An Update on Film in Vancouver: Geoff Teoli, Acting Vancouver Film Commissioner

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Kicking off May 16, Creative Industries Week celebrates British Columbia’s thriving creative sectors, including motion picture production, interactive and digital media, music and sound recording, and book and magazine publishing. In the leadup to the anticipated event, we sat down with Geoff Teoli, Acting Vancouver Film Commissioner, for an update on Vancouver’s film scene, including areas of the city that are attracting filmmakers and how the industry has evolved into an advocate for community-building and sustainability.

Let’s start with the four-billion-dollar question: how is Vancouver’s film industry faring as we emerge from the global pandemic?

In a nutshell, film in Vancouver is thriving. We’re extremely busy – the number of film permits we issue is 25 percent higher than it was a year ago, which translates to 4-6 permits per day. That said, the industry regained its balance very early in the pandemic. We saw signs of recovery pretty quickly after productions shut down in early 2020, and that recovery has continued at a steady pace.

How has Vancouver’s film industry shifted or adapted in response to the pandemic?

Filming activity is better balanced now. We’ve seen a slight shift to more studio-based filming, which allows for better control and adherence to health and safety measures because it is contained in the studio. There’s also more widespread location filming across different municipalities in the region, which has taken some pressure off the City of Vancouver. Pre-pandemic, there were certain areas of the city where demand and volume were starting to create strain. Now, with the development of studio space in outlying areas such as Burnaby, Langley and Surrey, there’s more opportunity for dispersion.

Where are these popular areas in Vancouver that filmmakers consistently gravitate toward?

Vancouver’s downtown core has always been a popular filming area, particularly the central business district around Burrard and Hastings streets. Here, you’ve got towering glass-and-steel skyscrapers, commanding office building, and interesting architecture like the Marine Building, which can pass for a major business district in nearly any city in the world.

Gastown remains one of the biggest filming areas in the city. It’s very charming to filmmakers – its cobblestoned streets, interesting laneways and public plazas, plus cafes and unique shops can play anything from the Old West to a classic European streetscape.

Yaletown and Chinatown have always been a big draw for producers, since they are such distinctive neighbourhoods. In general, it’s the areas of the city that have a village feel and lots of personality that tend to draw filmmakers, since the visuals are so great.

And then, of course, there are our scenic parks and beaches. They’re such a big draw that we have an entire film office dedicated solely to supporting filming in parks.

Before stepping into the Acting Vancouver Film Commissioner role, you were a location manager. How did that experience set you up for success?

I’m fortunate to have had many different experiences in Vancouver’s film community, including location manager and working in the permit office. Contrary to popular belief, the overarching focus of the Vancouver Film Commission is not to convince producers that Vancouver is a great place to film – they already know that, and it’s why they’ve been coming here for decades. Instead, we’re focused on ensuring the film experience here is the best it can be. A lot of the job is troubleshooting and dealing with challenges so the producers don’t have to – for example, shutting down a major road for a film scene. In the many years I’ve worked in Vancouver’s film industry, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to different stakeholders’ thoughts and concerns, and integrate that feedback into the process so we can – for the most part – keep everyone happy.

Speaking of keeping everyone happy – what is community fatigue, and how do you mitigate that?

Filming started to emerge an important industry to Vancouver in the 1980s, and for most of the last four decades we’ve been counted among the top three production centres in North America. Understandably, we want to stay in that position for another four decades, or longer. That’s why managing “fatigue” – or the daily disruptions that filming can have on local businesses and residents – is a high priority for the Vancouver Film Commission and the City of Vancouver.

We work to manage fatigue in a few ways. I mentioned earlier that many of the business districts are in the most in-demand areas of the city – so, for the past year we’ve been working with the various Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) and industry to update our BIA filming guidelines. When published later this year, the guidelines will provide greater transparency on community expectations related to supporting a successful and mutually beneficial film shoot.

For more specific locations or addresses, we sometimes provide “cooling off” periods after highly impactful filming. This can range from a pause in new filming activity to restricting hours of operation or frequency of subsequent filming.

Additionally, starting in 2020 we began offering financial incentives for productions that are lower impact. This includes productions with minimal space requirements, and those that use clean energy instead of large diesel generators. If a production can reduce its impact in either of these ways, it qualifies for reduced permit fees.

Finally, we keep our ear to the ground and share feedback with the film production teams. They want to keep people happy, and will often take measures to give back to the community – for example, compensating businesses for loss of revenues during filming, making charitable donations in the communities, or putting people up in hotels if there’s late-night filming in their neighbourhoods.

It’s been almost a year since you took on the role of Acting Vancouver Film Commissioner. What’s excited you most?

I’m really excited to see how well Vancouver’s film industry is recovering from the pandemic. It’s gratifying to see that rebalancing of filming activity across the region, since it ensures a broader economic benefit and opens up opportunities for future growth of the industry. There’s also been a lot of investment in infrastructure and studio space, which presents a great opportunity for sustainable industry growth. In the next five years or so, we’ll see an additional million square feet of studio space opening in BC, and while much of that is outside the City of Vancouver, the economic benefits will be shared across the board.

It’s also been interesting to hear about opportunities for greater synergy between different offices and jurisdictions in the City of Vancouver. The Vancouver Economic Commission is making great strides in helping to bring these groups together to drive process, innovations and efficiencies.

What business and investment opportunities to do you see stemming from the continued growth of Vancouver’s film industry?

People are mostly familiar with the spinoff benefits of film for industries like tourism, hotels, car rental companies, caterers and other local businesses that support local productions. However, film also represents a compelling opportunity for sectors such as cleantech – for example, the Vancouver company Portable Electric has developed battery technology that the film industry is using to replace portable diesel generators.

In some cases, film incentives and policy are helping the industry build a solid business case to shift away from fossil fuels, which has consequently increased demand for companies that can supply the industry with cleaner alternatives. Visual effects is another key area requiring technological innovation. Through the use of new screens, lighting and other technologies, producers can film entire scenes in studios and still transport the viewer anywhere in the universe.

Where do you think Vancouver’s film industry is headed in the coming year?

Vancouver’s film industry is firmly set on a path towards increased sustainability. I’m particularly excited about the City of Vancouver’s first set of purpose-built film kiosks, which are going to help replace carbon-producing generators.

Vancouver is a global leader when it comes to demonstrating how a municipal government can support the film industry through innovative policies and infrastructure investments. We get calls from a lot of cities that want to develop similar sustainability programs and are seeking advice and guidance. Hopefully, by 2030 diesel generators will have become a rare exception in the industry, not only in Vancouver but in filming hubs around the world.

What’s your plan for Creative Industries Week?

I’m eager to network – there are lots of new faces in the industry, and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with people I haven’t been able to see during the pandemic.

Creative Industries Week is also an opportunity to learn about what’s happening in different sectors, see what other ministries are working on, and determine whether there are any potential alignments with the film sector. It’s a great way to lean into the different avenues we can explore through the Vancouver Economic Commission and the Vancouver Film Commission as we work to grow our creative industries together.