Nova California

After funding turmoil and pandemic disruptions, the local film industry has regained its footing and is poised for a boom

For many Nova Scotians, one thing returned to normal this summer: their communities were again hosting film and TV productions from all over. And it’s going to continue — the province has become a year-round movie-making destination. 

Most projects are American or Canadian, and filmmaking of all kinds means a windfall for local economies because the casts and crews eat, sleep, party, and spend money in stores and on services in the communities where they work. 

For example, this spring and summer, Nova Scotians saw weekly filming at various sites of Washington Black, a miniseries that will air in Canada on Disney +. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Esi Edugyan, the nine-episode series is set in the 19th century. Much of the series is shooting in Lunenburg and Halifax, assuring local background performers (AKA “extras”) plenty of work. 

In March, Premier Tim Houston announced new funding from the province to aid the ever-growing industry: $5 million to build a sound stage in HRM, with $15 million (plus an additional $10 million if needed) to fund local productions over several years. Government hasn’t released the rules attached to the latter two amounts. 

Sue Comeau is a screenwriter based in Halifax who hopes the spending will make it easier to sell her work. 

“When I mention I’m from Nova Scotia, it’s an awesome conversation starter with production companies in L.A.,” she says. “But I’m definitely hoping that the new funding will encourage local producers to hire writers and other creatives who are diligently working right here in their backyards. 

In 2021, even during the ongoing pandemic, the industry doubled its volume from 2020, creating $180 million in economic activity for the province. This spring, Houston told reporters: “We’re not going to walk away and let this momentum dissipate. We’re going to send a strong message.” 

Even more Hollywood producers, who already save on the currency exchange, will likely heed that message. The 50,000-square-foot soundstage at a yet-to-be-determined location in Halifax fills the gap left by the closure of the Tour Tech soundstage, and should thrill local and foreign producers. The ability to film year-round in all weather promises to be a selling point, complementing the professional crews already in place. 

Tom Anthes began working for CBC in 1967 in various roles, but mostly as a set designer and art director. He has created the wide variety of sets for This Hour Has 22 Minutes since its inception. The series celebrates its 30th season this year and has been taped at Culture Link CIC, the site of the former World Trade & Convention Centre in downtown Halifax. He knows the province requires a large soundstage. 

“Halifax is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada for immigrants, and we all have something to contribute,” says Fateh Ahmed.

“There is so much film production happening now,” he says. “It’s definitely needed.” 

Fateh Ahmed, owner of Core Film Productions in Halifax, which specializes in humanitarian documentaries, agrees. “This money will help small- to medium-sized production companies,” he says, “and will attract a younger demographic to the province.” 

His latest project, which wrapped in early June, is the federal-government funded documentary Working While Black. It serves primarily as a training module for government and will stream for public viewing. 

Ahmed — a music composer “from reggae to classical,” which he calls “the core of my talent” — is excited about the possibilities that come with new funding to the province’s film and TV industry. 

“I’d like to see more inclusive and diverse producers and directors come out of this, more union members that will help facilitate the pathway into this vibrant industry,” he says. “Halifax is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada for immigrants, and we all have something to contribute.” 

Thom Fitzgerald, a NSCAD University alumnus and a New Jersey native who calls Halifax home, is a director and writer, best known for his feature films The Hanging Garden (1997) and Cloudburst (2011). For the past couple of years, he has been producing two comic series for OutTV, a specialty channel based in British Columbia. 

“It’s a heartening and emboldening time for the (Nova Scotian) film and TV industry knowing that the community is behind them,” he says. “The new content fund will close the gap in producers’ financing and will have a very positive impact on the industry.” 

Originally from the U.K., Stuart Cresswell launched Simple Films and then Skye Larke Productions in 2008 in River John on the North Shore. He has been in the business since 1996 and is proud to be a filmmaker in a rural setting, employing locals. 

“Now for the first time, the film and TV industry as a whole is being taken seriously in recognizing all the avenues and benefits it brings to Nova Scotia,” he says. “Personally, I’d like to see the new soundstage in Truro, as it’s so central. The focus of attention is usually Halifax, and that’s fine, as there has to be a structure around the industry … We shoot all over the province. Indeed, for us there is a bonus for not shooting all the while in (HRM) only.” 

Terry Greenlaw’s “Bystanders” is one of many major productions to film in Nova Scotia recently. Photo: Jessie Redmond

Currently, Cresswell’s company is entering its fourth season of producing The Final Draft (about Nova Scotian writers), Blank Canvas (about Nova Scotian artists), and The Ways We Move (a series regarding dance). And with ever-growing demand for new content by international streaming and broadcast services, there’s plenty of cause for optimism about the future of the industry in Nova Scotia. 

Creswell sees a tremendous benefit to the current methods producers from the province use to apply for funding, compared with the former tax credit days (1995 to 2015). 

“Pre-applying (for a production’s costs) and getting a guaranteed level of funding at the start of production, and the speed of the turnaround, has allowed my company to produce five to six projects in a year,” he explains. “We’ve gone from employing Nova Scotians on a contractual basis to having the equivalent of 18 full-time positions around the province doing a range of jobs.” 

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