The McNeil Government’s Film Industry Cuts Hit Rural Nova Scotia Hardest
February 12, 2017 at 9:47 am
The negative effects of the McNeil government’s actions in dismantling the 20-year old film funding structure and government film agency in April, 2015, have been felt just as strongly in rural Nova Scotia as they have in Halifax.
There is sometimes a perception that the film and television industry only really benefits the Halifax area, and that the cuts to the film funding system implemented by the McNeil government in April, 2015, didn’t have much of an impact on rural areas of the Province. That impression is wrong. It is true that almost all of the Nova Scotia film and television production companies that form the core of the industry are based in Halifax, or nearby. The equipment rental companies, such as William F. White, are based here as well. The unions all have their headquarters in Halifax. Film and Creative Industries was located in downtown Halifax before the McNeil government closed it down in 2015, as is the head regional office for Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board, the CBC, and so on.
But dig deeper and you see that this perception is fundamentally flawed, because it overlooks the key factor in determining the overall benefits of the film industry to the Nova Scotia economy – where productions are filmed, the effect that they have in that area, and the challenges of locating there.
With this in mind it becomes clear that the negative effects of the McNeil government’s actions in dismantling the 20-year old film funding structure and government film agency in April, 2015, have been felt just as strongly in rural Nova Scotia as they have in Halifax.
First, it is important to understand that it is more expensive to film outside of Halifax for a number of reasons. These include higher cast and crew costs (in terms of food and lodging, but also in terms of having to pay higher union wages when you move beyond Halifax), and logistical costs in terms of getting equipment to and from location (the bigger the production and the more gear that you use, the more you’re going to have to pay). I had a senior producer tell me many years ago that it would cost him up to 15% more to shoot outside of Halifax than in the city, and he felt that was a conservative estimate. Having shot significant parts of my last four films in rural parts of Nova Scotia (mostly on the South Shore and the Annapolis Valley), I can tell you that this assessment is accurate.
All of which is why I began the process of implementing a regional production bonus to the film industry tax credit back in 1999 when I was the program administrator at the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation. We recognized that in order for the film industry to truly succeed in Nova Scotia it needed to be something from which all parts of the province could benefit. There had been regional production prior to that (Pit Pony, for example, and Margaret’s Museum), but as our Director of Marketing told me, while producers from away were initially attracted by our locations, if we weren’t competitive in terms of our incentives then they would film elsewhere. This was especially true, he said, when it came to trying to sell them on shooting outside of Halifax.
Accordingly, after a significant amount of research and consultation with the unions, producers, and other industry stakeholders, I wrote a memorandum in 1999 wherein I recommended a regional bonus of between 5 and 10% on top of what was then a 32.5% tax credit rate (the 32.5% was based on Nova Scotia labour, to a maximum of 16.25% of the total production costs). The Progressive Conservative government of John Hamm implemented the 5% bonus in 2000, and his successor Rodney MacDonald increased the bonus rate to 10% in 2007, which is where it stayed until the McNeil government removed the tax credit entirely in 2015.
The regional bonus was a powerful tool in attracting production to areas outside of Halifax, and helped spur a sustained period of growth that led many of the largest film and television productions to shoot outside the city. Just a few of the more recent prominent examples include:
The mini-series Moby Dick, filmed in 2009 in Shelburne and Lunenburg;
The mini-series The Book of Negroes, filmed in 2014 in multiple locations throughout the Province, including Louisbourg and Shelburne;
The mini-series Bag of Bones, filmed in 2011 in Brooklyn, Grand Lake and Milford;
The television series Haven, filmed between 2010 and 2015 on the South Shore;
The television series Call Me Fitz, filmed in the Annapolis Valley between 2010 and 2013;
The feature film The Healer, filmed in Lunenburg and the surrounding area in 2015.
The end result of all this production activity was millions upon millions of dollars that were spent directly in rural areas of Nova Scotia, benefiting everyone from the people who provided the catering to the motel owners who provided accommodations for cast and crew. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the many places throughout rural Nova Scotia that benefited from film production activity who would describe it as anything other than a huge plus for their community.
Indeed, when the McNeil government cut the tax credit and dismantled Film and Creative Industries in 2015, many local community leaders spoke out in opposition.
Shelburne Mayor Karen Matattall also spoke out against the cuts. “We suffer, as most rural areas in Nova Scotia, from a depressed economy,” she wrote to then-Finance Minister Diana Whalen. “We are seeing businesses close, youth and other working aged groups move out of the area to find employment.” She pointed out that the film industry was one of the few genuine areas of economic growth for rural areas such as Shelburne. “It begs the question,” she concluded, “how are we suppose to survive as a community when we struggle daily to keep people and jobs in our area and now we have to deal with the loss of important jobs that are being taken away by our Provincial government?”
