The spotlight is on Alberta after the success of micro-budget local production, Skinamarink, and the influx of big productions like The Last of Us and Ghostbusters Afterlife, and it seems that Alberta’s film industry is on the cusp of a major explosion.
According to Tom Viinikka, CEO of the Edmonton Screen Industry Office (ESIO), having these shows film in Alberta was a big break for the industry and a way to “level up.”
“It (creates) just a tremendous amount of work opportunity,” says Viinikka. “There’s opportunity to see what it’s like to work on (a big production), and that makes you a little bit more attractive to other productions because you were able to see that level of show.”
“There aren’t a lot of people that get to see that level of show in this world.”
Viinikka says that when the provincial government lifted the $10-million cap per-project for productions in Alberta in May 2021, it opened up opportunities for bigger production companies to shoot in the province and brought much more visibility to Alberta’s film industry at the same time.
“The gas pedal just went down hard,” says Viinikka. And this is evident, especially considering that HBO is estimated to have spent upwards of $100 million on The Last of Us according to The New Yorker, making it the largest production to have been filmed in Canada.
“It’s great for Canada as a whole that we have so many great locations now that are fully developed, that have the infrastructure and the ability to deliver at such a high level,” says Viinikka. “The Canadian industry is that much stronger for it.”
He says that there are a few factors that make Alberta an attractive place for big production companies to film.
The exchange rate on Canadian currency works in the favour of American production companies, and compared to Toronto and B.C., the cost of living is also much cheaper in Alberta, which means production companies have to shell out less money for accommodations for cast and crew.
Alberta also offers extensive geographical diversity. “We have so much variety in a three-hour… radius,” Viinikka says. “We have two major cities and they have distinct looks which is very useful. You can go to the mountains and shoot Alaska. Or you could go to the Badlands and shoot the moon.”
Edmonton itself has doubled for small-town Montana and for Boston in The Last of Us. “There’s just not a lot of places in the world where you have that kind of variety at an affordable price,” adds Viinikka.
Viinikka hopes that the increased visibility not only catches the attention of people across the world but that it inspires local talent, showing them that it’s possible to work in the film industry in Alberta. “I don’t believe that there’s anything magical in the water in L.A. that creates all kinds of movie makers down there,” he says. “It’s just simply the fact that the creative people that are from that area are (more) exposed to the industry.”
But he notes that “there’s something going on in Alberta and we should pay attention to that.”
Hunter Cardinal, an actor in Edmonton who starred on the web series Scout and in the music video for Gord Downie’s “Away is Mine,” has also felt the shift where people are starting to recognize what Alberta’s film scene is capable of. He explains that this doesn’t mean people are noticing something new but instead something preexisting that is being validated for the first time by a wider audience.
It is also validating to have big production companies choosing to film in Alberta. “Knowing that these (productions) that may have seemed far from us are actually quite close is really powerful,” says Cardinal. “I feel like there will always be barriers, but what this does is it reminds… folks of stuff that we already know: this is a wonderful place to be able to make these projects that can be telling those important stories.”
Viinikka anticipates seeing significant growth within the Alberta film industry, growth that would see productions worth more than one billion dollars filming in Alberta within the next few years. “I really feel like we have kind of hit a tipping point where now it’s a virtuous cycle and it will continue to feed itself,” he says. “We’re in a world now where people (have) seen what we can do.”
But the recent surging growth of Alberta’s film industry hasn’t been positive for everyone, namely Alberta’s smaller, independent production companies.
“Unfortunately, in my experience (the influx of big production companies) has either had no effect on local creators telling Alberta stories here in Alberta, or, currently, I’m experiencing the detriment that it’s had for us,” says Anna Cooley, an Alberta-based director, writer, producer, and cinematographer.
“The truth is, it’s hard to be an independent producer in Alberta,” she continues. Having big production companies set up shop in Alberta has only made things more difficult. Prices for shooting a production in Alberta have increased exponentially.
