Why the World’s Biggest Movies and TV Shows are Filmed and Produced in B.C.

With no shortage of stunning locations, world-class studios and success stories, the local film and TV industry is booming 

It would be inadequate, albeit truthful, to state that B.C.’s film and television industry is enjoying a remarkable period of prosperity: it’s a true driver of the province’s economy, with features such as Deadpool breaking box office records and a plethora of internationally successful series calling Metro Vancouver their production home.

But on a deeper level, B.C.’s success is being driven by a fundamental change in media delivery, as any iPad-toting teenager can attest. Gone are the days when big screen releases or network television constituted the bulk of mass-market entertainment; today, venues such as Netflix attract subscribers in the millions, and video games released by companies such as Electronic Arts routinely make more money than many feature films.

Another factor in B.C.’s success is that this new media is global, while traditional entertainment production was controlled in Los Angeles and New York. “Producers from around the world knock on our door now, for locations, our studios, our post-production facilities and our crews,” says Ron Hrynuik, general manager of Bridge Studios in Burnaby. “The demand for entertainment content has never been so huge.”

In this new environment that could accurately be described as a “creative economy” (to encompass film, broadcast media, on-line content, music, and much more), B.C. is not merely playing the familiar role of host, either: it is also contributing to global content with its own homegrown product. “Over the past eight years, we’ve become a hub for factual entertainment” says Liz Shorten, managing vice-president, operations & member services for the Canadian Media Producers Association. “To take one small example of our success in this field, the series Highway Thru Hell, which was created by Vancouver’s Great Pacific Television, was sold in over 120 territories, and the spending in B.C. by other Canadian shows such as Ice Pilots and Arctic Air was on the order of $100 million combined.”

None of this, of course, would have been possible without a huge labour pool that constantly grows thanks to the support of organizations such as The British Columbia Council of Film Unions, whose executive director, Tom Adair, notes: “The unions in B.C. have marketed directly to the studios and producers for decades. We seek to balance the needs of the creative controlling interests with the practicality of constantly enhancing the local skills. Actors teach other actors. Costumers teach the next generation of wardrobe workers. Lighting department gaffers move into roles behind the cameras.  It is an evolutionary, collaborative environment.”

According to Creative BC, total expenditures for film and television production totaled over $2 billion for fiscal 2014/2015. The Canadian Media Production Association (CMPA) estimates there were 42,000 direct and indirect jobs created through film and television production in 2014/2015 in British Columbia. Meanwhile the larger creative sector in B.C, which includes a wide range of industries including film and television, radio and television broadcasting, digital and interactive entertainment, publishing, music as well the performing arts and heritage institutions, is said to generate $4 billion in annual GDP and 85,000 jobs. (source: Opportunity BC 2020: Creative Sector, PriceWaterhouse Coopers)

“There’s a lot of crossover in this broad industry that is mutually beneficial,” says Peter Leitch, president of North Shore Studios. “For instance, our studio is home to the popular iZombie and Zoo series, but it’s also common for game developers to shoot motion capture here, or for music video producers to set up shop.”

On average, Vancouver hosts over 30 movies and over 30 series annually, as well as hundreds of other filming days for commercials, TV pilots and other features; and while foreign productions account for three-quarters of the money spent in the province, many home-based studios work with strategic foreign partners on co–productions with the mandate to make quality, commercially viable feature films and TV shows for a global marketplace.

The numbers generated by the industry in B.C. have always been impressive, but unlike decades ago, the industry now has the added benefit of being an experienced player. Veteran Vancouver producer Joseph Patrick Finn (The Flash, The X-Files) explains, “We’re now into our second generation of homegrown talent and rapidly coming into our third, and the fact that we’re all grown up makes us extremely attractive, because it indicates there’s very little, if anything, we can’t do.”

Leitch, who is also chair of the Motion Picture Production Industry Association (whose mandate is to diversify and promote a competitive industry) puts it another way. “We’re a one-stop shop that gives real certainty to producers.”

Creative BC, the provincial agency responsible for supporting and promoting B.C.’s creative sector (which includes film and television, digital and interactive media, music and magazine and book publishing) lists no less than 47 B.C. companies that provide visual effects and/or digital animation, including giants such as Industrial Light and Magic, Sony Picture Imageworks and Electronic Arts. There are an additional estimated 30 post-production studios such as Watershed, Finale Editworks and Encore Post.

“British Columbia is a global centre for creative content production, and one of the world’s leading hubs for digital animation,” says Prem Gill, CEO of Creative BC. “In addition to having a dynamic group of local companies who are creating a wide range of screen-based content ranging from web series to feature films, B.C. has established an international reputation as one of the leading full-service motion picture production centres in North America,” she adds.

