Falling on Deaf Ears

On January 29, 2015 four representatives on the Nova Scotia film industry made a presentation to the Nova Scotia Legislature’s Economic Development Committee. According to the Hansard account, the purpose of that meeting was to tell the committee about the need for a soundstage to improve the industry’s future prospects. Members of the Committee included two Conservatives, two New Democrats and five Liberals – Joachim Stroink, Suzanne Lohnes-Croft, Joyce Treen, Ben Jessome and Iain Rankin. Presenters were Lisa Bugden for the soon-to-be-axed Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia; Richard Hadley for ACTRA; Gary Vermeir for IATSE Local 849, and James Nicholson for the Directors Guild of Canada. What follows is an edited transcript of their presentation. 

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MR. VERMEIR: Over the past 20 years our organizations have grown in skill and experience as the Nova Scotia industry has developed and matured. For a region the size of ours, perched as we are on the edge of Nova Scotia, our industry is doing some remarkable things. Nova Scotia is, as they say, totally punching above its weight in terms of production output and production quality and creativity.

MR. NICHOLSON: Our crews can take much of the credit for the success. In an industry that breeds specialization in larger centres, many of our crew possess a wide range of expertise, enabling them to work in several departments and perform many jobs. This knowledge, flexibility, and interchangeability make Nova Scotian crews incredibly resourceful and co-operative, which has a big effect on the production’s bottom line. We challenge you to find a crew anywhere in North America better at making $1 look like $3 on the screen, regardless of the type of screen or platform.

MR.HADLEY: The talent of our crews and performers has impressed the Hollywood studios, who have the entire world to choose as locations, but who keep sending productions here to Nova Scotia. A case in point is Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, a Lifetime Sony TV movie shot here in the summer of 2013. The studio was so pleased with the experience and result that they greenlit an eight-episode Lizzie Borden series that is still shooting here, providing months of work for local crew and performers and spending millions of dollars in Nova Scotia. Tom Selleck has shot eight of his Jesse Stone television movies here and the producers are very open to returning with more. When shooting in Nova Scotia, these productions provide foreign, direct investment into the province through the hiring of Nova Scotia labour and the purchasing of supplies. The TV series Haven that just completed its fifth season on the South Shore is a U.S. production, but it has also brought on a Nova Scotian production company that maintains some ownership and rights of the co-venture. Over the years the series has acquired a greater Nova Scotia character as more local crew and performers have moved into key positions. The bluenose flavour has resulted in sales of this unique product to over 110 countries around the world.

MR. VERMEIR: Our people make good livings at this work. The average entry level wage under our agreement, IATSE 849, is $23 per hour. Our agreement sets minimum wages based on the budget level of the production, but cast and crew are able to negotiate above these minimums. Those technicians with more experience can make over $35 to $40 an hour. Local 849’s members earned in total an average of $6.890 million each year over the past year. Local 667 members earned $800,351 on Haven alone in 2013. The average daily earnings for a Local 849 member on Haven was $393.

MR. NICHOLSON: In 2013, Nova Scotia residents of the Directors Guild of Canada grossed over $4.8 million in salary and our organizations also provide our members with robust health benefits as well as a retirement plan. Members of IATC and DGC belong to a joint national retirement plan with over $270 million in assets.

MR.VERMEIR: Our people buy houses, they raise families and start side businesses. Freelance film technicians are by nature entrepreneurs, always looking for new ways to market their skills. Many have spun off their crew careers into sideline companies providing vehicles, gear, props, et cetera to the film industry, or setting up shops, catering firms, and the like to fill the downtime between shows. Of course, the screen-based industry not only includes the traditional categories of theatrical and television production, but also commercial industry, documentaries, digital animation, lifestyle and educational productions, music videos, corporate video and digital training modules. It also includes the interactive world, computer gaming, digital marketing, web series, animation, visual effects, with a lot of overlap amongst the various subsectors. Much of this work is done under union contracts, much of it is not. All of this adds up to about 3,000 jobs in Nova Scotia, union and non-union. Our members are a cornerstone of the cultural workforce in the province for whom the salaries earned in the screen-based industries make possible their work in other creative fields, including the visual arts, theatre, and music. If the unthinkable was to occur and the film industry was to fold its tent, other related cultural fields would take an enormous hit as well.

MR.NICHOLSON: The screen industry shows no signs of slowing down and we are incredibly grateful to the continued confidence shown by the Nova Scotia Government. The extension of the film industry tax credit means that our seasoned producers will continue to get serious projects greenlit while our crop of new filmmakers develop feature films that regularly attract international acclaim.New models of distribution created by Netflix and Amazon are contributing to the insatiable appetite for quality content in this new, golden age of television, content that Nova Scotians continuously prove that we can provide. This multi-platform environment has also opened new windows for additional sales and revenue for older productions. However, this continued activity is dependent on the stability of competitive incentives provided by the provincial government. Localized tax incentives are the cost of doing business, not just in Canada but many American states, including California, where the tax credit program was recently expanded to $330 million. Provinces remove these incentives at their peril. New Brunswick and Saskatchewan did so and quickly found themselves without a viable screen industry.

