Filming in New West seems to be fairly common place these days.We all remember Godzilla turning downtown into San Francisco for a few weeks. Such destruction and chaos by a poor misunderstood lizard.
A few weeks ago, our usual dog park was temporarily unavailable due to a production being filmed there (When We Rise, from what I understand) and needing to have the gates propped open, and a few days later, I was walking in Sapperton and my Canada Post mailbox had been replaced by a perfectly distressed USA Today box and an Anytown, USA park bench. No less than 30 or 40 people were standing around, some wearing hi-vis vests, some with walkie-talkies, and all of them looking both busy and bored at the same time.
I spoke with Elizabeth Keurvorst about the hub of activity that seemed to be amping up in New Westminster. Keurvorst is the recently appointed Film Coordinator for the City, and started in late January. She’s part time and her hours are dictated by what’s happening for filming in town. Her role is to serve as the first point of contact for filming inquiries for the City, which is managed through the Parks and Recreation Department with supporting services from Police, Fire, and Engineering Operations. Usually the first call is from a scout looking to take pictures or determine if a particular street or building would be available for filming and what’s required to put it into consideration for a film.
If a location in New Westminster is being considered, the Filming Coordinator works with the Location Manager to facilitate a “successful filming event”. Keurvorst says that “Success includes working within policy, minimizing impact, and communicating effectively with residents and businesses on what to expect when the filming happens.”
David Tamkin is a Location Manager who has worked on productions in New West, and grew up here. (NWSS Class of ’91!) Back in high school, his dad was a movie buff and instilled an interest in movies and filmmaking. Tamkin’s dad always wanted to work in film but there just wasn’t an industry here at that time.
“I never actually saw it as a viable career option growing up,” says Tamkin. “Some friends and I filmed our grad video, editing together stuff we’d filmed throughout the year with a little video camera. The end result was pretty epic. That was my first foray into filmmaking.”
After graduation, and then going to film school, Tamkin worked on a number of smaller non-union projects such as music videos, short films, and indie horror movies that were fun but unfortunately didn’t pay much if they paid at all. He got a totally unrelated job in a government office, and stayed there all through the 90s. In early 2000, Tamkin called a friend he’d gone to film school who told him the horrible movie of the week he was working on were hiring Production Assistants. (Production Assistant work is gruelling and far from glamorous but it gets a lot of people in the door). Over the next dozen years he worked his way up the union ladder to a Location Manager. “It takes a while to get used to the lifestyle of not having guaranteed employment more than a few months at a time,” he says. “But once you’re established you rarely have to look for work.”
Both Keurvorst and Tamkin agree that it can be very rewarding, stressful, and busy work. Working in New Westminster presents its own set of challenges. “Areas that get a lot of filming like Queen’s Park, Columbia, or Front because they offer particular looks that are often what directors are looking for, are becoming over-saturated,” says Tamkin.
“If you film in any one area often enough, the residents or merchants begin to tire of it. We tend not to have a particularly small footprint or impact and can quickly become a nuisance if we aren’t respectful of the neighbourhood,” he says.
This also means that occasionally, Keurvorst has to deal with residents who are unhappy or have questions about filming. I first spoke to Keurvorst when I called to ask how long the dog park would be closed. But the complaints the City does hear are fairly minimal. “Generally New Westminster is a film-friendly community,” she says. “Our goal is to facilitate filming and ensure that activity is considerate to residents and businesses while also optimizing the benefits for the City and supporting the industry.”
“Like construction, people generally acknowledge that it’s for a greater purpose – economic, if not entertainment- but we certainly don’t have people bring us out trays of fresh baked cookies anymore. To be clear though, this isn’t just New Westminster. It’s everywhere. The industry is booming and there are only so many place to film,” says Tamkin.
And yes, the film industry is definitely generating revenue for our city. On April 4th, Council was given a report on what’s happening for filming in New West and there’s some promising numbers. (If you’re interested in the full report, it’s buried on page 190 of this 399 page agenda– seriously? You guys? This PDF business is out of control – won’t someone think of the trees?)
2015 was the busiest year so far in terms of “filming days” and revenue generated with $557,682 in gross revenue, 117 filming days, and 88 permits issued. In recent years, the City of New Westminster has seen the permits issues, revenue generated, and filming days wax and wane. Staff time is billed back to the filming companies to cover the cost of direct services and administration time.
Keurvorst points to two main factors when understanding the 78% increase in revenue (2015 over 2014). “One, the devaluation of the Canadian dollar, compared to the US dollar, has attracted record production companies into BC for filming; and two, the growing popularity with production companies to film, now year-round, at the Anvil Centre generated $132,983 in rental revenues,” she says.
According to the Creative BC (formerly known as the BC Film Commission), 2014 film spending across the Province was estimated at 1.2 billion dollars. Production companies support local businesses through the purchase of good or services in New Westminster. In addition, production companies ‘rent’ residential and merchant property for location filming. Based on filming industry feedback, each permit generates an economic spin-off to residents or merchants between $10,000 – $20,000.
Clearly, New Westminster is doing all right by hosting cavalcades of white trailers all over the place.