Finn credits late Hollywood writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell for B.C.’s transformation from popular location to production centre: “He was the first to prove that a quality product could be made here, and when he opened North Shore Studios in 1989, it triggered a domino effect: his productions such as 21 Jump Street and Wiseguy were major prime time successes; later, The X-Files delivered feature-film quality entertainment to television viewers every week, and this in turn caused feature film producers to up their game.”

Pete Mitchell, president of Vancouver Film Studios, adds, “As well as giving us a competitive edge, this evolution also benefitted Canadian producers: they had access to world-class equipment and crews, with which they created world-class products that could be sold internationally.”

Learning institutions such as Capilano University and other venues (which have always been strongly supported by the greater community, one example being a large endowment bestowed upon Capilano by the Bosa family) contributed to the growing talent base; and when post-production facilities began to locate to Metro Vancouver, it heralded a fundamental industry shift. “Our infrastructure grew, but more importantly became complete,” says Leitch. “Instead of Hollywood productions leaving town after shooting, they stayed and used our post facilities. Today, our locations are only one of our many attractions for producers.” Indeed, when The X-Files creator Chris Carter returned to B.C. in 2015 to make the 10th season of his famous 1990s TV series, he stated emphatically that he had returned not for the locations, but because of the expertise of the crews.

Carter is hardly the only outsider to recognize our local talent: at the 2016 Academy Awards, four individuals were nominated for Oscars (for the feature The Revenant); and David McIntosh, Michael Kirilenko, Steve Smith and Mike Branham received Oscars for their creation of Aircover Inflatables, a portable green screen technology.

As well as entertainment production in B.C. evolving radically in terms of people skills and infrastructure, it has also evolved geographically, and Kelowna is a shining example.

Once famous only for its wineries and summertime fun, Kelowna is now the home for Disney Interactive (which produces online content) and Bardel Entertainment—to the point where the city, now known as Silicon Valley of the North, is expanding its fibre-optic infrastructure to accommodate further growth. And once again, the creative industry’s flair for nurturing local talent contributes to the geographical growth.

“Producers want highly skilled problem solvers, creative thinkers and instantly available workers, and learning the tricks of the trade from ones’ peers ensures a steady stream of repeat customers,” says Adair, Victoria Weller, film commissioner for the Thompson-Nicola Film Commission, enjoys reciting a long list of prominent productions filmed in diverse regions, including her jurisdiction (The A-Team, Night at the Museum 3, 2012); Vancouver Island (Planet of the Apes and Twilight Saga franchises); the Okanagan (Tomorrowland); Kootenay Columbia (Hot Tub Time Machine); and Northern B.C. (The Grey; Insomnia).

Weller says provincial government tax credits were largely responsible for developing the industry outside of Metro Vancouver: “Just as tax credits and our low dollar were the initial reasons for people coming to film in Vancouver a generation ago, the government’s nearby and distant tax credits have compelled filmmakers to locate elsewhere in the province and attract the Disneys of the world.

“And just like Vancouver a generation ago, the credits have also helped low budget and Canadian production, and led to schooling that has produced regional crews.” 

The long-time relationship between the industry and government continues, most recently in the form of Creative BC leading a delegation at the Hong Kong International Film and Television Market. In a similar vein, the Canadian Media Producers Association (which works on behalf of its members to promote the Canadian production industry) recently took a delegation to London, England. “Our producers met their producers, and hopefully the outcome will be co-productions, us selling content to European outlets, European outlets selling content to us, and so forth,” says Shorten.

For all its experience and longevity, B.C.’s film and television industry retains the youthful enthusiasm that first put it on the map.

“We’re in an exciting period of growth: eight new stages are about to be built in the near future, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a new studio was added to our list of five full studios somewhere down the road,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell cites television as the cause for the boom. “TV series are our bread and butter, they’re what trains the crews and leaves behind the infrastructure. Feature films are great, but they’re more like the icing on the cake.”

Not that Mitchell is undermining the icing, which is formidable—as Deadpool ably demonstrates. The Ryan Reynolds superhero epic had grossed $730-million internationally in 38 days of release; more importantly, the production spent over $40 million during 58 days of filming in Vancouver and hired over 2,000 local cast, crew and extras who earned more than $19 million in wages. Key local expenditures included over $1 million on location costs; almost $815,000 on hotels, catering and restaurants; over $735,000 on construction; and nearly $780,000 on transportation, truck and car rentals.

With so much going on, long-time players such as Joseph Patrick Finn often pause to consider their place in the overall economy. “We have a lot to be proud of,” he says. “We’re one of the busiest production centres in the world, and we are a cornerstone of the B.C. creative economy. Better still, we’re attractive to young people, we’re a clean industry and we pay well.

Finn adds: “As for the future, all I need to do is look at our second generation of talent, who in many ways know more and do things better than we ever did, to know that exciting times lie ahead.”