Sometimes a contract position can determine a person’s career path. Rhonda Baker, Producer at RGB Productions, first gained exposure to the field of production while employed with the National Film Board on a short-term contract. Her role was to coordinate workshops training novices in various aspects of the production business.
Upon completion of the program, one producer was chosen to make a half-hour drama. The winner was none other than Kevin DeWalt of Minds Eye Entertainment. And Kevin had some choosing of his own to do. “When my job was done,” explains Baker, “Kevin asked me if I wanted to work for him while his company did this half-hour drama. I think my contract with the NFB was for three months. Then I went to work with Kevin for three months, and stayed for two or three years.”
With characteristic humility, she recounts her decision to break out on her own: “I think I thought I was smart—and that sometimes led to a rude awakening—but I figured that maybe it was time to see if I could work as an independent.” Baker’s self-described rude awakenings could not have been too catastrophic. She has been succeeding as an independent producer and line producer for over two decades now.
She is particularly well-experienced in the thriller and horror genres, but insists that this apparent specialization is merely the product of happenstance. Nevertheless, her list of thriller and horror credits is extensive. She has produced Ticket Out (2010), Stephen King’s Dolan’s Cadillac (2010), The Messengers (2007), and Tideland (2005), and was supervising producer on Grace (2009). She also line-produced The Tall Man (2011), Faces in the Crowd (2011), and Downloading Nancy (2008).
Baker’s work is even followed by die-hard horror buffs on the web. She says the attraction is partly owing to the praise of a now-famous director in the genre. “Director Paul Solet did a little introduction at the beginning of a show where he talks about the best producer he ever worked with in his entire life, and he names me.” The catch: “Now, of course, I was the only producer he had ever worked with at that point in his career.”
Default favourite though she might have been, Baker seems to have a habit of gaining her colleagues’ trust and admiration with each new project. Director Jennifer Lynch, for example, has become a repeat client. She first hired Baker as a line producer on the crime drama Surveillance (2008), and then for a second time Baker was the Canadian producer on the yet-to-be-released thriller Chained (2012).
Baker’s latest project, however, is a romantic drama titled Mad Ship (2012). A Canada-Norway co-production, the film centres on a heartbroken Norwegian immigrant whose longing for the homeland drives him to build a sailing ship on Canada’s prairies. Despite what might be gathered from the use of “Mad” in the title, the film is far from a satire. Rather, it presents a poignant tale of love and perseverance starring Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Gil Bellows and Rachel Blanchard.
In addition to its acclaimed cast, the film’s attractions include the striking landscapes featured in its two main settings—the Manitoba prairies of Canada and the fjords of Norway. “Fjords don’t exist in Canada...When I look at this I think, ‘OK, you can cheat a lot of locations, but I don’t know if you could have cheated a fjord...up at the top of Norway with the cold and the low-lying mist.’ It’s just unbelievable.”
Baker is quick to add, however, that the prairie provinces can cheat more locations than many people realize. They have more to offer than their trademark flat stretches of wheat fields as far as the eye can see.
Speaking of her home-province Saskatchewan, she notes that “you drive thirty or forty minutes” out of Regina and “you’ve got rolling hills, lakes, and valleys.” Even Regina, the province’s capital city, offers more than might be expected for a metropolis of its size: “Regina is small, but there are areas that have doubled for Kansas City, Chicago, and Boston—even New York City’s Central Park, as Regina’s own Wascana Park is nearly three times the size.”
But after years of having worked devotedly to gain recognition for all that Saskatchewan has to offer, Baker has been forced to make some tough decisions about where to run her business. Since June 30th of this year, the Saskatchewan government’s tax incentives for production have been limited to a non-refundable, non-transferrable credit. It is a shift that will have far-reaching effects on the province’s production industry.
For Baker, it will mean saying goodbye to an extended family of over 70 relations: “My plan is to relocate to Winnipeg, so I’m leaving behind an 85-year-old mother. I’ve got a daughter who’s pregnant. She’s overdue right now, so it means leaving behind my only child, her kid and another grandchild who’ll be here any minute.”
And Baker is not the only one who will be facing personal upheaval. “There are several companies who are going to Toronto. There’s one that I know is going to Kelowna, and at least two of us are going to Winnipeg, one to Vancouver.”
A recently released Saskatchewan Media Production Industry Association (SMPIA) survey confirms Baker’s firsthand report—45 per cent of respondents said they plan to move all of their business outside of the province, while another 10 per cent will be partially relocating. B.C. and Ontario are the primary destinations for relocation, followed by Manitoba and Alberta.
Notably, these external provinces do not perceive production companies as a burden to their budgets—quite the reverse. They are welcomed as a boon to industry: “We’re being courted by other provinces because they’re happy to have new business coming in the doors.”
Baker explains that Saskatchewan’s approach to provincial financing is short-sighted. “They’re talking like they’ve made a budget save of $8 million dollars. If they did pay out $8 million, we were doing $50 million worth of business. There’s no discussion about the replacement of the revenue.” While conceding that areas like commercial and corporate production will be largely unaffected, she warns that there will nonetheless be a mass exodus by those more dependent on tax incentives.
Baker is fortunate in that she has already established solid connections within the Manitoba film and television industry. The transition to a new home will present challenges, but she will not have to rebuild from the ground up.
Furthermore, Baker is an old hand at reinventing herself. Flexibility has been a key asset throughout her career. Not only has she moved between genres, but she has also alternated roles between producer and line producer. Her experience as a line producer even helps to attract US clients: “Usually they want to bring in somebody from the States to be their line producer, or somebody who they’ve worked with before. But with my line-producing credits they’ve got confidence that the show is going to be produced on time and on budget.”
According to Baker, another key element to her success has been her membership with the CMPA. “You find out everything that’s going on in the country, and for those of us who aren’t sitting in Toronto in the thick of things, we’re kept fully informed by the organization.” Baker herself has contributed to the organization’s larger objectives by sitting on CMPA committees, and that experience has left her with nothing but praise—“They certainly represent producers in Canada very well. In negotiations they just hold their own.”