The Calgary International Film Festival kicks off today — amid an industry that has changed a lot in 20 years

The inaugural Calgary International Film Festival opened in 2000 with Waydowntown — a distinctly Calgary film by a Calgary director. This year, the cult favourite will have a special screening as CIFF kicks off Wednesday and marks its 20th year. A lot has changed for the local film industry over that time.

Big budget productions have filmed locally, but city still trails other Canadian film hubs

The film industry in Calgary has evolved significantly since Gary Burns's Waydowntown opened the first Calgary International Film Festival in 2000. (Calgary International Film Festival)

The inaugural Calgary International Film Festival opened in 2000 with Waydowntown — a distinctly Calgary film by a Calgary director. It focused on a group of underdogs trying to go as long as possible in the city's downtown without going outside, thanks largely to the city's unique Plus-15 network of elevated walkways.

This year at CIFF — which starts Wednesday and runs to Sept. 29 — the cult favourite will have a special screening as CIFF marks its 20th year. And much as the city's largest festival has evolved significantly since that inaugural year, so, too, has the film community in Calgary.

Steve Schroeder, executive director of CIFF, said that in many ways, Waydowntown was the perfect film to open the first CIFF.

"I think a lot of us feel that way. I think Calgary, itself, is a city that is high achieving but also often feels like the underdog," he said. "We feel like we're somewhere special, yet at the same time you just know there's also, like, a regular person kind of feeling for Calgary."

Waydowntown will once again play the Calgary International Film Festival. It screens on Thursday at the Globe Cinema, almost 20 years to the day of that opening gala. 

"We had more cast here, and it was more of a party. I remember it being super fun. It was a really fun film to make, too," director Gary Burns said. "And we had shot it right there, where the party was."

This year's festival features films starring big names like Renée Zellweger and Marisa Tomei, and attendance for the festival has grown from 8,000 people in 2000 to more than 38,000 last year.

CIFF runs from Sept. 18 to 29 and features close to 200 films. It opens Wednesday with a gala screening at the Jack Singer Concert Hall of The Song of Names, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Norman Lebrecht. It's directed by François Girard (The Red Violin), who will be in attendance, and stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen.

7 can't-miss movies at this year's Calgary International Film Festival

As CIFF has evolved, so has the film scene in southern Alberta, where the majority of production in the province takes place.

But though the industry has experienced a period of growth in the past two decades, that evolution hasn't come without speed bumps. 

Ebbs and flows

Since 2000, the Calgary area has succeeded in attracting a number of big budget productions to film in the area and that has translated into large sums of money.

Though numbers vary year to year, the total volume of film and television production in Alberta has mostly been on an upward trajectory, reaching $255 million in 2017, up from $181 million in 2008. 

The highest year on record was 2013, when the total value reached $274 million — the year Interstellar and the first season of the FX series Fargo filmed in the area.

This photo shows Matthew McConaughey in a scene from the movie Interstellar, which filmed earthbound scenes in the area around Calgary. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures/AP Photos)

Productions in Alberta also generated significant levels of employment, creating 5,350 direct and spinoff full-time jobs in 2017.

However, despite coming in fourth in production value among Canadian provinces, Alberta still lags significantly behind British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

Its distant fourth-place standing aside, Alberta has been successful in drawing big-budget productions to the area, such as Inception, Interstellar and, more recently, the newest sequel in the Ghostbusters franchise.

Interstellar filmed its earthbound scenes in southern Alberta, while Kananaskis served as host for winter scenes in Christopher Nolan's Inception.

What's currently being referred to as Ghostbusters 2020 is shooting in downtown Calgary.

Luke Azevedo, Calgary Economic Development's film/television and creative industries commissioner, said big budget productions look for strong incentive bases, deep talent wells and developed infrastructure.

"There's a lot of opportunity in Calgary. In terms of vistas and backdrops, within a three-hour radius you have the prairies, the badlands, the mountains and two municipalities of over a million people," he said. "So speaking on a global scale, that's very unique."

Azevedo said showcasing Alberta's natural landscapes on a global scale benefits the local economy in a more nontraditional way. 

Actors like Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson and Kevin Hart have used their social media platforms to draw attention to Calgary while shooting films in the area.

"What happens is this goes out to every one of their followers on Instagram, on Twitter, Facebook — whatever they're putting it out on — and you would see that globally," Azevedo said. "It helps people make decisions of where they travel to and where they invest and and want to go to."

