Economy
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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria’s film industry reels in another big year, readies to go even bigger

Key players push for film studio, more jobs and training opportunities

By Michael John Lo
December 28, 2022
Economy
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria’s film industry reels in another big year, readies to go even bigger

Key players push for film studio, more jobs and training opportunities

By Michael John Lo
Dec 28, 2022
Film crews hard at work at a set in Greater Victoria. Photo: Submitted / Kathleen Gilbert
Film crews hard at work at a set in Greater Victoria. Photo: Submitted / Kathleen Gilbert
Economy
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria’s film industry reels in another big year, readies to go even bigger

Key players push for film studio, more jobs and training opportunities

By Michael John Lo
December 28, 2022
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Victoria’s film industry reels in another big year, readies to go even bigger
Film crews hard at work at a set in Greater Victoria. Photo: Submitted / Kathleen Gilbert

With another busy year in the books, the Victoria film industry is looking to increase and diversify film crews as its pandemic-fueled rise continues.

Ben LaBarre has been working as a production assistant for five years. “When the world shut down, I got more work,” he said.

Increased demand from North American showrunners—mostly from Los Angeles— has allowed LaBarre to work on passion projects like music videos and local indie film productions. And when he’s looking for a better-paying, union film production, the jobs are available.

“All I have to do is make a couple of phone calls,” he said.

Kathleen Gilbert has been the film commissioner for Southern Vancouver Island for the past 12 years. Victoria’s film industry has grown tenfold during her tenure. “[Almost] $60 million, we bring into the economy with a small staff of three people,” she said.

The Vancouver Island South Film and Media Commission is BC’s oldest and longest running film commission, and a former initiative from Victoria’s chamber of commerce dating back to 1974. It’s now incorporated as a non-profit society and continues to promote and assist producers in bringing movies, documentaries, and other films to the region.

Gilbert estimates that there were only around 500 people on the film commission’s crew list a decade ago. Today, that number is closer to 1,300.

And she wants to see it increase even more people come onboard to accommodate the growing demand for film productions looking to shoot in Victoria.

Sonya Chwyl left a job in tech to work in the film industry in 2021. Their previous freelance experience helped them to eventually land a job editing documentaries at a local media production company. But they first started as a production assistant—an entry level job in the film scene.

“The days are long, and the work is often really intense. You want to know the people you’re going to be around for 15 plus hours,” Chwyl said. “So it makes sense to keep the same people with you all the time. But it does make it hard for other people to break into that.

“It’s hard to get a job if you don’t know anybody in the industry,” Chywl added. “All of the gigs I’ve gotten have just been through word of mouth.”

Educational programs, like the production assistant microcredential offered at Camosun, make it easier for people on the outside to get their first steps into the business.

The first two production assistant courses were fully booked up and will be back again next year, said Geoff Wilmshurst, vice president of partnerships at Camosun College.

The three-weekend course gives prospective students the opportunity to obtain all the certificates needed to be on set. The course also offers graduates some deferred requirements within the film industry’s union.

“Starting next year, we’re hoping to start to offer hair and makeup-type programming. There’s a big demand,” said Wilmshurst. “We expect to have four different courses in hair."

Recent graduates of one of Camosun's inaugural film PA micro credential courses pose for a group photo. Photo: Submitted / Geoff Wilmshurst

The college is also hoping to offer special effects and animation classes within the next few years.

The film industry is a huge part of the economy in BC, and has potential to become a major economic driver in Victoria, Gilbert said, adding that diversity should be included in that growth.

“I think it’s important that we represent our population," she said.

The film commission is placing an emphasis on youth and First Nations outreach this coming year.

“It’s not like you have to be a film geek to be working on a set,” LaBarre said. “If you have a skill, it’s likely that a production is going to need you.”

“There’s so much that needs to get done—like painting and set construction,” he added.

//

Most of the shows being filmed in Victoria have shoestring budgets compared to the big-budget productions destined for Hollywood or streaming services.

