decorators, props technicians, grips (camera support technicians) and electricians are just some of the other roles in short supply, according to Damian Petti, President of IATSE Local 212 in Calgary, the union which represents 1,400 workers in the production industry.

He says trainee programs grow the province's crew base by around 25 per cent every year, but it's hard to keep up with rapidly increasing demand, especially with the high experience requirements.

"The people who make the hiring decisions place a lot of weight on experience and not very much weight on training ... and so the challenge for us is to convince them that they can allow a percentage of people who are at entry level," he said.

In some departments, Petti says they have hundreds of people trained, but they can't get them their first day on set.

Axel Tardieu/CBC
Axel Tardieu/CBC

Last year, about 20 per cent of labour for productions in Alberta came from out of the province, but Petti is hopeful the industry can get that number down over time.

It's something the City of Calgary is working on as well. Azevedo says they're aiming to develop skills at a younger age by working with local post-secondary institutions, to retain talent within the province and to offer micro-credentials to get people into the industry faster.

They're also pushing studios to continue training initiatives.

"It's important for them as well as us to ensure jurisdictions that they like to shoot in and they know they can do great production in, that they have that growth of the personnel that's necessary," he said.

Axel Tardieu/CBC
Axel Tardieu/CBC

For now, Nolan says he thinks the need for skilled workers is being met, but just.

"We're really close."

He's making moves of his own to help ensure projects continue looking to Alberta. He's hired and trained some new scouts himself, and even with his current production list, he's considering taking on more.

"We were able to kind of help revitalize and keep some businesses afloat with our industry coming back and booming," he said.

"You have the love for it, and you push forward and you do it."

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