Whistler is part of booming movie biz But industry health is fragile despite billions spent By Chris Woodall It was no fluke that FacePlant ’97 took place in Whistler, a thank-you party weekend from the B.C. Film Commission to the film and movie industry involving lots of movie biz folks having lots of fun. More than just a party palace, Whistler has been used time and again by camera crews in features, TV series and commercials. It's almost to the point where careful viewers can identify Whistler or other Sea to Sky locales week-to-week as backgrounds or settings on a regular basis. In the past year or so, 14 feature films, seven TV series, two movies for TV and three TV commercials have used "us." There's big money in them thar hills. In 1996, something like $537 million was spent directly in B.C. to make flicks, calculated to have generated $1.5 billion in spin-off economic impacts. "It's growing at 21 per cent a year over the past 10 years," says Peter Mitchell, director of the B.C. Film Commission. "When they first came here, film producers thought of B.C. as a frontier," Mitchell recalls, where everyone from actors to technical and other support persons were involved strictly part-time. This year is looking to outdo the record year in 1996. By the six-month mark of 1997, 80 productions were completed. Considering that 105 productions were completed for all of 1996, the final 1997 tally could be dazzling. Features are the glamour productions and TV movies are quickies, but it's the TV series like X-Files, Outer Limits, and Viper that are the bread and butter productions. "A series will film for nine or 10 months at a time," Mitchell says. "That really builds a skills base." But while Mitchell is enthusiastic, long-time B.C. actor-producer Don F. Davis would describe the glamorous industry in this province as fragile, at best. "As with most actors who live up here, I make most of my money from Los Angeles-based projects that come up here," Davis says. He has made his home in B.C. since the 1980s. "I've been successful and have taken to producing here, but one of the things I've been hearing, is that the costs and restrictions have risen to the point where B.C. is one of the most expensive places you can film outside of L.A.," Davis says. "If there were any changes at all to increase those restrictions or costs those productions would go elsewhere," Davis says. He is currently Commander Hammond in the TV series Stargate SG1, but has been seen on episodes of Twin Peaks and will be Scully's deceased father on upcoming instalments of The X-Files. Movies of the Week are particularly sensitive to costing, Davis says. They are generally one-offs, as opposed to feature films — or TV commercials, for that matter — that get played repeatedly to generate income or exposure for the producer/client. If film projects stop coming to B.C., it'll be no thanks to the inflexibility of municipal bylaws, Davis says. One example are the times of day or night when shooting can occur. A town or city can get too stroppy about "not before X p.m., and not after Y a.m." without thinking it through that when the crew starts business, any interruptions extend the shooting schedule with all those people who have to be paid for standing around. "It has nothing to do with the calibre of the people working on a picture, or the friendliness of the area," Davis says. "We're the largest film centre outside L.A. and probably New York, and we have unmatched post production facilities and sound stages," Davis says. He also has praise for the B.C. Film Commission for going to bat to facilitate film industry requests. "They are doing all they can to work around these problems," Davis says. The film industry also has to knock heads with its own union regulations. The union has its part to play to ensure production crew aren't over worked and work safely, yet for the producer there can be frustrations if the union insists on sticking to union rules. Going up the highway for a location shot in Pemberton might seem easy enough, for example. But because Pemberton is outside a union's "zone," rules about travel expenses, per diems, housing, and so on come into play that can cost the producer $3 for every $1 it might otherwise have cost. "Just having pretty scenery to shoot isn't good enough. There are nuts and bolts behind that decision," Davis says. Then there are the taxes. "There are different tax structures in B.C. that L.A. people are not used to, or willing to accommodate," Davis says. Then there are the other provinces, willing to poach B.C. business with the lure of tax holidays. "Frankly, we're losing business to Alberta because of the different tax breaks given there," Davis says. Ontario has entered the war, too, giving tax credits to producers shooting in that province. "That's a full broadside," Mitchell says, that may be counter-productive to what the film industry can mean to Canada as a whole. "Is this a race to the bottom?" Mitchell asks of one province undercutting another. Internationally, the state of the Canuck buck is a more important factor than the depth of the talent pool, Davis says. "There are two reasons for B.C.'s large film industry: the dollar and the infrastructure," Davis explains. "Around the world they rave about how well-trained the actors are, and that we have support facilities that rival anything in the world," Davis says. "But film companies aren't philanthropists. They'll be out of here like a shot if the dollar rises five cents," Davis says. Mitchell doesn't see it that harshly. "They come across the border for a cheap dollar, but they find they're getting good value at the end of the day because of the level of expertise in the industry." But a low dollar can have its problems anyway. "I don't want the dollar to fall any further. The local people's spending power to buy film and rent equipment in the U.S. increases with a lower Canadian dollar. "It's a precarious game," Davis says. What is needed in Davis's view is for the provincial and federal governments to provide a funding base and tax breaks for the industry, and to help set up a Canadian-owned film distribution company. "That's what keeps Canada from jumping to the top of film making world-wide," Davis says. "Even if we get a film made, it won't get distributed by a U.S. film distributor."