Struggles of the B.C. Film Industry

Wayne Bennett is no stranger to drama: he’s been filming it since he started out as third assistant director on the 1995 Laurence Fishburne/Ellen Barkin blackmail feature Bad Company. Two decades later, the Port Moody production manager, 44, is running two demanding gigs: Season 8 of the detective comedy Psych, and Save BC Film, a group he helped start to highlight the importance of the local, imperilled film and television industry.

Bennett is passionate about his work, and after six months’ steady media interest, he’s pretty slick with his spiel: we’re losing jobs and money to every other province, he argues, to three-quarters of the states, and to at least 19 other countries around the world, as they overtake us on tax incentives offered to companies making shows. He cites his own life as proof. After years of regular employment, he hit a dry spell in 2012. Before he got the Psych gig, he’d worked only nine weeks out of the previous 11-and-a-half months, he told me the other day on the lot of North Shore Studios. “I was scared.” Things are good now, but this season of Psych is its last.

Film work has always been uncertain, even at its Hollywood North height (Bennett drives a 1997 Toyota 4Runner and he’s okay with that), but he believes that in the last few years other jurisdictions have lured away a regrettable amount of our business. Save BC Film has used the stat of 90 percent unemployment, a figure Victoria disputes, though a government panel reviewing our tax competitiveness acknowledged our screen industry has taken a hit thanks to ever more aggressive tax breaks across the continent. We can’t win that race, wrote panel chair Sarah Morgan-Silvester, chancellor of UBC, and we shouldn’t try. Her final recommendation? Hold credits where they are.

Thus, Save BC Film, which, hopeful an NDP majority might reverse course, really ramped up before the provincial election. (You saw their bumper stickers: Keep Calm and #SaveBCFilm.) With the Liberals back in power now, the central dispute-the value of the industry to the province-remains contentious. The competitiveness panel, using figures from the finance ministry, concluded that since 2005, annual incentives have grown from $204 million to $505 million, yet spending has actually shrunk slightly. Bennett and his colleagues believe the government isn’t capturing the full amount of money invested, or the value of spinoff labour, or the so-called indirect spend that follows the dollars into the stores and restaurants and tax base of local municipalities. (Langley, for instance, hosted over 500 film-days in 2012; that’s a lot of cast and crew spending time and money somewhere they might not otherwise go.) Continue reading…

How can industry and government so disagree? In part, because at the same time production work in film and television is moving to more generous markets (Bennett says in April payroll companies reported 412 employees moving from B.C. to Ontario over one year), we’re seeing a bump in other entertainment services, especially animation and visual effects.

The morning after Bennett and I have the run of North Shore Studios (only Psych was filming that day), I take a tour of Gener8, a software company in the booming new-media hub of Mt. Pleasant. Founders Rory Armes and Tim Bennison, refugees from the video game industry, can barely keep up with demand for their services, which convert traditional film to 3D using a unique, laborious approach involving (essentially) re-creating every shot of the film as an animated model, then refilming those models using two virtual cameras. It might sound unwieldy, but the company’s demo reel (especially a pitch reel showing how they would have transformed-and saved-the earthquake movie 2012 had they been allowed) is convincing, as are its financial successes. Armes incorporated Gener8 in 2011 after landing the contract for The Chronicles of Narnia. (He’d previously cofounded Radical Entertainment and was a senior VP at Electronic Arts Canada.) Thanks to work on Harry Potter, Ghost Rider, and Spider-Man movies, Gener8 now claims to be one of the top four 3D conversion companies in the world. They moved out of their Gastown studio, hired 140 people (40 just in March), went public, and are looking to move again into larger space, since they have the capacity, but not the room, to work on more than one blockbuster at a time. (When I visited in July, they’d been converting a major fantasy blockbuster, frame by frame, since September. Every desk pod was full; the place was overrun with 20-something animators and technicians.)

So visual effects will save the film industry, yes? Well, not in the short term, according to a report released in July by Toronto-based public-policy research consultancy Nordicity. In 2011, visual effects generated a hefty $435 million (two-thirds higher than in 2009), animation another $279.7 million (up a titch)-impressive numbers, but of the $20.4 billion that film and television contributed overall to the country’s GDP? Less than four percent.