News of the Nova Scotia film industry’s death may have been exaggerated.
When the McNeil government slashed a generous tax credit for TV and film production in the spring of 2014, it triggered a blockbuster of a backlash. It snowballed into a combination of public protests by well-known local figures in the industry and public education about how many people were employed in the support industries – who, not coincidentally, contributed both income and business taxes to provincial coffers.
The reaction had people outside the cultural sector wondering how the fledgling government could have so badly underestimated the effects of goring the most articulate, media-savvy people in the province.
But this month an estimated 500-600 Nova Scotians are back in business, working as actors, directors, camera operators, sound recordists, and providing props, makeup, transportation, and catering services for two new multi-million-dollar TV series as well as a German/Canadian feature film set on the spectacular Aspotogan Peninsula near Blandford. Many of the crew and production staff have been working twelve-hour days since July, and both TV series will shoot well into November – raising the tantalizing question of whether the film industry is BA-A-A-CK, or just surfacing temporarily.
The union which represents 18 trades (including sound, lighting, wardrobe and props) has 440 people working in Nova Scotia this fall, according to Gary Vermeir, bargaining agent for IATSE local 849. And that doesn’t include actors, camera people, directors, or production office staff.
Following the replacement of the Film Tax Credit with a new production incentive, production in Nova Scotia took a nose-dive in 2015. Many key, experienced workers fled to other provinces where the industry was booming, thanks to no disruption and the low Canadian dollar.
In the wake of that exodus, Vermeir says he’s spent much of 2016 “beating the bushes” to find enough qualified people to fill the jobs generated by two TV series and a movie shooting at once.
“There’s no question the unions can’t fill all the demand for technical people this year,” says David MacLeod, whose producing credits include the TV series Haven, Call Me Fitz, and Trudeau (about the first prime minister by that name). MacLeod is the executive producer of an off-beat Mennonite crime drama called Pure written by Mike Amo of Dartmouth. CBC-TV will air six episodes next year — an original story “inspired by true events” involving a western Mennonite drug cartel and a fictitious, morally torn pastor who tries to root out corruption in his community.
“We don’t have enough camera people anymore,” says MacLeod. “Some left and didn’t come back because they think work in Toronto is more stable. We’ve brought in a camera assistant and second assistant director, positions we normally would have filled locally. But overall, in terms of cast and crew — which climbs to over 200 in the Windsor area on days when we bring in 60 background performers or extras—we’re able to find about 95 per cent of the people we need.”
Competing for technical crew is The Mist, based on a novella by Stephen King. The TV series carries a much larger budget and bigger cast. Last week, it managed to hire a second camera unit to re-shoot some scenes. Local camera and technical people are also filling most of the spots on Harry’s Island, a German-language TV movie co-produced by Halifax’s Vertical Productions (Chris Zimmer and Ann Bernier). With location shooting on the rugged Atlantic coastline, it has the potential to give Nova Scotia tourism a boost by reaching 4.5 million German viewers.
While recruiting qualified people has been a challenge this season, it’s been good news for graduates of NSCC’s two-year Screen Arts program as well as some people literally hired off the street.
“We are proving, even crippled and with one arm tied behind our back, we can do the work and pull this off”, says Vermeir.
Why show business is booming after last year’s big bust is a touchy question. Executive producer David MacLeod says there’s “no way” new TV series such as Pure or The Mist would be filming in Nova Scotia today without the government incentive, which rebates producers between 25 and 30 per cent of all the money they spend on wages, goods, and services purchased within the province. MacLeod says that although the tax credit system used by most other provinces and Nova Scotia prior to 2015 is “more attractive” to producers, the funding incentive Nova Scotia offers today (similar to Alberta’s) comes in about the “middle of the pack.”
The producers of Pure expect to spend $12 million making six hours of TV drama. The taxpayer, through the Nova Scotia Film and Television Production Incentive Fund, is contributing $2.4 million. But that’s small change compared to the $5.9 million the province is chipping in to finance The Mist, a US TV production teamed up with Nova Scotia’s Magic Rock Productions.
With its $23 million dollar spend in Nova Scotia, 89 days of shooting, 10 hour-long episodes, and 50-70 extras needed regularly for the many scenes set inside a shopping mall beleaguered by a killer fog, The Mist is the biggest production to hit Nova Scotia for more than a decade, at least since the heady days of feature films such as Titanic and K-9. Thanks to its association with horrormeister Stephen King, the series is expected to be watched by 91 million Americans on Spike TV. (You might have noticed the cryptic yellow signs with a simple capital “M” and an arrow directing trucks and traffic control crews to locations around Dartmouth, Bedford, and the town of Windsor.)
Lisa Barry opened the Starfresh Diner in Burnside a few years ago to transition out of the 12-hour days she spent cooking for the thriving TV and film business. Now, she’s back at it. Her catering team has been preparing 120-140 salads and home-cooked meals a day since the first of July for cast and crew on The Mist. That’s an ordinary day with an average call sheet; often, there are dozens more to feed — at least until the end of November when the show is scheduled to wrap.
