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COVER STORY: Lights, camera, action! North Shore filmmakers cautiously optimistic
The first half of 2013 is labelled as the worst in B.C. film industry history. Thousands of people were out of jobs, including many of the 5,000 trade professionals living on the North Shore.
At the worst point, the Save BC Film campaign reports 90 per cent of the province’s 28,000 film workers, such as costume designers, production managers and casting directors, were unemployed because of tax credit cuts imposed by the BC Liberal government.
But the industry is picking up, including in North Van where 50 Shades of Grey is rumoured on several blogs to film at North Shore Studios in mid-November.
While it’s widespread news the salacious book-to-movie adaptation is filming in Vancouver, the exact location hasn’t been officially confirmed, although Peter Leitch, president of the studios, did give hope.
“If that’s what they say, then maybe it’s true. I can’t confirm it,” he told The Outlook while giving a tour of the lot’s eight studios, where crews are hustling back and forth on the sets of TV shows Falling Skies, Tomorrow People and Fairly Odd Summer.
50 Shades of Grey – which is rumoured to be filmed under the discreet working name The Adventures of Max & Banks — is set to be a major feature film and would likely bring back an enthusiasm to the North Shore film industry that was seen with blockbuster film series Twilight a few years ago and The X-Files from 1993 to 2002.
“B.C. is never going to be the lowest price but we still need to be competitive,” says Leitch. “If it was all about price, we would be out of business here.”
It’s the province’s natural setting, skilled professionals and matching timezone with L.A. that will keep the industry going in B.C., he adds, despite more competitive breaks in Ontario, Quebec and some U.S. states.
Although filming on the North Shore appears to be relatively thriving, at least compared to earlier this year, it’s a delicate balancing act.
Many insiders doubt there will ever be nearly as much action as the industry’s heyday during the early 2000s. If locally-made movies and TV series decide to shoot in eastern Canada or down to the U.S., (Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois and Michigan are among some 40 states that offer incentives that can lure B.C. business with them) then B.C.’s industry could return to where it was five months ago.
“You have to watch it, it can change quickly. In L.A. it got very difficult and expensive to film in neighbourhoods, that’s part of the reason why they left,” says Leitch, stopping at a set decoration and wardrobe sale from the detective comedy-drama series Psych that filmed at the studios for eight seasons. The next day people lined up for 45 minutes to buy the discounted props and clothes, which can run $50,000 per episode.
“Everyone is busy right now. We hope it lasts.”
A few minutes away, under the Second Narrows Bridge, gritty facades line war-torn streets with blown-out cars and squalid, deserted buildings — a post-apocalyptic Boston following an alien invasion (cover photo).
This is a set for Falling Skies, a science-fiction TV series produced by Steven Spielberg and staring Noah Wyle and Tom Mason, that premiers its fourth season next summer.
Towering lights will soon shine on the streets at night as actors and crews start filming again at the Dollarton-area location and Riverview Hospital, a deserted mental health facility in Coquitlam.
Over in West Van, the TV show Almost Human has applied to Transport Canada for permission to fly helicopters low enough to film scenes over the Upper Levels Highway and along the seawall this weekend.
But despite the upturn in B.C.’s film industry, John Quee, owner of production supply store Thomas FX in North Van, says his business can’t survive on solely servicing movies produced in this province.
He has made a deliberate attempt to create a global appeal so location doesn’t affect his bottom line. Whether a movie is filmed in Vancouver, the eastern U.S. or Europe, productions still buy from the store’s website.
His credits include most TV series and movies filmed in B.C., including Twilight, Supernatural (he supplied several thousand body parts), Tomorrowland, Falling Skies and Almost Human. Outside B.C. he’s sold to hundreds of other productions, such as The Hobbit, Total Recall 2, The Book of Eli and Cinderella Man.
“Out of 20 new calls, four or five have been from Vancouver. A smaller and smaller per cent of them are from Vancouver,” he tells The Outlook.
“So if you don’t go global, you can’t survive in this market.”
The first major signs the Vancouver film industry was slowing down occurred in 2008, he explains, when the economy crashed.
“The world changed, the film industry was hit just as hard.”
Then unions started fighting with each other and the situation got worse, he adds.
And, earlier this year, local filmmakers were hit again.
Currently, a 33 per cent tax credit is offered in B.C. but only for labour costs, while Ontario and Quebec offer a 25 per cent credit on all production expenditures.
This gap has led the province’s estimated 25,000 industry professionals to call on the government for more support for their threatened livelihoods.
Now that the local industry is picking up, Quee is happy but emphasizes that his business will remain global and not depend on B.C.’s economy.
In town filming Disney’s sci-fi production Tomorrowland, George Clooney was spotted bar-hoping in Vancouver on the weekend – a testament to B.C.’s rebounding film industry.
He was first seen at Joey Burrard downtown when a starstruck Twitter user posted “OMG GEORGE CLOONEY IS AT MY BAR HOLY S--- LOL” and then uploaded a photo of the eligible bachelor waiting for a drink. Then, posing with three thrilled fans, another photo of the Hollywood A-lister was Tweeted outside the sushi restaurant Minami in Yaletown, where he stopped for sashimi and a martini.
And soon, if the blogs and websites including Production Weekly are correct, 50 Shades of Grey’s leading stars Charlie Hunnam (Christian Grey) and Dakota Johnson (Anastasia Steele) will soon be caught at cafés and restaurants in North and West Vancouver.
But there’s no assurance the buzz will stay, as industry insiders experienced first hand earlier this year.
The volatile local film industry definitely isn’t as it was during its peak, says Quee.
“Choices are being made for economic reasons, not creative reasons,” he says, comparing tight production costs today to those a decade ago.
Pointing out dozens of different contractors involved in running North Shore Studios, Leitch warns, “One of the differences in this industry is that it’s project based.” Although optimistic about the future, he knows, in the blink of an eye, movies and TV series can easily decide to pack up and relocate elsewhere.