Special Report on Production in British Columbia: Homegrown prime drama hits B.C.

Expectations are high that the 1997 production season will bear witness to b.c. producers taking a concerted and definitive step out from underneath the Stars and Stripes. But there are concerns about how effective the move will be in building the kinds of integrated film companies that populate Toronto and Montreal.

Of late, Vancouver producers have had a smattering of successes including Neon Rider, Mom p.i., The Odyssey and most recently Madison, which has just announced its fifth season will go ahead.

But with the coming production season, Vancouver – a market heavily dominated by American mows, series and features – could have up to four Canadian one-hour dramatic series working concurrently.

The impact could be substantial. Firstly, it could kick start what has been to date a languishing indigenous production industry and squash innuendo that Vancouver can’t pull together a one-hour series. Secondly, each Canadian series would generate about $12 million in production budgets, and 275 full-time equivalent jobs, many of them lead creative jobs that have been hard to come by for Canadian talent in b.c. (By comparison, u.s. series like The X-Files have annual production budgets closer to the $50 million range.)

The Cold Squad, the first of the Canadian series to be greenlit, is the local prize winner of Baton Broadcasting’s successful bid for civt in Vancouver.

Produced by Julia Keatley, Matt MacLeod and Atlantis’ Anne Marie LaTraverse, the series is about a group of Vancouver detectives who investigate cold homicide cases. Keatley describes the series as ‘Prime Suspect meets The X-Files with a little Homicide thrown in.’

The series is gearing up production for a June start and a fall debut on civt and other Baton stations.

According to Keatley, Vancouver has 350 unsolved homicides, which will inspire many of the episodes of The Cold Squad.

‘Cop shows sell well internationally,’ she says, ‘and that Vancouver will be starring as itself will be exciting.’ Producing a one-hour primetime series also works to build the industry, she says. ‘A one-hour series is substantial and will help to continue to grow the talent and bring people home to work.’

The trick now, she adds, is finding the crews, which are becoming rare commodities in Vancouver, especially in the summer when the runaway u.s. work is at its peak.

Vying for crews could be one of five successful producers in development with the cbc, which is working to boost network representation from the West Coast. Furthest along are DaVinci’s Inquest, a series by Mom p.i. creator Chris Haddock about a Vancouver coroner, and Watchdog, a series developed by Michael Chechik about Vancouver parole officers.

Other series under consideration by the cbc are These Arms of Mine, a series created by Phil Savath about friends struggling to navigate contemporary Vancouver; Tofino, a series created by Brian McKeown about a Vancouver Island town; and Crosstown, a series by local writer Hart Hanson and Ark Films about life on the gritty Eastside of Vancouver.

wic is considering Forefront’s drama Timber, a series about a Vancouver lumber family, and CanWest has a development deal with producer Greg Servos to do Tabloid Times, about a Vancouver daily that is turned into a true British tab.

‘Sooner or later, b.c.-based producers will come of age and perhaps this is the year,’ says B.C. Film Commissioner Pete Mitchell. ‘There is a sign of resurgence, but so much is dependent on federal funding. We are fated to suffer the whims of people in Ottawa.’

He adds: ‘The biggest risk factor we have in Vancouver is the dollar exchange rate which has shown some volatility lately. Clearly, we want to diversify the Canadian industry.’

On top of the dramas are the myriad anthologies segments and the children’s series required by Baton, shows that will need b.c. producers to fill the airtime.

The local impact

Wayne Sterloff, president of British Columbia Film, is restrained in his enthusiasm about the coming primetime series and other production work.

He says the series will be personal triumphs for above-the-line workers like writers, directors, producers and actors. But unless the producers control the project from start to finish, including distribution, the series will amount to little more than service-production deals.

‘Nobody should fool themselves that this has anything to do with infrastructure,’ says Sterloff, referring to the prospect that the series will build strong film companies in b.c. ‘For that, we have to control the profitable exploitation of the product. We need to own the back end and that back end requires deficit financing.’

By selling the distribution, he contends, producers forfeit the capital required to build integrated film companies like Atlantis or Cinar.

Clearly, however, the immediate impact will be in the production volumes recorded by the B.C. Film Commission.

In 1996, the production budgets for the 34 Canadian-content productions jumped from $142 million to $214 million and direct spending increased from $110 million to $175 million. That represents about 33% and 27%, respectively, of the total film production market for 1996.

