There’s No Business like Show Business–in Alberta

MOVIE-MAKERS ADORE LONGVIEW’S ranching country nestled in the foothills of southern Alberta. And rightly so, it’s one of the most gorgeous places on Earth.

IMG_8043Clint Eastwood fell in love with Alberta. Unforgiven, his Academy award-winning blockbuster which revived the Western genre of motion pictures, was shot in the province. As was Brokeback Mountain, another Academy top prize-winner.  Days of Heaven, too (starring Richard Gere, in a career-defining role).

So when Fawna Bews, a Beyond Polarity colleague, recently offered a behind-the-curtains glimpse into the Longview community and its cast of characters, it was a treat to meet cowboy & stuntman Dewey Wiley. Dewey’s forte is taming liberty horses and buffalo.

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Stan, a buffalo tamed for Hollywood

At the Twin-Cities saloon, a popular watering hole in Longview for day-time cowboys, who do double duty in the film industry, the guff around the bar tells of prior glories with Clint and Brad, well… you get the picture. The cowboys, you see, are card-carrying union members available at the drop of a stetson to ride horses, give chase, relive buffalo hunts — do whatever Hollywood directs them to perform. Nice work if you can get it. 

And that’s just it. Business has been slow. Nowhere near the halcyon days begat by Peter Lougheed, who along with his Progressive Conservative cabinet, had the foresight to create the conditions for the film industry to consider Alberta as a ‘location’ decades ago. An idea that also spawned a world-beating television festival in Banff (that’s another story for another time). The newly-elected UCP government has talked about the notion of tax credits for the film industry. But it’s just talk for now.

A few days after visiting Longview, an astute question bubbled to the surface: 

“If film producers are growing wary of Georgia & its anti-abortion crusading,” said another friend, a Calgary drama-teacher-turned-accountant, “why don’t we invite these players to Alberta?”

Cue the sound effect — ker-ching!

  • The lower Canadian dollar gives American-based producers a 20% discount on direct costs; 
  • Like Toronto & Vancouver, Alberta has film industry infrastructure and capacity; 
  • Alberta has a stunning inventory of locations — badlands, mountains, prairie, big lakes — as well as sound-stage facilities for interior shots;
  • And we have the talent to make it all go. 

I raised this question with Don Hill, a former network television producer (among other media credits).  We didn’t quite succumb to fisticuffs or call each other names, but we did have a spirited debate about Hollywood, the film industry, Alberta’s prior history in show business:

Donna: Why not try to lure film producers from Georgia to Alberta to revive our film industry, get those cowboys-cum-stuntmen back in that saddle? 

Don: We’ve already seen that movie. We were heavily invested in that industry. It was shut-down by Klein & company in the ‘90s [citing the loss of ACCESS Network television, which is today’s CTV2]. Major home-grown talent — the people who write the stories, the producers, and executive producers scattered [including Don]. We need an ecosystem here; it’s gone. ACCESS Network, for one, sustained writers, creators, actors and so forth between the windfalls of Hollywood productions rolling into the province.

Donna: Agree with you that the complete ecosystem isn’t here any longer but why not invite those people back to Alberta? Rebuild something to attract them. 

Don: The film business are gypsies; they — especially the so-called runaway, or low-budget made-for-television stuff — migrate to wherever the tax breaks are…

Donna: …like Amazon, then. So, you are suggesting we’d be part of a race to the bottom?

Don: Yes. And more importantly, it’s a distraction from what we need to be doing, could be doing, which is building a new industry. There’s machine learning (a major component of AI artificial intelligence) and a computer-games industry that could do with attention here in the province.

You might be led to think Toronto and Montreal are the Canadian hubs (and in many respects, that’s true); however, there’s an amazing talent pool in Edmonton, notably at the University of Alberta, where Google’s AI Deep Mind project has partnered. And there’s Bioware, an electronic games company owned (today) by Electronic Arts. This is where we ought to focus attention — if there’s going to be so-called government incentive (which I’m not sure is the way forward, regardless).

Donna: Why can’t we do both? 

Don: The film production industry is a sunset industry on the hunt for tax deals. Yes, yes — it’s true there’s a lot of television being made. In fact, we may well be in another so-called Golden Age with NETFLIX and other streaming services that need independent suppliers. But I find it interesting in the present regulatory regime that CORUS Entertainment, a Calgary-based company and major player in the mix of broadcast media in Canada, is scaling back and seemingly wants to get out of television production (happy to acquire licensed content made elsewhere).

What do they know that we don’t?

And as for Hollywood clucking about bailing on Georgia, well… the actors can posture all they want. It’s a business decision. And if the business is running lean, nobody’s going anywhere — unless the price is right. 

Donna: Okay, think about all those Albertans who are ready for a revival of the film industry here—people like Dewey & his tame buffalo, Stan. What message do you want to send to them? You sound cranky. 

Don: I am. I’m old. And I’ve been around the block on this Hollywood-North Alberta thing, a few times. And I don’t buy the idea that somehow this time it will be different. 

And — get this — Hollywood film is not the business it used to be. Electronic games is bigger. Much, much bigger in the world. And Alberta’s Bioware, for one, has some hugely profitable world-class titles in its stable. Curiously, Electronic Arts is not looking for subsidy (last time I checked). They are looking for talent. We have an opportunity to grow a growing industry here. Ditto for Artificial Intelligence (which spins off in so many directions — enterprise software, robotics, predictive intelligence, and, and, and…).

Enough of me talking…

Donna: Agreed! It’s time to climb off the high horse! Don, you may disagree, but I’m calling this one a draw. We need to build smart business in Alberta; on that we agree.

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