How the West Was Won
Celebrating a quarter century of CMPA-BC's trailblazing ways
As goes the BC Producers Branch, so goes the national association.
Since its founding in 1994, the CMPA’s BC Producers Branch (also known as CMPA-BC) has developed a habit of being the first to the party. For 25 years, the branch has shone a light on the CMPA’s path. From labour negotiations to increased female representation on the board, CMPA-BC has led the charge on many fronts, both for the national association and for the media production industry at large. It’s also witnessed, firsthand, the most explosive growth in media production this country has ever seen.
British Columbia now boasts a $3.6 billion production industry, but Harold Tichenor, one of the founding producers of CMPA-BC, recalls a very different province. When he was producing the classic family adventure show Danger Bay in the mid-1980s, “the industry was almost dead,” he recalls. “We were the only show shooting in town. One little Canadian show. At that point, people would say that Vancouver could only support maybe two TV movies at a time. How many can it support now? Thirty? It’s unbelievable what has happened here.”
The formal creation of the BC Producers Branch coincided with BC’s own coming of age as a production powerhouse—arguably, one helped usher in the other.
According to Tichenor, by the early 1990s, producers in BC were feeling left out in the cold. Telefilm Canada and CBC were focusing on Toronto as the country’s major production hub. After all, Hollywood works because it’s all in one place, right?
“Don’t forget that the movie industry started in New Jersey and then moved to Hollywood,” chuckles Tichenor.
He and his fellow producers felt the need to stand up and be counted. Outside of Ontario, BC has the largest cohort of independent producers in Canada, but their distance from the industry’s “centre” in Toronto made the creation of a semi-autonomous branch desirable.
“As much as we were separate in some ways, I felt we had to be part of the Canadian lobby,” says Tichenor, who sat on the original board of the BC Producers Branch, along with producers Matthew O’Connor, Julia Keatley and Richard Davis.
The branch’s first coordinator, Dee-Dee Pincott, paints a charming picture of what it was like to steer the ship in the mid-’90s. At the time, Vancouver’s industry was beginning to blossom. Production company interns were couriering the day’s video tapes by plane to Los Angeles. The X-Files, filmed in Vancouver, was hitting its stride. And Pincott was drumming up membership from branch headquarters, a house on Howe Street.
“It was just me and an enormous fax machine in a room in this house. I did everything by fax,” she laughs. “I did have a blocky old computer that I had had in university. I rented it to the branch for $20 a month.”
Membership was small at first, but according to Pincott, “Harold [Tichenor] and the rest of the board worked incredibly hard to get people on side, saying, ‘We have a voice. And the greater our number, the bigger and louder our voice.’ And it worked.”
Some of CMPA-BC’s earliest wins were advocating for the establishment of a film tax-credit system in BC—one of the first in Canada—and negotiating labour agreements with the unions and guilds. But even getting a place at the table for those negotiations was no cakewalk, according to Tichenor.
Eyeing a production boom on the horizon, the provincial government planned to meet with the US studios to formalize agreements with the ACTRA, IATSE and Teamsters unions. At first, the local producers were not invited. “So we basically threw a big snit, and the government finally agreed that one rep from the local industry could sit at the table and have equal voting power with the American studios,” explains Tichenor. He was designated the rep, and went on to show the Los Angeles reps—all studio lawyers—how a BC producer handled negotiations.
“They didn’t really know what day-to-day production was like. They wanted to create a model that would emulate how things were done in Los Angeles. That was their standard line: ‘In LA, this is how we do it.’ And my standard line became, ‘But you’re now in Canada, and this is how we do it,’” Tichenor says. “Most of my work was negotiating with the Americans behind the scenes to get them to understand how we work in Canada and our relationship to our unions. I think we always had a much more cooperative way of doing things.”
The BC Producers Branch of today is well respected by all industry stakeholders (“Whenever media or decision makers want to talk to industry people in British Columbia about issues or developments, we’re certainly on their list,” says Liz Shorten, Vice-President, Operations & Member Services). Because of its reputation today, it’s difficult to imagine the branch needing to elbow its way to the negotiating table. But that respect had to start somewhere. Pincott recalls that, after the successful labour negotiations, membership climbed to 20, then to 50, then kept on growing. “It was pretty exciting,” she says.
Over the past decade, when it comes to industry relations, CMPA-BC has continued to be “the adult in the room,” in the words of producer Brian Hamilton. Hamilton, who is a principal of Omnifilm Entertainment and today sits on the CMPA’s national board, was chair of the CMPA-BC board for three years. He recalls that the last time the BC government revisited its tax-credit system, it was to reduce it by 5 per cent. But instead of unilaterally changing things, the government consulted industry first.
“Trusting CMPA-BC to be a rational partner, the government set up a dialogue with us and with MPPIA [the Motion Picture Production Industry Association] to make sure we understood the challenge they were facing and that we could all agree on a way forward,” says Hamilton.
Collaborating with both government and other industry groups is a longstanding practice of the BC Producers Branch. Shorten has a theory as to why this is: “Because our members are away from the centre—which is Toronto, of course, for English-language production—they have always had to be entrepreneurial and collaborative. Not only with each other, but with the whole community. CMPA-BC is part of a larger group of industry stakeholders who market the province together. We do professional development together. Our relationship with the unions and guilds is very collaborative. And we participate in government relations together.”
Case in point: Creative BC. This umbrella organization supports and promotes the province’s film, television, music, interactive digital media, and book and magazine publishing industries. It was formed by the provincial government in 2013, but it wasn’t an imposition. Rather, “it was the industry sectors getting together as a creative economy that motivated government to re-envision an organization with a wider remit. In BC, industry put the idea in government’s head. Our creative industries were already working together,” says Hamilton.
Another more recent example is the Pacific Screenwriting Program, an initiative backed by Creative BC, CMPA-BC, the Writers Guild of Canada and Netflix. The program aims to train local screenwriters and connect them with local producers and agents.
“So many people have said to me over the last couple of years, ‘Why is the producers association putting money into training writers?’” says Shorten. “But of course, if we don’t have great writers to partner with, we’re at a competitive disadvantage in British Columbia. Producers and writers in the community approached us to say, ‘We’ve got an issue. Can you help us solve it?’”
According to Hamilton, especially over the past decade, the BC Producers Branch has become something of an innovator, testing initiatives in British Columbia before they’re rolled out nationally. Among these initiatives: a database of shows being made in the province, a focus on export development that has “inspired and multiplied initiatives at the national level,” and an active effort to achieve gender balance on the board.
All of CMPA-BC’s innovation and collaboration has been to the good of the national organization, of course. From advocating for tax-credit systems in other provinces to advising on industrial relations, the CMPA has worked in tandem with the BC Producers Branch to build a robust association for producers across the country.
“The CMPA has three separate offices, but not three separate silos,” says Hamilton. “People in Toronto and Ottawa respect what the Vancouver folks are doing, and vice versa. There’s a sharing on everything from HR to strategic planning.”
He goes on: “My involvement with the CMPA comes from the basic observation that producing is really hard. Our job is so full of noes and long odds and huge obstacles that I wanted to feel like I wasn’t alone. I believe that we’re stronger together.”
In BC, there are 25 years of achievements that prove it.