Screen Dreamers – Edmonton Sun Profile of the AB Industry and Rosies

Think Alberta, think oil and gas. Think cowboys and cattle. But film and TV? Maybe that’s not on your radar.

Still, there’s a dedicated group of artistic entrepreneurs who are bent on making their mark in this area and putting themselves and our province on the map.

Given the rollercoaster ride of recent years, and the economic ups and downs, it’s been a tough business. It’s never an easy business.

Competition from other parts of the continent is fierce. And when times have been bad, talented artists have left Alberta for greener pastures.

But some have a vision to build on what we have, and create the conditions for a vibrant future where Albertans can increasingly expect to train and practise their craft where they grew up.

To get a personal perspective on the bigger picture, we spoke to several people who are players in the industry.

All are from Edmonton and left to get training elsewhere — British Columbia, California — but have since returned to pursue their dreams on their home turf.

Bill Evans is the executive director and point man for AMPIA (the Alberta Media Production Industries Association), which is a non-profit members organization for those who work in the industry.

AMPIA works closely with government on funding issues and stages the annual Alberta Television and Film Awards (the “Rosies”), which are slated for next Saturday.

Besides fostering home-grown productions — showcasing local stories and ideas that otherwise wouldn’t be told — a major goal of the industry is to encourage more ‘guest’ productions. These are high-profile Hollywood ventures that utilise Alberta facilities and talent.

Readers may recall the hoopla that surrounded the filming of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and starring Brad Pitt, that was shot here in 2007.

“A lot of the productions shot in Alberta end up becoming a promotional vehicle for the province as a whole,” says Evans.

The same is true of local shows that gain a wider audience.

Examples would include Blackstone, shot in the Edmonton area and set on a reserve, which has aired on Showcase, as well as the CBC’s Heartland, a Calgary-based production, which plays out on a ranch.

These are Alberta stories, says Evans, unlike the many, often forgettable, features set “in some unnamed place in Middle America.”

Ron Scott is the creative brains behind Blackstone, a gritty, warts-and-all depiction of life on a fictional reserve. The TV series garnered a total of nine nominations for this year’s Rosie awards.

What’s different about Blackstone is that it’s not the standard fare about native exploitation by outside forces — “that’s been done,” says Scott — but a realistic tale of corruption and infighting among the residents themselves.

Series 1 had a cliffhanger ending and Scott is now working on a second series.

He is quick to point out that themes like corruption, addiction and conflict are universal ones, and not confined to the native experience. Thus the response of native audiences to what is an authentic show — despite laying bare the inner workings of reserve life — has been “overwhelmingly supportive.”

“A lot of times natives have never been portrayed with any kind of authenticity,” says Scott.

Beyond that, there’s no doubt the show has captured wider attention.

“Being on Showcase has exposed us to a non-native audience,” says Scott.

One thing players in the industry can agree on is thatthat it’s one of the more challenging ones. It’s not for the faint of heart.

In Scott’s words, “It’s one of the most pro-active businesses that exists. You have to be incredibly motivated.”

And artistic passion may not be enough. You have to learn the business end as well as the creative end.

“It’s a tough business, it’s an expensive business and we don’t have a huge infrastructure here in Edmonton,” says Scott.

As a reference point, a venue such as Vancouver has annual production values in the $1.3 billion range, while Alberta’s is about $150 million.

And that’s what everyone’s hoping to grow.

Josh Miller has an Edmonton-based production company, Panacea Entertainment, and is also president of AMPIA. One of his productions, Anash and the Legacy of Sun-Rock II, has a leading 10 nominations for this year’s Rosie awards.

Miller knows all about the challenges.

“Compared to L.A., Vancouver or Toronto, we don’t have the same aggregation of crew, of infrastructure, of financing. In some senses we have to work a little harder than other jurisdictions to get things financed or produced.”

And that’s when things go smoothly.

