West Side Story
In British Columbia, the production business is booming—really booming. Three-billion-dollars-a-year booming. In fact, in 2017, BC became Canada’s largest centre for film and television production in the country. It’s no secret that many of the projects fuelling this boom are foreign location productions. And while these projects create great jobs and an unsurpassed training ground for BC talent in many different capacities, local writers are often left out.
Below, in their own words, is a story of individuals and organizations whose passionate support for BC’s production industry motivated them to spearhead an initiative to change all that. The recently launched Pacific Screenwriting Program (PSP) provides real-world writing-room experience to BC-based screenwriters. And it just might change the face of production across the province.
Brian Hamilton, Principal, Omnifilm Entertainment: It’s well known that BC is one of the largest centres of production in the country. But most of that production is service production—the ideas are owned by companies outside of Canada. The writers’ rooms are typically not here.
Liz Shorten, Senior Vice-President, Operations & Member Services, CMPA-BC: Vancouver in particular has always been a service town, and especially a television town, but right now the percentage between service work and domestic work is 90 per cent to 10 per cent. We need to increase the amount of independent production here in order to engage our creative talents.
Maureen Parker, Executive Director, Writers Guild of Canada: Scripts are written by American screenwriters before they’re shot up here. This means that Canadian writers are the only talent pool that’s left out of the service production business.
Sarah Dodd, PSP Showrunner: One of the things that happens, of course, is we have these incredibly talented writers and they don’t see how they’re going to break in BC.
Hamilton: Producers would go to industry events and hear, “So-and-so has just left Vancouver to make a career elsewhere.” And we’d think, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could offer training opportunities to people so they wouldn’t need to leave their hometown?
Parker: Writers in BC are definitely at a geographic disadvantage in terms of training and work opportunities. Not everyone can afford to drop their lives and move to Toronto for a year. It was necessary to address that gap.
Hamilton: The impetus for me was when a young writer, who was working as my manager of development at the time, said to me, “I’ve decided I’m going to make the leap and pursue my screenwriting career. I know I can’t stay in Vancouver, so I’m going to Toronto.” And it just hit home for me that an intelligent, ambitious writer couldn’t even consider Vancouver as a place to make her career. I decided that kicking this initiative into gear would be a challenge I could take on.
Shorten: Some of us in the industry started to meet about this initiative in early to mid-2017. Key senior writers and producers in the BC industry were approaching us, were approaching Creative BC, to ask, “What are we going to do collectively to address this issue?” And a steering committee was formed, with about a dozen producers and WGC members and government representatives.
Hamilton: It was really a community effort. We’d been discussing it for years, maybe even a decade. The steering committee included amazing writers and producers like Dennis Heaton, Simon Barry, Daegan Fryklind, Rob Cooper.
Robert Wong, Vice President, Creative BC: Creative BC has been a part of the process from the beginning, when the program was the seed of an idea, discussing how to drive more IP creation and Canadian productions in BC. We knew the answer was to commit to BC’s screenwriting community. In 2018, the provincial government announced a change to the Film Incentive BC program, which supports Canadian productions, to include screenwriters as eligible labour for tax-credit purposes. A screenwriting program is integral to complement this excellent addition to the FIBC incentive.
Shorten: A screenwriting program felt like the best solution, because of successful models not only in Canada, but in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Meanwhile, we kept working on getting that change to the tax credits. We also funded the reopening of the Story Department Internship at Creative BC, a program that allows screenwriters to work directly with mentors on a Canadian show. That was another tool in our multi-pronged approach.
Raila Gutman, Program Director: I became involved with the program when it was still an idea with a steering committee working on it. There was no name, no brand. I started putting together timelines and budgets, thinking through naming, asking: How could we launch this thing? What does it look like?
Hamilton: Once we had our vision, Liz Shorten and I made a pitching trip to Hollywood and presented our plans to a range of potential sponsors. We also contacted potential sponsors in Toronto. We already had significant funding in place—we just needed a partner to complete the financing. And we’re immensely privileged to have Netflix on board.
Parker: It’s wonderful that Netflix is sponsoring this program. They’re doing a lot of production in Canada, using Canadian writers. They’re looking for quality talent, which we have in abundance.
Wong: For Creative BC, it’s always important to work with industry directly on these initiatives—we don’t want to develop a program that has no perceived value. So to have a brand like Netflix behind the PSP is really important for us.
Gutman: Once we nailed down the specifics of our first offering, the Scripted Series Lab—six participants spend 10 weeks in a writers’ room developing a show under the guidance of a showrunner, then four weeks developing their own scripts and learning the ins and outs of the business—we needed a showrunner! And, of course, we needed to make sure our showrunner had a BC connection.
