Nova Scotia’s film and TV industry is expecting the 2021 production season to be the busiest in years.
While the pandemic has disrupted Hollywood’s production pipeline, locales like Nova Scotia that have managed to control the infection rate and continue to produce film and television are appealing.
Interest from American streaming companies and broadcasters increased by an estimated 100 per cent in 2020, according to Screen Nova Scotia.
“I’d say probably between August and December of 2020, I was on the phone all day long with studios that were wondering what was happening in Nova Scotia,” said executive director Laura Mackenzie.
She wouldn’t disclose which companies inquired about shooting in the province, but said she’s heard from all the large U.S. streaming services.
Predictable shooting schedule
The Stephen King adaptation Chapelwaite, starring Adrian Brody and Emily Hampshire, shot last summer in Halifax, Dartmouth and Cole Harbour, while the new CBC series, Feudal, filmed on the South Shore.
Local independent producer Marc Tetreault said it’s the predictability of shooting in Nova Scotia during the pandemic that’s put the province on the radar of American studios.
“If you think about shooting in L.A. or Toronto or New York right now, you don’t have any predictability or certainty,” he said. “Film is like a really slow-moving train, and once it gets going, it’s really hard to stop. And when it does stop, it costs a lot of money to get it going again.”
He said even halting production for a day, let alone weeks, can be very costly.
Tetreault said bigger shows can manage the costs associated with the pandemic, including the two-week quarantine in Nova Scotia, because those costs are quantifiable.
“If you’re in Nova Scotia, you should be reasonably confident that you should be able to complete your production without a major shutdown or hiccup, and I think that’s really attractive to a lot of out-of-town producers,” he said.
The costs related to the province’s quarantine rules are “a drop in the bucket on a larger show,” Tetreault added.
“What I think it comes down to is convincing the people who are quarantining that they’re going to quarantine for two weeks — less so, you know, paying the 200 bucks a night for a hotel,” he said.
Is N.S. prepared to support productions?
The challenge will be providing the infrastructure and support to visiting productions.
In 2015, the Stephen McNeil government axed the provincial film tax credit, a 50 to 65 per cent fully refundable corporate income tax credit offered to productions hiring Nova Scotia film personnel.
It was eventually replaced with the Production Incentive Fund, which offers a refund to foreign service production of 25 per cent and 26 per cent for local content. It also offers a refund of up to 32 per cent in an all-spend model on any money spent in the province for labour, accommodations and locations.
That helped make Nova Scotia competitive with other provinces, but the film business still isn’t as robust as it was in the tax credit era.
“We’ve had amazing momentum in building our industry here over the past five years,” said Mackenzie. “But we did lose quite a few crew members in 2015 when the tax credit was changed.
“And so that, alongside with the loss of some production studio spaces, it’s put us at a disadvantage because we can’t possibly supply the demand.”
That’s why she’s putting a call out to any Nova Scotian working elsewhere.
“Time to come home. We need you here,” she said.
Mackenzie also said finding studio space so that out-of-town productions can shoot interior scenes is as much of a challenge this year as finding skilled crew. She’s looking for anyone who has comparable warehouse space.
Diggstown creator struggling to cast show
While it’s a challenge to build up enough skilled crew for shows that may be coming to the province, it could also provide opportunity for film workers who are traditionally under-represented on film and TV sets and in front of the camera.
Diggstown, a CBC legal drama shot in Dartmouth and Halifax, has also benefited from the American production slowdown — the first two seasons were recently bought by the Fox Network in the U.S.
With the third season set to go to camera in April, producer and creator Floyd Kane said he’s struggling to cast his show.
Diggstown tells stories from Nova Scotia’s Black communities, and Kane said it feels like he’s seen and chosen almost every local actor of colour in the province.
Now, he has to fly in racialized cast from Toronto or elsewhere, which, for a low-budget TV series, is very expensive.
“I came up in the industry in Nova Scotia where I would be the only Black person or person of colour in the room,” Kane told CBC Radio’s Mainstreet recently.
“I want to have more Black people, more people of colour working in our industry. I want to encourage that. The acting piece of this is a huge challenge. Frankly, we’ve done a very poor job of developing the talent pool [for people of colour] and retaining that pool by there being opportunities to work.”
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Richard Hadley is the Maritime branch representative for ACTRA, the actor’s union. He said his organization is very aware of that need.
“We are looking at ways to go into those communities and let people know what the opportunities are,” said Hadley. “And that is a specific area of our membership that we really want to encourage to grow, absolutely.”
Mackenzie from Screen Nova Scotia said it’s also one of her organization’s top priorities to increase diversity behind the camera. The organization has formed a diversity outreach committee to work on a strategy to come up with long-term fixes.
While the industry has proven that the health and safety protocols are a draw for service production — shows that come from elsewhere to shoot here — they do still pose a challenge for lower-budgeted local shows, as Kane is finding with Diggstown.
‘You will be hired on something’
Tetreault said he fully supports the health protocols that are in place to keep Nova Scotians safe, “but they definitely are a hindrance to the local, usually lower budget, independent films.”
He said paying for supplies such as masks and hand sanitizer, and for the extra set space to allow for physical distancing, can also stretch a local production’s limited budget.
That said, Tetreault is still planning to make a feature film this year — and he’s looking for a crew.
“Now’s the time,” said Tetreault. “Call the unions, get the referral. Figure out what it is you’re interested in and you will be hired on something.”