Accomplished film and television writer, actor and director, Jackie Torrens, and experienced producer, Jessica Brown, can vividly recall their reactions on the day the news broke of the Nova Scotia film-tax credit cut on April 9, 2015.
“We had just finished shooting our latest documentary and about two days later the announcement was made regarding the cut and it felt like everything just came crumbling down,” recalls Torrens. “As recently as November 2014, the government had made promises to honour the previously existing credit until 2020, so we had all been planning our lives and businesses accordingly.”
After working together in the past, Torrens and Brown launched their own production company, Peep Media, in 2011. Peep Media’s first documentary, Edge of East, explores unique sub-cultures in the province including the yodellers of Kings County and the steam punks of Halifax. The documentary aired on CBC and the Documentary Channel. In the summer of 2015, the business partners were in post-production for their latest documentary, My Week on Welfare, when the news of the cut broke.
“I found myself feeling angry,” Brown says. “I’m a member of Screen Nova Scotia and last fall during the Laurel Broten review we met and came up with information summing up the benefits of the industry and recognizing the subsidy assistance from the province. We made a great case for the sustainability of the film industry and submitted this information. However, after the news of the cut in April, we found out that there was no review of the paper we had submitted. Or if there was a review of it, there was no feedback or consultation with the industry.”
With the previous tax credit offering an incentive of 50 to 65 per cent on eligible Nova Scotia labour, the province attracted guest productions such as Haven, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles and The Healer, among many others.
The April budget announcement also revealed the abrupt closure of Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia, which previously assisted filmmakers with equity investments, provided scouting and marketing of the province to guest productions and processed tax credit applications.
In July, the new Nova Scotia Film and Television Production Incentive Fund, administered by Nova Scotia Business Inc., took effect. The fund offers a 25-per-cent credit on all eligible Nova Scotia costs for service productions. While Torrens and Brown want to remain hopeful regarding this shift, they say that the future of Peep Media is still unclear.
“Once we’re done with the documentary we’re working on now, we’re really not sure what we’ll do,” says Brown. “That may sound defeatist but there is definitely going to be a rethinking of our strategy and right now we’re just waiting to see how it all shakes out.”
Emerging writer and director Nicole Steeves, who is also an assistant director and actor, is remaining cautiously optimistic. Steeves participated in the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative’s Film5 program in 2014, with her short film, Playing House. Currently, Steeves is in the process of submitting her short film Feverish, which she describes as a “romantic comedy about food poisoning,” to various upcoming film festivals. She wants to keep making films in Nova Scotia.
“I think that the news of the tax credit cut has brought out the fight in people,” says Steeves. “Through the AFCOOP program, I’ve formed amazing filmmaking teams with people here that are so strong. So, it’s very important for me to stay in Halifax as long as possible and keep working in film, whatever that might look like.”
In 2015, Steeves and co-writer, Struan Sutherland, along with producer André Pettigrew, decided to participate in the CineCoup Film Accelerator. This national program requires filmmakers to submit a trailer and participate in weekly challenges (marketing, social-media strategies and more) for a chance to receive up to $1 million in financing to turn a trailer into a feature film with a release in Cineplex theatres.
Steeves and her team created a trailer called Namas-DIE, which features an all-female cast of old friends who reunite for a weekend retreat of yoga that takes a turn for the bloody in a sinister yet comical twist. Namas-DIE ended up in the final 15 in the competition garnering plenty of momentum along the way. For Steeves, the experience was exhilarating and while the team still hopes to secure funding elsewhere, she feels the skills the Namas-DIE team developed along the way will prepare them for making the feature.
“We’re actually not opposed to making it on next to nothing,” says Steeves. “We did all the CineCoup challenges that way and it forces you to be so creative. This might be the way the feature gets made and we know we will have so much fun with it no matter what.”
Many Nova Scotia filmmakers are looking further afield for support. Halifax-based emerging writer and director, Stephanie Clattenburg, and producer, Sahar Yousefi, received funding in the summer of 2015 through Telefilm’s Micro-Budget Production Program to film the documentary, Play Your Gender.
Filming is underway now. The project follows host and Juno Award winning musician, Kinnie Starr, as she speaks to music industry insiders on the lack of female music producers in the industry today. Filming will take place in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto and the team hope to complete the documentary in time for the festival circuit in 2016.
Clattenburg is reluctant to predict the future of the industry. While she’s new to the world of directing, she’s worked as a camera operator with CBC for 10 years, has appeared in several short films and starred in Andrea Dorfman’s feature film, Heartbeat. Although Clattenburg recognizes that the film industry is currently in flux, she believes that perseverance has always been part of being an artist.
“I think that artists, whether they are in film or music or whatever their art form may be, are so resilient,” she says. “We’re used to fighting, whether it be fighting off stereotypes or convincing our parents that we have real jobs, that any change in the film industry can’t really stop us. I think that people are going to do what they have to do to get their projects made even if that means going outside the province or even outside the country.”
While some productions including The Healer and Trailer Park Boys proceeded to shoot in 2015, many productions cancelled. Despite recent changes, Jackie Torrens is hopeful about the future.
“That’s what we all live for, isn’t it?” she says. “We go to work and we come home and watch a movie or a TV show, we play a song or look on our walls to admire the artwork or maybe we’re wearing something by a talented designer… There was such a groundswell of support for the film industry from the Nova Scotia public that I believe that people here do love and appreciate the arts. Now, we just need to find a way forward.”