THE ARTS

THE WEST COAST DREAM MACHINE

CAMERAS ROLL IN BRITISH COLUMBIA

PATRICIA HLUCHY August 24 1992
THE ARTS

THE WEST COAST DREAM MACHINE

CAMERAS ROLL IN BRITISH COLUMBIA

PATRICIA HLUCHY August 24 1992

THE WEST COAST DREAM MACHINE

THE ARTS

CAMERAS ROLL IN BRITISH COLUMBIA

It was an idyllic summer afternoon on the shores of Deer Lake in Burnaby, just east of Vancouver. Alone inside a stately white mansion surrounded by cedars,

Katharine Hepburn lounged regally on a couch. Outside, at the food wagon, Ryan O’Neal deliberated over what to have for lunch. The two actors were between takes during the filming of The Man Upstairs, a movie that will air in December on CBS. O’Neal, who plays an escaped convict hiding in the country mansion owned by Hepburn’s character, reflected on the strain of acting alongside a screen legend. “She’s a dynasty,” he said in an interview. “You stand there and wonder if she’s thinking, ‘He doesn’t compare with Tracy.’ ” But the legend herself was apparently having a wonderful time. According to veteran television director George Schaefer, who has made two

earlier dramas with Hepburn in British Columbia, the actress is “in love with working here.” He added that he, too, finds the province a great place to make TV. “The crews are so skilful and so friendly,” said Schaefer. “There’s a very warm and very let’s-do-a-good-showtogether feeling.”

That sentiment is shared by dozens of filmmakers and television producers who have turned Vancouver into the third busiest production centre in North America, after Los Angeles and New York City, and ahead of Toronto. Across the city that day, about 10 crews were at work. By mid-August, the number had increased to 17. Most of the activity is in television. In fact, Vancouver is now North America’s second-biggest centre for making TV, after Los Angeles.

The industry’s growth in British Columbia

has been meteoric, up from expenditures of $12 million in 1978 to $176 million last year, not including spending on documentaries, commercials and industrial films. But the overall impact on the province is far greater. The British Columbia Film Commission, which has been very effective at marketing the province’s locations, crews and facilities to outside producers, estimates that the industry was responsible last year for an injection of $528 million into the economy. In 1991, the province hosted a record 53 productions—12 feature films (including the Meg Tilly-Christine Lahti road movie Leaving Normal), 16 TV series (among them, Neon Rider, MacGyver and The Commish) and 25 movies of the week and series pilots. That pitch of activity keeps an estimated 4,000 people directly employed.

Still, some insiders warn that the boom could easily go bust. They note that at least

three-quarters activity bia involves servicing foreign, mainly U.S., productions. The Americans are lured by lower costs, skilled crews, the variety of locations, the proximity to Los Angeles and the shared time zone. They arrive with their own scripts and, usually, U.S. directors, hire local crews, and then return home to assemble the final product. “To me it’s analogous to the automobile business,” said producer Robert Vince, president of Vancouver-based Entertainment Securities Ltd. “Somebody brings the plans up here, you make the chassis, and they take it home to do the detailing and finish the car.” Some observers caution that if the exchange value of the Canadian dollar rises, or B.C. crews become a little more expensive, the work will disappear. Several American states, as well as a number of countries, are vigorously competing for motion-picture dollars. And Los Angeles is trying to win back some of its lost business. Meanwhile, many people in the industry argue that it lacks a solid infrastructure— something to keep it going if the Americans decamp. By contrast, Ontario’s film and TV business has a secure corporate base, with established companies like Atlantis and Alliance that generate their own projects, do thenown post-production (which includes editing and sound mixing) and have their own distribution arms. Said Brent-Karl Clackson, a production manager and line producer: “Until recently, Vancouver has put its eggs all in one basket. They say that Hollywood was built on quicksand. The Vancouver industry is built on quicksand upon quicksand.”

In recent however, several British

Columbia companies have firmed up the foundations of the local industry. Using Canadian producers, writers and directors, and maintaining at least some Canadian ownership, they have launched their own projects into the international marketplace. And since 1987, B.C. Film, a provincial funding agency, has been supporting the province’s writers and producers, with this year’s commitments expected to total about $6 million.

For now, the furious branch-plant activity continues, with Vancouver as its hub. In fact, for those who know where to look, travelling across the city can be a little like TV channelhopping. One day late last month, on an old schooner in English Bay, Charles Bronson performed as Larsen, the hero of Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf, while Christopher Reeve and Catherine Mary Stewart portrayed the characters whom he rescues in the TV movie. In a Kitsilano neighborhood, a group of actors played out the trials and tribulations of a fledgling rock band in a new series called The Heights. And in a studio in North Vancouver, actor Michael Chiklis was making an episode of the ABC series The Commish in which his

character, the affable and slightly bungling police commissioner Tony Scali, explains the existence of pornography to his young son.

