How the Hollywood strikes are cutting up B.C.’s film industry

Dennis Heaton of Vancouver’s Planet X Pictures says the recent strikes are just the latest industry setback

Near the corner of Main and Alexander in Vancouver on a sunny day in late May, catering tents mark the site of filming for A Nice Indian Boy, a rom-com featuring Deadpool’s Karan Soni and Mindhunter star Jonathan Groff. Several grips are taking a coffee break and talking about the business. “If you want to know how good a show is,” one of them tells me, “count the number of grips.”

Lately the province’s film industry has been coming to grips with some serious issues. Most prominent is the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike in the U.S., a development that strangled production across North America starting in the spring. Although the Writers Guild of Canada did not strike, most of the major productions in B.C. are based on American scripts. According to Creative BC, there were 27 movies or series and one documentary shooting in B.C. as of the end of June. That’s roughly half the recent average. And that was before the Screen Actor’s Guild strike in mid-July brought the hammer down on almost all productions involving American actors.

But the strikes are only the latest blow in what has been a tumultuous period for film in this province. Not long ago, the local industry was enjoying a near-unprecedented boom that strained the capacity of B.C. crews and production facilities. Before U.S. writers voted to strike on May 1, that boom had already gone bust.

Dennis Heaton of Vancouver-based Planet X Pictures, the company behind Netflix shows The Imperfects and The Order, among other productions, says the writers’ strike resulted from a changing landscape in movie and TV production. “I would say the big issue is streamers and residuals,” Heaton says. “And the fact that writers aren’t making what they should be making.”

Syndicated TV shows pay residuals when episodes are rebroadcast, but that formula doesn’t apply to Netflix-style streaming shows, which are generally made available all at once. The WGA also complains that streaming services have driven pay rates down to minimal levels.

AI has been cited as a key issue in the SAG strike, including the possibility that extras could be digitally generated. The threat of AI also looms over writers’ rooms, which are already being replaced by so-called “mini rooms” with fewer jobs for young writers to learn their craft, an issue raised by Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin, among others.

“Is space being made for new writers in the industry?” Heaton asks.

They may not pay handsome residuals, but not long ago streaming services did create a boom in B.C. production. Spurred partly by increased competition and partly by the stay-at-home entertainment trend created by the pandemic, streamers like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Paramount Plus and NBC Universal went into production hyperdrive, green-lighting series at an unprecedented rate.

One local producer (who wished to remain anonymous) says the B.C. situation got crazy at the height of the streaming wars. “We went from doing about 30 productions on a good day to 60, which was a psychotic way to do business,” he says. “We started to train crew to get up to that level. You’re hiring kids straight out of film school, who don’t know what they’re doing, and they expect to get paid overscale rates, because the demand was just so crazy. But at some point it had to end, because it could not possibly be profitable.”

Last year the bubble burst. In April 2022, Netflix stock plummeted—the company lost over US$50 billion in market capitalization. As CNBC reported at the time, “Netflix said several headwinds are affecting growth, including increasing competition and the lifting of pandemic restrictions. In recent months people have been spending less time on digital platforms as vaccines rolled out and mandates eased.”

Disney, NBC Universal and Paramount collectively accumulated more than US$8.3 billion in streaming losses. The industry began to throttle back and, like other production centres, Vancouver felt the effects.

Heaton points out that the boom-and-bust cycle has happened before, such as when the BC Liberal government led by Premier Christy Clark refused to match Ontario production tax credits. “There was a huge shutdown in production and a big panic,” he says. “The [government’s] assumption was productions will still come because we have all this wonderful scenery and the Canadian dollar is 30 percent lower. But productions are going to go where they get the most for their money.”

As for the current decline, Heaton believes it’s not just the streaming slowdown and the strike. “I think Bill C-11 has had an impact as well,” he says.

Passed in April, Bill C-11 gives the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) broad authority to regulate streaming platforms, including YouTube and TikTok, as they already do with radio and television. The bill requires streaming platforms to “clearly promote and recommend Canadian programming, in both official languages as well as in Indigenous languages.”

“U.S. streamers were very much pushing the government not to put in regulations on any kind of Canadian content production,” Heaton says.

If things are slower than two years ago, Heaton sees a silver lining. “Independent, low- budget people who are trying to make their first feature and haven’t been able to get it off the ground because they weren’t able to get crew, maybe they get a bit of a better deal so they can build a cabin and shoot a horror movie. We want a homegrown talent getting the chance to do that feature they’ve been nursing along for two to five years. That, to me, is fantastic.”

And what of the grip’s formula for evaluating a quality shoot? “I’m not gonna argue with a grip, man,” Heaton laughs. “I love my crews. They’re the lifeblood of the industry.”