Island film industry gets back into action

Film production on Vancouver Island has been showing signs of life in recent weeks, which is welcome news as casts and crews look to get back to business after months of inactivity.

Three projects in Victoria are expected to be well underway by late July — a Lifetime series based on V.C. Andrews’s Ruby Landry novels, the latest entry in the Air Bud/Super Pups franchise for Netflix, and the Hallmark movie Deliver By Christmas — followed by another two in August.

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The biggest news of all, both in terms of potential economic impact and profile, is the Netflix series Maid, which will reportedly shoot in Victoria from September through April. The series from writer Molly Smith Metzler (Shameless; Orange is the New Black) and producers John Wells (ER; The West Wing) and two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie (I, Tonya; The Wolf of Wall Street) is based on Stephanie Land’s New York Times bestselling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.

Such a high-visibility show can have a big impact. Last year, See, an Apple TV+ series starring Jason Momoa, spent six weeks using mid-Island hotels, transportation, hospitality, cast and crew, adding millions to the economy and raising the profile of Vancouver Island as a suitable location for big-budget productions, said Joan Miller of the Vancouver Island North Film Commission.

“When you have a show like that and so much going into them, the economic impact is into the many, many millions of dollars.”

Kathleen Gilbert of the Vancouver Island South Film and Media Commission said the film industry will “put people back in hotel rooms faster than anything else.”

“We can bang our heads against the wall trying to attract tourists, but you can’t change what you can’t change, in terms of people not wanting to spend two weeks here on vacation when they have to spend two weeks in quarantine. The homegrown film industry is a little different. I think it’s going to benefit everybody.”

The number of locally shot productions has not yet returned to pre-pandemic estimates on Vancouver Island, which was expected to post a record number of shooting days by the end of the year. But many in the industry are hoping a slight return after many months of delays will provide a much-need economic boost.

Film and television production was strong in all parts of Vancouver Island earlier this year, with weeks of work for local crews and actors on shoots for Resident Alien, Chesapeake Shores and Jurassic World in Parksville, Qualicum, Ladysmith, Courtenay and Nanaimo.

Chesapeake Shores, a hit for the Hallmark Channel, has been a boon for Parksville and Qualicum Beach businesses in recent years, according to Miller, who said the success of the soapy drama “proved you don’t have to be a large urban centre” to be an appealing location.

Miller believes the show, which has currently suspended production, will return to the Island for more filming once physical-distancing measures and other safety protocols make it safe for large production crews to work. “We’ve been told by the producers that the season is still approved, but because of this unusual situation, I don’t know when that will begin,” she said.

Premier John Horgan on Tuesday cited the movie industry among positive indicators amid the gradual restart of the economy, although he noted nothing is close to pre-pandemic numbers.

Horgan said 24 television and movie-of-the-week productions have returned to British Columbia. “We’re hopeful that we’ll get back to the full complement of TV and movie productions before the end of the summer.”

The end-of-summer timeline will be difficult to meet, according to several Victoria-based film industry veterans who spoke with the Times Colonist.

Anyone associated with a film crew working on Vancouver Island who is not from B.C. has to self-quarantine for 14 days, as per provincial government health regulations. The upside to that — for local film industry professionals, at least — is an uptick in employment opportunities for B.C. residents. The downside is that prospective film and television producers will need to build quarantine procedures into their timelines, which could mean delays in production for several weeks or more.

“Anyone can come here from elsewhere for work, as long as they have a proper work permit — but they have to quarantine,” Gilbert said. “That is the hitch. We expect that will go well into September and October.”

The purpose-built Vancouver Island Film Studio in Parksville is fully booked through January, which was both good news for the economy and bad news for prospective clients until news broke Thursday that it would be joined in the mid-Island by the 42,000-square-foot Wellington Film Studio in Nanaimo.

The latter, now open for business, will help alleviate some of the stress on the area as productions look for cheaper alternatives to Vancouver.

“As the industry is growing here in the region, having these types of services is another check-of-the-box for when producers call,” Miller said. “Having these types of assets is all part of a package, because it is hard to find suitable space.”

While Greater Victoria waits for news of its own film studio to meet growing demand south of the Malahat, Gilbert hopes business will bloom through the summer. “I don’t think it has hurt us as long as we can get back up and running soon. We already have at least six productions that will be filming or have finished filming by October. It’s not going to be our best year, but it’s definitely not going to be the worst.”

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