MR.VERMEIR: The lack of a dedicated soundstage facility affects our ability to offer full production services year-round. We have more work than we can handle in the summer and Fall, but production over the winter months remains limited to smaller projects and animation work due to the lack of facilities. Two of our largest employers, the series Haven and Mr. D, both shot in the summer in hockey or curling rinks, which naturally had to revert to hockey or curling rinks in the wintertime. A true, permanent soundstage, whether purpose-built or housed in a renovated existing structure, would not only provide a place to shoot 12 months a year but would assist in attracting bigger projects – the higher budget feature films and series, which require standing sets and larger crews. It would also create the hub that our industry needs, the centre for all things film for training, production offices, communications, and the like.

MR.HADLEY: Every year the local film unions journey to Los Angeles to market our province. At every meeting the first question is, what is the tax credit in Nova Scotia; the second question is, what do you have for studio space?Now we are always proud to answer the first question as our tax credit is solid and competitive and is now assured until 2020. However, we have always had to do some very uncomfortable tap dancing when we answer the second question.It need not be this way. We all firmly believe that a formula can be developed whereby the various levels of government, in partnership with potential private investors, create this critical piece of infrastructure here in Halifax.

MR.VERMEIR: We firmly believe that with the continued confidence in our industry, careful analysis of the incentives needed to stay competitive and the addition of a soundstage, our industry will continue to grow. The many sectors of our industry are converging into a potent economic engine, which will attract young Nova Scotians and entice more professionals from beyond our borders to set up shop here. We’ve already welcomed crews from Germany, Australia, and numerous other Canadian provinces into our ranks. Acclaimed performer and Oscar nominee Jane Alexander has relocated to Shelburne from the U.S.With an industrial standard studio in place, we could be drawing larger numbers of skilled talent to Nova Scotia. We could be keeping them at work 12 months a year, and seeing Nova Scotia-shot productions winning awards and opening major film and television festivals around the world – oh wait, that part is already happening.

MR.NICHOLSON: We know that launching a soundstage is an audacious plan, but the Ivany report encouraged us to be bold. But until a permanent soundstage becomes a reality, I can assure you that our members will continue to magically turn gymnasiums, ice rinks, and all manner of industrial buildings into temporary studios. Thanks to our strong film tax credit and the solid support from Film & Creative Industries Nova Scotia, local producers will continue to inject millions of production dollars into the provincial economy, employ thousands of people, and export world-class projects.

MR.HADLEY: Every production shot in our province is exported for exhibition outside our borders and becomes an advertisement for Nova Scotia and a beacon for potential tourists. Our crews constantly have to wrangle the starry-eyed Haven or Trailer Park Boys fans who flock to Chester or Truro – you mentioned Truro – to watch their favourite shows get made. The Book of Negroes production has established links with the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Shelburne so that U.S. audiences of this tale of shared American and Nova Scotia history can follow the path of their ancestors up to Birchtown.

MR.VERMEIR: We truly believe that the sky is the limit for our industry. We have the talent, the track record, the skills, and the experience. Look at the nominee list for the Canadian Screen Awards. Front and centre are more Nova Scotia names and productions than ever before. We have the know-how, we have the equipment – so a place to put it all would be the last piece of the puzzle. So let’s talk. Let’s work together to keep this industry growing and evolving so that it can become the economic engine for Nova Scotia that we are all convinced it can be. Thank you very much.

MS.BUGDEN: Mr. Chairman, if I may, the most recent statistics that we have – and they’re detailed in our accountability report from 2013-14 – indicate that the tax credit, which our operation administers on behalf of the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, totalled $20.7 million last year. Equally important is to consider that in the context of the production volume which was logged at $139 million last year….In terms of its base rate, Nova Scotia is certainly on par with Manitoba; when you consider the composition of our respective industries, they are very similar both in terms of population and in terms of scale and volume. There are other things that must be considered in the context of the tax credit itself, specifically our geographic location. We operate outside of major decision makers in both Toronto in the Canadian industry but specifically Los Angeles in the North American industry. For so many of those individuals, we are quite a distance away. There is no direct flight from Halifax to Los Angeles. So that’s part of creating a structure, creating an incentive that actually can compete internationally.

MR.VERMEIR: I think it also bears mention that those are important numbers, but that’s not the entire industry. There is so much activity and there’s so much product that is generated that does not go through the tax credit system. The tax credit enables us to keep crews here, to keep the talent here, and when they’re not working on projects under the tax credit system, they’re working on corporate video, they’re working on commercials, they’re working on any number of other types of production that also generate economic activity. I think there is sometimes a tendency to just focus in on the in-and-out that goes through the tax credit system, but that is the base upon which the larger industry is structured.

MR.HADLEY: I think you also can take a look at what happens when a jurisdiction does not have a competitive tax credit, and the prime examples of that would be New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. New Brunswick falls under our jurisdiction and frankly, when the tax credit went, talent left that province in droves. In fact, one producer who is set up in Nova Scotia now, the last project he worked on won an international Emmy. That kind of talent leaves. There was one feature film that I was connected with that shot there since the tax credit left and that was purely there for location, location, location. In Saskatchewan, the industry totally died to the extent that Corner Gas, the feature film, almost didn’t happen in Saskatchewan where the actual series had happened, to the extent that the Government of Saskatchewan actually had to come in with a huge chunk of cash to save face to keep that project in Saskatchewan, so they actually became an investor in that film, it’s the only reason it was shot there, it would have gone somewhere else.

Their eloquent sales pitch was for not. A few months later, the Liberal government introduced changes that could well destroy the industry.

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About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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