B.C. Film Commission: All in the Family


 If you look closely as you drive through the Lower Mainland’s more picturesque neighbourhoods, you can still see the red arrows hanging from the street lights. There may not be as many as there were 10 years ago, but they still wave like tiny victory flags, offering direction to film crews looking for the location of their film or television shoot. Only a year or two ago, it seemed these productions might disappear completely. A rising loonie combined with increasing competition from the likes of California, Connecticut and the Czech Republic threatened to put an end to the province’s three-decade effort to create a sustainable film industry. Indeed, American film production has been rumoured to be leaving B.C. since the early ’80s, when producers first started arriving on a regular basis. It was never supposed to survive a strong Canadian dollar, aggressive tax credits offered by American states or the low labour costs of eastern Europe. If the California-based guilds and unions that have been Hollywood studios’ partners since the 1920s made an effort to bring business home – well, that would be it. And yet, even though all of the above have come to pass, the B.C. industry is still here. And thriving: the province remains North America’s third-largest production centre, with producers spending almost a billion dollars last year on film projects in B.C. So what went right? How has an industry initially thought to have the staying power of the 19th-century gold rush survived? In a word: co-operation. Hollywood has been a “closed shop” for most of its history, with the studios knowing that they couldn’t get a movie or TV series produced if they didn’t honour their contracts with American unions and guilds.

The need to work collaboratively was noted early on by B.C.’s film unions and the provincial government, and in 1978, working with the then-minister of tourism, Grace McCarthy, they created the B.C. Film Commission. A few years later, B.C.’s film industry took the American tradition of collaboration a step further, with unions and the government-appointed film commissioners banding together to present a united front to Hollywood. Dianne Neufeld, B.C.’s second film commissioner (1982-94), found an ally in a union leader named George Chapman, who was then the business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 891; when Neufeld flew to L.A., Chapman (and later, other union leaders) would be with her on the next plane seat and in the boardrooms making presentations to studios and independent producers on the province’s behalf. The B.C.-based film unions gradually discovered that they could be competitive with their U.S. counterparts by approaching the hiring process differently than their Hollywood counterparts. The unions agreed to allow local production managers to hire teams of crew members rather than hiring individuals from a job board – a prerequisite in L.A. and other production centres. Since the crews were continually working together as teams, the shorthand saved producers time and, ultimately, money. In addition, the unions promoted from within, allowing members to take on entry-level jobs and eventually move up the ladder. Producer and director Chris Carter, who came here to shoot The X-Files television series in 1993, says that when he returned last year to make the film The X-Files: I Want to Believe, he could see that the system was still working. “I think the key to growth will continue to be the approach to training and promotion that has been taken in B.C. When I was there the last time, I felt like I was walking back to the same place, but the community had matured. There were people who were trainees who are now in authority. There were people in union positions who are now working as producers. A lot of people have taken advantage of their opportunities.” [pagebreak]

The B.C. Film Commission officially celebrated its 30th anniversary last month, and its creation proved a turning point for local film production. In the five years prior to its formation, the province had yielded less than $5 million in revenues from production; in the commission’s first six months of operation, B.C. brought in almost $40 million. And while many people helped to transform the fledgling industry into a billion-dollar business, the lion’s share of credit is usually reserved for Dianne Neufeld. Neufeld started her career at BCTV (now Global TV) as a newsroom script supervisor in the early 1970s, and by the end of the decade was producing entertainment shows for the station’s network. She joined the Directors Guild of Canada in 1980 when she became an assistant director for commercials. The film commission hired Neufeld as a location scout in 1981 and a year later promoted her to the top job. While going south to lure producers away from Hollywood was initially intimidating, the story Neufeld and her union colleagues took with them seemed worth telling. “We would go down there and say, ‘We are a community. We are working together and we can do what you need. We know it’s pretty up there, but we are not just about beautiful views. We can do the work and save you money. We will do whatever it takes.’” Key to doing “whatever it takes” was having a strong support system. The B.C. Film and Video Industry Association (BCFIA) – whose executive board positions were filled by invitations from the B.C. Film Commission – was formed in 1983 and included representatives from the unions, existing postproduction labs and some of the companies that supplied the industry with services and materials. “I was convinced that the BCFIA would work and that it would help us to market the province in L.A.,” remembers Neufeld. “But there was resistance from the union reps because they had never done marketing before. They were all about doing the work – and promoting is a whole new skill set. Then [George Chapman] came along and said, ‘If you have a good idea, let’s do it.’ He was a ‘do it’ guy. … . I don’t think we would have gotten the BCFIA off the ground if it hadn’t been for him.” The BCFIA members knew that if they were going to build an industry, they would need all the U.S.-based contacts they could find. If someone had worked with an actor or director who might help the cause, a call was made. Chapman, for one, had worked as a lighting technician with director Robert Altman when Altman had come to Vancouver to make McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971. Altman and others, including Charlton Heston (who had made Mother Lode in B.C. in 1982), helped put Neufeld in touch with producers they knew in L.A., and she followed up. Neufeld says that once the producers could see that people they respected were calling on behalf of the B.C. film industry, the door began to open. “Producers had come here prior to 1983, but they would always bring department heads,” says Neufeld, who now teaches at Capilano University’s Film Centre. “That wasn’t good enough. We needed to forge a strategy that would allow us to move forward faster. We would sit around the table at BCFIA meetings and talk about how we could build this industry. We agreed that we would do it one [department] at a time.” Neufeld says that once one group had been trained, they’d move on to the next – all to ensure that Citizenship and Immigration Canada could tell U.S. producers, “You can’t bring that person into Canada because we already have someone who can do that.” “Eventually, as there were more people who had worked here, [U.S. producers] began to see that we were getting bigger and better,” notes Neufeld. “They would ask us, ‘Is there anyone you would like to meet?’ and I would say, ‘Yes, this person or this person.’ Then one day I said, ‘Stephen Cannell.’ ” Back in the 1970s and early ’80s, Cannell was one of the leading producers in American television; his best-known show, The Rockford Files, had been a top-rated series on NBC from 1974 to 1980. He had come to Canada in 1986 to shoot a show about a man and his car called Stingray after discovering the open roads of Alberta, but word had reached the BCFIA that he was concerned about the weather there. Chapman and Neufeld and their colleagues in the BCFIA also knew that Cannell usually had more than a single series running at one time. They needed someone like Cannell to take B.C. to the next level. [pagebreak]

