Hollywood Versus Vancouver: Is Canadian Film Finally Coming into Its Own?

Vancouver, British Columbia is a busy town, full of a surprising number of film crews. It’s been like that since the 1980s, when it first became “Hollywood North”. Initially, it was an easy target for film crews down in California looking for a cheap place to shoot. But over the years, it’s grown into a major competitor for business with the previously thought invincible Hollywood. With so much work going north and Hollywood box office profits increasingly going south, how long can it be before the Vancouver film industry supersedes its California rival?

On the surface, it would seem like a slamdunk in favor of Hollywood, David and Goliath with Goliath winning David’s head for a keyring. Los Angeles is one of the world’s supercities. Greater Vancouver sprawls, but at three million, it doesn’t come close to LA’s population or production (or pollution). Hollywood has been making movies and whalloping the competition for a century now. Even avant garde France fears California. Vancouver has only been seriously in the commercial film business for about two decades. How could it possibly compete?

Further, Hollywood has been paying its own way for most of that century. But a major reason why Hollywood producers sent their productions north in the first place was because Canadian cinema and television were so economically feeble in the face of the American juggernaut that the government offered (and still does) cash incentives to homegrown cinema. By filming their productions in Canada, producers could claim these incentives, even muscling out Canadian competition. The chronically weak Canadian dollar was also encouraging. So, American producers started filming more and more productions up north, which naturally poured more revenue into Vancouver and less into Hollywood.

But something funny has happened in the past two decades. Vancouver filmmakers wrung their hands and wailed at the injustice as much as anyone in Toronto. Montreal, with its well-established and self-contained francophone industry, didn’t much care. Yet even as the Vancouverites groused, they did an interesting thing. They built an industry to make the Americans from Hollywood happy and keep them bringing in revenue and then they started using it for themselves. Canadian independent film, which had been cooking along quietly since the experimental sixties at places like Simon Fraser University, started expanding. Vancouver actors would take a small role on an American production to pay the rent and then turn around and do an indie film for the love. It wasn’t a perfect situation, but it more or less worked all round.

Science Fiction and Fantasy shows, always working on a tightrope balancing of the budget between FX and everything else, clued into this good deal fast. They have gone north in droves, especially since The X-Files hit big. The moody exteriors of constant rain and dripping green forest in The X-Files could never have happened in California. In fact, many fans yelled loud and long when the show’s production moved south. It was like replacing a moody and eccentric, but beloved, background castmember with somebody young, perky and way too chirpy in the morning.

Originally, American production companies had brought everyone north-cast and crew. Then, Vancouver started building up local talent and it became more economically viable to leave the crew at home and just bring the cast. But more and more Canadian actors decided to stay home and soon, it became easier and cheaper to hire a few stars down in Hollywood, then go north and hire everybody else in Vancouver. With their skills sharpened on independent film, young actors and actresses like Molly Parker, Nicholas Lea, Parker Posey, Martin Cummins, Venus Terzo and Ian Tracey started making strong impressions even in rent-paying roles. Older and established actors like Babz Chula, Nick Campbell, Donnelly Rhodes and Bruce Greenwood also saw their careers get a boost, as well as indie directors like Lynne Stopkewich.

The turn of the century saw things go back downhill (and south) for Vancouver for a while. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to impose sanctions on anyone in Hollywood taking productions north. The American dollar tanked and the Canadian dollar suddenly became strong. It was looking grim. Even with the continued government money (which, with a new Conservative government, wasn’t all that certain), Vancouver was feeling less attractive and smaller than it had in years.

But the Americans never really did stop coming. Speculative genre fare in particular continued to film in Vancouver – movies like the X-Men franchise and I, Robot and series like Battlestar Galactica and The 4400. Then, Program Partners, a California-based distributor of Canadian programming, sold critically acclaimed police procedural Da Vinci’s Inquest to a 90% spread of American syndicated markets and Americans discovered Canadian shows in a big, big way. Program Partners followed up this success with a double-shot of crime shows Cold Squad (the original inspiration for American hit Cold Case) and Stone Undercover (“Tom Stone” back in Canada). Now, the distributor has sold brand new series “Intelligence” to American markets based on the pilot alone, even before its run in Canada. And the networks, starved for some original programming, are interested.

Hollywood, watch out.

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