It’s been two years since the Northwest Territories government released its film strategy, and almost eight years since it implemented a film tax rebate program. Why don’t we have more to show for it?
Figures from Statistics Canada and GNWT annual reports appear to show the industry’s contribution to the territorial GDP, and the number of jobs it creates, are gradually declining.
In 2015, before the rebate took effect, film, video and digital media brought in $9.7 million, involving 24 N.W.T. businesses and the equivalent of 106 full-time jobs. By 2018, a GNWT film strategy reported, those figures had dropped to $9.2 million and 58 jobs. (More recent figures aren’t available.)
So how is the industry faring, especially compared to northern neighbours?
There is clearly an undeniable passion in the N.W.T. for film.
Jonathan Antoine, whose work Dene Drum Songs in Gahnı̨hthah has appeared in festivals from Berlin to New York City, organized last month’s Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ Film Festival to showcase that energy in Fort Simpson.
Antoine believes film has significant potential in the North, both to share culture and to bring people together.
“I think storytelling in video form is really important for preserving language and stories within Indigenous community,” he said. “Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ Film Festival showcases Indigenous voices from the Dehcho, the N.W.T. and throughout Canada.”
In the N.W.T. legislature earlier in February, Caroline Wawzonek – the minister responsible for the territory’s film industry – praised festivals like that and said sectors like film production might move the North closer to its oft-repeated but still-distant transition from a strictly resource-based economy.
Wawzonek said 25 film and media projects entered development in the N.W.T. in the past year and her department has more applications for funding involving film and media than it can fulfill.
But despite that, when the time came to showcase the territory’s best and brightest in Fort Simpson, Antoine said he had a limited number of local films to choose from. The majority of films showcased at the festival came from the Yukon or Nunavut.
What Yukon and Nunavut are doing
Tax rebates can significantly influence how major productions make location decisions.
In Nova Scotia, the 1995 introduction of Canada’s most competitive film tax credit created a thriving $122-million industry, along with thousands of local jobs, before it was reduced in 2015.
At the time, productions could claim up to 50 per cent of their labour costs – even 65 per cent in rural areas – in government rebates.
There hasn’t been a Canadian rebate quite like it since, but many provinces have been upping their offers in recent years, resulting in a record-breaking $11.3 billion in film revenue in 2021-22.
Among the territories, all three offer rebates that are roughly on par with one another – between 25 and 40 per cent.
In 2019-20 in Nunavut, the industry’s contribution to the territorial GDP was a little higher than the N.W.T.’s for 2018: $9.4 million. But the territory’s approach has gained recognition within the industry and among policymakers for its support of homegrown talent and Indigenous filmmaking. Nunavut says its industry employed 267 Inuit in 2019-20, all of the films it supported were in Inuktut, and it held 40 industry training workshops were held in eight communities.
The Yukon says it supported more projects and leveraged more direct spending in one year than the Northwest Territories has in the past eight. Since 2015, the N.W.T. rebate has supported 17 productions and leveraged a direct spent of more than $5 million into the territory. In the Yukon, the territory says it supported 39 productions that brought in $4.7 million in 2017-18 alone.
What do Yukon and Nunavut have in common? More than $1 million pledged each year in their industries.
In 2021, Nunavut spent $1,152,000 funding seven media programs. The Yukon spent $1,950,821 funding six media programs.
By comparison, the N.W.T.’s total spend on film in 2021 was $260,000, and the territory funded just two programs.
Polaris, a case study
While all three territories offer similar rebate percentages, in the N.W.T., the total rebate that could be accessed was – until recently – capped at $100,000.
Even for small filmmakers, this is low.
Kirsten Carthew, the Yellowknife director of 2022 fantasy film Polaris, says this factored into her decision to film outside the NWT. Carthew shot the movie in the Yukon instead.
“At the time, there wasn’t sufficient funding available in the N.W.T. to support a larger (albeit, still indie) film budget,” Carthew wrote. “By comparison, the Yukon’s rebate program had significantly higher dollars available.”
According to Carthew, Polaris received $300,000 from the Yukon and, in return, spent $1.3 million in a three-month filming window.
“A film such as Polaris represents the opportunity for a commercially viable screen-based sector to thrive in the N.W.T.,” she wrote.
“For the sector to grow, I think funding levels need, at minimum, to be competitive with what is on offer in Nunavut and Yukon, and ideally surpass them.”
Carthew said the support structure is there – she thanked GNWT staff who, despite funding limitations, worked to fund crew positions funded by N.W.T. residents – but needs more resources and policymakers who see the industry’s potential.
The most recent N.W.T. budget does add $100,000 to the rebate. Even so, Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby said last month she was “struggling to understand how we would think a film can go anywhere in the North” with the sums on offer.
Wawzonek said if the rebate is used successfully, that could create “an argument in favour of seeing something more in the future.”
But Jeremy Emerson – president of the N.W.T. Professional Media Association, or NWTPMA – said increasing the rebate may not lead to immediate results, especially while it’s still so far behind the industry standard.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “Development happens over quite a few years. But also, the rebate does cap out.
“So when you think about it, a production is still going to need a really good reason to come and film here. Especially when, a lot of times, they shoot in northern Ontario – and it looks very much like the Northwest Territories – and do the rest in Vancouver on a soundstage.
“Everything’s so much more expensive up here. So for a big production, the rebate is just not enough to attract them. $100,000 or even $200,000 is a drop in the bucket.”
Like Carthew, Emerson says the territory has had some great ideas, like the Producers Incentive Pilot Program introduced last year, which offers up to $10,000 for pre-development of a project and $25,000 for development.
“A lot of local producers are taking advantage of that and starting projects, writing scripts, doing the research, which creates a stronger incentive to actually film here instead of developing that intellectual property and going south with it,” Emerson said.
He says more incentives like these would ensure support for smaller filmmakers just starting out, as well as bigger productions, and the GNWT appears to recognize a funding gap. “We are acutely aware of the rising demand, from our territory’s community of passionate and dedicated film and media professionals, to invest more in the Northwest Territories film sector,” Wawzonek recently said.
How do we measure success?
Each territory uses different metrics to judge the growth of the film industry. For example, the Yukon told us it doesn’t keep track of the industry’s contribution to the territory’s GDP in the same way others do.
“I don’t think we’re capturing every production that’s happening here, as well,” said Emerson. “You always hear people saying that something is getting filmed in such-and-such a place and it’s like, that’s news to us! So the numbers aren’t 100-percent accurate, either.”
Camilla MacEachern, the N.W.T.’s film commissioner, said a lot of productions take place in the territory “without us getting a clear idea of what they spent or how they impacted hiring.”
She says that’s one reason why the film rebate program is so useful – anyone funded by it must “show every penny of what they spent … so you have that hard data.”
MacEachern sees success in the way N.W.T. industry funding and programs are increasing alongside grassroots interest in film. She says more homegrown productions are happening and more local capacity is being built.
“And then of course, film festivals like Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́. It’s great to see these things happening in regions outside of Yellowknife,” she said.
“Yes, it’s unfortunate that there weren’t more local productions in the festival, but even a handful of productions is very meaningful for our industry.”
The exciting things happening elsewhere in the North are “great examples of what’s possible,” MacEachern added.
“We’re building that business case for why we should put more support into these programs and increase budgets. We have these great case studies of what funding can actually do when you invest in an industry.
“There’s investment to be made and stories to be told and talent here to tell them. Our programs are on par. The funding reality is just our biggest challenge.”
Megan Miskiman contributed reporting.
By Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Mar 27, 2023 at 06:05