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Lights, camera, action! 'Hollywood North' revved up despite COVID -- and because of it

Vancouver Economic Commission
The British Columbia film industry is busier this fall than it has ever been.

We don't know if the pandemic has a happy ending, but British Columbia is delivering a surprise plot twist courtesy of its film industry. Filming of TV shows and movies is going gangbusters in the Vancouver area this fall, exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

The film and TV industry in British Columbia is busier than ever in spite of COVID and partly because of COVID. The place sometimes called Hollywood North is benefiting from high demand for new content from networks and streaming services. The much smaller film industries in next door Washington state and Oregon are rebounding more slowly from the region wide shutdown earlier this year.

"Since the productions started to come back, it's been quite a frenzy actually," observed Vancouver Film Commissioner David Shepheard at the Vancouver Economic Commission.

Shepheard said about 40 film and TV productions were underway in and around Vancouver when the pandemic hit. Now the area is hosting more than 60, a mixture of backlogged productions returning from a pandemic pause alongside new shows.

"In March when we had 40 shows, that was a busy period for us," Shepheard said in an interview. "But now with sixty-plus shows, it's certainly the busiest that Vancouver and British Columbia has ever been."

Cameras are rolling on five different superhero series for The CW network, such as Supergirl and Batwoman. There are also new seasons to film of the ABC-TV family drama A Million Little Things and the medical drama The Good Doctor.

Credit Kimberley French / The CW
The CW
Ruby Rose played the lead in the first season of Batwoman, a series which continues to be filmed in Vancouver.

Hollywood North feasts on Christmas-themed Hallmark movie-of-the-week productions as well as big budget features. In the latter category, current film shoots in B.C. include a series for Netflix based on the book Maid starring American actresses Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and her mother Andie MacDowell (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Groundhog Day).

Netflix also bought the romantic comedy Love Hard, which involves a dating app mix-up. It began filming in October in Vancouver with Canadian star Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries) and Americans Jimmy O. Yang (HBO's Silicon Valley) and Charles Melton (Bad Boys for Life).

And the calls keep coming as broadcasters and streaming services scramble for fresh content to serve all of us staying at home, binging on TV.

"There is huge demand," said Marjorie Poore, co-founder and VP for marketing and development of the Canadian Motion Picture Park studios in Burnaby, BC. "We are getting calls every day from producers who want to come up to the region and produce, but there is literally no availability."

Poore said her studio complex with its 18 soundstages and backlot is operating at capacity. In the nearby suburb of Langley, Martini Film Studios last year announced a massive expansion that will more than triple its footprint of soundstages and production support space.

Cut to the slower rebound in the U.S. Northwest

The much smaller film industries in Washington state and Oregon are coming back too, although not as dramatically as just across the border in British Columbia.

"There's been a very slow and strategic return to work with the focus really being on the safety of our local crews and the work we do," said Amy Lillard, executive director of the state film development office Washington Filmworks.

Lillard said car commercials were among the first productions to restart in Washington when the green light came in July. Cameras have rolled on some online video projects as well.

The director of the Oregon Film and Video Office, Tim Williams, said three productions are underway in Oregon currently, including new seasons of the Hulu comedy series Shrill and the cooking show Top Chef.

All of this is happening as COVID is surging again. Things are not back to normal on sets -- on either side of the international border.

COVID precautions aplenty

Williams said bigger productions are working in pods to increase safety and Top Chef is filming in "a complete bubble of their own," like the NBA and WNBA used successfully to finish their 2020 professional seasons.

In Vancouver, Poore said frequent coronavirus testing of actors and crews provides "the foundation" for on-set safety. There are limits on how many people can work on set at any one time. Even the catering has changed with open buffet lines replaced by boxed meals.

"There's a lot more social distancing," Poore said in an interview by phone. "Scripts have been modified. Like for example, I'm sure no one is putting into their scripts people doing cycling classes indoors. They're coming up with other creative ideas for their storylines."

Industry insiders said the COVID protocols are raising production costs by at least 20 percent, if not considerably more. Ben Andrews, founder of the Seattle Film Summit, said big budget flicks may be able to absorb those costs. But the added expenses seem to be putting the brakes on smaller projects that are the bread and butter of the U.S. Northwest film industry.

"They're holding back except those that have flexibility to expand their budgets," Andrews said. "The majority of our productions are still slow start, have not started up."

An update posted by Oregon Film noted that Gov. Kate Brown's recent "freeze" on social activities in response to record levels of new COVID cases does not interrupt the business of filmmaking. The agency advised producers to take extra care to maintain six feet of distance between people and ensure mask-wearing in studios and at film shoots.

In Canada, film actors, producers and crews are considered "essential" workers. Outside talent can enter British Columbia to work despite the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada land and sea border to discretionary crossings. However, American film personnel are subject to the same 14-day quarantine period as returning residents and other arrivals in Canada.

Coronavirus infections are rising at an alarming pace in British Columbia like they are across the border, but started from a much lower level per capita.

Shepheard said one odd thing is that none of the high profile movies and network shows filming in Vancouver right now is set in Vancouver. The city currently doubles for many other places such as Boston, San Francisco, San Jose and mythical Gotham.

"That's one our wishes that we had more shows where Vancouver plays Vancouver," Shepheard said. "But that's the film and TV industry."

This hearkens to a long-running sore point about films and series set in Seattle not actually being filmed there. Superintelligence, the latest action-comedy vehicle for Hollywood A-lister Melissa McCarthy, is set in Seattle, but was mostly filmed in and around Atlanta in 2018. The feature film debuts on Thanksgiving on the HBO Max streaming service.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.