While B.C. had succeeded in hosting a number of large feature films over the years, the productions came and went, and left unemployed workers in their wake. But television was another story. A strong series could stay for years and offer more stable work to the unions and guilds while leaving money behind. The ABC spy series MacGyver, for instance, had run out of L.A.-area locations that looked like eastern Europe, where many of the episodes were set. The producers looked north to B.C. – which could offer deserts, oceans and mountains and pose as any place needed – and in the summer of 1986 moved the show from L.A. into a converted bridge-building facility in Burnaby that the provincial government (which owned and operated the facility) eventually called the Bridge Studios. It was filled quickly, mostly servicing the needs of MacGyver, and soon more professional sound stage space was required. Later that year, several members of the BCFIA, including Neufeld, flew to L.A. and told Cannell that if he needed a place that could provide diverse locations at reasonable prices, and that was an easy commute from L.A., Vancouver would be perfect. He agreed and moved Stingray north. Soon other Cannell productions followed, including 21 Jump Street and Wiseguy. In 1987 Cannell and the province began a joint financial venture to build a second studio on the North Shore, and by the end of the decade the sound stages at both the Bridge Studios and the new North Shore Studios were filled to capacity. The co-operation between the unions and the government had brought Cannell, a major Hollywood player, to B.C. and helped create two production studios and more than a dozen professional sound stages. But there was no backup plan. The people who sat at the table for BCFIA meetings had been focused on bringing Americans to Vancouver, while the film commission had been created to sell the province to U.S.-based studios. It appeared that they had collectively abandoned the indigenous film and television industry. In truth, that sector had never been strong. In 1985 when the service industry – local crews working on U.S. productions – was starting to find its legs, there were no accredited producers in the province. The BCFIA members could see that if the Americans left town, most of the people who worked in the industry would soon be unemployed. They lobbied the government for a provincial funding organization that could offer loans and grants to prospective producers, which in turn might lead to more locally based production companies. In that scenario, producers would come here and work with local production companies, building a pool of actors and crew and establishing a more solid foundation for the industry. The founding of B.C. Film in 1987 helped to improve things on the local scene with a burst of funding for films, including Sandy Wilson’s My American Cousin follow-up, American Boyfriends, and Richard Martin’s North of Pittsburgh. Prior to 1987, it had been rare for local filmmakers to get more than one film made in any given year. B.C. Film’s support not only created more local producers; it helped some of those producers found their own companies, including Stephen Hegyes, who was given his first break in 1995 as a producer of the B.C. Film-funded Double Happiness. Hegyes went on to co-found Brightlight Pictures Inc. six years later, which has been responsible for bringing several U.S. and international productions to B.C. while continuing to support local filmmakers. As B.C.’s film industry grew, it drew more players into its ranks, with more and more seeking a spot at the negotiating table. By the mid-’90s there were several competing unions, as well as hundreds of suppliers, local production companies, law firms, accounting firms and government officials operating in the local trade. To address this new reality, the Motion Picture Production Industry Association of B.C. (MPPIA) was launched in 2002, bringing together, in one room and for the first time, representatives of all of the various sectors. [pagebreak]

