The Alberta Film Commission’s glossy new brochure’s headline reads, “Alberta: Think of it as your studio backlot,” but judging from the direction the province’s own film and TV industry is headed, a more appropriate title would be “Alberta: Not just for Hollywood Westerns anymore.”
In the four years since Clint Eastwood filmed his Academy Award-winning “Unforgiven” in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Calgary, foreign production in the province has tripled, largely due to an increase in Westerns. But now, indigenous production has increased, as well.
Since “Unforgiven,” domestic production has soared nearly 400%. During the last fiscal year, it totaled approximately $C50 million ($69.5 million), up $C20 million ($27.8 million) from the year before.
And unlike their Hollywood counterparts, who mainly use the province as a backdrop for cowboy stories, Alberta producers are looking beyond their prairies and mountains, finding numerous possibilities.
Among the indigenous projects made in the last year or currently in production are two one-hour dramas for Canadian and foreign networks; a birdwatching program and another nature show; a feature film that’s been pre-sold to Showtime; a documentary that will air on the A& E network; and a rare home-grown sitcom.
Although no one denies that the success of “Unforgiven” helped bring more business to Alberta, folks here are quick to point out that growth of the domestic industry is separate from foreign production.
“This (domestic) industry has been evolving wonderfully for decades now and probably the outcome would not have been affected had ‘Unforgiven’ not been here,” says Tom Dent-Cox, co-producer of the upcoming sitcom, “Nobody’s Business,” and of the Canadian drama series “North of 60,” which is shot in Alberta. Case in point: Great North Productions Inc., which co-produces the other popular Alberta-made drama, “Destiny Ridge.” Eight years in the business, Great North now counts four producers among its 20 employees, making it the province’s biggest television production company. Among its current projects are two biography/docus, one on St. Patrick for A& E, and one on Ray Bradbury for USA Network; and a science show, “Acorn: The Nature Nut,” which airs worldwide.
“Our personal growth is indigenous,” says founder and president Andy Thompson. “We don’t do stuff for, we do stuff with people outside of Alberta.”
It’s not that Thompson and Dent-Cox are out to bite the hand that has fed so many of their colleagues. After all, foreign production did employ more than 700 Albertans last year, pumping more than $83.4 million into the province.
And with the positive attention generated by last year’s crop of made-in-Alberta productions, including “Legends of the Fall,” which just won an Oscar for cinematography, the Hollywood-to-Alberta pipeline will remain busy.
But like others who call Alberta home, Thompson and Dent-Cox are committed to keeping the domestic industry alive.
Says Dent-Cox, “It’s the indigenous production, in the long term, that will be responsible for the industry flourishing here, given that it’s the indigenous industry that has a vested interest in training new people, that has a vested interest in keeping the profits in the province, whereas ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘ Legends of the Fall,’ as wonderful as they are, they leave no footprints once they’ve gone.”
That probably wouldn’t be a problem if Alberta could attract film and television projects throughout the year, the way B.C. and Ontario do.
But while Alberta has lower union rates, no sales tax, a stable labor environment, experienced crews, 16 hours of daylight in the summer and miles of stunning terrain with nary a telephone pole or electrical wire to mar the view, it’s also hampered by a problem that no number of Oscar-winners filmed there can change: cold weather.
“We’re limited because of our winter season,” admits Lindsay Cherney, the province’s film commissioner. “Alberta has always been known for its breathtaking scenery. If (producers are) just looking for scenery, the climate can stand against us unless there is a winter script, and there just aren’t that many.”
Even when there are winter scripts, the weather doesn’t always make things easy. Just ask Steven North, producer of the syndicated “Lonesome Dove: The Series,” which shot its entire 21-episode season near Calgary from April through December last year. In the process, cast and crew learned the hard way why Hollywood-based productions have traditionally avoided staying outside in Alberta past October.
“The cast had to put ice cubes in their mouths before they said a line in order for their breath not to show up onscreen,” North recalls. “Our directors were frost-bitten.”
Still, cold weather wasn’t enough to scare the show away. “Dove” began filming its second season in Alberta earlier this month. But North added a second production unit to speed up the shooting schedule, and he plans to be done by early November.
“Lonesome Dove” is the first offshore series to be filmed entirely in Alberta, and one reason it wound up here is that executive producers Suzanne de Passe and Robert Halmi Jr. were familiar and impressed with the province. In 1989, they filmed telefilm “Small Sacrifices” in Edmonton, using then 1-year-old Allarcom Studios for nearly 80% of the film, which starred Farrah Fawcett. Built by Edmonton physician and television station entrepreneur Charles Allard, Allarcom has a 15,000-square-foot soundstage with a 36-foot open span. It’s the only facility between Toronto and Vancouver built exclusively for film and video productions and it’s busy year-round.
Lately, business has been picking up. During the 1993-94 fiscal year, it was used for two major projects, “Destiny Ridge” and Calgary producer Bruce Harvey’s feature film, “Probable Cause,” which aired on Showtime in the U.S.
Most recently, it was used for interiors for the family film, “Song Spinner.” Based on a story by Edmonton writer Pauline Le Bel, “Song Spinner” was produced by Calgarians Randy Bradshaw and Doug MacLeod. MacLeod is part of the team that produces “North of 60,” a drama which focuses on the region’s native population.
Bradshaw and MacLeod secured financing for their $4.1 million film from a variety of sources, including The National Film Board of Canada and the Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation. They’ve already sold the U.S. broadcast rights to Showtime.
“Alberta has become a bigger place in terms of the industry because producers that work here, as well as people who work in the industry, have started to work with people outside the province,” says Edmonton director Arvi Liimatainen, who last year worked on a telepic for ABC and a miniseries for CBS.
“They’ve started to take their indigenous stories and find partners and markets for them not only outside Alberta, but outside Canada.”
Liimatainen, whose Kicking Horse Productions Ltd. is one of the oldest companies in the province, believes the local industry has reached an international level. The next step, he says, is to improve and expand. To do that, Albertans will have to convince more outsiders to change their perception of the landscape, or at the very least, to come inside.
MacLeod figures that shouldn’t be too difficult. “If you look back at the kind of production activity that’s taken place in this province over the past 10 years, you’d have to agree that anything is possible,” he says.