But for Calgary to truly become a player in Hollywood North, as Canada is often named, there are certain things that need to change, according to Azevedo.

"If we are competitive in our incentivizing of our program here in Alberta, we will see ourselves, in the next five to seven years, we have the potential of being a three-quarter of a billion-dollar industry and moving towards a billion-dollar industry very quickly after that," Azevedo said. "We will double up the amount of jobs that are here."


Arguably the biggest investment made in the film industry in Alberta over the past two decades has been the Calgary Film Centre. 

Located on the southeast outskirts of the city, the centre has 50,000 square feet of studio space and 25,000 square feet of multipurpose space.

The Calgary Film Centre, which opened in May 2016, offers three sound stages covering 50,000 square feet. (CBC)

Calgary filmmaker Scott Westby said that for a long time, the centre was the film community's equivalent of the Calgary ring road — a badly needed project that has been in the works seemingly forever.

"I'm so excited that we finally got at least some infrastructure for filmmakers to come in and actually use a proper studio space, a purpose-built sound stage," Westby said.

Westby, who filmed portions of his upcoming feature film Jonesin at the sound stage, said the facility provides legitimate supports to local filmmakers, and not just big budget productions.

"Sometimes that kind of thing can be lip service, but they actually put their money where their mouth was and they financed quite a few productions through what they called the Project Lab," he said. "Jonesin wouldn't have been made without them."

But despite the ample studio space, the centre has had its share of financial problems. In 2018, the City of Calgary spent $13.5 million to pay off the debt accumulated by the facility, taking over ownership from Calgary Economic Development.

That's partly due to an uncertainty in the film community at present surrounding grants and credits, Westby said.

"If you've got a $100-million movie and you can shoot in British Columbia or you can shoot in Alberta, British Columbia is going to be a guaranteed labour-based tax credit, and Alberta is a maybe you'll get a grant where you have to apply and wait," he said. "What are you going to choose? There's too much money on the line for these larger productions to risk it on an industry where there is not certainty."

That uncertainty, which has led to a number of productions looking outside the province, could soon be remedied, according to a statement from the president of the Motion Picture Association of Canada released Sept. 13. 

"We have had productive conversations with the Alberta government about their plans to create a film and television production tax credit that will bring jobs and investment to Alberta," the statement read.

Local creators

Though Hollywood features bring larger budgets, local supports have encouraged growth for Alberta-based filmmakers, including Kyle Thomas.

Thomas premiered his first feature film, The Valley Below, at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, and is in production on a new feature, Range Roads, due in 2020. Thomas said working in a considerably smaller market compared with other Canadian film hubs does present particular challenges.

"When it comes to crew, non-union actors in particular, equipment, we have all those things. But there's 10 times more and bigger markets," he said. "So in that sense, you're able to stretch your dollars a little bit more [elsewhere]. Because we are a smaller market, you don't have as much choice when it comes to some of the aspects of filmmaking."

Kyle Thomas said he got his start in the late 1990s at the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers. (Chinara Adhofer/North Country Cinema)

On the flip side, Thomas said Calgary's small community does lend itself to a strong sense of community.

"You're able to reach out and kind of get things done," he said. "There are a lot of locations around Calgary that are welcoming and open their doors."

Thomas said other local resources, such as the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers, were positive supports for indie filmmakers, though he added the city could see future upgrades in education.

"Having a bachelor of fine arts production program at a school like the Alberta University of the Arts would provide a great foundation for filmmakers," Thomas said. "They'd come out with the education and want to stay and make some meaningful kind of visionary work that has its roots in Alberta."

Marion Garden with the Alberta University of the Arts said the school has no plans to include a film degree in the foreseeable future.

Looking ahead

For Burns, it's been encouraging to see other filmmakers completing their own features in the period since Waydowntown initially released.

"It's improving. Just recently, there's a few young filmmakers that are making features, which really wasn't happening for a long time," he said. "For a long time, it was just me."

CIFF's 20th year is likely to be a celebration, simultaneously a look back at where the festival has been and where the local film industry is going. 

Schroeder said the success of that initial festival — started with a limited budget and few sponsors — proved that Calgary could be a player in the film industry in Canada.

"I think the organizers at the time, and the city as a whole, knew that this would be a great city for a film festival," he said. "This is a film-loving city, by any way you want to measure it."

For a full list of films playing at CIFF 2019, click here.


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