“Some of these shows only have a million dollars—which might sound like a lot—but when you’re paying 70-150 people, plus for all of those big trucks, that does not go very far,” Gilbert said. “We’re talking about producers that are trying to make some quality productions on fairly low budgets.”

But collectively, these smaller productions have a huge impact on the economy and employ a lot of locals, she said.

While the exact numbers aren’t out yet, Gilbert estimates that Victoria’s film industry will have a similar economic impact in the region as it has in previous years. In 2021, film and television productions contributed $59 million to the economy, according to a report by the film commission.

At least 24 shows have been filmed in Victoria this year, and that’s in spite of a two month labour dispute in April and May that halted most new film and television productions across the province during two of the busiest filming months of the year.

“We had no shows for two months. We had one small [non-union] Bollywood show, and that was it,” Gilbert said.

The strike ended in early June, with most union members of the Directors Guild getting a retroactive 3% year-over-year increase, for a total 9% wage increase.
 
But when there’s no looming labour dispute, business is good. The pandemic was a paradigm shift for filmmakers in North America, who began utilizing filming locations closer to home.

“They weren’t interested in going all the way to Budapest to make the movies. They wanted to be able to get home quickly if they needed,” Gilbert said.

Film crews on a set in Greater Victoria. Photo: Submitted / Kathleen Gilbert

Vancouver and Victoria became an attractive filming spot for those who wanted a safe, easily accessible place with an established film service industry.

While there weren't any big-budget productions this year, like Netflix’s Maid, a steady stream of small productions has kept the guild busy, Gilbert said.

Believed to be Victoria’s biggest film production to date, Maid spent seven months filming in Victoria in 2020-21 and spent $30-40 million in the local economy during that time, Gilbert estimated.

“To have a show with a budget that big, that makes a huge difference in how much they spend locally,” she said. There can also be some unexpected benefits: Netflix ended up donating Maid’s set furnishings to local nonprofits.

//

Victoria is the second largest film industry market in BC, but it’s still small compared to the filming operations in Vancouver.  The Lower Mainland received the lion’s share of the $4.8 billion spent by the film industry this year.

As to how Victoria could capture a bigger slice of that pie, Gilbert had an immediate answer.

“Once we have a proper studio, then we can look at bringing those $60, $100, $200 million shows to the CRD,” she said.

Building studio spaces and sound stages—large, acoustically-treated warehouse buildings where virtually any scene can be filmed—has been long discussed but never realized in the region. There is a global shortage, and most sound stages are booked to near capacity, according to a 2021 report by Deloitte.

But the clock is ticking for mid-sized cities that want to get in on the action. In Winnipeg, a a large four-sound-stage film studio—the first in the city in 25 years—opened in September, but just missed out on booking a large HBO production before construction was finished, according to CTV News.

Currently, the only sound stages on the Island are in Parksville, and that facility—the Vancouver Island Film Studios—is fully booked until January 2024.

But there are three potential projects on the table that could fill that gap in Greater Victoria. Camosun College and the Malahat Nation have both indicated their interest in creating studio facilities, as have the developers of the Western Speedway lands in Langford.

The college put out a tender for a studio on its interurban campus, which closed in September. There are no bids listed on the website. The site also does not list any awarded contract.

Malahat Nation has conducted an internal feasibility study for a film studio on its lands, but has not announced any further developments since March. Investors from Canada and the United States are prepared to invest $300 million into the project, according to the Times Colonist.

As for the former site of the Western Speedway, developers Strand Corporation and Bastion Development Corporations have yet to submit a redevelopment proposal to Langford city council.  

While these multi-year, multimillion projects continue at their own pace, productions are making do with what they can get right now.

When crews were filming Maid in Victoria, they were able to use the shuttered Home Outfitters building to house their film sets, despite its lack of onsite parking.

“Warehouses are almost non-existent here in Victoria, so that’s the only way we were able to land that big show,” Gilbert said. “We were very, very lucky to get Maid.”

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