N.S. plans animation studio, film school

Nova Scotia’s film industry has long outgrown the term ‘emerging.’ Production activity is skyrocketing, a successful soundstage is in operation, and plans for both an animation studio and a film school are at an advanced stage.

Ann MacKenzie, executive director of the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation (nsfdc), is enthusiastic about the prospect of establishing the film school. As she explains, the process formally began in the fall of 1997 with a feasibility study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which came out in favor of the project. Over the next year, programming and financing committees worked with members of the community to devise an acceptable structure for the school. The province is currently in the midst of hiring a full-time administrator to put the final business plan in place.

Production volume statistics for the province suggest that the local film industry is indeed sufficiently healthy to warrant such a significant investment. Last fiscal year saw $97.5 million in activity, of which $5.4 million was guest production, with the balance representing indigenous production, says MacKenzie. Her figures for this year show $112 million in revenue from local companies and $16 million in guest production.

‘We have a really strong production community here,’ points out MacKenzie. ‘We have some pretty established production companies, with some new companies coming up, and they are all doing great things.’

Production has been given further impetus with the partnering of local producers from other provinces. The Halifax office of Toronto’s Sienna Films, along with local producer David Coole, were coproducers on the Imagex feature New Waterford Girl. Black Harbour coproducers David MacLeod and Wayne Grigsby have set up Big Motion Pictures in Nova Scotia, and both now live in the province. Edmonton’s Great North also has a local office in Nova Scotia.

Coproductions will keep Chris Zimmer’s Imagex busy throughout the second half of 1999. Partition, a Romeo and Juliet-style love story set in the Punjab in 1947, will be shooting in India and South Africa over the fall and winter. Vic Sarin directs this $20-million coproduction with TiMe of Munich and the South African Film Finance Corporation (saffco).

Closer to home, Imagex will team up with Minds Eye Pictures of Regina to produce a $6-million feature called Stargazing. The romantic comedy about a hairdresser with an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Monroe is scheduled to start filming in Saskatchewan in August.

Imagex’s screen adaptation of Newfoundland writer Wayne Johnston’s novel The Divine Ryans is scheduled for theatrical release in October, and in the same month, Zimmer and director Steve Reynolds will start shooting the film version of another of Johnston’s novels, Human Amusements. The $6-million feature about the effects of television on a boy growing up in Newfoundland will be shot in October and November in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New York.

The work of Wayne Johnston has provided a wealth of material for Imagex productions, and the company is currently in development on a one-hour, 13-part series based on The Divine Ryans that Zimmer will be taking to Banff this year. Also in development is a two-part mini-series called Les Deux Charles, which is adapted from Alfred Silver’s historical romance Acadia.

At Electropolis Studios in Halifax, Salter Street Films has a heavy production schedule with the 13-episode, second season of Made In Canada, followed immediately by series three of Lexx. Production has also started on the third series of Foodessence and on the second installment of Mrs. Greenthumbs, both for the Life Network. Another seven hours of Emily of New Moon, a Salter Street Films coproduction with Cinar, begins production in p.e.i. on August 3.

Two half-hour pilots from Salter Street will appear on tv screens within the next year. A comic period piece called Black Fly, written by Ron James and directed by David Story for Global, is set to shoot July 5 in Halifax. Black Fly features an utterly inexperienced guide leading a group of ill-equipped people into the wilderness.

Pipe Dreams is a half-hour sitcom pilot for the cbc about the misadventures of two couples. The husband of one pair and the wife of the other are killed in a car accident, and the surviving spouses are thrown together. The mismatched pair are soon at loggerheads, and the appearance of the ghosts of the dead husband and wife further stirs the pot.

Salter Street will be drawing from literary sources for Cod, a documentary series based on Mark Kurlansky’s history of the international cod fishery. A coproduction with Primitive Features in Toronto, the three one-hour episodes will be hosted by Mary Walsh and begin shooting this summer. A broadcast deal with Discovery is in place for Cod, as are presales to Iceland and Portugal.

