HALIFAX – There’s no lights, no cameras and definitely no action in Nova Scotia.
A historically-low Canadian dollar has led to surges in business for the film industry in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, but Halifax continues to fill with curtain calls.
Two local industry businesses have announced they’re leaving the area for at least the immediate future, as Filmworks and Special Effects Atlantic Inc. both have said the lack of business or interest has forced them elsewhere.
“Business has come to a full stop,” said Filmworks owner Sheila Lane, who has been in the business for 30 years.
Lane made the decision, albeit a tough one, to close the company’s downtown offices for the time being, but doesn’t expect to re-open without a substantial hike in business.
“Overheads are high … so I had to shut ‘er down.”
Lane said, normally, there’s enough steady work on the horizon to know they were safe, but Filmworks didn’t have a single inquiry this past fall from perspective clients.
“Producers and productions were always looking for our help in casting for their new projects … but now there’s nothing.”
FILM BUSINESS BOOMING IN OTHER MARKETS
While local business is struggling, the rest of the country, like at Vancouver Film Studios, is booming.
“It’s quite strong right now,” said Peter Mitchell, president and COO of the company.
“It’s way beyond our capacity, the demand right now,” he said.
His facility is the largest in North America outside of Los Angeles, and he noted business has been steady for some time now but the even-lower dollar has run them off their feet.
It’s the same in Toronto, according to Paul Bronfman, chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios and CEO of William F. White International, which is a major production equipment supplier.
“The demand for production from both the US and Canada was very high even when the dollar was 85 or 90 cents … at a 71 cent dollar, Canada becomes very attractive,” Bronfman said.
National commissioner at the Quebec Film and Television Council, Pierre Moreau, said in Montreal and Quebec, business is also swinging upwards despite having less capacity than Toronto or Vancouver.
“The number of stages and number of productions keeps increasing,” Moreau said, as the boom in business means they can add more infrastructure.
“2015 was an absolute great year, when you have a blockbuster like Xmen: Apocoloypse, with a total budget of $130 million that was spent in the city, that’s a good start.”
While numbers are being finalized, Moreau estimates the industry will have generated over $300 million in revenue for the province of Quebec in 2015, about $120 million over the previous year’s total.
Justin Cutler, Ontario Film Commissioner with the Ontario Media Development Corporation, said they’ve received a record amount of inquiries in the past year.
All jurisdictions mentioned their tax credit formula offered to producers is one of the most important, if not the most important way they attract business to their particular region, but did say it was only one of several factors, including infrastructure and locale requirements.
“The Canadian tax credits are generous and favourable,” Moreau said. “If you have a 25 to 30 per cent exchange rate, it becomes a really good deal for any US production to shoot their film in Canada, there’s no doubt.”
LOCAL SCENE FADING TO BLACK
Back in Nova Scotia, Lane’s concerns and struggles are echoed by Gary Coates, owner of Special Effects Atlantic Ltd., who has also decided to close up shop and actively seek work outside the province.
“We have to do something, we have a negative revenue stream and big overhead, so no company can handle that for too long,” Coates said.
His company has provided special effects equipment and trained crews for such productions as Lizzie Borden and culturally iconic Trailer Park Boys.
He is considering downsizing or moving to a mobile model to help sustain the business, but said the time to act is now.
“I have a meeting with my accountant and he tells me we’re hemorrhaging money, and there’s again no revenue stream, it’s time to make a decision.”
“You can’t sit around and wait.”
In November, Local 849 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees produced statistics that showed a drop in over 400 production jobs since the previous fall, down to 90 from 510 in 2014.
OWNERS: CHANGES TO TAX CREDIT TO BLAME
Both Lane and Coates blame changes to the Nova Scotia Film Tax Credit during last spring’s budget by the governing Liberals for the current uncertainty within the sector.
“They’ve just wrecked an industry,” Coates said. “Producers are not interested in uncertainty on any level.”
Nova Scotia’s Business Minister, Mark Furey, said his department will continue to work with Screen Nova Scotia to address industry needs based on their suggestions.
“I recognize the need to restore confidence in the industry and to do that, we have to change the discussion,” Furey said.
“We’re trying to implement components that would be helpful, he said, referencing a November announcement of financial support to the industry that included efforts to help with scouting and location services, among other industry infrastructure.
The $475,000 in government money that was pledged is to be distributed over two years, which also goes to build a web portal, hire additional staff, and provide marketing support as Screen Nova Scotia continues to develop a long-term plan with Nova Scotia Business Inc.
The Nova Scotia Film and Television Incentive Fund, which replaced the tax credit, has received 12 applications since it opened on July 2, nine of which have been approved for a total of $1.6 million of investment, according to Furey.
Furey said he sympathizes with the owners of both Filmworks and Special Effects Atlantic Inc. as they head out of the region, but said his department’s work in the industry needs to continue.
“It’s always disappointing to hear of any small business in Nova Scotia facing those challenges, particularly in the film industry,” Furey said, adding that restoring confidence and global competitiveness is key, with the industry working closely with his department to get their needs addressed.
Scott Simpson, Vice Chair of Screen Nova Scotia, said the government changes to the credit have been hurtful to the industry, but they’re attempting to move forward the best they can to show the province is open for business.
“Our previous tax credit was a competitive one and it remains to be seen how competitive this incentive fund can be, because right now on paper it’s not as competitive as what other jurisdictions are offering,” Simpson said, adding they now need to work to re-build infrastructure as they push the industry forward.
“Re-establishing the confidence and creating a sense of stability is something we can work towards and we are working towards right now.”
NDP : ‘WAKE UP CALL’
NDP MLA Marian Mancini has called on Premier Stephen McNeil and his government to make immediate improvements to the Film and Television Production Incentive Fund to help the province stop bleeding jobs and skilled labour.
“I wish I could say I was surprised,” said Mancini when asked for her reaction to the closure of Filmworks and Special Effects Atlantic.
“It’s showing how deep the cuts are to the industry and how they’re suffering as a result.”
Mancini said it’s simple, business and labour are leaving the province and current industry in Nova Scotia in the dust.
“There’s too much uncertainty for the investors with the way the tax formula has been running now,” she said, adding the announcement of two local businesses leaving should serve as a wake-up call for the government to intervene.
Furey has maintained this is a transition year for the industry given last year’s changes, and said the timing is unfortunate given the low dollar.
Mancini worries the industry will run out of time and eventually fade to black.
That’s the same worry for Special Effects Atlantic, as owner Gary Coates said there’s not going to be much left to transition to if the current business environment continues.
“It’s going to transition an industry … in to just a pretty location for companies to come in and shoot in, frankly the world is full of pretty locations and we’ll just become one of them.”