Calgary

Alberta filmmakers fear tax incentive cuts 'will ultimately destroy' industry

Hundreds of concerned film industry workers met in Calgary on Sunday to voice fears that the government's decision to reduce incentives that draw productions to the province will turn away tens of millions in revenue and do irreparable damage to the industry.

'The simple answer is to remove a cap so it allows unlimited growth'

Hundreds turned out to air their concerns at a meeting of the Alberta Screen Industry Action Committee in Calgary on Sunday afternoon. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Hundreds of concerned film industry workers met in Calgary on Sunday to voice fears that the government's decision to reduce incentives that draw productions to the province will turn away millions in revenue and do irreparable damage to the industry.

"For the last seven months since they froze the program, I've had to turn away approximately $10 million worth of work," panellist Mike Peterson, who directed Knuckleball and Lloyd the Conquerer, told those gathered at the Glenmore Inn.

"Essentially, there's a cap on growth. It's very hard to make a case if you're bringing in productions from out of town on why they would shoot here … It doesn't make any sense."

The town hall was hosted by the Alberta Screen Industry Action Committee, a group formed to respond to what its website describes as "the imminent crisis of our diminishing capacity to attract motion picture productions to Alberta."

One of the largest incentives for productions to choose to film in Alberta was that they could get 30 per cent of eligible expenses reimbursed. That was cut down to 22 per cent, in Alberta's new budget.

I don't see any sort of light on the horizon in terms of what they're doing.- Mike Peterson, film director

The UCP government increased the maximum payment cap to $10 million, up from the previous NDP government's cap of $7.5 million.

Prior to the budget's release last month, a government spokesperson called the grant program "severely mismanaged," saying the incoming government had discovered $92 million had been committed to Alberta's film industry, though the program had been capped at $45 million.

Citing those figures, the province committed only $15 million in 2020-21, $30 million in 2021-22 and $45 million in 2022-23. The small production grant fund program will be limited to $1 million per year.

Other provinces that don't have a cap on incentives, like B.C. and Ontario, pull in billions each year. Attendees said the cap will force local productions to compete with international ones, and place a limit on industry growth.

The Revenant is one of many big-budget film productions shot in Alberta. (Kate Fair)

"I don't see any sort of light on the horizon in terms of what they're doing," Peterson said. "I think it will ultimately destroy the industry."

Blair Young, president of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists Alberta, said committing $45 million this year instead of in 2022 could be "low-hanging fruit" for the province.

"Give it to us now and we'll show you how this industry can impact the economy," he said to cheers from the crowd.

$4.50 return for every $1 spent

Alberta Culture and Tourism has rated the return on investment in Alberta's screen industry as $4.50 for every dollar spent.

"It's simple math," said Andrew Sparke, who has worked in the industry for 27 years. "The simple answer is to remove a cap so it allows unlimited growth."

Former NDP MLA Craig Coolahan said the government's failure to calculate that return isn't partisan.

"Everyone's screwed it up. The NDP did as well," he said. "It's difficult for governments to see the return on investment in this industry, which is unfortunate."

Alberta has attracted many big-budget productions over the years, including recent films Interstellar, The Revenant, War for the Planet of the Apes, and an upcoming sequel to Ghostbusters.

Numbers vary from year to year, but the total volume of film and television production in the province has largely increased, reaching $255 million in 2017, according to data from the Canadian Media Producers Association.

The idea that we're all now going to be fighting each other over a pittance, really, in order to survive, is really disheartening.- Anna Cooley, filmmaker

Film and television productions that shoot in Alberta bring with them significant sums of cash and generate thousands of jobs. Productions in Alberta created 5,350 direct and spinoff full-time jobs in 2017.

CBC's Heartland, which films near High River, had a total economic output of $469.1 million across its first 10 seasons, with $278.5 million in production expenditure. It has created more than 4,500 full-time jobs, brought in $46.7 million in federal tax revenue and $27.8 million in provincial and municipal tax revenue.

The largest year on record to date came in 2013, when Interstellar and the first season of FX series Fargo filmed in the area, drawing a total value of $274 million.

Calgary filmmaker Anna Cooley doesn't want to see lower production incentives harm the local film community. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

"I firmly believe we need to fund local voices to tell local stories and grow our own independent producers so that the multi-million-dollar projects in the future are Alberta stories being told by Albertans," said Anna Cooley, a filmmaker and vice president of the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers.

"We're very community-oriented … the idea that we're all now going to be fighting each other over a pittance, really, in order to survive, is really disheartening."

Damian Petti, president of IATSE Local 212 (which represents thousands of workers in the industry), said they're coming out from the busiest year ever.

He said industry representatives have a meeting coming up with the trade and tourism minister to discuss how to encourage growth.

"We need to go from flat line to having a pulse," he said. "We've got to get this right."

Watch the livestream of the town hall meeting:

With files from Terri Trembath and Joel Dryden

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