With Black Harbour coming to an end, Topsail Entertainment president Michael Volpe is turning his hand to documentaries over the summer and fall. Topsail is executive producing a 13-episode doc series called Steeplechasing for Vision. A coproduction with Larry LeClare of p.e.i. and ABD Productions in Halifax, the musical travel show features host Geoff Noble visiting church steeples in communities throughout the Maritimes. Volpe and partner Barry Cowling eventually hope to take the show across Canada and then to Europe.

In July, Topsail starts production on Stories from Pier 21, a two-hour documentary about the history of Pier 21 in Halifax, which was the point of arrival for many immigrants coming to Canada. Holly Preston will direct Stories from Pier 21, and the documentary will be broadcast by the History Channel, with Vision as the second window.

A third documentary on Topsail’s schedule will take the producers on a return visit to Vietnam in July. Operation Smile follows a team of surgeons from Canada and the u.s. who travel to underdeveloped countries to treat people with facial deformities. Coproducers Calluna Productions and Hammond Productions, with executive producer Topsail, will return to Vietnam in November to document the progress of the patients. Originally, the project was funded exclusively by the producers, but there has been subsequent investment by the nsfdc, as well as the acquisition of a broadcast licence from Vision.

Topsail is currently shooting a second season of The Bette Show for the cbc. Another six episodes of the half-hour sketch comedy series are being coproduced with Brooks Diamond Productions in Halifax.

Ocean Entertainment is making a foray into drama, but the Halifax company will not be abandoning documentary or lifestyle productions, which have been its primary focus until recently. Ocean’s first television drama is a half-hour Christmas story called The Toymaker. The project has been financed with development money from ctv, and will go into production this winter.

On the nonfiction front, Ocean is shooting a second season of The Inn Chef for the Life Network with coproducer Cellar Door Productions in p.e.i. A documentary for the History Channel about Billy Barker, Canada’s much-decorated war hero, is in development, along with Reinventing Rituals, a documentary series in coproduction with Northern Lights Television of Toronto. Ocean has broadcast licences from Vision, scn and Knowledge Network to produce three one-hour episodes of Reinventing Rituals, and will shop the project at Banff in hopes of finding partners for a further 10 episodes.

Janice Evans and Greg Jones of Creative Atlantic Communications are in development on a half-hour drama for ctv called First and Last, their follow-up to the Gemini-nominated dramatic short Eb and Flo. Written and directed by Micheal Amo, First and Last follows the misfortunes of struggling musician Jimmy St. George as he tries to cobble together the money for his rent. Knowing that his girlfriend and their baby are counting on him, Jimmy has to resort to desperate measures. First and Last is scheduled to begin shooting in Halifax in the late fall.

Chronicle Pictures, producer of the Global half-hour drama December, 1917, is in development on a feature called October, written by Scott Simpson, with financing from Telefilm and the nsfdc. October features an agoraphobic writer who is forced to confront the outside world when he is falsely accused of a crime. Chronicle is also developing a film adaptation of Balzac’s novel The Wild Ass’s Skin, with a screenplay by Evangelo Kioussis, as well as Touch and Go, a feature penned by local playwright Michael Melski.

While production activity in the province is high, Nova Scotian producers share many concerns about access to funding and distribution with their Atlantic Canadian colleagues. On June 4, the region’s producers’ associations and funding agencies met in Halifax to discuss these issues in a roundtable discussion with Telefilm. Among the key concerns for local producers was the operation of the Canadian Television Fund. According to Nova Scotia Film & Television Producers Association chair Barry Dunn, the ctf is a fly in the ointment for many small- and medium-sized producers.

‘When we were presented with the ctf, we were told that the system was objective and quantifiable,’ says Dunn. ‘What many producers found instead is that [the ctf system] is arcane, nobody understands it, and it lacks accountability.’

Most of the ctf money awarded in Nova Scotia went to Salter Street Films, a publicly traded company, precipitating discussion about funding caps on both private and public companies.

Producers attending the Halifax meeting were also worried about broadcaster-affiliated companies gobbling up ctf money, as well as placing smaller companies at a disadvantage for distribution and broadcast deals.

Dunn hopes that Telefilm Atlantic will retain some autonomy from the central agency, and he praises the efforts of regional executives on behalf of the local film industry. ‘We have really good lines of communication open now,’ he says, ‘and it’s important that we keep that communication going.’