‘Halifornia’ dreaming: How Nova Scotia’s film sector returned to life after losing its tax credit

In 2015, when the Nova Scotia government terminated its long-standing film industry tax credit, local filmmakers, crew members and executives believed it would be a death sentence for their previously reliable sector. But just six years later, “Halifornia” — named for Halifax’s fledgling Hollywood reputation — is booming.

Thanks to high-profile productions such as The Lighthouse, the creation of a provincial incentive fund that recently doubled in size and the province’s miraculously low COVID-19 case count, executives are choosing Nova Scotia for their film and TV productions.

It’s a reality that, until recently, would have been unimaginable for Nova Scotia’s film community, which says that the elimination of the tax credit decimated the industry.

“In Nova Scotia, particularly when the tax credit went away, there was a real concern that there would be an outflow … of young people who wanted to work in the film industry and were going to go find their their fortune elsewhere,” said David Hardy, vice-president of sustainability and stakeholder affairs with Toronto-based William F. White International, the largest distributor of film equipment in Canada.

“And slowly but surely, the industry’s come back very strong here. And we look forward to working with the new government on this industry and seeing it grow further.”

Financial incentives complement province’s beauty

Folded into the province’s 1995 budget by then-finance minister Bernie Boudreau, the tax credit aided the film industry’s modest success, making careers as creative personnel or crew not just possible but stable.

All of that seemed to come crashing down in 2015, when the province’s Liberal government, led by Stephen McNeil, announced that the credit was no longer. Instead, it was to be replaced by the Nova Scotia Film and Television Production Incentive Fund, which offered a 25 per cent refund for foreign productions and a 26 per cent refund for local productions made in the province.

The community erupted in protest, and the government listened to its concerns. But the damage was done: The incentive fund was not nearly as appealing for international productions as the tax credit had been, and local film workers left the province in droves.

The fund, favoured by the government for its transparency, is footing the bill for some 61 Nova Scotia productions this year. On June 23, the outgoing Liberal administration announced that it would contribute $46.8 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year — a whopping 194.4 per cent increase from the previous fiscal year.

At William F. White International in Halifax, the industry’s growth has led to higher demand for production supplies — from lighting and grip to cameras and other equipment. The company’s Halifax office has expanded its footprint by roughly 2,500 square feet and doubled its staff, said Trevor Sutherland, the company’s manager for Atlantic Canada.

“We’re constantly bringing in different lines of business to fill the needs,” he said.

The province is an attractive production location for reasons beyond these financial incentives, said Laura Mackenzie, executive director of Screen Nova Scotia, the province’s film authority.

When pitching to Hollywood executives unfamiliar with Nova Scotia’s charm, Mackenzie said she points to the province’s unspoiled coastlines, local wineries and golf courses, major university campuses (which can pass for Ivy League schools in the United States) and Cape Breton’s rolling hills.

Laura Mackenzie, executive director of Screen Nova Scotia, says the province is an attractive production location for reasons beyond financial incentives. (CBC)

“The diversity of location in Nova Scotia is spectacular, and it’s small enough that you can get to any of it, you know, in five hours,” she said.

Hardy said that streaming giants such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and HBO Max have made the digital landscape as competitive as ever. That demand for original content has turned Halifax into a serious market player, with a capacity to meet the surfeit.

“The need for new content really has never been more pronounced than it is right now,” Hardy said, “and we fully expect that to continue.”

High-profile productions fuel growth

Veteran Nova Scotia producer Hank White, who has been working in the industry since he was 10 years old, said the province’s film industry has made it a compelling destination for tourists.

“We were bringing in millions of dollars for tourism. People wanted to see where Titanic was shot, people wanted to see where Dolores Claiborne was shot. They wanted to see [where] The Mist was shot,” he said. “The investment that the province had given to us — we paid that back [through] tourism.”

Willem Dafoe, left, and Robert Pattinson on the set of the 2019 film The Lighthouse in Yarmouth, N.S. (Screen Nova Scotia/Eric Chakeen)

Among Nova Scotia’s most recent high-profile productions is the 2019 film The Lighthouse, which starred Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two sailors whose sanity unravels while stuck in an isolated lighthouse.

Mackenzie said the local industry grew “exponentially” after that film wrapped.

“After The Lighthouse came, it was almost like it sort of triggered confidence in the international community that our crew still were here and our on-screen camera work here — and that we were actually actively engaged in the film industry,” she said.

But it’s not just international productions leading the charge. Filmed in Dartmouth, CBC legal drama series Diggstown deserves partial credit for the industry’s prosperity, said its star, Vinessa Antoine.

When Diggstown began production in 2018, Antoine used social media to spread the word that jobs were available for Nova Scotia-based film workers, feeling that the industry needed the boost.

“Now it’s like I feel like everybody I know is moving to Halifax,” Antoine said. “And there’s so many shows that are coming to Halifax.”

Crew members and sound stage are needed

Diggstown creator Floyd Kane said that while there is an abundance of local creative talent in Nova Scotia — actors, directors and writers — the province is thin on technical crews.

“In terms of the question of ‘Is it harder to get crew?’ Absolutely. Absolutely, it’s harder to get crew,” Kane said, estimating that the province currently has three crews working.

Vinessa Antoine, right, is pictured on the CBC legal drama series Diggstown. The show, which is filmed in Dartmouth, N.S., deserves some credit for the industry’s current prosperity, she says. (CBC)

That’s due to an exodus that occurred after the tax credit was eliminated, said White, who started a shadow program to train young Indigenous people for crew member roles.

“Our film industry was decimated, and crew were leaving because they couldn’t survive here; they couldn’t survive on nothing,” he said. “Producers couldn’t keep their crew on because we were dipping into our own pockets.”

Mackenzie agreed. “One of the biggest impediments to our growth right now, of course, is developing our crew.”

Another challenge for the community is the lack of a sound stage, a sound-proof space for theatrical productions to shoot on a large scale. At this time, there isn’t a single one in Nova Scotia.

White said that doing so would attract even more productions to the province.

“We’ve been struggling and calling for years to get a sound stage built in Halifax, telling the government the old Field of Dreams thing: ‘If you build it, they will come,'” he said.

‘These are real jobs that pay real, solid wages’

With local workers and foreign productions having left after the 2015 “tax-ccident,” as Mackenzie called it, the province’s film community is now trying to spread the word that it’s open for business.

Hardy, who was among those protesting the elimination of the tax credit in 2015, said that the industry should not be seen as a dispensable part of the province’s economy.

“We always want to, at the same time, convey the notion that it’s real work and that these are real jobs that pay real, solid wages and that they create opportunity where it otherwise might not exist,” he said.

So while “Halifornia” is on the upswing, having narrowly avoided a calamity, the industry is still reeling from the talent it lost to Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal in 2015. Mackenzie has a message for those looking to make their move back to the Atlantic province.

“If there are individuals out there that work in the film industry [who] would like to come and make Nova Scotia their home, there will be work for you.”

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