Joan Miller may have retired from her position as Vice President of the board of the Association of Film Commissions International, (the body that oversees the approximately 330 film commissions worldwide) but her work on Vancouver Island is far from done.
Under Miller’s watch, what was once known, way back in 1995, as the Campbell River Film and Broadcast Commission has blossomed into the North Island Film Commission, better known as INFilm, and she says there’s never been a more exciting time in the business. They’ve also never been busier, which is a good sign for the region.
What they do
An initial incoming phone call to INFilm will generally, according to Miller, go something like, “Hi, we’re (insert production company name) and have a project we’re working on and we’re interested in your region. Does it have something that will match (description of what they’re looking for)?”
INFilm then pulls a package of images to send to the inquiring company as a sample of locations that are in the region, that match what they are describing (they have a database of about 33,000 images).
“It could be beaches, forests, rural fishing communities, caves, what have you. We can send them quite a lot of options for them to consider,” Miller said.
“We don’t do ‘No, we can’t’ very often, but we don’t waste anyone’s time if what they’re looking for isn’t available in our area,” Miller said. What they do under those circumstances is work out from here and find them something that matches their needs, keeping them as close to the region as they can.
“If we can’t find them somewhere here, we find them somewhere on the Island, or in B.C., or in Canada. We work with them as best we can to fill their needs,” she said, so that they will come back to them the next time they need a location or service INFilm may be able to provide. They want to be the first call that’s made.
“You want to help them get to where they want to go, and provide them with enough service, that even if you lose that show (because they chose somewhere else), they’re going to come back to you, and then you can get them here when you do have exactly what they need.”
When they choose to come to the area, it’s a matter of making sure they have everything they need while they’re here, Miller said. The film industry is a close-knit group, so every experience a production has travels down the pipe and gets to the rest of the decision makers, so it’s important that people’s experiences are good when looking at the long-term economic impact, which is one of her key focuses.
“It’s all about, ‘let’s get as many local people hired on to use their services as possible.’” she said. “You don’t need to go outside our local area to find water trucks, or cranes, or greens people, or safety people, or busses and transportation. We get into the creative aspect only to the point of understanding their needs.
“The rest of it is all about economic development. It’s about supporting and sustaining the industry with as many local people and services as possible.”
Moving into the digital age
Just this month, a team of animators set up shop in the Enterprise Centre, where INFilm lives, to produce an animated digital short for Habitat for Humanity, and it was an exciting time for the organization and all involved, according to Miller.
“To watch a production team from start to finish is really exciting. I think everybody coming through here were quite amazed. It’s one thing to see something come up on a screen and just assume how it gets there, and it’s another thing to have someone walk you through the process and show you as people are actually doing the work,” Miller said.
But although entirely animated films are great, it’s not the biggest digital footprint being made in what they do as an organization. Not by a long shot.
“So much of the work the (film) industry is doing now has some digital aspect to it. Even all our live action filming, we never used to see any sort of visual effects people. We were doing strictly location-based filming, and now the visual effects people and the animation team that may be having to do something on a project shows up right at the front end of a project, so we’re coordinating with them, as well.”
She used the example of scouting locations for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where the visual effects coordinator from Weta was “right there with us from the very start. It was the same with Godzilla, the same with Superman. All those bigger kinds of movies that are so visual effects committed, it’s so much a part of the project now. It’s not that they come in later and do their thing after filming, they’re integral to the whole process now.”
Miller said one of the biggest changes to get used to was needing to find “part” of a location for filming, knowing that visual effects will take over at a certain point in the landscape.
“Say we’re out looking for a particular bend in a river, and on one inside bank of the bend, it needs to have a sandy area to about 10 feet out with a sheer rock face that goes up about 20 feet, and that’s what we’re looking for, and the visual effects coordinator, who is there with us, is looking at it with us, knowing they’re going to remove everything in the distance, the trees are going to come down and there’s a castle that’s going to go in, but it needs to match up seamlessly with the live-action that’s going to be filmed down on the edge of that river.”