“There have been some nights during production when I’ve gone into the fetal position … but somehow it all works out,” chuckles Miller.

One other factor that may go unnoticed is that Alberta can only count on about six months of decent weather — unlike fair-weather locations such as Vancouver and California. That’s unless the producer needs snow scenes!

So there are challenges. But there are significant opportunities. The whole multimedia, digital revolution is a net benefit for the smaller players.

Here’s why, according to Evans.

“A lot of our producer members are moving in the direction of more digital media, because they have a lot more control over the distribution and ultimate sale of their ultimate work. They don’t need to rely on selling a series to a broadcaster.

“It’s a challenge to get yourself out there, but if you’re clever and you know your audience you can really market yourself to your niche audience in a way that you couldn’t before — you had to just blast it out there. Now, if you’re a production company, you can make deals directly with advertisers or specialty channels or portals — you can get your work out there to an audience that you would never have had access to unless you were lucky enough to get a broadcast deal from a major network.”

While producers beat the bushes in search of partners and financing, the reality here in Alberta is that the province has to be part of the picture.

With limits on financing from private sources in Canada, there is a need for public funding incentives. During the Klein years, funding was cut off, with a brutal impact on the business. More recently, a rebate program of part of the cost of production has been put in place, with an industry cap of about $18 million.

Lindsay Blackett, Alberta’s pro-active Culture minister, believes more needs to be done if Alberta is to grow the industry and be competitive with other jurisdictions.

“The model we’d like to look at is one where we’d give an individual or corporation a rate of return of 30-50% based on what they would invest in particular productions, and there may be a chance to get a further percentage in terms of profit,” says Blackett.

“That’s something some high-wealth individuals have indicated they would be interested in.”

Then there is an ambitious project which is being vigorously pursued by the minister: the Alberta Creative Hub.

Based in Calgary, it would include sound stages and offices and be a kind of one-stop-shopping for Alberta’s creative industries, which would link up to other centres around the province via the SuperNet, including film schools in Edmonton and Red Deer.

Blackett, who believes the Hub will have “huge potential” is working on pinning down his colleagues on the province’s share ($14 million) of the project, which will have Calgary and the feds also kicking in substantial dollars.

“We’re trying to push it along as fast as we can.”

The name of the game, says Blackett, with projects such as the Hub and improved funding is to find a lever to get more people to invest and bring more projects into the province — “the HBOs, the Disneys and the Warner Bros. of the world.”

It’s about achieving “critical mass.”

As well, Alberta will be a more attractive place for talented Albertans to learn and ultimately pursue a career in.

“Where it really interests the people in the oil and gas sector, where we’re asking them to invest is (we’re saying) your children stay in Alberta and your grandchildren stay in Alberta,” says Blackett.

Meanwhile, now is now — and the last year or two been have been difficult for those wanting to work here, although things are beginning to pick up.

Happily, those drawn to the business tend to be resilient, says Evans.

“A lot of people who work in the industry are extremely resourceful and creative individuals, so they will find a way to survive.” As for those who leave, “I know that if the volume of production in Alberta increases they’ll come back.”

Blackett sees signs of green shoots. More people are coming to scout locations. Miller sees other encouraging signs. People he hired as they were starting out in the business are now producers in their own right, doing their own shows and films by their mid-30s.

“I think that is really healthy and they’ve been raised in the digital world, so that is second-nature to them.

“Some of them are just emerging from things they’ve done on their own on a shoestring and they’ve put online, and you go, well, that’s really interesting — why don’t we give them a chance to do something with a bigger budget?”

For the next generation coming up and eyeing a career in the industry, the pros have some words of wisdom.
For Scott, it’s all about passion:

“Find out what you’re passionate about. That’s necessary to drive you through those tough times, and it’s what drove me through my tough times in Edmonton.”

For Miller, it’s also about motivation:

“It is an industry for self-starters. Don’t wait around for something to happen, go out and make it happen.

“Be patient, be smart and be bold.”