COVER: A slow 2013 compels thousands to rally behind Save BC Film campaign
The North Shore Studios has seen little in the way of lights, cameras and action lately.
But on January 22, more than 2,000 out-of-work filmmakers and their supporters (some reports go as high as 4,500 in attendance) stepped in front of the cameras once again at the production lot’s Stage 7 to protest the provincial government’s decision to call ‘cut!’ on competitive tax credits for the industry.
It was the culmination of the Save BC Film campaign, a social media-driven public relations initiative that, before the rally even began, had garnered more than 25,000 signatures to a petition calling on Premier Christy Clark to increase tax incentives and stem the eastward migration of film and television productions to Ontario and Quebec.
“There’s nobody shooting right now at either facility,” said Peter Leitch, president of both North Shore Studios in North Vancouver and Mammoth Studios in Burnaby. “I can’t remember ever having nobody shooting… and that’s over 20 years.”
Leitch also serves as chairman of the Motion Picture Production Industry Association of B.C., a role that affords him a certain big-picture perspective on the industry as a whole.
“We saw a real tailing off in 2012 — it was certainly quieter on the feature film front — and now we’re seeing a continuation of that,” Leitch says. “So 2013 is looking very quiet and we’re concerned about it.”
The problem, his would-be customers tell him, is higher tax credits in Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere in the U.S.
“The differential between Ontario, Quebec and Vancouver, British Columbia is just too great,” he said.
In those eastern provinces, film and television productions get a tax break of around 25 per cent off the top, while in BC, they get a 33 per cent break on BC labour alone.
That works out to about a 10 per cent differential overall, Leitch said, tilting the industry’s favour eastward.
Leitch and other insiders aren’t calling for the province to match those competitive tax rates, but just to “get a little closer.”. BC’s natural landscape, its shared time zone with Hollywood, and the film infrastructure and personnel already in place here will do the rest to lure the productions back, he added.
It was a sentiment echoed at the rally by veteran Beachcombers actor and industry booster, Jackson Davies.
“Even though my studios were boats and cop cars and cafés, we did have the most beautiful back-lot set in the world; you’ve probably heard about it — British Columbia,” Davies said, to wild applause.
Local film producer Wayne Bennett said BC’s investment in film education, coupled with non-competitive tax incentives for employers, sends, at best, a mixed message to the industry.
“What’s the point of educating people at these 24 facilities in this province if they’ve got to go to Ontario, Quebec and other places around the world to actually earn a living?”
But last week Premier Clark told reporters her government would not raise tax incentives in an effort to return the province’s film industry to its former prominence.
“I understand the pressure, the race to the bottom that we’ve seen in economies that are really struggling,” Clark said, referring to Ontario and Quebec. “I understand the pressure that that’s creating. But here in British Columbia we offer a pretty good deal for filmmakers and we do it for the right reasons — because it’s an important industry for us.”
Today, only about one-tenth of the B.C. film and television industry’s estimated 25,000 employees are working. And while January is naturally a down time for the business, that 10 per cent mark is a low point historically, Leitch said.
“We’re still about 40 per cent down from where we were last year at this same time,” he estimated, noting 2012 was still a “reasonable year” for the business.
Part protest, part celebration, Tuesday’s rally was a slickly produced spectacle few industries can rival. And that flair, Leitch said, is what the film and television industry’s grumblings had lacked, until now.
“One of the things I think we hadn’t done as well as we could is not only tell the government but tell the public about all the benefits of the industry — the type of employment it generates and economic benefits — and I don’t think we’ve voiced that as well as we could have.”