by Shannon Buckley – Managing Editor
To officially kickoff The Reel Can’s first few issues, we have chosen to introduce a few of the amazing people in Calgary who spend their days working to further the Alberta film industry. Kicking off this article series is Luke Azevedo, the Calgary (and area) Film Commissioner.
I was lucky enough to sit down with him before Christmas and discuss what exactly it is he and his team do, and what that means for the industry in and around Calgary and for those filmmakers who are just starting out or already on their way.
Shannon Buckley: So what does a film commissioner do?
Luke Azevedo: We attract, retain and grow film, television and digital media, for me in the Southern Alberta jurisdiction. I go to Los Angeles, New York, Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver, sometimes Berlin, sometimes Cannes, and interact with studios, producers, independents, and production companies, and attempt to encourage them and influence them to come to this jurisdiction to produce their projects. Then with the local marketplace, we try to facilitate and help grow indigenous productions, so smaller producers or ones that are localized, and we try to help grow and develop their projects as well, so that we have an equal balance between foreign and local production. The most successful jurisdictions in the world have that good balance.
SB: Is this just for film?
LA: When I started this job it was a film commission job. I came out of a world that had already seen integration between film, television, and digital media in all of the different areas. I looked at it from a different perspective – that you had to have all those areas together to make a strong creative industries sector. That’s the direction the world was going and that we had to be able to create an environment that was conducive to helping this. At the time, most of the 300 hundred or so people that do what I do in the world, or similarly, were film commissioners. There were around six of us that had the creative industries title attached. And when we say film commission, that’s film and television, traditionally. Now there’s probably half to two thirds of the folks that deal with the creative industries because that’s just the reality of how the world is formed. Our world is to create and grow the sector, and a healthy creative industries sector usually means a healthy film and television sector.
SB: With all of these aspects, what does that mean in support for Calgary and area, specifically?
LA: My world is from Red Deer and south, what we call the “Calgary jurisdiction.” Southern Alberta represents somewhere around 88% of production that’s done in the province. Because of the mountains, the badlands, the city now being more cosmopolitan and having a variety of different looks, and having areas that have the Great Plains look with the mountains in the background, that’s kind of the vistas that we attract. We’re a bit of a chameleon that way. What we do, as Albertans, is when we’re talking to Warner Brothers and they have a project, we don’t just sell Calgary or sell Edmonton. We sell Alberta as the whole. It’s a little easier for me because the majority of production is done here. The majority of the crews are here and so the majority of the support has to be here. If Calgary isn’t strong, Alberta’s not strong. So what we do here is try to support and work with the unions and guilds, the producers associations, the AMPIA’s and such, and with the smaller production houses. So from the support perspective, we are the one-stop shop for access to permitting. I create a scouting environment so we’re able to bring people here and get them out to see the actual locations. We help them connect with the incentives we have here in Alberta. We have financial incentives from the Alberta government that allow us to attract and compete globally. Then we follow through with them, we do set visits, and we do producer interactions. During the productions, if I’m out in LA, I’ll go meet with that production company. Once the project is completed we market the hell out of it. We also do a program here called “Behind the Scenes” on Shaw. We probably do a couple in a month, and that program talks about what’s happening in the film, television, digital media industry in Southern Alberta, and gives people an opportunity to see it, get excited about it, and see it as a good thing for our economy and world rather than just an impedance when people are parked in front of their house. I attend the film festivals across the country, I attend major markets like AFM, the American film market, we support and sponsor all the small activities like CIFF Underground, Hundred Dollar, Fairytales. Then I work with organizations like the post-secondary’s and I go talk to the students across Southern Alberta. So what’s left? We pretty much integrate into everything we possibly can to make sure that we keep the film and television scene as vibrant as possible in the region and that people actually understand it and embrace it and then the government continues to incentivize it.
S: You sound like a very busy guy.
LA: There’s not a lot of down time. I have a great team – Lissa, Lou Lou and Katie. Lissa is the queen of logistics and locations. Lou Lou is Lissa’s backup and also does a lot of administration and insures that all of our paperwork stays current and effective, so that we stay relevant to the city and we’re not a pain in their butt. Katie’s on our marketing side, so that anyway we possibly can we highlight things throughout the province we try and do. We have a film studio project that we’ve been working on for seven years that hopefully, in mid-January, will be announced and there will be some breaking of ground in a studio in the Calgary region.
SB: I’ve read about this in the news the last couple of months. I’ve heard it’s not as big as it was going to be, unfortunately.
