Brad Wall nuked the Sask. film industry. His successor could bring it back
Province| by Gregory Beatty
Maybe it didn’t seem like a terrible idea at the time.
When the Saskatchewan government killed the Film Employment Tax Credit in 2012, the province’s resource sector was still vibrant. The film industry, meanwhile, wasn’t the force it had been a decade earlier, thanks to an at-par dollar luring productions south and fierce competition from other jurisdictions with their own tax credits.
Throw in the Saskatchewan Party’s near-pathological distrust of creative urban types and partisan animus to what was seen as an NDP economic initiative, and the decision to kneecap the film industry probably wasn’t a tough call for Premier Brad Wall and the cabinet.
Times have changed, though. For starters, the dollar is down. Saskatchewan’s resource boom went bust three years ago, our labour force is shrinking, the provincial deficit and debt are rising, and we desperately need economic diversification to ward off recession.
As for Canada’s film and TV industry? It’s in the midst of an unprecedented boom, fuelled by huge growth in over-the-top* production by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other streaming services, along with traditional studio activity.
“In 2016, according to Telefilm Canada, there was $7.6 billion in production in the country,” says Mike Burns of ACTRA’s Saskatchewan office. “To put that in perspective, when I started at ACTRA 15 years ago, the total for Canada was around $2 billion.
“It’s mind boggling, and none of it’s in Saskatchewan.”
Lowell Dean, the Regina-based director/writer of WolfCop and its sequel, Another WolfCop, marvels at film’s growth in Canada.
“The industry is robust pretty much everywhere except Saskatchewan,” says Dean. “The idea you have to do things in one place in one way has radically changed. Now, with digital production, everything is very mobile. Whether it’s Netflix or a Hollywood film or a local production, any of them could shoot in Saskatchewan if the incentives supported shooting here.”
Besides private sector investment, the federal government also spends money on screen-based media to promote Canadian culture. In fact, the Liberals have made culture a cornerstone of their economic strategy.
“We’re missing low-hanging fruit,” says Burns. “Telefilm Canada has envelopes for regional funding, and none of that’s coming to Saskatchewan. So what the government did was put us in a position where we’re not able to take advantage of the already available federal funding.”
Vancouver and Toronto are dominant players in Canada’s film and TV industry, obviously. But the boom isn’t confined to them. To the east and west of us, both Manitoba and Alberta are doing record business. In 2016, Manitoba recorded $139 million in production activity while Calgary alone did over $150 million with an estimated 10,200 people employed in its industry.**
Those are staggering numbers. And Saskatchewan has an ace up its sleeve that could let us meet, or even beat, those figures, says Burns.
“Our sound stage in Regina is still a superior facility to anything between Vancouver and Toronto. They have ones in Winnipeg and Calgary — they’re both good, but ours is still the best. It’s empty, but it’s still the best.
“Alberta and Manitoba are stretched to the max,” adds Burns. “If we had a tax credit with our sound stage it wouldn’t even be a hard sell. They’d come flooding in. It would take some time to build crew back up, but that would happen. People would come back from other provinces. Smart young people are going to school here now. Instead of leaving after they graduate, they’d stay.”
When the government nuked the tax credit in 2012 it devastated the sector. While actors, directors and producers get top billing in films and TV shows, many more people work behind the scenes in areas such as costume and set design, tech positions and the trades.
Those people lived and worked here, paid taxes, had families, and supported local businesses.
In a lot of cases that’s “lived”, past tense.
The hit wasn’t limited to the industry, either, as a host of businesses from caterers and hotels to car rental agencies, lumber yards, restaurants, bars, clothing stores and other retailers were whacked.
To compensate, the government established Creative Saskatchewan in 2013. But that organization just doesn’t have the muscle the tax credit had.
“It has a budget of $5 million— that’s for music, publishing, crafts, performing arts, and screen-based media,” says Burns. “That breaks down to about $2 million for film, and it’s over-subscribed the moment applications open.
