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Courtesy of The Province
Roxanne Nesbitt is a recent architecture grad and has studied orchestral music. Like hundreds of other trained B.C. technicians and artists, she’s trading a stable nine-to-fiver for what was once considered a gamble in this province’s feast or famine film industry.
But there hasn’t been a famine for a couple of years, and she believes now is the time to take that leap of faith. British Columbia’s film industry is booming, this month boasting the highest number of TV and movie productions ever shot here at one time.
Blockbusters such as Star Trek Beyond have contributed tens of millions of dollars to the economy, while a number of big-budget television series made by Netflix and Amazon has Vancouver’s production studios booked solid. The skyrocketing demand, however, has left unions and companies scrambling for staff and studio space.
After graduating from University of B.C.’s architecture school last year, Nesbitt, 29, began looking for work at firms in Vancouver but found the idea of sitting in an office all day daunting.
“I was afraid of working nine-to-five for the rest of my life because I have all these other creative pursuits,” said Nesbitt, who also recently released an album with her band Graftician.
She started her first feature film in January and said while the long 10- to 12-hour work days can be exhausting, the thrill of working on a movie set and using her architectural skills as a creative set designer are worth it. She’s working at the moment on the Netflix original feature film Okja.
“It’s exciting not knowing what is around the corner or what job I’ll do next.”
Given the state of the industry, it’s likely she’ll be signed up for the next gig before this one ends.
A total of 53 film and TV productions are either already shooting or in pre-production in B.C., according to the Union of B.C. Performers (UBCP). This time last year, there were 43. The City of Vancouver reports a 45-per-cent increase in movie and TV production so far in 2016 compared with 2015.
In June, the city handed out 565 permits to shoot at various locations, compared with 283 in June 2015 (also a banner year).
Jason Cameron, a spokesman for UBCP, said B.C. was up to 55 productions earlier this month, which he said is the highest number of productions the province has ever had at one time.
“It’s the busiest it’s ever been,” said Peter Mitchell, president of Vancouver Film Studios, which worked with Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Bad Robot on Star Trek Beyond.
Data released by the Motion Picture Association of Canada last week show that over 78 days of filming, the production spent $69 million in B.C. Of that, more than $40 million went to wages for 3,900 local cast, crew and extras.
Mitchell said they are turning away work, and have been for the last couple of years. Typically he will refer a movie company to another studio, but said this week that “if someone calls today I don’t know where to send them.”
While the weaker Canadian dollar and tax credits have been a draw for production companies, Mitchell credits the booming industry mostly to companies like Netflix and Amazon producing new shows.
“The quality of television is better than it has ever been. A lot of that has to do with the growth of the middle class worldwide. People want to be entertained,” he said.
“There’s a ton of temporary studios right now, where people are renting out warehouses. Traditionally, real estate agents don’t want to rent out short term but because the demand is so high, they are filling the gap. That’s really a new thing in the last year.”
The major challenge now is that Metro Vancouver is short on studio space despite having four purpose-built studios and unions are struggling to provide enough staff, despite a mass influx of new members.
In one year, IATSE Local 891, which represents technicians and artists, has signed up 1,000 new members, said spokesman Phil Klapwyk. In the last few months, the union has signed up an average of 150 workers per month and now has a total of 6,500, the highest number yet.
A lot of the new recruits are those with transferable skills such as carpentry. Many are coming from Alberta’s ailing oilpatch industry, said Klapwyk, noting that a pipe fitter could work in special effects, for example.
He admits that despite the influx, they are still short to meet demand, in particular with some of the harder to fill positions, such as electricians, hair and makeup, and workers with firearms licenses.
“It’s not just B.C. that’s hurting for crew. L.A. is booming. We receive calls from elsewhere in Canada saying ‘send us staff’ and we say ‘we don’t have enough here,’ ” he said. “And it all has to do with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and the demand for content.”
To encourage more members, the union has temporarily waved the $100 application fee and is sending less experienced workers out with professionals so they can meet their permit requirements.
Nesbitt joined the IATSE union in June, after she had completed the required number of hours for her permit. She questions whether the film industry will be good long-term because she could see the long hours being a challenge if she had kids, but for now she loves the uncertainty and isn’t worried about being unemployed should the industry cool off again.
Sandi Swanigan, senior manager of film and special events for the City of Vancouver, said they are swamped and may even bring on a new staff member to help with the volume and complexity of the hundreds of applications they deal with each month.
She’s not sure if a 45-per-cent rise in the number of productions is sustainable, and it has proven challenging for her six-member team to ensure that street use requests, many of which include shoots for car commercials, don’t conflict with construction, cruise ship paths and summer festivals. The location checks then must go to the VPD for approval. Yet she says the city tries not to turn down applications because of the huge economic spinoff for Vancouver.
“Vancouver gets a lot of recognition and it promotes local industry,” she said. Last year, when the Georgia Street Viaduct was shut down during the filming of the smash hit Deadpool, instead of dozens of complaints from grumpy commuters there was a positive response, she noted, especially when star Ryan Reynolds thanked Vancouverites on Twitter for sharing the road.
Much of the challenge falls on the production companies to find space and compete for sound stages, she said. But with the recent advent of pop-up studios, including the old Post Office on Georgia Street, it seems companies are finding makeshift solutions to the space crunch.
“I thought we might be hitting the ceiling but now with all these pop-ups, the ceiling has been raised,” she said, adding they could see a dip in production once the reduced tax credit comes into effect.
In May, B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong said the new rate for production services tax credit will be set at 28 per cent, a five-point drop from the previous rate of 33 per cent. The rate for digital animation or visual effects will also fall from 17.5 per cent to 16 per cent. The changes will be phased in for productions shooting before Oct. 1.
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