LA: We’ve had to adjust some things. But at the same time, I think it’s Phase one. So should things be successful, Phase 2 comes along pretty quickly. And it makes things happen in the way we want it to happen. Hopefully what that does is incentivizes other people, private sectors, some of the high worth individuals out there that potentially want to invest but want to see a reason to, and this gives them more of a reason to do it.
SB: Say one wanted to film a scene on one of the streets in downtown or somewhere else. What would they have to do in order to do that?
LA: In advance we would know about it. But first, they would come here and scout the area to determine whether this is where they can find the location. We would do what’s called a “technical scout.” Let’s say they have been working in Inglewood, which Fargo has been doing. And because of the way it’s shooting, they pull up with what’s called The Circus, and it looks like a circus coming down the road, it’s that many trucks. This particular project has got a circus that’s the size of a large feature film and so where are they parking these things? They can’t take up every place, so Lissa works with the city to insure we know where we’re going to locate this without destroying a neighborhood. Secondly, we’re on 9th avenue and we need to film a police car coming down 9th avenue chasing something and then stopping. We can’t have traffic coming and so we have to have intermittent traffic control, which means they have to get the cops involved. Then we have to determine what the best roots are for people trying to get up 9th avenue. So we permit them in advance, we set them up signage so people know where they can’t park for 24 hours before or right after. We create the contact between the production company and the police so that they have enough pay-duty officers that come so that it stays safe and official. Then we work with the city and some of the radio or TV stations to identify that those specific areas are going to be locked down for a period of time so people aren’t surprised by what’s happening. Logistically, it’s massive. In this city, with the amount of construction, because of the pace everyone is moving, because of the limited access in and out of the core, it’s difficult to do. A few years ago we created what’s called The Film Friendly Initiative, signed by all of the directors and managers in the city, which would make it so that we are seen as an industry like they would construction or they would real estate, and not just an entity that creates hassles.
SB: Would the process and logistics be same as if they were working out in the country, like for Hell on Wheels or for Heartland?
LA: Not so much because what happens there is that you’re isolated. Hell on Wheels is on a plot of land that is private. They can set up their sets and they can take care of all of that, and they’re isolated so they can control their environment. They’ll set up two or three different shots in a massive span of land and then they’ll be able to do four different scenes.
SB: So it’s a lot less work on your part, per say.
LA: In some instances yes. In some instances it’s creating the contact with the scouts to those owners of the land. It’s insuring that procedures are followed so that at the end the landowner still wants the next production to come on. Because you don’t want to burn your locations. Once they’re on and running, that’s the production’s deal. We take a step back, we do set visits, we engage with the producers, we engage with the talent, we do the behind the scenes shooting so that we can really do as much as we can to capitalize on what’s going on within the jurisdiction.
SB: For a new filmmaker, an up-and-coming, what type of resources are there in Calgary, whether it’s funding or just general help for them?
LA: I spend a good part of the year speaking with students that are graduating or just going into it to try to ensure they understand the advantages of staying in Alberta. We don’t want to be creating an environment where we’re creating talented, educated folks and them losing them to Toronto, Vancouver, and Montréal. Calgary is now on the map and the government sees that as important. So from our perspective this is where it starts – at the schools. School productions have to utilize us – we have to permit them, create locations for them. Then we visit some of those sets as well and they can meet us and know that we’re there for support. The incentives that are available to young filmmakers are the same that are available to the seasoned veterans. Most young filmmakers coming out of school do short films. They’re not going right into a feature film or a television program. So the AFA, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, is usually where short film funding is coming from, because the Alberta Media Fund doesn’t have a short film stream. Within the AMF however there’s what’s called development money. So if someone has a script, and they’re an Albertan, they can access money to help enhance it. We’re unique on a North American scale in that people can trigger our fund if they show audience, and that means that a web program that has a distribution agreement in place can access that money as well. We’re starting to see that the younger filmmakers have a huge knowledge base on the digital side of things – they live on their computer. So we give them opportunities to do that. With the younger folks we try to guide them. Come in and we’ll go through it with you, we’ll explain it, we’ll help you. Yes, there’s logistics there and things you have to do and have to have. But once you’ve set that in motion, the first time you go through it, you’ll start to understand. We tell them where to go for funding. We create partnerships and link people to each other. Then we look for locations. So if somebody wants to shoot a building that’s owned by the city or a building that they’ve identified as the location, we’ll try to do those contacts for them, cause a first time filmmaker is not gonna know what to ask, how to ask, etc. There are things that, logistically, if they were trying to get through the city bureaucracy to get there, it wouldn’t happen.
SB: What is something that Calgary and Calgary area is missing to help make this an even more successful sector?
