Industrial devolution

The brief ACTRA strike and a strong dollar have stalled the local film industry. Carsten Knox finds out why this summer is so quiet.

Selleck-tive memory Halifax is hurtin’ for a Stone Cold sighting.

"The dearth of long form is killing the industry," says Kris Gilbert, in one long, exasperated breath.

She's the marketing manager for William F. White, one of the leading equipment suppliers to the film industry in Nova Scotia. Her company has been struggling to survive a long and painful drought in the film business, one that is only now starting to see change.

White's and PS (Production Services) are the two big companies providing cameras, lights and equipment to crews in town. Gilbert says the few small productions that have run recently "aren't enough to sustain our business." She will say she continues to be optimistic about "the talent here in Atlantic Canada"—it's what brought her here from Ontario in the first place.

But that talent hasn't had a lot of chance to shine of late. Though the homegrown TV business continues to move forward—Halifax Film, for example, has filled the waterfront studio Electropolis with its mostly animated children's programming production—the film industry, much of which is sustained by American dollars, hasn't seen a new production since the Viking-alien epic Outlander wrapped in January.

The reasons behind this extended quiet period are multifold.

"It's almost like it's a perfect storm," says local production manager Ginny Duzak. "The Canadian dollar being strong doesn't attract the American producers." There's also the reality of what other regions, both in Canada and down in the States, have to offer in terms of tax breaks. "Ontario has increased their credit," says Duzak. "They have this scenario where they've increased it even more to be outside the zone, i.e., outside Toronto. Hamilton is outside the zone, a far cry different than doing it outside of . And Manitoba has a very attractive tax credit."

"I looked at Louisiana's production list and they are just slamming right now," says Shauna Hatt, a production coordinator. "I think there are some bigger incentive programs in the US for people to stay. It's a struggle every year but it's just unheard of to be sitting in June without a production office open."

There's no doubt the brief but unprecedented labour unrest earlier in the year involving ACTRA, the actor's union, also scared off some "from away" business.

"It was a little bit of a slow time after the strike. That's not just us, that was right across the country," says Ann MacKenzie, chief executive officer at the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation, the provincial agency that supports and promotes the local business. She's quick to point out that shows are coming to town soon. "We have around three service productions that are looking to start prep before July 1, two MOWs and one feature film. We have a feature film that is in the process of looking. If it does go forward hopefully it will be here."

Two weeks ago the Atlantic Film Festival announced the results of a study it commissioned on the effectiveness of the Strategic Partners program, its festival-time business networking conference that sees national and international producers connecting, and ideally, inking production deals. They say of $181 million in business created from the 2006 conference, over $60 million will go into the local economy in the next four years. It's an encouraging prediction given the current situation.

"It's not about what's happening now," says Gregor Ash, the executive director of the Atlantic Film Festival, who says Strategic Partners is essential to help create international co-ventures. "It's really about trying to figure out where things are going."

But so long as our currency continues to soar opposite the zero-growth American economy, many in the film business who have enjoyed Hollywood's regular interest in shooting here remain frustrated.

"As an old production person, I don't think anything's real until the filming actually starts," says Tim Storey, the business agent for the Director's Guild of Canada, the union that represents many of the film technicians in town. "I don't want to seem too negative, but we're not seeing a lot of stuff," he says. "We're hearing a lot of rumours—the return of Tom Selleck in Stone Cold. No offices have opened, no crew has been hired and it's because a lot of these shows were budgeted six months ago before the dollar went up."

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