Equal to the Task

Canada’s film-production companies can make it on their own,
even if U.S. moviemakers are heading back to Hollywood

by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, October 23, 2004

After Hollywood and New York, Vancouver is North America’s third largest film and television production center. Close proximity to Los Angeles, a mild climate and a tax credit system that reimburses a portion of production expenses attracted business worth $1.4 billion in 2002. With 85% of that business coming from the U.S. and similar statistics available for Toronto and Montreal, film production services have become a major Canadian export. Now, thanks to a rising Canadian dollar and recent U.S. legislation giving similar tax credits to the American film industry for work performed in the U.S., all this could change. Indeed, with production in British Columbia down by 25% in August of this year, it already has changed.

“For the first time in fifteen years, one of the city’s top production co-ordinators told me he has no job,” says Stephen Hegyes producer of the Canada-UK co-production White Noise. The veteran of the west coast new wave in drama production adds, “Unlike France, the U.S. and India, Canada does not have a healthy film industry. Producers will always look for cost effective ways to make their films so the U.S. tax credits won’t have a big effect but the higher dollar will.”

As a country of conservative investors with no significant tradition of patronizing the arts or entertainment, Canada has instead proved itself a world leader in government subsidies and financial incentives to attract outside production and/or private sector investment to Canadian production. Yet stable financing persists as the single biggest impediment to creating a sustainable industry. Canada needs an industrial strategy for film production, says Hegyes. “We have been ahead of the curve, but the wave has crested and we can’t stop or rest on our laurels.”

For Julia Keatley, daughter of the executive producer of the iconic Beachcombers and whose forensic crime series Cold Squad is in its seventh season, the issue isn’t so clear cut. The production explosion in Vancouver, she says, has been a double edged sword. Having a strong service sector renders employment creation more important than good product creation. “Vancouver is now expensive,” she says. “Big bucks for U.S. productions also means higher costs for Canadian productions.”

As innumerable commissions and task forces attest, lessons for an industry perpetually searching for itself in the shadow of the U.S. cultural behemoth are no clearer now than before and Vancouver’s experience is no exception. While the surprise hit Corner Gas, a Saskatchewan based situation comedy, garners an unprecedented 1.5 million viewers weekly, U.S. programming fills the remaining air time and is watched by an even larger number of Canadian viewers. Proposing yet another set of financial incentives at last year’s convention of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, CRTC Chairman Charles Dalfen asked plaintively, “… is this the mark of a cultural colony?”

The National Post’s Matthew Fraser, as media policy commentator, might answer yes, the production industry is continental so get used to it. The American Empire is not only a military and economic superpower, it is also a cultural one, he says. Canada’s drama initiative is little more than an “exercise in bureaucratic self-preservation and interest group politics.”

So from hewers of wood and drawers of water to providers of production services and human resources for the imperial power… is that all there is for Canadian talent?

At a time when the Olympics, the Academy Awards, Royal weddings, the World Cup and even the Pope attracts mass television audiences, it’s clear we live in an age driven more by technology than culture. This, in global terms, means culture is still up for grabs.

The Beachcombers sold around the world and became the prototype for Danger Bay,” says Julia Keatley, who is currently producing a comedy drama series called Godiva’s. “And we can do it again. Trends show audiences everywhere want more of their own product – American, yes, but their own too. Corner Gas is the way for us to go. If we are relying on the international marketplace, product has to be formulaic. Godiva’s takes place in the universal setting of a restaurant but it is specific to Vancouver.”

Whether the production is formulaic or authentic, the encouraging development from the west coast new wave is that producers like Hegyes and Keatley are today, as seldom before, equal to either task. White Noise opens in North American cinemas in January; Godiva’s can be seen on national television next spring.

Margret Kopala column on western perspectives appears regularly.

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