Alberta film industry eyes reopening as it interprets new guidelines
Everything from locations to storylines could change under new rules
Alberta's film industry is moving closer to getting the cameras rolling again across the province as groups work to establish new guidelines and safety protocols around COVID-19.
The industry was forced to shut down in March as cases of the virus started to rise. Work ground to a halt on all movies and series being shot in the province, leaving thousands of workers laid off.
The list of Alberta productions that were suspended included two movies, The Land and Moonfall, along with three TV series, Wynonna Earp, the Netflix show Black Summer and a new Amazon series called Outer Range.
More than 1,850 film industry employees and many thousands more who rely on the industry's presence are hoping new guidelines will mean a return to work could be just weeks, rather than months, away.
"Right now, we're working on all of the logistics of the safe return to work," said Damian Petti, with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 212.
Alberta's film and television industry was included under Stage 2 of the provincial government's relaunch strategy. The government released a three-page guidance document for the industry covering everything from production logistics to infection prevention and control.
Petti and others say provincial guidelines for their industry are vague but that gives the industry more scope to shape new rules themselves.
"Some of the concepts being debated right now are COVID supervisors, food handling and how testing will work," said Petti.
He says negotiations are happening North America-wide between companies, producers and unions in the hope of establishing a single set of protocols.
Petti says it's a case of risk over economics.
"A full return to work is still weeks away but we're hoping to work out these protocols so it will be smooth," Petti said.
Another big issue is cross-border traffic. Free-flowing travel to and from the United States is essential for the industry.
Petti cites New Zealand as an place where a 14-day quarantine period is being implemented — something that could happen here.
However the changes take shape, the industry will look a lot different when it does re-emerge. Close, crowded sets could be a thing of the past, with factors like airflow, distancing, use of extras, wardrobe, hair and makeup protocols and even on-site catering all becoming priorities.
Scripts, characters and story lines could even be changed and tailored to accommodate COVID-19.
"We're going to lean heavily into locations that we own or control. We're probably going to avoid locations like bars and restaurants," said Tom Cox, managing partner at Seven24 Films, the company that produces TV series such as Heartland and Wynonna Earp.
"That limits our thinking in terms of how we tell stories. We'll lean into our main characters as opposed to writing scripts with a lot of new characters. The way we tell stories is evolving to reflect the circumstances and to ensure our casts are safe," said Cox.
"The most pressing challenge is that everyone is safe."
Cox thinks for shows with existing insurance, the resumption of shooting could now be potentially weeks away.
He says the relaunch presents an opportunity to ramp up the industry, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in investment to Alberta, helping to boost the ailing economy.
Also watching developments closely are the many small towns and municipalities that rely on Alberta's film industry. Scenic, rural towns full of western heritage and mountain backdrops, like Didsbury, have featured in Hollywood movies and TV series and reaped the economic benefits.
"It gives us exposure, it makes us proud, it brings Hollywood and local Alberta companies to our towns," said Didsbury Mayor Rhonda Hunter.
Hunter has written a letter to the Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills MLA, Nathan Cooper, calling for more investment in the industry. The letter is being backed by other rural Alberta municipalities.
"The spinoff is recognition, and it has that economic spinoff, too. When cast and crew and directors are here, they frequent all of our stores, and that's very important," said Hunter.
Hunter says the movie Let Him Go brought about $70,000 to the town. Another series, Tin Star, brought in over $90,000 in its second season.
"We want to say to the government that this is the time for all areas of diversification for our province. The film industry is a way for us to increase revenue for our towns. We all love oil and gas, but we need ways to diversify and bring in those industries that can help our communities and our province," said Hunter.
As well as a need for Alberta workers to get back on sets and out on location, there's also an audience need for the new shows and movies, with viewing and streaming at an all-time high during the pandemic.
"The need for content is so high in the world right now and it's being pushed much higher by the fact everyone's been home for months and have been consuming a lot of content," said Brock Skretting, head of advocacy for Keep Alberta Rolling, a non-profit that showcases the benefits of the screen industry in the province.
Skretting says the industry needs to get back to work as quickly and safely as possible.
He says some shows won't continue, others will be picking up where they left off and new productions will be starting from scratch. He says Alberta will have to compete with other provinces and will likely need to provide some incentives for companies to shoot here.
Like Tom Cox, he predicts the industry will take off and boom again once the pandemic is under control.