There are some neat nuggets of information in that report presented to council as well. The forthcoming improvements to Front Street – which I support and can’t wait for – are predicted to have a negative impact on filming that happens there because its perfect dark alleyway and gritty feel will be gone. No longer can it stand in for an alley scene in a cop (or giant lizard) scene. Downtown and Queen’s Park continue to be the busiest neighbourhoods for filming. And it’s not just films and TV – many commercials are filmed on location in New Westminster. Check out the complete list of what productions was given a filming permit in 2015 (image pulled from page 196 of the redorkulously long agenda packaged I linked to above):
Challenges and Rules
There are bylaws, policies, and procedures the City follows. Bylaw 7793 was updated in 2016 to include some minor changes and these govern all of the filming that happens here. They’re pretty simple, as municipal bylaws go, and more or less state you need a permit, who you have to talk to and what you need to submit to get one, and what happens if you don’t follow the rules.
As a part her position, Keurvorst says she “… conducts an annual review of the filming policy and procedures to accommodate new or emerging needs in this dynamic and evolving industry. In addition, the filming policy needs to align with other City policies and bylaws as they are created or amended from time to time. Finally, the filming policies are compared to other municipal filming policies for completeness and consistency.”
When pressed for how to improve the industry, Tamkin suggests the paperwork required could be streamlined. There is a huge challenge in every single municipality and governing body in the region (there’s 20 now) having all different processes, applications, staff, rules, procedures, fees, and permits. He suggests that a body such as Creative BC oversee some sort of committee with all the city reps and a handful of industry reps to come up with a single set of rules, regs, permits, and procedures, that would apply everywhere.
“I know the initial push-back would be about the fee structure, but I can safely say on behalf of Location Managers everywhere, we care about that the least. In the grand scheme of costs to film, the city fees are never a consideration. If it meant getting a universal permitting procedure in place, I’m certain that no one would care if the fees varied from one place to the next. It’s my understanding that something like this was actually discussed a number of years ago but the response from the film offices was that they all just “liked their way best” and so it was dropped. But the film offices should really only be half of the equation. We’re talking about an industry that now generates well over a billion dollars in the BC economy every year. Doesn’t that offer some incentive to streamline this process a little? I sincerely believe that making our jobs just that little bit easier would make the film office’s jobs easier too. The less time we spend on paperwork and trying to remember the nuances of which box to tick on the appropriate form that’s been used since the days of MacGyver, the more time we can spend dealing with the unique and specific needs of the location we’re filming in. Which really should be what the focus of this job is.”
So what about student projects? High school projects don’t count, and neither do news broadcasts. However, according to the policy, while post-secondary student productions are exempt from filming fees, they are subject to insurance and any charges if they purchase municipal services (i.e. police services, signage, parking, etc.). “We work with students applying to film in New Westminster the same way we work with industry professionals in order to support their learning,” says Keurvorst.
Keurvorst says her biggest challenge is simply the pace of the activities related to filming. “As the dollar continues to stay low,” she says,”BC continues to be an attractive place to film and all of the municipalities including New Westminster are feeling the pressure to increase filming activity. For the City it’s all about balance for our residents and businesses while maintaining our film friendly reputation.”
Tamkin agrees. “The industry has literally never been as busy as it is now. If you look at the list from the Director’s Guild there are currently almost 50 shows – we used to call it ‘busy’ when it was seven pages long and it’s now 15. And, to be honest, it’s too busy. It’s become almost impossible to find crew, and a lot of shows are hiring people who aren’t properly trained for their positions.”
Tamkin worries this might have repercussions as he views locations as a renewable resource. “I’ve been hearing a lot of stories recently about shows just steamrolling their way into areas and really creating a bad name for the industry. The boom we’re seeing right now started when the dollar was completely in the toilet, and hopefully the dollar continues to climb and production levels balance to a more manageable level again.”
When we see filming take place we often imagine film stars or directors from Hollywood (I hear Guy Pearce was on set at my dog park!), however the majority of crews and casts have to be Canadian in order to qualify for filming incentives or Tax Credits. Keurvorst (and by extension, the City of New Westminster) hopes the Province continues to invest in building up the industry.
Keurvorst is not shy about picking a favourite production filmed in a New West location. “I like Once Upon A Time, especially the costumes. They have shot a lot in New Westminster and we look forward to welcoming them back.”
Tamkin has two favourites on his list, and they are shaped by his work and his love for film.
“Recently I worked on a movie called ‘Army of One‘ (not yet released). It’s directed by Larry Charles who was the head writer of Seinfeld and writer/director of Borat. He’s a really incredible guy to work with, unlike anyone I’ve ever met before. He was extremely collaborative with me about finding locations that made Vancouver work for the film (we stood in for Colorado, San Diego, and Las Vegas) and I feel like my work was really appreciated which is not always the case. He also had the most amazing stories about working on Seinfeld that he’d tell over lunch when we were out scouting.”
“My other favourite,” says Tamkin, “was ‘Snakes on a Plane‘. Because Samuel L. Jackson.”