But last year’s numbers for Canadian production are heavily influenced by series such as Poltergeist, Outer Limits and Highlander, which qualify as Canadian but are made for American syndication by out-of-province production companies.

The new series, whether they be two, as the conservative observer expects, or four, as the optimistic film worker hopes, will improve the Canadian component of the local industry, which is expected to reach ever greater volumes in 1997.

The billion-dollar threshold

Decade-old business relationships, master union agreements, attractive dollar exchanges and diverse service suppliers continue to lure the Americans to Brollywood. Whispers of American business helping to push the industry through the billion-dollar threshold (in terms of total production budget value) get louder when Disney’s $100 million Viking film Eaters of the Dead will claim one-tenth of the target this summer.

Ball park prognostications for 1997 hint at about 110 productions with production volumes topping $1 billion and direct spending reaching $650 million.

In April, Leslie Nielsen will star in Disney’s live-action feature Mr. Magoo. Ground Zero, an action feature from Castle Rock about terrorists and missile silos, is also scouting for a summer start.

Madonna, the new female Ninja Turtle, is to be introduced to audiences through the new 13-part Ninja series set for production in Vancouver. The series Roar, which is like the Oscar-winning, sword-wielding Braveheart feature but is based in Ireland, is also a likely go.

In posting another record year in 1996, the industry recorded 101 productions generated $537 million in direct spending, a jump of 24%. In all, there were 14 u.s. features, eight u.s. television series and 43 u.s. mows produced in b.c. in 1996.

Total production budgets (including all Canadian, u.s. and other foreign work) increased 24% to $802 million in 1996. The jump in production value was helped by the Disney squid film Deep Rising, the largest single budget film ever made in b.c.

‘We’re off to a very good start,’ says the B.C. Film Commission’s Mitchell. b.c. normally hits capacity in July, but this year he predicts about 30 crews will be committed full time as early as May.

Finding the space for it all

b.c.’s ability to grow is only limited by capacity, the latest issue to arise now that the province’s infamous labor strife has been mostly quelled. Crews and studios are stretched to the limit; important work is being turned away because there is no room.

‘It gets to the point where there is no cable left in town,’ says Mitchell.

Studios are being proposed for Surrey and other studios promised near downtown Vancouver are still on the planning boards, but Victoria is ready to go with its new studio.

Backers Ian Ferguson, a business consultant, b.c. publisher David Black and commercial real estate player Frank Summers of West Coast Victoria Studios signed a deal at the end of January to lease a vehicle maintenance facility at CFB Esquimalt.

The 13,000-square-foot space has clear spans and lots of parking, says Ferguson. Leasehold improvements are underway; the investment should come in under $300,000.

With referrals from the B.C. Film Commission and overbooked The Bridge and North Shore Studios, Ferguson hopes to land a tv series. While rates will be competitive and some incentives will be offered to woo projects to the Island, there are no leads yet.

In b.c. there are now an estimated 8,000 people directly employed by the film industry. With the expected onslaught this summer, union permittees will undoubtedly get their time in, service suppliers will be working 24 hours and popular locations will be stacked up.

The new Canadian series, Mitchell adds, may have trouble pulling together their crews since they are in competition with bigger-budget u.s. shows.

B.C. partnerships

In following a cross-Canada trend, b.c. producers are taking a more active role seeking out domestic partnerships, but few are what can be described as true coproductions.

Forefront is working with Winnipeg’s Credo to coproduce the kids’ detective series The Adventures of Shirley Holmes. In this case, says Sterloff, Holmes is a true interprovincial coproduction with both provincial agencies putting money into the project.

But other projects like Kitchen Party (a b.c. partnership with an Alberta producer), or deals that are brewing between b.c. and Ontario or b.c. and Quebec do not have that provincial investment parity, says Sterloff.

He describes the partnership trend more as a transfer of skills, with producers like Anne Wheeler doing more work outside of b.c.

In other trends, Sterloff sees a brain drain of young British Columbian filmmakers who go to film centers (like the Canadian Film Centre) to learn their craft and then don’t come back. Veteran b.c. filmmakers, he adds, are not leaving.

And finally, another trend increasing the volume of b.c. production is the growth of specialty channel business.

Among the b.c. shows to benefit from specialty channel participation in 1996 are Nature Walk (SOMA Television for Life Network), Investigators of the Last Frontier (White Bear Productions for Discovery), Champions of the Wild (Omni Film for Discovery) and Communities (Asterisk Productions for Vision).