Shooting for the Stars: The Unstoppable Growth of Island Films

2020 was a record year for the Island’s film industry — the economic benefits positively impacting employment, filling hotel vacancies and directly supporting local businesses. The next step in supporting the momentum gained last year is to build the production studios that promise big business.

A couple smooches on Dallas Road, a popular filming location in Victoria, BC.
A couple smooches on Dallas Road, a popular filming location in Victoria, where Jack Nicholson once gazed out over the bluffs in Five Easy Pieces. Photo: Front Street Pictures.

Want a local business success story in the time of COVID-19?

The film industry.

According to the Vancouver Island South Film & Media Commission, it’s time to celebrate an economic sector that employs locals, brings money into local businesses, is relatively green and has a tremendous upside.

“The film industry, of all the industries out there, is a good news story,” says film commissioner Kathleen Gilbert, surprised by how little attention is being paid to it. “When so many other industries and businesses are struggling so much, we’re at the top of our game right now.”

In fact, 2020 was a record year, generating $50 million in revenue. That’s more than double the $19 million of the year before. And that’s money spent directly in the CRD.

The Capital Region hosted 24 visiting film productions in 2020, plus another 14homegrown ones — everything from Air Bud Entertainment’s Super Pups, Netflix’s MAID and the Lifetime Ruby Landry series to Hallmark features like Deliver By Christmas, as well as documentaries and commercials.

We seem to be getting our big break and we didn’t have to sit at the counter of a diner in a tight sweater and great hair to be discovered.

The next step is to grab a bigger share of the $4.1 billion spent on film and TV production in B.C. last year, the lion’s share in Vancouver. Right now, the CRD gets a thin-as-the-budget-of-a-Canadian-TV-series 2.5 per cent slice. Even with that slim portion, film manages to directly employ 2,000 people in Greater Victoria.

In fact, says Gilbert, the industry got 500 people working on film sets in June who would otherwise have been collecting the CERB. “Not only are these people continuing to spend money, but my tax dollars aren’t going to support them. It’s just such a win-win situation right now for the film industry.”

Gilbert, who’s responsible for marketing the CRD to producers worldwide, has spent the last 10 years selling us to Hollywood, though the first four years of her tenure was trying to sell the provincial government on letting Victoria in on the lucrative distant tax credit that has driven film production in B.C. The lean years, from 2010-14, saw the film industry spend as little as $3 million a year here.

Those tax credits, six in all under the Film Incentive BC Tax Credit Program, cover everything from distant location filming and visual FX to scriptwriting, allowing a production to save a quarter of its budget and millions of dollars.

A founding member of the CineVic Society of Independent Filmmakers and someone who has worked in film here since the early ’90s, Gilbert sees Victoria doing even better.

After L.A. and NYC, Vancouver is the third largest film production centre in North America, servicing, on average, 400 productions annually and generating spending that has increased at about 21 per cent a year over the last decade.

“We get the overflow,” acknowledges Gilbert. “If they can’t get into Gastown because other films are shooting there, they might come over and shoot in Bastion Square.”

She says we’re going to continue to grow, but building a studio here is essential to attract more, and bigger, productions. “For my office, we have to put in the same effort to land a $3 million television movie that we would to land a $200 million budget movie, like Deadpool. And the public has to put up with the same inconvenience. The benefit to the community, in terms of economic drivers, is much more.”

A film crew on site at Victoria BC's Parliament Buildings.
A film crew on site at the Parliament Buildings. Location is Victoria’s draw: “it’s beautiful and we’ve got the best locations here,” says Allen Lewis of Front Street Pictures. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Film: The New Tourism

While film puts dinner on the table, and sometimes even buys houses for its employees, it’s the spinoff that’s so valuable. Movie shoots fill up hotels. They purchase huge stockpiles of supplies (everything from lumber to build sets and gasoline to fuel vehicles and food to fuel crews to costumes, props and even a Langford woman’s cookies that get served up on numerous Hallmark Christmas movie shoots).

Last year, as the initial COVID restrictions eased up, Gilbert spoke about how visiting film productions have put people back in hotel rooms faster than anything else. Certainly faster than tourism.

A typical movie of the week (MOW) shooting here for 15 days books 450 to 500 hotel room nights. A TV show in 2020, shooting in Victoria for 28 days, booked 720 hotel nights for cast and crew, as well as numerous Airbnb and vacation rentals. In 2013, the blockbuster Godzilla booked 1,550 room nights at two hotels, over five days, and took almost all of the rooms during the off season. A series like Netflix’s MAID, shooting for 75 days, might book as many as 11,000 nights.

