When Jim Walsh purchased an old lumber yard in northeast Calgary, he had no intention of entering the film industry.
During the sale, he was informed that the 1989 movie Dead Bang featuring Don Johnson was filmed there. Walsh saw an opportunity and JR Film Studio was born.
“We’ve chased the market $10 million and under,” Walsh said. “The talent pool here is deep, so much so that a lot of the talent that moved to Vancouver can’t wait to come back.
“If we can just grow the industry a little more, we can see more of them come home.”
But at a news conference held at the studio on Tuesday, film industry advocates and union representatives said growth will only happen if changes are made to make Alberta more attractive to film producers.
In a new report, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) scanned a number of jurisdictions across North America to determine how they were succeeding in landing lucrative film projects.
“When it comes to film and television production, Alberta has many of the ingredients necessary for success,” said AFL president Gil McGowan, citing strong locations like the Rocky Mountains, an abundance of trained film professionals and a strong reputation abroad.
“What’s missing is a government that understands the business and is willing to provide the adequate support and incentive that’s needed to make the industry thrive.”
In January, Alberta’s UCP government launched a new film and television tax credit program to replace what had previously been a grant-style program. Alberta-owned productions will be eligible for up to a 30 per cent tax credit while other productions may get up to 22 per cent.
The shift to a tax credit program had been something the film industry had been lobbying for and is similar to incentives in Canadian movie hot spots like British Columbia and Ontario, as well as American film hubs like Georgia and Texas.
The key difference, according to McGowan, is that those jurisdictions do not include a cap.
The government has allocated $15 million in total funding to the tax credit program in 2020, gradually increasing the available funds to $45 million in 2022.
The program also limits funding to $10 million per project.
The AFL is calling on the government to remove the limits on funding.
“The annual cap will negate any benefits the switch from a grant system to a tax credit system has, and create uncertainty for investors who will simply choose other locations that have a true tax-based funding system,” McGowan said.
“The pool of money will be exhausted long before the list of potential projects is exhausted. And it means we will not even be considered by big projects with big budgets who might otherwise consider the province for investment.
“We can forget about attracting the next Marvel or Star Wars project.”
In a statement to Global News, Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism press secretary Justin Brattinga wrote that the government has the “same budget for supporting film as the previous government of $45 million annually, with a total budget of $180 million over the next four years.”
Brattinga added that the project cap of $10 million is to ensure the government is taking a “fiscally responsible approach to projects.”
Calgary-based production designer Trevor Smith said the film industry as a whole is in a frenzy to meet demand in a “content-mad world.”
“British Columbia is reaping its rewards and doing a great job servicing that industry and making it a baseline foundation for the province. It’s a legit industry that’s growing exponentially,” Smith said.
“So many other industries are suffering or in a state of confusion, whereas with content creation, it’s crystal clear what’s happening right now… Alberta just wants its taste of it.”
According to the AFL report, in 2017-2018, British Columbia’s screen industry employed 28,140 people with film and television productions valued at $3.5 billion.
The same year, Alberta film and television productions amounted to $255 million while employing 1,850 people.
Alberta’s finance minister will table the province’s 2020 budget on Thursday, Feb. 27.