When actor Anson Mount left southern Alberta after filming five seasons of AMC’s Hell on Wheels, he wrote a letter published in the Calgary Herald espousing his love for the region.
“Alberta, simply put, is a film and television-maker’s dream,” Mount wrote in July 2016.
But he was critical of Alberta’s ability to draw more television and film production, saying the province’s media production grant “is threatening to severely limit, if not outright halt, the potential boon that your local industry has been working toward for so long.”
The 2019 Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo marks the first time Mount has returned to Calgary since playing Cullen Bohannon on the post-Civil War western Hell on Wheels.
Mount is better known at the Calgary Expo as Captain Pike — captain of the 23rd century USS Enterprise in Star Trek: Discovery.
LISTEN: Anson Mount joins The Morning News ahead of his Calgary Expo appearance
“It feels incredible to be back,” Mount said Friday. “I met my wife here so I have family in Calgary. In a way, it’s like coming home.
But, as Mount admitted in his 2016 letter, chances are slim that he will be back to film another production thanks to Alberta’s film production grant system “threatening to severely limit, if not outright halt, the potential boon that your local industry has been working toward for so long. At its current level, it is only competitive in attracting lower mid-level film budgets and below.”
Alberta’s existing Screen-based Production Grant — as announced in October 2017 — had an increase in funding cap for a production to $7.5 million and boosted the total grant amount to $45 million.
“It’s created some uncertainty,” IATSE Local 212 president Damian Petti told Global News. “Last year, we saw a decline in production. The new guidelines were a bit tricky to apply. There was a bit of passing a test in order to qualify. It wasn’t clear which productions would and which wouldn’t qualify. There were too many filters being applied and that created instability.”
“I think the level of production that we’re going to be experiencing this year is largely because of the planned increases to that production grant,” independent producer and casting director Susan Bristow told Global News.
“But, again, because it has a limitation to the amount that is available to production, we will hit a threshold again where we won’t be able to finance any more projects or offer incentives to those projects, and those projects will look to other locations.”
News that celebrities like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Kevin Hart, Kevin Costner, and Diane Lane arrived in the province to film upcoming movies had Alberta movie fans abuzz. And demand from streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Disney, and YouTube could increase the number of productions in Alberta.
“There’s an absolute gold rush of production going on, North America-wide,” Petti said. “Alberta is experiencing some of it, but we could grow that significantly.”
“We already enjoy numbers — over 90 per cent of crews (working in Alberta) are Albertans. We want those numbers to be higher.”
With roughly 70 per cent of filming in the province done outdoors, Alberta’s existing crews are uniquely qualified — and acclimatized — to work in conditions more extreme than those found in enclosed studios in Los Angeles or Vancouver.
For Petti, whose union represents the crews that work on Calgary-area productions, some of that growth could come courtesy of Alberta’s new UCP government.
“Now that the UCP has been elected, we have this Arts and Culture portion of their platform that makes a pretty significant commitment to our industry,” Petti said.
The UCP election platform promises to continue arts and cultural funding. One of those promises is to change the existing Screen-Based Production Grant into a tax credit, bringing Alberta’s film and television production incentives in line with provinces like B.C., Ontario and Quebec — provinces generally seen as more competitive than Alberta.
Calgary film commissioner Luke Azevedo agrees that the UCP’s promises look good for Alberta’s future in film and television.
“The platform comments from the UCP are extremely important for us,” Azevedo told Global News. “We want to be in a position where the tax credit and tax rebate they are looking to transition us into puts us in a different range and would work way better for our film and TV industry.”
According to a 2018 report from the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), Alberta ranks fourth among the provinces with just three per cent of total production volume and two per cent of full-time equivalent jobs. The CMPA pegged the industry’s GDP at $12.8 billion nationwide, employing 179,000.
Previous conservative governments were reluctant to grant the province’s screen industry a tax credit, with the notion it was a gift or a handout.
“I don’t think that has ever been the right perspective on this industry,” Bristow said. “This industry is incented to be in a specific location, just like any other industry.”
“If you want to bring that industry to your region, you need to provide some sort of reason for them to come.”
For Bristow, the existing Alberta Screen-based Production Grant — with its funding caps and complicated application process — has helped local, independent productions and should be kept to help foster home-grown content.
Bristow, a 20-year industry veteran, thinks the tax credit fits with the UCP’s ‘open for business’ mantra.
“I think a tax credit system is an ‘open for business’ system. If this government is truly open for business and they want not just the oil and gas business here — but being open for business in other areas and diversification is key for them — this is an industry that is already here. It just needs the lid lifted off.”
Alberta’s award-winning screen industry has also been the victim of brain drain — skilled members of the industry have moved to jurisdictions north and south of the border with a more robust industry bulwarked by competitive incentives.
Alberta’s film and television industry has seen oil-like boom-bust cycles, something that even Brooklyn-based Mount commented on.
“It goes away for a while and even if you bring it back, you have to convince your artisans to come back,” Mount said.
“That’s a hill that needs to be climbed, particularly in a town that had a booming oil industry at one point and needs lines of income.”
LISTEN: Alberta director Michael Peterson discusses the recent successes and ongoing challenges in Alberta’s screen industry
“We need to be able to create a busy environment year-round,” Azevedo said. “The way to do that is for us to become globally competitive. And to put ourselves in a position where, working with the new government, we establish an incentivization program that allows us to attract larger projects, more projects, develop our crew base, develop more infrastructure and create an environment here where we know it’s going to allow us to employ more Albertans.”
Premier-designate Jason Kenney has yet to name a cabinet and his government has yet to announce a budget where changes to the province’s incentives for the screen industry could be enshrined.
Azevedo hopes the Kenney government will strike while the demand for content is hot.
“If we can do that, I see a significant growth pattern for film, television and digital media in Alberta.”