Movie, TV money heads north of the border Canada is luring more productions, and Maryland film officials are worried.

August 16, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

In Michael Moore's 1994 satire, "Canadian Bacon," our neighbor to the north was depicted as an evil empire, out to invade America with Zamboni machines and strange word pronunciations.

The film was a comedy, but ask some folks in the film industry, and they'll say it wasn't too far from the truth. Through a confluence of favorable exchange rates and some ultra-generous tax breaks, Canada is increasingly drawing film and television production away from the United States - along with the economic impact it generates.

Maryland has lost at least one feature film to Canada this year, as well as valuable television production, according to Michael Styer, director of the Maryland Film Office.

"We had top executives from Paramount Television [here] for several days at the end of January, and they were seriously considering possibly moving an existing series from Canada to Baltimore," he said, though he wouldn't name the series. "They were also [scouting locations for] a pilot for a series and for some movie-of-the-week productions. When they left here, they were convinced that we could do any of those things competitively. They went back to California, and then when this thing about Canada came up, all of it went away."

The "thing" that Styer refers to is a tax rebate, put into effect in Canada last November, wherein the federal government reimburses productions 11 percent of their labor costs. In addition to the federal give-back, individual provinces have instituted their own rebates to lure productions.

Ontario, which was recently overtaken by British Columbia as Canada's film-production center, instituted its own 11 percent rebate in April, as did Quebec. Manitoba offers 35 percent, which means that, combined with the federal credit, productions there stand to get nearly half their labor budgets back in rebates. Labor costs typically account for about 50 percent of a project's total budget.

Together with an exchange rate that allows productions 30 percent to 40 percent in savings, the rebates have made it nearly impossible for modestly budgeted TV productions to say no to Canada. "La Femme Nikita," the USA Network series, is filmed in Canada, as well as "Millennium," "Stargate SG-1" and scores of movies of the week. Fox's hit series "The X-Files" was filmed in British Columbia until this season, when it moved to California.

Feature films are increasingly heading northward as well. Some recent movies filmed in Canada include "Barney's Great Adventure," "Mr. Magoo," "Snake Eyes" and the pending "Studio 54" and "Wrongfully Accused."

According to Styer, the film "Double Jeopardy," directed by Bruce Beresford, was on the verge of opening a production office in Maryland last year. Then the film's original star dropped out. When Tommy Lee Jones was finally cast in the role, Beresford decided to film the movie in Vancouver, British Columbia. Styer said that at least one-third of the movie would have been shot in Annapolis and the Eastern Shore this spring.

Between the lost television work and "Double Jeopardy," Styer estimates, about $10 million was lost in economic impact to the area. Had the Paramount series landed here, he said, it would have been as economically significant as "Homicide."

So far this year, Maryland hasn't seen any feature or television production apart from "Homicide." ("Message in a Bottle," a film starring Kevin Costner and Paul Newman that began filming in the spring, was supposed to be shot on Tangier Island, Va., but the Tangier Town Council voted not to allow filming there. The film's production office was to have been located in Crisfield, and most of the film's support services - including crew members, equipment, hotels and restaurants - would have been based in Maryland.) The dry spell may also be explained by a threatened national strike by the Screen Actors Guild earlier this year, which caused many producers to put their projects on hold.

"Last year at this time, we were wrapping up 'For Richer or Poorer' and just starting to shoot 'Species II' and 'Dead Man's Curve' [since renamed 'The Curve']," Styer recalled. So far, the only feature slated to film here is Barry Levinson's "Liberty Heights," which will begin shooting in Baltimore in September.

But Styer is sanguine. "We have all kinds of potential things for late fall and even winter," he said. "The fiscal year last year was front-loaded, and this year it's going to be back-loaded. I think we'll end up doing just as well."

If Maryland has felt the Canada pinch, other states have experienced it as a vise grip.

On April 1, the film "Billy Please Come Home," a father-son drama set in Michigan starring Viggo Mortenson, was in preproduction in Detroit. The production office was open, and phones were even installed. But that day, Ontario's 11 percent incentive went into effect. On April 2, film director

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