Beyond the immediate economic benefits of production, however, were the longer term benefits that came from enhancing the overall visibility and marketability of the Province as a tourist destination, as well as the cultural and social benefits that accrued to rural communities in particular. This represents an incalculable but nonetheless vital and very real component of the equation when you consider the overall picture of the film industry to the Province.
The Tourism Industry of Nova Scotia highlighted those benefits when it took a stand against the Liberal film industry cuts. “There is no question the film industry is very important as a tourism generator for a destination,” the Association stated. “The opportunity to garner international exposure is tremendous when films and TV productions are shot in Nova Scotia. As well as creating brand awareness, the spin off economic impact in accommodations, food services, attractions and local businesses is tremendous. The cultural and social impact is also significant within the communities.”
The Liberal government eventually replaced the film tax credit with what it called a“production incentive fund.” Unlike the tax credit, however, the Fund carries an effective cap of $10 million, with a per project cap of $4 million. The government has said that if that money is exhausted it will review allocating additional resources on a “case by case basis.”
This creates the kind of uncertainty that film production companies simply cannot work with, particularly on larger productions such as Bag of Bones or The Book of Negroes, where plans have to be in place months, and sometimes years, before production actually begins. With the tax credit system, producers always knew that the money would be there for them. Now they do not. That is untenable for them.
Furthermore, by doing away with Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia, the McNeil government in one stroke removed the key location services that the agency provided, and that producers from away had come to rely upon, as well as the institutional infrastructure and industry expertise that assured them Nova Scotia was a stable environment in which to locate their business.
Finally, the new fund paid mere lip service to the idea of providing a regional bonus to help offset the higher costs of filming outside of Halifax. Whereas the former tax credit provided a 10% incentive, the new fund offers only 2%. Compounding the problem, the tax credit also contained a 5% bonus for companies that returned to the Province to shoot further productions, which benefited rural production as much as it did Halifax production, as it made it easier to locate series like Haven or Fitz there. The new fund has no such incentive.
The end result of these changes is that while all production in Nova Scotia were hit hard, it was the prospect of production outside of Halifax that was hit the hardest. The McNeil government replaced a proven system that incentivized regional production and spurred sustained growth and opportunities in rural areas with one that has an insufficient incentive to account for the increased costs of shooting outside of Halifax, all while dismantling the relatively inexpensive government agency (less than $1 million in administrative overhead per year) that provided key locations services especially important for more isolated rural areas.
Far from being a series of decisions that only affect a small and privileged elite in Halifax, as the McNeil government has tried to portray their film industry policies in their “divide and conquer” narrative, the government charted a disastrous course of action that works directly against the goal of revitalizing and diversifying the economy of rural Nova Scotia.
I’ve lived my entire life in Nova Scotia, with the exception of a year spent studying abroad in Scotland when I was an undergraduate. I was born at the Grace Maternity Hospital in 1967, and grew up in Dartmouth. I graduated from Acadia University with an Honours degree in History and Political Science in 1989, and from Dalhousie University with a law degree in 1992.
For the next several years I was involved in the burgeoning Halifax music scene at the height of the Halifax Pop Explosion as a member of the bands Tall Poppies and Julia’s Rain. In 1997, I transitioned to the film and television industry, first as a consultant for Salter Street Films, where I worked on the creation of the Independent Film Channel, and then as the Program Administrator for the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation, where I managed the Provincial government’s film funding programs, including equity investment and the film tax credit.
In 1999 I left the civil service and entered the private sector as a producer, writer, and director. My work since then has included television series and documentaries for a number of networks both here in Canada and internationally, as well as three feature films, including the award-winning thrillerExit Thread, which was released in 2016.
I’ve been involved in industry-related public policy organizations for years, including terms as president of the Nova Scotia Film and Television Producers’ Association and a member of the Province of Nova Scotia’s Film Advisory Committee. I’ve done my best to give something back to the community as well by mentoring young filmmakers, visiting high schools over the years to talk about a career in the film industry, and taking high school film students on board as interns on various productions.
I have also been an instructor and basketball coach for the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, and was the founder of the Festival of Hope, a music benefit series that raised money and awareness about AIDS. I was actively involved in student politics, serving as the Chairperson of the Acadia Students’ Union, as well as the Deputy Chairperson of the Students Union of Nova Scotia. I also served a term as one of two student representatives on Acadia’s Board of Governors.
I’m an avid photographer and naturalist, and believe that moving towards a green economy is not only vital to ensuring a sustainable future, but also a tremendous opportunity for economic growth. I spend a lot of my spare time wandering about the wonderful trail systems located within Clayton Park West.
I’m a lover of poetry (particularly the War Poets and the Beats), Shakespeare, vanilla milkshakes, conversations about the nature of space and time, history, all types of music, baseball, Bergman films, and Monty Python.
Most important, I have a family and group of close friends who keep me grounded and happy, and who appreciate my quirky and self-deprecating sense of humour.
That’s my story. I look forward to meeting you and hearing yours!