The changing role of a film commission
Until recently, INFilm has been primarily a location scouting and service provider for crews wanting to film in the area, Miller said. She’s begun working to create a new industry in the region, however, centred on facilitating collaboration and an interdisciplinary approach to the creative fields that are becoming more and more in demand, both within the film world, and in other sectors.
“It’s a blur now. I don’t know where the role as a traditional film commission ends anymore, because the traditional film commissions have now expanded a lot of their delivery into the digital media sector,” she said, adding that it’s gone from being primarily film-focused to “everybody supporting everything” in such a broad sector that is so tightly interconnected.
In 2009, Miller formed the Creative Industries Council, “in order for us to pull together the college, First Nations, the city, the local support system, and ask, ‘How do we begin to diversify in our own community?’ and we began to network with the animation, game industry, and visual effects industry.”
“As a result, we now find that we now have people moving to the area. Some key industry people who have left the big-studio system have come here to grow some idea of their own.”
Why would they do that?
“Not everybody wants to live in a big city, or move from city to city every nine months when a project ends,” Miller said. “So we’ve brought this group together as the Creative Industries Council and we’ve got this really lovely sector that’s starting to take root here.”
The council meets quarterly, according to Miller, for mixers and networking sessions, “and in the short year we’ve been doing it,” she said, “people have been going from, ‘I didn’t know you live in my area,’ to ‘let’s talk about this project that I’d like to use your skills on.’”
And it’s driving a sector of the local economy.
“I know of at least three or four contracts that came out of (the last mixer), where people have taken something they’re working on and included someone else local on it.”
The relationships that can be made between those in digital arts to other industries seems to lend weight to the idea of moving to create a “creative sector” infrastructure in the region.
According to Miller, there is need for people like digital artists and animators in fields such as healthcare, to help design everything from software and databases in their digital infrastructure to graphics for presentations and facility design. That’s just one of the many examples of how skills in the field are transferrable and valuable to the region, she said, and there are many other examples, such as integrating their talents into military applications or social services like search and rescue or even policing services.
“There just doesn’t seem to be a cap on where this can go,” she said.
That is, assuming they have the money to continue.
Funding the creative arts
There’s a funding issue, however. Actually, there are many funding issues.
Traditional financiers, like banks and credit unions, Miller said, need to reexamine how they look at this sector. They’re starting to look at it a little more closely because they’re starting to see the value in the industry, but it’s difficult to visualize the monetization of ideas and concepts that aren’t physical in nature.
“Even though these people can become very successful,” she said, “and something can go all of a sudden from a two man startup to a 200-person project that sells a few years later for a crazy, exorbitant amount of money, we’re not there yet with the traditional ways of financing.”
It’s not like with other projects, Miller said, where they can see a physical building going up, or a warehouse full of boxes.
“It’s like, ‘You want to make a new coding language?’ or, ‘What’s a widget?’” Miller said with a laugh.
The other funding issue is that of how to fund film commissions themselves.
You see, film commissions can’t charge for their services.
“Most people think, ‘Godzilla had a $200-million budget, you guys must be doing really well,’” Miller said, but they didn’t get one cent from any of the projects they work on. In fact, part of their yearly budget goes into supporting them.
“I’d like to know who, 35 years ago, decided that when the industry was creating a network of certified film offices around the world who understood their industry and would facilitate what they do, decided that they couldn’t be paid for those services.”
Another issue with acquiring adequate funding, according to Miller, is that at the end of they year, it’s really difficult to justify the funding they’ve received or are asking for for the following year, because INFilm often can’t be specific about what they’ve done, due to confidentiality agreements.
“We can say, ‘this is how many projects we scouted on, here’s how many days of filming happened, and those kinds of things, but, yeah, the (funding) model is kind of crazy.”
That’s not why they do it, though.
“Obviously it’s not about the money. It’s not about what we get paid, because we’ve had offers to move and do similar things for more pay. It’s about doing something good for your community. That’s a huge commitment for us. This is our community. This our region. This is where we want to live. This is where all the people that we love are.
“We started on this journey 20 years ago, and it has nothing to do with us. It’s a community vision, and it’s important.”