A Tax Credit? Creative Saskatchewan: How Much Is Going On In A Province Without?
The morning of his unfortunate transformation into a werewolf, WolfCop’s protagonist Lou Garou stumbles out of bed, still drunk from the night before. A little hair of the dog and he’s off to work at Woodhaven’s police department. There he deals with the usual small-town problems: robberies, a biker gang, local politics, a goodie-two-shoes cop as partner. The town of Woodhaven is bleak, its rhythms enlivened only by politics, the annual Drink & Shoot festival, and a few pentagrams here and there.
WolfCop is meant to be a party movie but in some ways, the film and its production are an inadvertent Heritage Moment. There is no mistaking Woodhaven for Moose Jaw, the city that is closest to Regina’s soundstage and was just far enough away to get an extra bump in the rate of the Saskatchewan Film Employment Tax Credit (SFETC). The locations are gritty, urban and have a peculiar iciness that is the backdrop to many projects in the last 10 years, among them Surveillance, Just Friends and Dolan’s Cadillac.
The tax credit program, similar to those in jurisdictions all over North America and the world, was cut suddenly by the Saskatchewan Party in its spring budget of 2012. It was a move that effectively destroyed the film industry overnight. The loss of this support precipitated an exodus of film industry crew and production companies already beleaguered by the world economic downturn of a few years earlier and weakened by the demise two years before of the province’s broadcaster, SCN, which was killed almost as suddenly by the same government.
The fallout was nuclear. The government’s move was perceived by many as a political attack on the sector, which is assumed to be urban, left-leaning and not typically part of the Saskatchewan Party’s voter base. (Many believe the cut was revenge for the portrayal of former Conservative premier James Gardiner in the Minds Eye biopic Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story.) Whatever the reason behind the decision, the cut was massively unpopular in the province, resonating with almost every demographic, whether local businesses, service-providers directly involved with film and television or regular citizens who were fans of shows like Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie.
Months later, after a complicated round of consultations with what remained of Saskatchewan’s film industry, the government announced Creative Saskatchewan, an annual $5-million investment fund that would support all of the creative industries through grants.
By then, though, the industry was not viable for people like WolfCop creator and DGC member Lowell Dean. Without mainstays like SCN, Minds Eye and Partners In Motion as local catalysts, Dean found himself out of work and considering his options. A graduate of the University of Regina’s film program 10 years earlier, Dean had long ago overcome his initial reticence to staying in Regina. “Like many film school grads, I thought, ‘Where do I go, how do I get out of here?’ But it grew on me, and then I got a decent amount of work,” he says. “My dream is that Regina could be like an Austin, Texas for film: a cool, hip, indie place where you could still have a strong enough film community to sustain a crew base.” The cut to the tax credit ended any thoughts he had about staying in the province. “It’s hard not to be bitter,” says Dean. “I was aggressive in my support of any movement that would get us [the film community] anywhere but after a while, I felt I wasn’t making a difference. I want to have a career. I don’t want to be a martyr.”
As a last act before he left the province, Dean decided to make a film. “My plan was to make this movie with all my friends and then go look for a real job, probably in Toronto or wherever I could get work.” The film was both a last hurrah and a love letter to Saskatchewan.
Dean got together with his friends and made a trailer, hoping to attract an investor or some Telefilm micro-budget money. “We kind of had a hell-or-high-water attitude towards making the movie,” says Dean. “In hindsight we didn’t have a hell of a lot of a plan. I was frustrated and a lot of my colleagues were frustrated. We just wanted to make a movie. I joke that the entire film industry volunteered for the trailer.”
Then along came Cinecoup, the West Coast film accelerator that offered up to $1-million in production funding to make the film, plus a guaranteed theatrical release in Cineplex theatres nationwide. Part talent hunt, part old-fashioned Hollywood film studio, the Cinecoup model challenges participants at a 90-day marketing and social-media boot camp, with the winner selected at the Banff World Media Festival. The result is a project with a ready-made audience before it’s even shot.
WolfCop captured that audience. “We wouldn’t have chosen WolfCop if we didn’t think it was awesome,” says J. Joly, head of Cinecoup. “WolfCop’s team got a green light for a number of reasons: they worked really hard, they had a strong original idea and a real persistence of vision. They knew what they were doing and what their fans wanted. At every level this project had serious legs.”
That WolfCop came from a province that had destroyed its own film industry was both an irony and a challenge. “We felt it would hurt the project not to film in Saskatchewan, so we did everything we could to make that happen.”
It took three months to negotiate a deal with the provincial government. After failing to get grandfathered in on the tax-credit program, Cinecoup received a $250,000 grant from Creative Saskatchewan. Between the grant, private funding, federal tax credits, sponsorships and an Indiegogo campaign for promotional merchandise, they pulled it off.
On the heels of WolfCop came another big Saskatchewan project, the Corner Gas movie. With a budget of $8.5-million, that film was a better test of the province’s new granting system, which has a threshold for its production grants of $250,000 but can be doubled to $500,000 through an order in council. Even at the maximum amount, the program does not offer sufficient backing to bring in a production of that size.