“Honestly, The Mist saved my business from going bankrupt,” she says from behind the counter of her modest diner. “It’s huge. Absolutely huge. Bigger than any project I’ve worked on previously. We’ve got a second mobile kitchen set up with its own team and they’re working long days.”
At the Bedford Place Mall, carpenters and crew have transformed some of the empty space vacated by the Target store into sets, including a police station and cells. That’s behind-the-scenes. But a large chunk of the shopping centre that’s still open to the public has sprouted a make-believe department store called Clarke’s, a fake florist, and a book store. (Not surprisingly, there have been a few funny moments when an actor playing a mall cop has been mistaken for the real thing.)
One positive is that Nova Scotia gets to stand-in for Maine again, as it did during the five years the sci-fi series Haven was produced in Chester. Several of the blood-chilling episodes are being filmed at the Bedford Place Mall where a lethal fog envelopes Maine townspeople with startling and nasty dramatic effects.
“For actors, the work involved on two hour-long episodes of a TV show is often the equivalent of a full-length feature film,” says Richard Hadley, the bargaining agent for ACTRA, the union representing performers. “We have Nova Scotia performers with recurring roles in this US series and that’s wonderful”.
Well-known Halifax actors Bill Carr and Deborah Allen (Black Harbour, Life With Billy) each have recurring roles on the series and are hopeful their characters (and their paycheques) will survive the menacing mist — their fate in the hands of the show’s writers.
Starring in this series is Isiah Witlock Jr. from The Wire. The principal actors flown in from LA (among them Morgan Spector,Frances Conroy) are frequent guests of the Prince George Hotel and Premiere Suites.
Not only is The Mist the biggest budget TV show to shoot here, but significantly, executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who own TWC-Dimension TV, are among the world’s most sought-after, successful, and prolific teams (Scream, Halloween, The Shipping News, The King’s Speech).
“The Weinstein Company is huge. Their being here is akin to HBO discovering Nova Scotia,” remarks IATSE’s Vermier. TWC is teamed up with Mike Mahoney and Val Halman’s Halifax-based Magic Rock Productions. The local company has a solid track record producing TV dramas such as The Lizzie Borden Chronicles and Bag of Bones, a movie of the week starring Pierce Brosnan.
“We’re doing better than I expected,” muses Hadley, the Maritimes’ ACTRA rep. “We’re in recovery mode after losing people to other places. I think we would be even busier and see more indigenous local productions if the tax credit was still in place. But I’m pleasantly surprised these projects are here — and they wouldn’t be here without the seasoned Nova Scotia producers who brought the work.”
Scott Simpson, chair of Screen Nova Scotia, agrees. “There are a variety of reasons why the production is here now,” said Simpson. “Some, such as Pure and The Mist, were years in the works and preceded changes to the system. The low Canadian dollar also makes a big difference, and, Nova Scotia gets some spillover when Vancouver and Toronto are full.”
Whether The Mist is spending five months shooting in Halifax because there was “no room at the inn” elsewhere is the topic of a lot of water cooler discussion. Despite repeated requests for an interview, no one at TWC/Magic Rock Productions agreed to speak, while those who work on the production are bound by signed confidentiality agreements. Only top management can confirm the total number of cast and crew working on the show, considered “proprietary information” according to Actra’s Richard Hadley. Eventually that number will have to be shared, considering the provincial government exceeded its own self-imposed maximum of $4 million per production with its $6-million-dollar incentive to usher in The Mist..
What the industry calls “legacy series” — shows such as Trailer Park Boys (now in its 11th season) and 22 Minutes, which has celebrated its 23rd — are the meat and potatoes that keep people working here. New dramatic TV series such as The Mist and Pure, and films like Harry’s Island represent the gravy — the hope that the industry will actually be able to thrive and grow.
So, does the current activity mean the industry is making a comeback?
“It would be foolhardy to answer to that question,” says Screen Nova Scotia’s Simpson. The industry group clashed publicly with the McNeil government over the disruption created by the elimination of the film tax credit. “It’s impossible to know whether this season represents a delayed spike in production or if we will keep going at this rate next year. We have just one year under our belt with a new system that still has wrinkles and flaws to work out.”
“I hear concern from domestic producers of films such as Werewolf and Weirdos [features by independent Cape Breton directors McKenzie and MacIvor which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall], ”continued Simpson. “Those smaller budget films are in jeopardy without key support for early script development and marketing once the film gets made. Those type of supports aren’t as easily available since the changeover.”
As of today, $5.7 million of next year’s $10 million Production Incentive Fund provided by province has been committed or spoken for. The Mist is receiving government assistance outside that envelope, suggesting past expenditures in the range of $20 million a year may have had merit.
Right now, what everybody on set wants to know is whether there will be a Season 2 for Pure and The Mist.
“It’s great to have the work, the big question is whether these productions will come back,” says Gary Vermeir. “Were these the overflow because Toronto and BC were full, or will they fall in love with Nova Scotia as Haven did? We’re holding our breath to see what happens next year.”