A new agency won’t bring film back

by Vanda Schmöckel

Creative Sask

The mood at the launch of Creative Saskatchewan on Oct. 8 was cautiously optimistic as the remnants of Saskatchewan’s film industry took in the news: Creative Saskatchewan will have a budget of $5 million to be spent on bringing Saskatchewan’s creative products to market. This includes music, publishing, and other creative industries — as well as the beleaguered film and television industry.

“The government said we can’t have an industry that’s supported by grants, and then a year and a half later, after most of the people who worked in the industry have left, they bring in a grant program,” says Mike Burns, who is mulling over what the launch of Creative Saskatchewan will mean for the industry he serves as Saskatchewan’s ACTRA branch representative.

Burns’ frustration is understandable. So much of the argument informing the Saskatchewan Party’s decision to cancel the Saskatchewan Film Employment Tax Credit in 2012 seemed to flout logic and common knowledge about how the film industry actually worked, from their myopic categorization of the film industry as subsidized (apparently forgetting all the government support offered to other industries like potash, oil, and gas), to their insistence on calling the Saskatchewan Film Employment Tax Credit a grant.

To be clear, it wasn’t a grant. It was an incentive program that the province didn’t even pay out until a production was already shooting, employing people, and dispersing money into the local economy.

After many long, cold months following the cancellation of the tax credit, Creative Saskatchewan was announced in February of this year, and the Saskatchewan Arts Board was entrusted with the administration of a transition fund to tide those in the creative industries over until the official launch of Creative Saskatchewan’s programming in the fall.

The fund had $1 million with a cap of $60,000 per project which, everyone agreed, was not nearly enough to entice film production to return on the scale the industry was used to in recent years.

This gesture was interpreted by many as a bad omen of things to come — an indication that the government had no intention of playing ball with the local industry. But it was a transition fund.

Beyond it, not much more was known about how Creative Saskatchewan would work.

In the following months, more filmmakers, producers, and technicians left the province for the greener pastures of film-friendly jurisdictions like Ontario and Manitoba, where tax credits have actually increased in recent years. Then, on Oct. 1, SaskFilm — the province’s film commission — ceased operations, leaving many wondering when Creative Saskatchewan would launch, and what, if anything, they might offer anyone remaining in this province’s decimated film patch.

In the weeks leading up to the launch, there was some speculation that the province might follow Alberta’s lead and offer an in-province spending incentive.

And they did, sort of. But not exactly.

Under the Screen Based Media Production Grant, Saskatchewan producers can now apply to have 30 per cent of their in-province expenditures — labour, materials, and other production costs — reimbursed to a cap of $250,000 per project. Which is similar to Alberta’s model, only it’s not nearly as much money. Alberta’s cap is $5 million per project.

And unlike the SFETC, the Screen Based Media Production fund will have two annual deadlines and will be juried, raising questions around who will sit on the jury and what types of projects will ultimately receive funding.

“We’re not looking to replace the film tax credit,” says Creative Saskatchewan Chair Mike MacNaughton. “What we’re looking at today is to assist all creative industries in increasing the amount of activity around those industries, building their businesses, building their access to markets around world, and I think we’re going to do a great job on that.”

So what can Creative Saskatchewan do for the few independent film producers left in the province? It’s clear that we’ll never see a television series on the scale of Corner Gas here again, but is it possible that small-scale productions with a commercial market could benefit from the program?

“I think it could work for low-budget films like I have done in the past, but there are issues with it,” says Regina producer Robin Schlaht.

Schlaht’s been making films and television in Saskatchewan for more than 20 years. His past productions have included documentary series such as A Few Good Men And Women which was broadcast on SCN and Court TV.

One of the red flags Schlaht sees with the new program is the issue of deadlines. If a broadcaster is interested in buying a series, for example, they’ll want to see the rest of the funding needed for production to come into place within a few months. “If your project comes together a month after the deadline, then it’s of no use whatsoever,” Schlaht says.

He also points out that Creative Saskatchewan requires that 70 per cent of the production’s budget be in place.

“There will be times when it will fail a project, just because of the deadlines or the cap or the delay in hearing the result of your application and all of that,” he says. “So there are times when this will work for me and times when it won’t.

“It will never work as well as the tax credit did — and does in other provinces.”

One of the points MacNaughton made at the launch was that the program is, to an extent, still a work in progress. Creative Saskatchewan’s $5 million budget is meant to last until the end of this fiscal year — March 2014 — and much of what the agency can and can’t do will depend on next year’s budget.

“Are we going to ask for more money? For sure,” MacNaughton says. “Will we get it? That’s what governments are elected to decide.

“I think we’re going to do a lot of good for a lot of filmmakers, a lot of television producers, for a lot of visual artists, a lot of publishers, a lot of musicians,” says MacNaughton.

“I mean, we can look at it half empty, half full. I prefer to look at it half full.”