The government pulled another $1.5-million out of its tourism budget. The rest of the budget was filled out by Ontario and federal tax credits, Telefilm money and a Kickstarter campaign.
Do the success of WolfCop and the resurrection of Corner Gas herald the beginning of the end of Saskatchewan’s film industry woes? It depends on who you ask.
Regina Leader-Post columnist Murray Mandryk became a surprise hero in the film community with his continuing coverage of the saga of government support of film over the years. “They must have thought, ‘Whatever, we’ll offend a few artsy fartsy types and that won’t offend our voting base,’” he says about the government’s actions. “If they were really serious about whatever problem they had with it, it could have been fine-tuned.” The more flak they caught from the industry and the media, the more they dug in their heels. “Up until the threat of Corner Gas being shot in Manitoba. That became a huge problem politically.”
And out came the tourism money, which to Mandryk is a terrible fit. “Yeah, the movie will show some pretty Saskatchewan sunsets, but so what? The theme song of Corner Gas is ‘Not a Lot Going On.’ I don’t think anyone wants that as their tourism slogan.”
Saskatchewan film and culture veteran Valerie Creighton takes a longer view. She is currently head of the Canadian Media Fund and sits on the board of Creative Saskatchewan. As the former director of SaskFilm during the heyday of the industry, she oversaw the birth of both the tax credit and the building of Regina’s soundstage.
Creighton says any film industry functions on a delicate alignment of vision and philosophy that meets the needs of the industry and the imperative of the government. Ideally, it finds a public that recognizes its value. “It’s a fragile thing. Without that alignment it’s much harder. You’re fighting local barriers and miscommunication, or sometime values aren’t shared across those factors. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It just means it’s a lot tougher.”
She is open-minded about innovations funding such as Cinecoup. “We have a system that’s designed by gatekeepers. Cinecoup is a model that is designed by the end user. To me that’s an interesting approach,” she says. “Here you have a ground-breaking model landing in a province that was just breaking down an old model. That’s Saskatchewan.”
As for Creative Saskatchewan, it may not be perfect, but it’s a start. Ironically, it’s a government body that is offering grants, something the tax-credit system did not do. She points to Alberta as an example of a province that threw their program out and left it with nothing for several years. “Everybody was gone in a heartbeat, similar to Saskatchewan. Now a lot of those people have come back and new players have emerged. Some stayed and started to rebuild the industry. Now they’re having a renaissance—there’s a multi-million-dollar build in Calgary for a new facility,” she says.
For its part, Creative Saskatchewan says it’s working with the industry as best as it can on a daily basis. Creative Saskatchewan head J.P. Ellson says that 80 percent of the projects funded historically by the film employment tax credit received less than $250,000 and that 60 percent received less than $60,000. “Once we have the opportunity to go through some budgetary examples with them, they see that in many cases the model we’re using is actually better for them.”
Whether the industry will survive long enough for an Alberta-style recovery is another question. It seems unlikely the new system will create an industry that can bring in talent like Terry Gilliam, John N. Smith and Charlize Theron, all of whom worked on films in Saskatchewan’s recent past.
Since WolfCop and Corner Gas, two small features—The Sabbatical and Basic Human Needs—have been shot in Regina. Other than Saskatchewan Arts Board funding for The Sabbatical, both projects were financed by what is becoming a depressingly familiar mix of crowd-funding, volunteer and non-union labour, and in the case of Basic Human Needs, an Indiecan competition. In both cases, the budgets were alarmingly low, far below normal rates for a film or TV shoot. The pressure that puts on directors and film crews isn’t likely to be a sustainable economic model.
From the set of Basic Human Needs, camera operator Layton Burton describes a bleak landscape where there is no crew, no work and no foreseeable future. “For professional filmmakers, it’s dire straits,” he says. “We’re told to forget the past and move on. Where there’s no industry, we can’t move on. Without the tax credit it’s impossible to attract bigger-budget film and television series to rebuild the industry. It’s a catch-22.”
From the sidelines, the Saskatchewan film industry diaspora doesn’t see an easy way back, even if they wanted one. For director Rob King, the 18-month lag in between the tax credit and Creative Saskatchewan meant that talented people quit the industry or left the province. “All those years and dollars invested in training went off to other provinces,” says King. “The drain of talent and the loss of skilled labour have to be rebuilt. That will take years”—years of spooked outside partners who have more consistency in programs in other jurisdictions.
Expat editor Daryl Davis agrees. “If there’s a lesson in any of this,” he says, “it’s to not take any funding system for granted, wherever you are in this country. Keep actively engaging public officials in the value of your process. Don’t rest on your laurels.”
In the meantime, as far as big productions that might sustain the industry, as the song goes, there’s not a lot going on. Dean is working on the script for WolfCop II, another love letter to a beleaguered province. Whether it is received or not will depend on if there is anyone left to pick up the mail.
Carle Steel is a writer, journalist and cultural worker based between Regina and Toronto. She is a regular contributor to Regina’s alternative bi-weekly Prairie Dog Magazine and writes for other visual arts and cultural publications.