A conversation with Prem Gill

Creative BC’s new CEO on the challenges facing the province’s cultural industries and lessons learned from the private sector

For those planning a Christmas vacation to California this year, the decline of the Canadian dollar is a major bummer. For B.C.’s film and TV industry, however, it’s the best Christmas present ever—with anecdotal evidence of one of the busiest filming years on record. Creative BC is the provincial agency that oversees film and television production in B.C.—from development funding to shoot locations—and since 2013, it has also championed the interests of interactive and digital media, music and publishing. Prem Gill—a longtime broadcaster and content strategist, born and raised in North Burnaby by her immigrant parents—took the reins of the agency in late September at a critical time in the creative sector’s history.

Your first media job after graduating from SFU with a bachelor of communications was co-hosting a show called “Youth Raap,” on a radio station owned and operated by influential South Asian broadcaster Shushma Datt. What was that about?
It was a call-in show, and it was the only show in English; everything else was in Hindi or Punjabi or other Indian languages. Today it would be called a podcast! We were trying to get our youth engaged. Back then, every Indian family had Shushma’s station on in their kitchen.


58 independent record labels
1,000 new and reprinted titles from B.C. book publishers annually
1,000,000 readers of B.C. magazines

Source: Creative BC

From there you started working with City TV, hosting and producing a bunch of shows before ultimately moving behind the scenes.
As I was developing, I started to think, “Maybe it’s time for me to start developing more of my corporate skills, my business skills.” I started doing more government relations, running programming—like CineCity, a short-film program—and then became director of government relations and regulatory affairs for CHUM and moved to Toronto. When Telus launched their TV product, they asked me to come back to Vancouver as director of content. The video-on-demand (VOD) service was just starting, and one of my jobs was figuring out what channels we needed to launch and how we did our VOD programming. There were fewer than 50,000 customers at that point; now they are edging toward one million. And then, off the corner of my desk, I always managed all the community programming commitments—which is kind of more my wheelhouse. The fire-in-the-belly thing.

You come to Creative BC at an interesting time. It’s two years after the agency was created—following the merger of the B.C. Film Commission and B.C. Film + Media—and with an expanded mandate to represent other media. Why do you think the board picked you?
I feel like I do have a broad set of experience in industry. I’ve been a producer. I’ve worked a lot with music, through my job at Telus. I was co-editor of a magazine with my siblings called Rungh—a South Asian arts magazine funded by the Canada Council. My thing has always been about story-telling: helping, enabling and supporting people in telling their stories. I think the other thing that made me an interesting candidate was that I was coming from the private sector. When you work at an organization like Telus, all the stuff they say about high-performance culture, knowing what your objectives are and how you’re getting there, providing clarity for people—it’s true and it’s super important.

The digital revolution—from Apple Music to Netflix—has proven a serious threat for traditional media. How does an organization like Creative BC address that?
Well, Netflix just opened a studio in Vancouver to film the new Lemony Snicket show. That’s pretty cool. That’s a lot of jobs. Coming from broadcasting, working for basically a cable product for a telecommunications company, I don’t think this is a time of doom and gloom. We’ve never consumed more content, but we need to get a better understanding of the updated data on all this and how it can be used to support the traditional industries.

How do you manage the inherent turbulence of your job—the political unknowns, the economic unknowns?
It’s a good question, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it. If we use the Canadian dollar as an example, I think you need to have three plans at all times: What does that US$1 plan look like? What does that US$0.72 plan look like? What does that US$0.85 plan look like? There needs to be an incentive for people to come here beyond the dollar, because that’s always changing. The tax credit situation is pretty stable, but we have to remain competitive with other jurisdictions.

What do you sell people on instead?
We have an embarrassingly beautiful province, and it’s not difficult to sell that. But it’s going to come back to the people, and that’s our number one advantage: the talent. The fact that organizations like Sony Imageworks and Animal Logic are moving their headquarters and opening up pretty substantial studios here speaks a lot to that.

Your biggest hope for 2016?
My hope is that more people will be aware of the impact and the role that the creative industries play in this province’s economic development. It’s a sector that employs 85,000 people, comparable to the resource industries. That’s a big deal—and we want to continue to drive that.