Dodd: I’m from Victoria, and the reason I have a career is because of what’s now called the Story Department Internship at Creative BC (then BC Film). It was up to me to go out and find a mentor, and I wrote letters to everyone from Chris Carter on The X-Files to Paul Haggis on Due South, but it was Marlene Matthews, the head writer on Road to Avonlea in Toronto, who read my letter and said, “Sure, come on out!”
Hamilton: We’re extremely privileged to be working with Sarah Dodd, one of Canada’s most respected showrunners (most recently on Cardinal). As a producer, I can call up a broadcaster and say, “Listen, I’ve got a project and it’s got Sarah Dodd attached,” and it instantly attracts enthusiasm.
Dodd: I know this has been Brian’s passion for years, trying to get a program like this up off the ground. When he asked me if I would be interested, of course I leapt at the chance, but ultimately the board had to decide if I was the right person. So I was very pleased that they were supportive of the idea.
Hamilton: The board of the PSP is a subset of the larger steering committee—it includes Robert Wong, Maureen Parker, Liz Shorten, showrunner Rob Cooper, producer Erin Haskett, screenwriter Rachel Langer, Netflix representative Karyn Edwards and myself.
Parker: This board is a good group of people, all working for a common cause. It’s quite a pleasure to be involved with, it really is.
Shorten: I’m very passionate about this program. We all are.
Gutman: But the board was not involved in the participant selection process. We hired a separate jury of experienced writers and broadcasters to evaluate applications and samples. They had their work cut out for them: we received 137 applications!
Dodd: The selection process was incredibly hard. The 137 applications included an amazing variety of stories and voices and career trajectories—journalists, copywriters, recent graduates of university creative writing and film programs. Luckily, the jury narrowed the applications down to 21 before sending them my way.
Gutman: We had a wide range of applicants, from very green to very experienced. And that’s exactly what we wanted.
Dodd: So, from January 7 to March 15, the six participants will be with me in a writers’ room, all day, every day, just as we would for a funded show in development. I’ll come in with a series concept—an eight-part crime drama—and we’ll figure out the season arc and where we think the show could go. The goal is to create a compelling new series that I can then sell—giving these six writers a chance to have their work produced. The world is desperate for content, so in some ways there’s never been a better time to be an emerging writer.
Parker: Ten years down the road, what I hope to see—what I think we all hope to see—is a large, diverse group of screenwriters living and working on the west coast.
Dodd: I hope that the program will shine a spotlight on these six writers, but also on the larger screenwriting community: we’ve got talent to fill this program for years. And I’m hoping that there will be more writing rooms in the province. That people will realize that there is the depth of talent to staff here, and that they don’t need to go elsewhere.
Wong: It’s not going to happen overnight, but when you have a solid foundation of creative people that develop IP in your jurisdiction, it will eventually lead to more economic activity and more productions being developed here. And not only is it great for BC, it’s great for the entire country. Because the thing is, a rising tide lifts all boats.
Meet the first participants in the Pacific Screenwriting Program’s Scripted Series Lab:
Creative Writing MFA from UBC; Creative Writing BFA from UVic; placed in top five of Austin Film Festival’s spec script competition; debut short film The Yoga Bridge screened at LGBTQ film festivals in the US
“What excites me most is the potential for this program to be a flag staked on the moon of Vancouver’s screenwriting landscape: there’s real potential here.”
BA in film; has written several short films, a feature film funded by Telefilm Canada, and a proof of concept funded by TELUS STORYHIVE
“Working in a writers’ room will be a first for me—I’m looking forward to it. And the project we’ll be working on is very exciting!”
Writer on ReBoot: The Guardian Code and Continuum; member of WGC Diverse Screenwriters Program; creator of indie comics Outnumbered and Redacted
“I am most excited about this program creating a sustainable pool of talent. Working in BC is a dream come true, and I want to make sure other writers get to experience it.”
Director, screenwriter and producer; has worked as a production manager or producer on 100+ projects; directed five short films and made-for-TV movie Deadly Sorority; wrote and directed 13 webisodes; worked on music videos and high-fashion stills with the likes of the Rolling Stones and Gwen Stefani
“As a writer who has written both solo and as part of a team, I’m eager to participate in the team experience of writing a show.”
Writer for Mysticons, The Next Step, Dino Dana and other shows in development
“I’d like to learn how to sustain a serialized arc over a season while still keeping the story fresh episode to episode. And I’d love to build a solid network of emerging writers in the west coast!”