Film and TV sector seeks to rewrite Vancouver’s service-town role

The Pacific Screenwriting Program last month graduated its first Vancouver-based class of film and television writers amid what one producer calls a ‘mini-boom’ for writers’ rooms

The pitch: Two female detectives – a Cree woman from northern Alberta and a white, third-generation cop – investigate the murder of an Indigenous teen girl in Victoria.

Along the way the pair is forced to overcome their biases as they uncover clues in the case.

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Can this quintessentially B.C. story soon find a way to global TV audiences?

That’s the aim for TV writer Sarah Dodd, best known for penning scripts for Canadian crime series such as Motive and Cardinal.

“You see all the trucks parked on your street for shows like the Arrow and The Flash and Supernatural. Those writers are all in Los Angeles and they’re not staffing Vancouver-based writers,” said Dodd, who began her career shadowing the script co-ordinator on Road to Avonlea in the 1990s after graduating from the University of Victoria’s creative writing program.

As the Pacific Screenwriting Program’s (PSP) first executive-producer-in-residence, she assembled a Vancouver-based writers’ room in January to write the initial scripts for the murder mystery over 10 weeks.

The program received more than 130 applications from entry-level B.C. screenwriters looking to land a spot on the six-person team, part of an industry-led initiative to cultivate more creative talent in a city known for servicing foreign productions.

“We’re such a strong service town and that’s great. … But what we don’t have is many Canadian writers’ rooms or even writers’ rooms that hire Canadians,” Dodd told Business in Vancouver.

“People starting out in Vancouver or living in Vancouver who want careers as screenwriters, they’ve traditionally looked around, seen that there are not enough opportunities and have gone to Toronto or down to L.A.”

The PSP’s launch was announced in summer 2018 as a five-year program funded by Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq:NETFLIX), the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) and non-profit agency Creative BC.

The 14-week program was divided between 10 weeks in the writers’ room with Dodd and four weeks focused on the business of screenwriting.

For the latter curriculum the writers learned what’s involved when choosing an agent, how to pitch new ideas to a production company and how to get hired into a writers’ room.

Dodd led the program’s first-ever group of students, which held a graduation ceremony late last month.

The PSP’s goal is to help diversify the local film and TV sector, nudging Vancouver from its traditional role as a service industry hub for foreign productions to a creative centre less beholden to fluctuations in the dollar or tax credits.

For now, growth in the province’s film and TV industry is still dominated by foreign productions.

The volume of film and TV production in B.C. grew 20.6% annually to reach $3.58 billion in the last fiscal year, according to a March 2019 report from the CMPA.

Foreign productions accounted for $3.04 billion of that sum, growing 31.5% from a year earlier.

That particular growth, however, did not translate domestically as TV productions from B.C.-based producers sank 15.1% to hit $438 million and domestic film productions from B.C.-based producers fell 74.4% to $11 million.

“Vancouver is a very busy production centre but there’s an imbalance in terms of the number of television series and feature films that are written here compared to the number shot here,” said PSP chairman Brian Hamilton, who is an executive producer at Vancouver-based Omnifilm Entertainment.

He likens the PSP to a “finishing school” for those who’ve decided to make a career out of screenwriting.

“We’re not looking for people who are hobbyists,” Hamilton told BIV, adding the city is experiencing a “mini-boom” for writers’ rooms that’s putting pressure on the industry to find local creative talent.

“I was speaking to an experienced network executive yesterday who was saying that they were pulling their hair out trying to find enough writers to staff a writers’ room locally in Vancouver, which is a great sign. It means that there’s a demand that this school is ideally positioned to meet.”

The first writer from the program to fill that demand is Kat Sieniuc, who scored a job even before the official graduation date.

“This was the first time where I had ever been in a room like this, where we’re breaking story with other people, giving notes,” Sieniuc, a former reporter, told BIV.

“We all feel like we hit the jackpot with Sarah.”

Sieniuc will be serving as script co-ordinator for Season 2 of the Netflix horror drama The Order.

Netflix executive Chris Regina offered his congratulations to Sieniuc at last month’s graduation ceremony, adding he was pleased a writer from PSP was landing at one of his company’s shows.

The streaming giant is among the financial supporters backing the program.

Regina said during a Q&A session at the graduation ceremony that Netflix understands that, with a bevy of series being shot in Vancouver, it makes sense for the company to have local writers’ rooms to support future shows.

Former federal heritage minister Mélanie Joly announced in 2017 that Ottawa’s new Creative Canada framework required Netflix to create a new production company to invest in “original production in Canada” over five years; Netflix committed to spend $500 million.

Regardless of Netflix’s impetus, Regina was keen to deliver advice to B.C. producers eager to pitch shows to the company: “Don’t feel intimidated that you have to come with a fully packaged show that has talent attached or a director attached.”

He said he was “very open” to seeing concepts early in the development process.

What often falls flat, though, is when creatives come to pitch sessions “overbaked” with full scripts written by a single person in a vacuum, he said.

He added that producers don’t need to come in with all the financing worked out and a location set.

“We’re most interested in the idea and having the best creative put forth,” Regina said.


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