At first glance, data from 2009 released today by the BC Film Commission suggests that B.C.'s film industry appears to have survived many difficult challenges. A decrease in the total number of television and film projects, from 260 in 2008 to 239 in 2009, was offset by production expenditures increasing by $100 million, from $1.2 to $1.3 billion, over the past year.
Overall production levels have remained higher than those in 2007, when there were only 202 projects with total expenditures of $943 million.
While the number of foreign productions shot in the province in 2009 (84) was comparable with 2008 levels (86), spending shot up from $841 million in 2008 to $1.09 billion in 2009. That boost can be credited to a number of big-budget Hollywood films such as The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Tron Legacy, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Hot Tub Time Machine, The A-Team, and Charlie St. Cloud.
Upon closer inspection, however, depleted domestic production levels are troubling and appear to be the main reason why overall production numbers plummeted.
The number of domestic film and TV productions plunged from 174 in 2008 to 155 in 2009. It's still higher than the 138 projects shot in 2007. But total expenditure amounts have steadily plummeted from $407 million in 2007 to this year's $217 million, almost half of what it was two years ago.
Only 19 feature films were made with $31 million spent, a far cry from the over $80 million spent each year in 2007 and 2008 for 24 and 25 feature films made in those years respectively.
The number of domestic animated shows was cut in half from 25 in 2008 to 12 in 2009.
The only increase in the domestic sector was the number of TV movies, miniseries, pilots, shorts, and documentaries, which grew from 82 in 2008 to 90 in 2009. But again, these were smaller budget productions, with spending decreasing from 2008's $102 million to 2009's $76 million.
These statistics alarm NDP arts and tourism critic Spencer Herbert.
"Since 2007," he said by phone, "these figures show that we've basically seen half the industry disappear."
Many observers have noted that the bolstering of the domestic industry would make the local industry less dependent on foreign productions and, consequently, less susceptible to fluctuations in that market.
"Domestic companies are the ones that produce B.C. stories," Herbert said. "They're the ones that produce shows that are about our province and about our country. And they're also the ones which can, if properly supported, provide a bit of stability in the film market. We've seen the ups and downs because of tax credit issues, the dollar, et cetera—real swings. Whereas the domestic industry, producing for Canadian television, et cetera, can provide a bit of stability which is closer to what they've got in Ontario where I believe the majority of their production is domestic whereas in B.C. the vast majority is foreign."
Herbert suggested that the decrease in domestic production levels could be attributed to changes in domestic tax incentives. "There used to be a competitive advantage to be a B.C.–owned company and producing through Film Incentive B.C. but with the tax credit changes now, that advantage is gone, and you might as well, I'm told, become a foreign-service producer and just compete for foreign films because the capital that used to be there for domestic films is not any more because of these changes."
Tax incentive changes were announced on February 3 in response to increases made in Ontario and Quebec. However, these changes focused on incentives for foreign productions, not domestic ones.
While Herbert advocated looking at the tax incentives, he reiterated the importance of setting up an intellectual development fund.
"Basically providing seed money to get these projects off the ground, it allows B.C.–based companies to retain ownership of their work whereas now with what the Liberals have done, it's very difficult to retain ownership because that's one of the key stakes that you play with in terms of getting the capital so I'm told that it's easier to just sell the project off to a foreign company if they want it, and instead of it being set in the West End, maybe it'll be set in San Francisco or something like that."
If productions move Stateside or even elsewhere in Canada, B.C. actors, as Herbert pointed out, will lose out on roles, not to mention crew members and other related industries.
Herbert also reiterated that the budget for the B.C. Film Commission, which provides services for producers and production companies, was slashed by 23 percent in the provincial budget announced on March 2.