Among the new players were several Eastern Canada-based unions that had moved westward to take advantage of the booming B.C. scene. The most active of these was the Association of Canadian Film Craftspeople (ACFC), which joined MPPIA at its inception and began competing with the long-established IATSE union for members. When ACFC arrived in the early ’90s, it was assumed that they would be pushed out quickly by IATSE, but some local companies were looking for a union that might be more cost effective for low-budget productions. Producer James Shavick, whose Shavick Entertainment became one of the first ACFC clients, says that when the competition to host Canadian, independent and Hollywood productions heated up, the industry had to adapt. “There was definitely a time when things were more confrontational,” he remembers. “You had to line up your allies in the industry even eight years ago.” Shavick says that, with a strengthened Canadian dollar and increased global competition, B.C.’s unions have had to become more collegial. “It is really helpful when we go to partner with England and China and they know that the unions are reasonable and that they have options. I think the fact that ACFC is doing as much as they are now says a lot about the maturing of the industry.” (In September ACFC was working on six productions, mostly for prolific B.C. producers Brightlight, Insight Film Studios Ltd. and Reunion Pictures.) But the rivalry between unions wasn’t the only labour problem that the industry had to address. By the late ’90s, American producers were starting to question their own relationship with B.C.’s senior unions, deciding, in increasing numbers, that the tradition of collective bargaining with individual unions was not acceptable. Leaders in the local industry realized they would have to find a way of making it easier for U.S. producers to work with the unions or risk losing everything. The problem was B.C. law, which called for all collective bargaining to take place in the province, even if the end users of the work were foreign. In 2000 the industry lobbied for the establishment of a B.C. office for the U.S.-based Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. It was a strange time to make the request, given that Californian film unions were looking for ways of keeping film industry jobs from moving to Canada and elsewhere, and that the producers’ association had never opened an office outside of the U.S. But the industry pressed on and ultimately found a supporter in Don Cott, assistant deputy minister of labour in the NDP government. “The studios were having problems getting collective agreements,” he says, “because they had to bargain for every show with each of the unions. [The American studios] told the people here, ‘If there is no better system, we won’t be coming up there.’ I was sent to Los Angeles to find out what the problem was. I discovered that in order to shoot here, they needed to have two IATSE agreements as well as contracts with the Teamsters, Directors Guild [of Canada] and actors [the Union of B.C. Performers]. They had to come here to do that for every show, all the time – and by the time the bargaining was done the show was over.” To accommodate the studios, IATSE’s two locals (the film technicians’ Local 891 and the camera operators’ Local 669) and Teamsters 155 (which represents the drivers of a production’s trucks and trailers) created the B.C. and Yukon Council of Film Unions, thereby cutting the number of agreements to be signed from five to three. The American producers’ association ultimately opened an office in Vancouver in 2001 and Cott was asked to run it. He now represents those producers on the board of MPPIA and says the existence of the office has given the province another unique selling point. “We are the only location in North America that has this style of agreement, one where you put a council of unions in for agreements,” he notes. “I think that we have been able to negotiate good collective agreements for both sides because we sit down and bargain on master agreements, not for just one show. And normally, we try to have a three-year deal.” The industry has made momentous strides since B.C.’s first film commissioner, Justis Greene, brought the horror film The Prophecy to Vancouver in 1978, effectively launching “Hollywood North.” It’s estimated that more than 30,000 people now work in the business, with over 200 productions filmed here in 2007 alone. Led by MPPIA members and Susan Croome (who became film commissioner in 2003 after several years managing the Bridge Studios), the industry has continued to do whatever it takes to lure foreign production. When Ontario and Quebec hiked the basic tax credits for visiting filmmakers (to 25 per cent of the amount paid for local labour), the MPPIA put pressure on B.C.’s government to do the same. The government quickly acquiesced. Its members were also instrumental in the decision earlier this year to keep the dollar “at par” when the loonie became more valuable than the U.S. dollar. Croome says that a history of co-operation has ensured the industry’s survival and should continue to serve B.C. well. “The unions and guilds have done a remarkable job of being very forward-thinking in terms of labour agreements. We are never going to be the cheapest when it comes to labour because it’s a competitive world out there. But if you make a list of the things that are required to get movies made and to look good, they are all here. We have experienced crews, competitive tax credits, a strong talent pool and co-operation at all levels. That combination has kept us strong, and we are continuing to get better.” And perhaps most importantly, the red arrows keep pointing in the right direction.