The lack of skilled television and film workers could threaten Alberta’s production boom

When a script calls for a mountaintop monologue, a riverside romance, or a wasteland battle, Jason Nolan gets a call.

He is a location manager and scout based in Alberta, tasked with finding the perfect location for a scene in a television production or film.

Many days Nolan finds himself exploring some of the province’s undiscovered nooks and crannies, but he has to admit that working in a place like Alberta makes the job a lot easier.

“We have such a variety of landscapes here for someone to tell their story,” he said.

“You can get pretty much anything within an hour.”

Still, Nolan’s job requires many skills that he’s honed in his more than two decades in the role — relationship building, photography, storytelling. That’s why many companies come to him when they come to the province with their project.

But now it’s gotten to a point where he can’t keep up.

“I’m extremely busy right now. I turned down projects one after the other,” Nolan said.

“Ten years ago I would say we had one to three productions a year. Now we will easily be over a dozen.”

Alberta is experiencing a major boom in production activity with dozens of multi-million dollar projects choosing the province as the setting for their stories.

Jason Nolan is one of only a few experienced location producers in Alberta. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Last year alone, Alberta served about $560 million in production in the province, according to Luke Azevedo, vice president of creative industries, operations and film commissioner at Calgary Economic Development.

In 2019, the last comparable year, it was $255 million.

Industrial workers attribute the surge in activity to several factors: a low Canadian dollar, a post-pandemic surge in content creation, and a recent change to Alberta’s film and television tax credit.

In March 2021, the Alberta government lifted a cap limiting film and television productions to a maximum of $10 million in tax credit eligibility. Content producing companies can now recoup more money for hiring Albertans and spending money in the province — in the amount of a 22 or 30 percent tax credit.

“It’s changed our environment here, it’s changed the ecosystem, and it’s changed the way Alberta is perceived in the global marketplace,” Azevedo said.

The Calgary Film Center features 50,000 square feet with three purpose-built sound stages. (CBC)

But while the stimulus has sparked interest, the pandemic has slowed the pipeline of skilled workers who can take the jobs. In the past two years, many productions have restricted access to the sets to essential staff, meaning workers have not been able to gain much-needed hands-on experience.

And for some of the larger productions, an experienced crew is a must when bringing their project here.

“They want as experienced people as possible so they can bring the best product to the screen,” says Azevedo.

Some fear that the lack of available talent will mean big-budget productions will look elsewhere, tax breaks or not, if nothing changes.

work to do

Gerry Dubbin has been a Script Supervisor in Calgary for over 15 years. He says there are about 10 other people with his title in the city and only a few more across the province.

He’d love to be able to train more people, but all the sets he’s worked on lately still have their pandemic restrictions.

“They can’t come in to dictate and tail us what they need to do to qualify as a script supervisor,” he said.

He’s not sure when the restrictions will be lifted, but he understands why the industry is cautious.

“If one person gets sick on a film set, it affects everyone and jeopardizes the show.”

Gerry Dubbin is a screenwriter based in Calgary. Before that he worked as a costume designer. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Dubbin’s position is only one within the film industry that is feeling the pinch.

Set designers, props technicians, camera technicians and electricians are just some of the other jobs that are in short supply, according to Damian Petti, president of Calgary’s IATSE Local 212, the union that represents 1,400 workers in the manufacturing industry.

He says trainee programs add about 25 percent to the province’s workforce base each year, but it’s difficult to keep up with the rapidly increasing demand, especially the high level of experience required.

“The people making the hiring decisions place a lot of weight on experience and not very much on education… and so the challenge for us is to convince them that they can admit a percentage of people who are at the entry level .” he said.

In some departments, Petti says, hundreds of people have been trained, but they can’t get them on set on day one.

Gerry Dubbin on the set of a shoot. The script supervisor works very closely with the director, he says, helping ensure continuity on set and making sure the appropriate notes get through to the cut. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Last year, about 20 percent of Alberta’s manufacturing workforce came from the provinces, but Petti hopes the industry can reduce that number over time.

The city of Calgary is also working on this. Azevedo says they aim to develop skills at a younger age by partnering with local post-secondary institutions, retaining talent in the province and offering micro-certifications to get people into the industry faster.

They are also urging studios to continue training initiatives.

“It’s important for both them and us to ensure jurisdictions that they love to shoot in, know they can do great productions and have the staff growth needed,” he said.

Luke Azevedo works to attract foreign investment to Calgary’s film, television and creative industries and to support the growth of local production companies. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

For now, Nolan says he thinks the need for a skilled workforce is being met, but only fairly.

“We’re really close.”

He is taking steps of his own to ensure projects continue to be targeted to Alberta. He’s hired and trained a few new scouts of his own, and despite his current production roster, he’s considering hiring more.

“We were able to help revitalize some businesses and keep them afloat while our industry came back and boomed,” he said.

“You have the love for it, and you push it, and you make it.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.