Victoria native Allen Lewis, Front Street Pictures VP in charge of production, says since 80 per cent of his crew now live in Victoria (including him), they don’t have to rent as many hotel rooms, but they do lay out a lot on locations, filming in private homes and local businesses, as well as shopping for items for wardrobe and set decoration — which can include as much as $25 million dollars worth of spending, including wages for crew.

Vancouver-based Front Street makes 30 or so movies a year, six to eight in the Capital Region, and is recognized as the biggest player in town.

Bastion Square, Victoria BC, at night.
We get the overflow,” acknowledges Gilbert. “If they can’t get into Gastown because other films are shooting there they might come over and shoot in Bastion Square.” Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

If You Build It, They Will Come

“When I first started 10 years ago,” says the film commissioner, “[film companies] were most interested in how many locations we have, how deep our crew base is and if we have a tax incentive. Now it’s the tax incentive first and they’re asking for studios. We’ve lost so many shows because we don’t have a studio here.”

Dallas Gislason calls it the “big missing ingredient” in our film sector. The director of economic development with the South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP) says it’s the only way to lure the big productions across the Georgia Strait — and not just for the few days of shooting like Deadpool did at Royal Roads, but for months at a time.“If our region gets one or two or more studios built, then the major projects will start to trickle over, and that’s where things get really interesting.”

He says it could boost the economic impact of film into hundreds of millions of dollars a year and could mean a lot of Victorians working in film on the Lower Mainland would move back. SIPP’s Rising Economy Taskforce has also tagged film as part of the post-COVID economic recovery plan, calling for investment in upskilling workers to film jobs.

That plays into plans Camosun College has for its own film studio. The Taskforce is recommending that the province assist in establishing an equity stake in the proposed studio, which would give them the recurring revenues to create education programs that link directly to film and new media, explains Gislason.

The college wants a $45 million studio complex on five acres at its Interurban campus, with three 20,000-square-feet sound stages and a full training program offered by the school.

Camosun’s VP Partnerships Geoff Wilmshurst understands putting a film studio on a college campus, featuring an educational component, is novel in Canada, but feels that it is essential to growing the industry.

“If we’re going to build studios here, we’re going to need people to work in them,” he says.

Michael Goodwin, a former production designer working on the project, says we currently have enough crew in the region to run three smaller productions simultaneously. Training a workforce is vital to attract the larger shows. “We can educate people who can then literally go onto the floor (of the studio) and start working.”

Camosun is hoping to entice a developer to build it, while keeping the college as a partner, which means no cost to Saanich taxpayers, says Saanich mayor Fred Haynes. The province has promised $150,000 for a feasibility study.

Vancouver boasts 118 studios and roughly 2.5 million square feet of studio space (not including smaller FX or broadcast stages), but that might be too little.

“One of the studios in Vancouver just put in three or four new studios in one of their complexes, and they were pre-booked by Disney for five years before they were even finished. That just shows you the insane demand,” says Goodwin.

With most studios in the 20,000 square feet range (by comparison, Thrifty Foods on Fairfield is 22,000 square feet), the strategy of creating more than one in Victoria is very real. Depending who you talk to, there are as many as six under consideration now in the region.

If size matters, a $300 million plan to put six sound stages on 80 acres of Malahat Nation land near Mill Bay, employing 1,500 people, could be the facility that will raise the eyebrows of film executives.

Beverley Dondale, CEO of Alpha Select Production Services, a local company that produces films and rents gear to film productions, is partnering with the Malahat First Nation. The project would include a business and industrial park, 120-room hotel, shopping and an academy for film skills training. It would also house a huge water-tank studio, a first for Canada.

Dondale says most studio ideas on the South Island are too small in scale to draw the bigger productions.

“Every time we look we see people who have tried, but there’s nobody who has actually done anything, and this is on a scale that nobody has tried.” Dondale says her investors are in place and is awaiting results from a feasibility study in a few months.

Willow’s Galley in Estevan Village, Victoria BC
Willow’s Galley in Estevan Village gets an American makeover. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Labour Base as Vital as Studio Space

The film industry demands long hours but pays well. And it’s the sort of business that doesn’t require mad skills to start. Entry level is often as a production assistant (PA) and can pay $300-$400/day or more for a 15-hour shift.

Longtime CineVic member and indy filmmaker Bryan Skinner started getting jobs on local sets last year as a PA, driving a van and hauling things. Soon he was a trainee assistant director on a movie-of-the-week production. Now he’s doing that on a bigger production.

