Drama-based industry hit hard by reality trend

VANCOUVER, Canada — The slump in film and television production in Canada has hit British Columbia hardest of all this summer. Showbiz unemployment is widespread, the number of projects shooting is about half what it was 15 months ago and the future loooks bleak.

The combination of 9/11 fallout, rescinded tax breaks, a U.S. focus on reining in runaway production and the nets’ new romance with low-cost reality programming and docus have all taken a toll.

Almost completely missing this summer, traditionally the busiest season, are U.S. TV movies and Canadian series. Local skeins have lost funding because of cutbacks by Telefilm Canada and domestic television networks. Only one Canuck dramatic series, “Da Vinci’s Inquest,” is being shot in Vancouver, with only five under way across Canada.

Production revenues are expected to fall substantially in 2002 for the second year in a row.

Reality bites

Because the B.C. industry is focused on drama, it has been hit hard by the swing to lower-cost reality television. Higher location fees and a growing trail of shoddy work by inexperienced crews also are cited as factors.

Independent production companies are suffering as Canuck television networks and entertainment firms keep work inhouse. About 20 projects are in production compared with almost 40 a year ago.

The B.C. Film Commission lists just eight features shooting, including “X-Men 2,” starring Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman. The most prominent feature to be repatriated to Los Angeles is “Terminator 3,” originally slated for production in Vancouver but yanked back last fall. The B.C. industry believes that big fish was lost because of the California political aspirations of its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A quarter of the members of the biggest industry union, the 4,000-strong Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 891, are looking for work. Most of the unemployed are actors.

The steep decline in B.C.’s film and television production revenue has rocked the industry here. Revenue reached a record C$1 billion ($630 million) in 2000, and had been climbing a rate of about 20% a year for most of the previous decade.

Less than a year ago B.C.’s new Liberal government challenged the once-cocky industry to double its revenues by 2004. The bravado has now changed to sober reflection.

“Is it realistic to expect 20% growth year after year after year?” said Elmar Theissen, business representative for the IATSE Local 891. “It’s not as bad as everyone thinks it is,” he insisted. “The last two years were really blips.”

Peter Mitchell, the B.C. industry association chair, agrees that expectations were unrealistic. “We’re not talking about a free fall. It’s more of a settling out. People are finding reasons to stay in California now instead of finding reasons to leave.”

Prospects for a quick recovery are dim, according to a report published by the federal government and the Canadian Film & Television Producers Assn. Annual growth in 2000-01 was half that over the last five years in B.C. “The immediate reaction has been risk reduction, cost-cutting and layoffs to prepare for the effects of an economic downturn that could last for a year or longer,” wrote the report’s authors.

Expansion on hold

For the moment, plans to expand studios and other industry infrastructure outside of Vancouver are on hold, and the provincial government is trying to unload its investment in Bridge Studios.

Sextant Entertainment Group went bankrupt in June, and other public companies here are scrambling to stay afloat. Hard-pressed Mainframe Entertainment announced last week it had landed the new animated “Spider-Man” series, saving 100 jobs, but its bid may not leave much room for profit.

Peter Mitchell, a former B.C. film commissioner who heads the local industry’s largest trade association, is optimistic the industry will recover, especially getting back its U.S. business. “We have innate advantages in terms of cultural proximity and the exchange rate. If you’re trying to pump out 22 episodes of a one-hour series, and you want to get it done on time and on budget, you’re going to come to Vancouver.”

Ontario and Quebec have not fallen so far or so fast because of the higher percentage of domestic production done there. Ontario has a lock on English-lingo television production, and almost all French-lingo television and film is produced in Quebec, mainly in Montreal.

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