After controversial changes to how the government supports their industry, local filmmakers work to find a new path
While the industry has endured gloomy press in recent years thanks to the provincial government’s changed approach to subsidized funding for films, those in the middle of it are doing their best to get by and continue to make quality films. Halifax’s Nancy Urich, 39, and Marc Tetreault, 34, have spent many years between them bringing films to life and riding out the inevitable ups and downs of the industry. And despite the challenges, both are determined to continue doing so.
Fellow producer Urich has a slightly different view. “Right now the Nova Scotia film industry is suffering huge,” she says. “The money’s just not there and all we’re getting is a trickle-down from Toronto.”
The film tax credit was introduced in 1995 to cover up to 30% of eligible crew salaries, and later bumped up to a maximum of 60% of allowable costs if the production was filmed in a rural community. But it was stopped in 2015, after major protests, and was replaced by a more modest film incentive fund that hasn’t attracted the interest of major production companies.
Now, films produced here tend to lean toward the artsy—“in the Canada Council realm”—with less commercial appeal, she says. But that has still given them great success with the film aficionados at international film festivals.
For both, the road has been a winding one. Born in Halifax, Tetreault has a history degree from Mount Allison University and has lived in New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, working in construction, then oil and gas—whatever it took to make a dollar. Then he landed eight months of work here as production assistant on a DHX TV show Canada’s Super Speller in 2009.
“I learned a lot and met lots of people,” he recalls. “And when I was asked what I wanted to be I started saying producer.”
But that takes money and right now that’s hard to find. Tetreault looked at the guidelines for obtaining financing and found short-film experience was a prerequisite. So he started producing with a short film that winter.
“I got some dollars and since then I’ve been able to turn the tap on,” he says. Now he’s working as a line producer on feature films, commercials, “a gun for hire.” This year he’s doing a $3.2-million feature film with Jason Levangie’s Shut Up and Colour Pictures Inc. But he says he still hasn’t been able to pay himself much. “Spending $20 million correctly takes skill and art,” he says.
“There’s money to be made,” says Urich, who was born in Sydney and lived in Louisburg until she was 18, then moved to Halifax looking for work.
Eventually she joined her husband Seth Smith’s band, The Burdocks, and spent five years touring Canada before starting the band Dog Day and making music videos, which led to her first feature film in 2012, Lowlife, an “art house horror” 90-minute feature that won a couple of awards.
That was followed in 2017 by The Crescent, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and her current project, Tin Can, a sci-fi thriller being released in 2020. Both she and husband Seth work full time for their production company Cut/Off/Tail Pictures but she takes side jobs (grant writing, accounting, payroll and tax preparation) “to make things a little greasier.” And they continue with their band Dog Day and she fronts another band called Not You.
Now with experience in just about every film department, Urich says it’s still a hard road. “Everyone’s affected differently but they took away film equity funding which helped with the last 20% of financing so now it’s really, really, really hard. It’s not like the U.S. Here we rely on government funding.”
Tetreault says the film tax credit, which supported local people and their films, even allowing them to pay themselves, was really important for filmmakers. Its loss pushed the industry from the middle to the bottom on the world scale and many who worked in it left for greener climes in Toronto and elsewhere, making it a struggle to find enough people to do the work here. But the local industry has responded by making low-budget, “more egalitarian,” films.
“We’re getting some really interesting art being created,” he says. “And it’s not just us, but Canada as a whole. Now we’re making movies for $500,000 or less. It’s all about finding a path, finding a way to still make movies. We’ve opened the door to people making films they couldn’t have made before, and we’ve made really great art because of that.”
Urich says there’s still money in films, even working as she does from April to November. “There’s money to be made, compared to music. That’s the hope, the theory anyway,” she says.
Now based in Sambro, where much of her film work is done, she classifies herself as “still new” and learning what a producer does, finding money and figuring out where it should be spent. At first people were reluctant to fund her projects but money started coming after she made some short films.
“I figure I’m at the top of the bottom now,” she says. “And I’m happy with what I do, with what we do.”
Tetreault has some advice for those looking to break into the industry here. Getting involved with the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative is the “absolute best” way to break in, and he suggests working on a few short films in trainee positions paired with professionals.
He says it’s vital to be available when opportunity calls, so it’s ideal to have a regular job that can be flexible on short notice. “You have to be willing but it can be tough and scary,” he says.
If you know what you want, learn who’s above you and hiring, and make sure you have a resumé and present yourself to them (even via email), and follow up once a month. “It’s a game of networking and connections,” he adds. “Our industry is all about knowing people.”
Urich says she would have enjoyed getting into the industry at a younger age; despite its problems it’s an easier way to make money than music. She’s finishing a feature film and soon will release another record with her band and then tour across the country.
While it’s tough enough, money and crews can be accessed through the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-op or arts grants. “You could even do it [film] in your home, you and a couple of others,” she says. “It’d hard but it’s doable. We all compete but it’s a very friendly group. I would do it again; I’d just get into it sooner.”