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Vancouver, Toronto Take Slice Out of US Film Industry - 2002-12-24

A growing number of TV shows and feature films are being produced outside Los Angeles and New York, in Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver. That worries American film unions.

Those in Hollywood can take heart. Despite Vancouver's success in attracting U.S. productions, it is still a distant third behind New York and Los Angeles in the world of entertainment. For every U.S. dollar spent here in Western Canada, more than $30 is spent on TV and film productions in Los Angeles. Still, California trade unions are angry, saying that Canada, Australia, and other movie centers are getting more than their fair share of "runaway" productions.

With one U.S. dollar worth over $1.50 in Canada, the currency exchange gives a substantial savings to American studios and networks producing north of the border. And unlike other foreign locations, Vancouver is close to Los Angeles, in the same time zone, with diverse-looking locations.

One Los Angeles-based producer who has done TV shows in both cities is Paul DeMeo. Part of the creative team behind series like "Viper" and "The Sentinel", he would rather film in southern California. Speaking at an international film forum, he said he still finds himself prepared to film in Vancouver, to the dismay of colleagues at home. "I know a lot of people right now writers, producers, crew guys, who are out of the work. The crews have a beef that I think is valid that everybody wants to work. And if the economic model for the studios would work to shoot in LA, as much as I love going out of town or coming up here, or wherever, to shoot, we all just soon be at home. We can go home at night and visit our families and go home and sleep in our own beds," says Mr. DeMeo. "I'm sympathetic and I understand the pros and cons of it, but at the end of the day, the kind of television shows we make, if somebody gives us the budget and we look at the budget against what we want to do, unfortunately the only place that I can afford to do it is up here."

Vancouver-based actor Ellie Harvey is best known for her role as Morticia in the most recent reincarnation of a long-running series, "The New Addams Family". A member of both the Screen Actors Guild and the British Columbia Union of Performers, she works on both sides of the border, most recently in an episode of the hit series "JAG." The Canadian actress says despite complaints in Hollywood, Canada deserves to be a major production center. "I think it's also its important to understand that Canada is ten percent of the North American viewing population, so our entertainment dollar is ten percent of the North American box office," she says. "When you look at a box office release, how much they make - ten percent of that comes from Canada, yet only three percent of the productions are done in Canada. So, statistics like that, I think if the average actor and the average industry person in Los Angeles knew those numbers they would kind of go "oh" and realize that Canada is really a red herring for the economy of the reality TV and the slump in the industry right now."

The director of the Vancouver International Film Festival, Alan Franey, deals with hundreds of films and their producers and directors every year. He notes that Vancouver has stood in for many different locations, from the French Riviera to New York, in American movies. He adds that the industry responds to global economics. "Of course, Hollywood is like a multi-national. It shoots around the world. It draws the best talent from around the world. It may shoot for a while in Prague or Eastern Europe when it opens up because it's new, it's interesting, and it's affordable," says Mr. Franey. "So, Canada has been fortunate with our low Canadian dollar in this way. On the other hand, it makes it pretty brutal when you're a Canadian and you travel in other parts of the world. So, there's pros and cons to economic differences."

In 2001, predominately American productions spent $650 million U.S. dollars on feature films, TV movies, shows, and animated series in British Columbia. Although final figures have not been tabulated for this year, they are expected to be lower. This is due to the economic downturn in the United States, union problems in Los Angeles, and the rise of unscripted reality shows.

To help attract more business, producers, and the Vancouver film unions ratified a new contract in early December, four months ahead of schedule. They hope the agreement will create a more stable and therefore more attractive location to American producers.

Currently, the TV series "The Twilight Zone" and "Smallville" are being filmed in around Vancouver. Movies recently filmed in the area include "Santa Clause 2" with Tim Allen, "A Guy Thing" with Julia Stiles, and the upcoming release "X-Men 2."