“It supports microfilms quite well,” Burns adds. “That creates an opportunity for young filmmakers to get their foot in the door. Support for young filmmakers is great, that should stay in place. But those films do not create an industry.”
Saskatchewan isn’t the only province to shoot its film patch in the head. In 2015, Nova Scotia cut its tax credit by 75 per cent — essentially gutting a $180 million industry.
That was done after the government commissioned KPMG, the U.S.-based financial consulting firm that’s been implicated in recent investigations into offshore tax evasion schemes, to do a core spending review.
After commissioning its own KPMG report, Manitoba, under Conservative Premier Brian Palliser, is contemplating a similar move.
Alberta, though, is deepening its investment. Though it doesn’t have a tax credit, it does provide production grants through the Alberta Media Fund.
And it just boosted the per project cap from $5 million to $7.5 million. That’s the cap for each project. The total budget? $37 million in 2016. Saskatchewan’s pockets aren’t deep enough to match those grants.
A tax credit, though, does make financial sense here.
“If you put in a tax credit tomorrow, and no one takes you up on it, there’s no cost,” says Burns. “If it is taken up, that means a whole bunch of money came here from other places to trigger the credit.
“If a company spends $15 million, they might be eligible for $2.5 million in return months later,” says Burns. “That money was more than spent here, and all the crew pay taxes here, along with any businesses that receive spin-off benefits — so most of that difference would be made up anyway.”
With the Saskatchewan Party in the midst of a leadership race, Burns is hopeful the government might be open to revisiting the issue.
“I think a new premier could say ‘You know, the economics of the industry have changed. The economics of Saskatchewan have changed.’
“If they do, we’re here to advise them on how to make it work again. It can be done. We could be back in business by next spring because there’s so much capacity overload in other jurisdictions.”
Time is of the essence, though, says WolfCop’s Lowell Dean.
“Truthfully, the way it is now, we are on life support. It’s a make-or-break time, and if we can find the right hero to champion the industry, everybody’s going to look really good.”
* Over-the-top, or OTT, is film industry jargon for streaming, direct-to-consumer distribution. Now you know!
** According to Calgary’s 2016 civic census. No, we don’t just make numbers up.
At The Crossroads
WolfCop’s creator can’t have a career here
When Lowell Dean shot WolfCop in 2013, it was the first film funded by Creative Saskatchewan.
“We shot 100 per cent in the province,” says Dean. ”But [it] ended up being an Ontario co-production because we couldn’t afford to get through post-production. [Ontario] had a film tax credit, and was essential to get the film finished.”
Dean employed a similar strategy for Another WolfCop, which premiered in theatres on Dec. 1.
“The first film was very modest and the sequel needed to be bigger, so before we even started we were looking at co-production opportunities,” he says. “We ended up shooting in Sudbury. We did shoot in Saskatchewan too, because we really wanted a Saskatchewan flavour. But we couldn’t afford to just make it here.”
Financing isn’t the only logistical challenge Saskatchewan filmmakers face, says Dean.
“We used to have companies like William F. White, which has lighting and other equipment,” he says. “Now, if you want to do something, you have to import everything. So you’re starting from a deficit right way. It’s the same with key technicians and crew that you need. In our heyday, we had over two full crews. Now, even to do a smaller film, you either have to work with people with limited experience, or pay extra and bring in someone from outside the province.”
Now that Another WolfCop has been released, Dean is at a crossroads.
“The way it’s been the last few years, it’s weirdly nomadic,” he says. “I have to create a job for myself every year, and hopefully not screw up. So far, I’ve been pretty fortunate. But at a certain point you realize there’s way more opportunities elsewhere.
“My message to the government would be: everyone wins,” says Dean. “Economically, it would be huge. It’s going to bring in a lot of outside cash, it’s going to create jobs, it’s going to bring people back to the province who love Saskatchewan but have a vocation that isn’t viable here, and it will allow people who are studying film in university now to stay.”