LA: When you walk into Los Angeles, there’s three questions the studios ask you – what are your incentives, what’s your crew base, and what’s your infrastructure? In terms of incentives, we’re globally competitive to about a $25 million spend in the city on any individual project. Anything above that we can’t compete, we don’t have the infrastructure for it, nor do we have the incentives that would allow us to do it. That stuff goes to Vancouver, Toronto, or Montréal – there’s no cap on their ability to incentivize financially. The crew base is solid. However, we don’t have crew depth. There was a point last year when there were five projects at once and we struggled to fill ¾ of the needs. Crews were coming in from Toronto, Vancouver and others to supplement. That neither helps us build our industry, nor does it help the producer at the production company because they can’t maximize on the incentives available to them. We only pay for what’s Albertan. If you’re an Albertan, we’ll offset between 25-30% of whatever you spend. If you’re bringing in someone from Vancouver, that person’s wages cant be incentivized. The crew base is growing again, but we need to continuously bring that flow of younger folks out of schools and try to bring some of the seasoned veterans back and keep growing that crew base amount. The biggest restriction we have right now is infrastructure. In this office, we are the kings and queens of the retrofit. We do what we call an environmental scan any time a major, or smaller, production comes in, as everyone needs some kind of interior or some kind of set. We find warehouses or facilities that enable us to retrofit them enough so it works for that particular production. Then we have to try to find office space. Office space is diminishing and very few people want to rent you short term – they don’t want to rent it for six to nine months. Without infrastructure, two things happen. First of all, you can never, ever be considered for upper level of a location if you don’t have infrastructure. And every other jurisdiction in the world that’s a legitimate shooting location has infrastructure – purpose built facilities or retrofitted facilities that have allowed them to then become studios. We don’t have that. The other thing that is extremely important is that government identifies the value of this industry at a level that will allow us to be competitive at the top levels. We’ve been able to grow the industry in spite of all of these things because we’re what we call a “no surprise jurisdiction.” When I walk into a studio office, what we tell them there, is the same thing we’re telling them when they land here, and when they leave. There are no surprises here. There are projects that come here that are massive. Bourne Legacy and Interstellar were here. We were this close for Superman but they ended up in Chicago because the US government said you can have all of the stuff that you want for free. We did the first three here. Number four, logistically, should have been here. But financially, we are not a jurisdiction that can say things are free. There’s a lot of talent, there’s a lot of capacity, and lots of ability to create an environment, but we have limitations. And until those walls are either removed or reduced in size, this is as big as we can get. Do we wanna be Vancouver and Toronto? Aspirations say yes, but can we? No, I don’t think we can. But can we get half way there? Yes, absolutely. Right now we are just under $200 million industry a year, fourth in the country. Toronto this year will be around $1.4 billion, Vancouver at around $1.25 billion, Montréal at $1 billion, and then it drops $800 million to where we are. We could legitimately be a $500 million industry in the next 3-5 years if we had the capacity to enhance a few of the pieces. And at the end of the day, have we been successful? Yes. Have we grown the industry? Yes. Could we be bigger? Absolutely. Do we need help? Absolutely.
SB: Overall, why is a film commissioner needed for all of this, if you could simplify it in some way?
LA: We are the only neutral party. Unions and guilds fight for their people. Government fights for what government fights for. We’re the group that works with everybody, in the middle as the Switzerland of the film world. We’re the ones that get in there to sell it. I’m the one that’s bringing a product that’s talking about the entire province or sector here, saying we can help you in every single way. We are the one point of contact to everybody – to the city, to the province, to the unions. We’re the ones touting the industry as an important sector. We’re also an economic driver, trying to create a diversity economy. We’re a cyclical economy here in Alberta. If oils up, it’s great. If oils down, it’s not so great. In the middle of July when the Stampede is on and people are talking about animals and the oil sands, the light that shines on us isn’t always positive. Having an industry like film and television that is ecologically sensitive, which creates an environment where we produce things that create enjoyment and bring out an entertainment value is massive. Without a film commission, who’s going to be looking out for the industry as a whole? There is no one. Each one of those different groups around us, whether it’s AMPIA, AMP2, the government, all have their own mandates. Our mandate is to grow, develop, and create an environment that allows us to be successful as a sector. There’s no other entity that does that.
If you would like more information on the film, television, or creative industries in southern Alberta (including permits and applications, filming guidelines, fees, etc.) or resources for filmmakers, please visit:
I would like to thank Luke Azevedo for this interview. It has provided much insight into the film industry in Calgary and surrounding areas for myself, as it will hopefully do for others as well.