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‘Pent-up demand’ of pandemic pushes B.C. film sector to expand by $1.4B

Industry worth $4.8B to provincial economy in 2021, according to new report
B.C. film industry workers on the set of a production shot in downtown Vancouver | Chung Chow, BIV

B.C.’s film industry is far from fading off into the sunset after the pandemic forced it to tap the brakes two years ago.

The combined film, TV, animation and visual effects (VFX) sectors managed to generate $4.8 billion for the provincial economy over the course of the 2021 calendar year, according to a new report from the Vancouver Economic Commission.

That’s up $1.4 billion compared with a year earlier when the industry generated $3.4 billion in direct spending. Those 2020 numbers represented a drop of $700 million compared with 2019.

B.C.’s film sector was hit hard by the suspension of live-action productions at the outset of the pandemic in March 2020. 

Animation and VFX work rapidly migrated to the homes of artists during that period. But live-action productions did not begin ramping up once again until summer 2020, leaving the industry in a state of paralysis much of last year.

B.C., though, was able to stay competitive as lower COVID-19 case counts allowed productions to resume quicker than in California.

“We had expected the data to show a strong recovery given what we saw on the ground last year, but these numbers exceed all our expectations,” acting Vancouver film commissioner Geoff Teoli said in a statement.

“Pent-up demand from pandemic-related pauses may have been what drove spending this year, and while we expect it to settle back a bit going forward, it proves that Vancouver is capable of supporting a $5-billion industry sooner than we think.”

Economists have been cautioning the possibility of a “mild recession” sometime in 2023 amid ongoing rate-hikes aimed at cooling decades-high inflation.

Data shows B.C.’s film and TV sector has been able to weather past economic downturns and bounce back sharply.

When the Canadian economy fell into a recession in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, production volume in B.C.’s film and TV industry fell from $1.68 billion to $1.36 billion between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 fiscal years, according to data from the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA).

The CMPA’s fiscal year runs from April 1 to March 31.

Production volume was on the upswing by the 2009-10 fiscal year, hitting $1.41 billion. And by the 2010-11 fiscal year, activity was already exceeding that of pre-recession levels, reaching $1.7 billion.

When the next recession hit Canada as a result of the pandemic, production volume went from $2.88 billion in the 2019-20 fiscal year to $3.25 billion in the 2020-21 fiscal year – the latter being the first full year of data since the outset of pandemic.

(The Vancouver Economic Commission’s 2021 data is based on the full calendar year rather than the April-March fiscal year the CMPA follows).

“The huge growth we’ve seen in the media production sector in B.C. over the past decade should be considered a real win for the whole province. Even in the face of a global pandemic, the industry proved its resilience,” Tracey Friesen, managing vice-president of the CMPA’s B.C. branch, told BIV in a May email, adding the province benefits from the crews and infrastructure that have been built up over the years.

“It’s hard to predict the future, but these strengths would certainly help the sector weather a period of economic uncertainty should such a situation develop.”

CMPA data also shows B.C. leading the way in Hollywood productions coming to Canada. The province handled 52 per cent of all foreign service work in the country last year.  Ontario, which is B.C.’s biggest rival within the film and TV sector, has a far more robust domestic industry.

Ken Peacock, chief economist at the Business Council of British Columbia, said that would work in the favour of the West Coast in the event of a recession.

“I would argue it delivers more benefits and arguably is a plus, not a negative, being able to attract in the international marketplace,” he said in May, likening it to international tourists’ willingness to spend more money vacationing in B.C. than domestic tourists spend.

At the same time, he said, attracting larger foreign productions also insulates the province from swings in demand in the much smaller domestic market even if there is a slump in Hollywood.

Peacock said the huge increase in consumption of streaming services over the past few years has also been a significant boon to B.C. film workers and infrastructure.

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