“We’re actually really struggling to do things that we used to be able to afford to do even this last summer,” says Cooley, “especially when it comes to shooting in public (and) shutting down a road. Getting permits for that, the price has gone up 10 times what it used to be. So, we’re scrambling to find affordable alternatives to things that (used to fit) our budgets.”
Cooley knows people in Alberta’s independent film community that are planning to leave Alberta and move to Toronto or the U.S. because of these challenges. “It’s not feasible to be here, which is sad because most of these folks would love to stay,” she says.
While the influx of big productions is undoubtedly creating jobs, Cooley stresses this is only to a certain extent. Crew members (set designers, grips, camera operators, etc.) can enjoy these new opportunities, but big American production companies won’t hire Alberta writers, directors, cinematographers, and actors. “Those key creative roles rarely go to Albertans,” says Cooley.
This creates additional complexities. Not only does this push Alberta voices to the margins, but it makes it difficult for independent production companies to keep hiring Alberta crews — Cooley can’t compete with the wages that HBO or FX, for instance, can pay. This means that crew members drop out of projects to pursue different, better-paying jobs, or are unavailable in the first place.
“When people drop out to take a better opportunity, you can’t even be mad,” says Cooley. “You can be frustrated, (but) not mad.”
Gabriel Richardson, local actor and producer known for creating Scout, has also seen Alberta talent get pushed to the side. He says that although there were plenty of casting calls that went out for The Last of Us, none of the more visible roles went to Alberta talent.
“Obviously, you want to sell your thing. It’s HBO, sign Pedro Pascal, kind of no brainer to me,” says Richardson. “But my hope is that more people, more production companies that work in Alberta, they will realize that we do have quite a lot of talent.” He notes that Fargo is doing a better job of involving Albertans on screen and in production.
Richardson does see opportunities with big production companies bringing their projects to Alberta, and he even met with several when he was looking to secure funding for Scout, but he also sees plenty of potential landmines. “I certainly got the sense that they have money, but… we weren’t aligned artistically,” he says. “I’m always thinking about who is funding what and why. Where is that money coming from and at what point do you walk the line of exploitation or tokenizing?”
Despite the challenges of telling Alberta stories in an increasingly exclusive industry, Cooley believes Alberta storytellers and filmmakers will continue to persevere. “I think Albertans will continue to try and tell our stories in much the same way as we always have. But certainly, everything that is big that comes out of here won’t be an Alberta story if it continues the way it has been,” she says.
Moving forward, Cooley would like to see more support for the existing film community in Alberta, more funding for smaller film projects, and more value and interest placed on Alberta stories, which she currently finds lacking.
“People don’t have an impression that Alberta makes good content,” says Cooley. “And that’s either their ignorance or they just have never seen something come out of here.”
“I think it’s great that the local film commission is inviting productions from outside to come here,” she continues, “but there’s very little interest in growing the local film industry into an industry that is self-sustaining, or at least… being proud of what we just do here.” Cardinal sees a need for building more community and relationships around the important stories that need to be told in the province.
“Edmonton and Alberta broadly has, and has always had, some incredible gifted storytellers and really precious stories that have made an impact broadly on our cultural landscape,” says Cardinal. “We’re also starting to challenge the idea of what is an important story, and perhaps it doesn’t need to be big. But perhaps they can be smaller, and if that’s the case, what are those different systems that we have in place to support that?”
He also says that Alberta creatives shouldn’t have to wait to be chosen by a big production company for their entry into the film industry — they can start taking small steps toward creating opportunities for themselves. “It’s not like we’re waiting for a seat at the table. We’re kind of also in the process of making our own chairs… and making space for others too,” he says.
Richardson wants to see hyper-specific content focused on stories that are exclusive to Edmonton, Alberta, or Canada as a whole — not shows about the U.S. shot in Canada. “I want to see more shows about Canada that could only be shot in Canada,” says Richardson.
The Alberta film industry will continue to grow and evolve, but for now, Cooley sums it up best: “It’s a two-tiered system where one tier is doing very well and the other one continues to struggle.”