Skinner calls it an industry where reputation is key: “The future work you get is all based on what you did last time.”

“It’s really important that we have a labour pool to run three major productions here, otherwise, there’s no point in having studios,” says Goodwin, stressing the importance of a local labour base. That labour can be a PA or someone in props, hair, makeup, wardrobe, set building, locations, etc.

When costume designer Ken Shapkin moved from Vancouver to the Island five years ago, he was the only locally based costume designer. The feast and famine nature of the industry has begun to change as more productions shoot here regularly. Shapkin hasn’t had to return to the Lower Mainland to find work.

“If there isn’t steady work, then people need to be employed and jump over to the mainland and we lose them,” he says. “That’s certainly been the case in the past.”

He says a studio is the one missing piece to our film puzzle, but he adds it must come with an anchor tenant.

“You have to have a long-running show to bankroll (the studio) for the first year, before they start having to piecemeal smaller shows in there.”

Bryan Skinner understands the gig. To keep working in film it’s about keeping your rep. “The future work you get in this industry is all based on what you did last time. Reputation is very important.”

It might be a parable for film as a whole, as Victoria’s reputation has been five-star so far.

“It’s beautiful and we’ve got the best locations,” says Lewis. “I want to be able to keep filming here for the next 25 to 30 years.”

2020 was a record year, generating $50 million in revenue. That’s more than double the $19 million of the year before. And that’s money spent directly in the CRD.

COVID Interruptus

The film industry returned to business in June, three months after the pandemic lockdown, and Front Street Pictures was the first with cameras rolling. But the locations they returned to were very different places.“

It has radically changed our whole work-load,” says the company’s VP Allen Lewis. “We’ve been lucky. We’ve been able to keep going. We haven’t been shut down. We got through 2020, and, knock on wood, nobody got sick.”

The on-set protocols that Front Street, and all film companies, employ are some of the strictest of any industry.

Staff must check in every morning at a COVID station, have their temperature checked and answer a pile of questions. Masks are mandatory, as is sanitizing everything constantly — sets, props, hands. There are COVID officers on set to enforce the new rules. Even catering has changed. Farewell to buffets and hello to individual lunch boxes.

“If someone has a sore throat, we send them home or send them for testing,” says Lewis. And all sets are staffed with limited numbers of crew. None are open to outsiders. Cast members arriving from the States are quarantined and COVID-tested twice a week.

More intriguing is the hiring of an intimacy coordinator for consolation about scenes where actors have to be in close proximity to each other.

“God willing, when this thing is behind us, a lot of these protocols are probably going to stay,” says Lewis.

“If our region gets one or two or more studios built, then the major projects will start to trickle over and that’s where things get really interesting.”

Turn Up the Volume

Ken Kantymir moved to Victoria a couple of years ago to continue his career in film after 30 years in the industry in Vancouver. With film starting to boom, the South Island reminds him of Vancouver in 1989 when the industry was bringing in a modest $150 million a year. An effort began there to bring together stakeholders — guilds, unions, supply companies — to create a blueprint to expand the business.

“I think that’s exactly what we need to do in Victoria is have a joint council of all the parties involved and plot a course and decide how we’re going to grow the industry,” says Kantymir. Studios, he says, are only one part. Another is convincing the Vancouver-based film supply companies (everything from lights to dollies, generators to camera cranes) to open shop here.

“To me, it’s like the trigger finger,” says Kantymir. “A studio is going to trigger enormous impact, but we’re going to have to have all the supply chains in place.”

Kantymir has been sniffing about for partners to build a studio — something cutting edge, something they call the Volume, or, more properly, StageCraft.

If you’ve watched Disney’s The Mandalorian, you’ve seen the result. Massive, wraparound LED screens, powered by the Unreal Engine gaming technology, offer instant sets that replace green screens and physical sets.

And it fits nicely in a boutique-sized 10,000 square foot studio with standard 40 foot ceilings.

He has had talks with local mayors about his studio and relishes their enthusiasm: “I love how the mayors of these communities have stepped up and said, ‘We will do everything we can to make this happen.”


On April 10, 2021 the Province of B.C. announced an investment of $150,000 to aid Camosun College in the exploration of educational opportunities for students in the B.C. film industry and the potential development of an on-campus film studio.

“This funding is a great first step in determining how students at Camosun College could benefit from a new film studio on the south Island through unique skills training opportunities,” said Murray Rankin, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head. “Our region has stunning locations and skilled people, and I’m pleased to see this investment in exploring the potential benefits to students of competitive sound stages.”