Fare thee well, film workers: Nova Scotia filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald on the province's mass exodus

Nova Scotia filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald on the mass exodus of film workers heading west after government cuts.

"They're simply moving away from a place that, for the moment, doesn't see the value in them. "

L-R Actors Mike McLeod and Callum Dunphy both moved away from Nova Scotia on the same day. (Shaun Simpson)

I've been saying a lot of goodbyes lately. Farewell parties, adieu dinners, social media well-wishes. It's a bittersweet time in Nova Scotia's beleaguered film and television industry. We're in the midst of a talent exodus, the likes of which we haven't seen before. I said goodbye to three terrific actors — my friends and collaborators Mike, Pasha and Callum, just yesterday.

People have always left this place. For many generations now, Nova Scotia has been a great place to grow up and a lovely place to retire. In between, the tidal pull of economic forces carried a steady stream of people westward, away from the Atlantic seeking work and opportunity. Every passing generation seems to experience its own migration tsunami. Once, it was coal miners and fishermen. Today it's a tidal wave of our creative artists.

Back in April, the Nova Scotia government unleashed a budget that gutted the screen industry. At the time, I was shooting a second season of the series Forgive Me. The cast and crew had been on edge all week, since the government had been dropping ominous hints. So, we did something entirely unusual. We gathered around a laptop at lunchtime, like a giant family crowded around a radio during the Great Depression, and listened to the government budget announcement. Gone was the provincial film agency. Slashed was the tangible value of the film tax credit by 75 per cent. The government was looking to save about $15 million from its budget and was willing to forego a $139 million industry to do it.

Mike McLeod in "Forgive Me."

Lunch ended in tears as the workers saw their livelihoods come crashing down. I recall the middle-aged art director vowing to find a way to pay for his son's university tuition. The focus puller was stoic the rest of the day, having just learned his first baby was on the way, wondering how he could afford it. The make-up artist had tearful phone calls with her mom, because she'd only recently moved back from Vancouver to work in movies. I announced that anyone was excused to step off the set if they needed to cry.

Within days we were all marching on Province House among thousands protesting. It didn't take long for the government to backpedal. In lieu of the longstanding tax credits they introduced a big new Nova Scotia Film Production Incentive Fund on June 1st. It restored most of the funding, but in a new structure this government prefers. And we were promised that there would still be a Nova Scotia film industry tomorrow.

As one friend put it to me last week, "Tomorrow's here, and it sucks." The new Incentive Fund is fine on paper but it hasn't yet succeeded in attracting any big productions. While the Canadian film industry is booming thanks to the low loonie, NS film jobs are down 82 per cent from last year. Local actors are barely working at all.

So, people are leaving. But there are some notable differences in the current wave of East Coast emigrants. Ninety per cent of film industry workers have some post-secondary education. They're nearly twice as likely than the general workforce to have an undergraduate degree. They're young, too — more likely to be between the ages of 25 and 44. In every measurable way, film workers are exactly the type of people governments want to keep around.

Pasha Ebrahimi in ":Sex and Violence."

Mike McLeod, 30, a London, Ont. native, is tall and blond, with a sparkling intelligence. After graduating from Dalhousie Theatre School, Forgive Me put the young actor front and centre on television, heading a cast of acclaimed acting heavy-hitters like Ed Asner, Olympia Dukakis and Wendy Crewson. For his stellar performance, Mike was recognized by his peers in 2015 with an ACTRA Award, and nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for Best Lead Actor. Just when Mike should have been at the very top of everyone's casting list, Nova Scotia auditions dried up completely. In between glitzy ceremonies toasting his success, he sensibly got a job at an insurance company. After nine months without an audition, Mike realized his day job had become his only job. It was time to go. He flew out to British Columbia, got a great agent and had an audition for a major U.S. network pilot on his first day living in Vancouver.

Callum Dunphy, age 25, is a 2016 CSA nominee for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, for his daring performance as a gay serial killer on my other show, Sex & Violence, on OUTtv. Callum took the train when he moved to Toronto yesterday, and he was immediately signed by a great agency.

Pasha Ebrahimi, in his 30s, who was nominated for an ACTRA Award for his role as a cosmetic surgeon on Sex & Violence, is taking meetings with Vancouver agents this week. His fellow 2015 ACTRA nominees Michael McPhee, Glen Matthews and Candy Palmater have all relocated. In all, of the twelve episodes of Sex & Violence, more than 20 of the show's cast members have already moved away from Nova Scotia. That's just the cast. That's just one show.

Callum Dunphy in Sex and Violence.

I won't leave you wondering. That art director paid for his son's tuition by working on back-to-back movies in Northern Ontario all year. The make-up artist is headed back to Vancouver. The focus-puller's new baby is cute as a button. I'd like to think that when folks in the booming Canadian entertainment industry meet up with a newly relocated Nova Scotian, they can see them for who they are. Many of them are the very best and brightest this country has to offer. They're simply moving away from a place that, for the moment, doesn't see the value in them. They're going where their skills and talents are needed. Many of them will return one day—perhaps when this government or the next feels their economic loss and makes a strategy to repatriate them. If not… maybe they'll come home to retire. For now, the rest of Canada is very lucky to have them.

Thom Fitzgerald remains a filmmaker in Nova Scotia. He wrote and directed movies like The Hanging Garden, 3 Needles and Cloudburst, and tv shows like Forgive Me and Sex & Violence.


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