The Commish is produced by Cannell Films Ltd., a six-year-old Canadian offshoot of Los Angeles-based Cannell Studios. Cannell Films vice-president and general manager Stephen Sassen says that his company set up shop in Vancouver, where the company is based in the giant North Shore Studios, another subsidiary of U.S. Cannell, “for the exchange rate.” As well, there is the wealth of locations. “You can

go from Iowa to New Jersey to the streets of New York to Los Angeles all in the same day,” he said, “with Colorado and the LouisianaMississippi delta thrown in for good measure.” Sassen also cited the flexibility of local film unions. Network budgets have been drastically squeezed by the fragmentation of the TV industry, which means lower production budgets. In order to secure a third Cannell series in Vancouver this summer, along with The Commish and the police series Street Justice, Sassen said that the unions agreed in May to a wage freeze and rollbacks on some of their benefits. The result: The Hat Squad, another police series, is now in production at a studio in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Said Sassen: “They recognized that we weren’t bullshitting them and that this was the new economics of television.”

But many industry people argue that even though British Columbia’s competitive edge is much narrower than it used to be, the skill and spirit of the local crews still counts strongly among outside producers. The camaraderie was evident between takes of The Man Upstairs one day last month, as technician Duncan MacGregor gave Los Angeles producer Renée

Valente a scalp massage. “The people are not yet jaded,” she said. “When you lose that innocence and that exuberance, it just becomes a business of money and loses its soul.” Foreign producers also cite the province’s laid-back charm, its moderate climate and that old stereotype, the nice Canadian, as factors that will sustain the foreign-driven segment of the industry. On the set of the new sciencefiction adventure series The Highlander, financed by the French company Gaumont Television, immortal hero Duncan MacLeod

(Adrian Paul) engaged in a sword fight to protect his girlfriend. As he watched the filming, Barry Rosen, one of the Los Angeles producers, was full of praise for local suppliers and facilities. “These people are like friends— they work with you,” he said. “In Hollywood, it’s like, ‘How are we going to get you?' ”

But many local industry participants stress the danger of continuing to rely on foreigncontrolled projects. And they note a few developments that may help to consolidate a B.C.controlled industry. One recent cause for optimism was the establishment in June of Spelling Television (Canada) Inc. Headquartered in a renovated brewery in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood, the company is an offshoot of Los Angeles-based Spelling Television Inc., the successful creator of such past and current hits as Charlie’s Angels and Beverly Hills 90210. As well as shooting two U.S.developed series in the city, The Heights and a twentysomething series called The Round Table, Spelling’s Vancouver division has committed itself to developing Canadian projects, using Canadian writers, producers and directors.

At the same time, a number of British Columbian producers, having cut their teeth on American shows, are now launching their own projects. They have the American contacts necessary to secure the co-venture deals that most insiders agree are the only way for Canadians to survive in the international marketplace. The co-productions allow them to share the costs, and the risks, and give them ready access to U.S. and other markets.

One of the better established among those producers is Robert Maclean, who plans to divide his time between Los Angeles, his base for the past five years, and his native province. Maclean expects to produce two features in British Columbia this fall: Needles, an adaptation of the crime thriller by B.C. writer William Deverell, with Phillip Borsos as director, and with Tom Berenger, Graham Greene and Joan Chen as the likely stars; and Digger, a comingof-age story written by Montrealer Rodney Gibbons and starring Olympia Dukakis and Adam Hann-Byrd, the boy in Little Man Tate. Said Maclean: “People are looking for new ways to build an industry here. Despite the sagging economy in the rest of the company, things seem kind of vibrant.”

The current flurry of activity often shunts aside concerns about the industry’s vulnerability. Certainly, the atmosphere in B.C. motionpicture circles is buoyant. Taking a break from shooting an episode of the series Street Justice at North Shore Studios, U.S. actor Carl Weathers, who plays detective Adam Beaudreaux, explained that there is a “joyful spirit” on Vancouver sets that he has not detected elsewhere. Added Weathers, who portrayed Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies, and who 20 years ago was a linebacker for the B.C. Lions: “Shooting in Vancouver, you get the feeling of a love affair in its beginning stages.” The issue facing the industry now is, will the passion last?

PATRICIA HLUCHY