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Filming in New West: A bright spot in a challenging year

Facilities closed by COVID created new filming in opportunities in New Westminster

New Westminster saw “unprecedented” interest from the film industry last fall when production resumed after COVID-19 closures earlier in 2020.

Filming in B.C. ceased production last spring in response to emergency measures enacted to help minimize the spread of the coronavirus. It started to resume in August 2020 after health and safety protocols were developed for the industry.

“The increased demand for filming activity seen in New West in the latter part of year was a bright spot in a challenging 2020,” said Blair Fryer, the city’s manager of economic development and communications. “The economic spin-offs and increased activity from the unprecedented level of filming days have provided much-needed benefit to our local economy.”

Reports presented to city council during the 2021 budget process said filming activity was “slow to return” in the third quarter of 2020, but it soon “rapidly escalated to unprecedented levels” of filming inquiries and permits.

“It was a significant challenge as, at this time, the COVID-19 requirements were both new and evolving, which required a steep learning curve, new safety policies and new processes for all stakeholders involved,” said Trevor Cave, the city’s filming coordinator. “This led to a significant work increase to safely permit filming activity in New Westminster. As well, all productions started concurrently, primarily in September, meaning a significant number of calls, emails and filming needs occurred at the same time. This resulted in a robust restart for both the filming office and production companies.”

The city reports that it received “significant gross revenues” of $275,000 during the first two months of service resumption. Staff said the “aggressive return of filming” was driven by the need to fill a content void created by the COVID-driven industry shutdown.

COVID creates opportunities

While programs and services at civic facilities like Anvil Centre and Queen’s Park Arena haven’t been able to return to pre-COVID-19 levels because of restrictions on gatherings and social distancing, it hasn’t been all bad.

“COVID-19 appears to have created additional facility access for filming opportunities,” Cave said. “Filming was also suspended at the same time as our recreation facility closures. Through the gradual restart process, for both filming and parks and recreation, all community ice needs were able to be accommodated at Moody Park Arena, which facilitated the Mighty Ducks filming at Queen's Park Arena.”

The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, a new TV series set to air in 2021, used Queen’s Park Arena as the Ducks’ home rink, which included hanging banners in the arena and putting the Ducks logo into centre ice.

Along with TV commercials and TV movies such as Netflix’s Love Hard, a number of TV series filmed in New West in 2020 including The Good Doctor, Nancy Drew, Batwoman and Supernatural.

According to Cave, New Westminster had filming revenues of $730,886 in 2020. For perspective, that was only $64,000 less than all of 2019 – even though filming only took place for seven months in 2020.  

In 2020, the City of New Westminster issued 54 film permits with 76 filming days. The average film permit generated $9,492 per day of filming.

Cave, whose job includes making site visits to film sets to ensure they’re complying with the city’s conditions, said the industry has been very strict about ensuring its crews and casts meet a wide variety of COVID precautions.

“All filming productions are required to follow provincial health orders, WorkSafeBC, Creative BC and sectorial authority regulations that govern city operations and filming activity,” he noted.  “In addition to periodic monitoring undertaken by the city, all productions have designated personnel on site to ensure compliance with all regulations.”

Although filming surged in New West in late 2020, the number of permits, film days and gross revenues attributed to filming have been declining in recent years, following a record-setting year in 2017. That year, 135 permits were issued for 155 days of filming, resulting in gross revenues of $1,000,831 for city coffers. That dropped in 2018 (107 permits, 128 film days, $823,009 gross revenue) and in 2019 (95 permits, 140 film days, $795,151 gross revenues).

From the city’s perspective, there’s no sign that film activity is slowing down just yet in New West. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, A Million Little Things and Batwoman are among the productions filming in town in early 2021.

“It is anticipated that filming activity will taper once the industry has caught up with content and advertisement gaps created by the COVID-19 suspension of filming,” Cave said. “However, film tapering may be slower to occur as there is a definite growth of filming in B.C., especially in Metro Vancouver, due to streaming service providers (i.e. Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, etc.). Regardless of filming demand, the city balances its filming activity to ensure sustainability and the aspirations of the filming industry against the impacts on local businesses and residential areas.”

While there was a time when the bulk of the filming activity in New West was in the Queen’s Park and downtown neighbourhoods, Cave said the city has endeavoured to spread it around the city when possible. He noted that filming has occurred from Queensborough to Sapperton – and every neighbourhood in between.

“The city’s policy and process were developed to ensure sustainable filming through effective communication processes, mitigation of impacts and balancing filming activities in neighbourhoods,” Cave said. “In many cases, filming requests are declined by the filming coordinator to reduce filming concentration and frequency in the same area.”

Cave said the filming coordinator’s role also considers the scope of filming and special effects, as not all filming has the same level of impacts. As an example, he noted that a one-day TV commercial shoot with a staff of under 10 and five vehicles affects a neighbourhood very differently than when Godzilla visited downtown in 2013.

A boon to business?

The City of New Westminster estimates filming generated supplemental income to residents and merchants of anywhere from $1.28 million to $2.56 million in 2018 and $1.3 million to $2.7 million in 2017.

“One day of TV series filming results in direct spending between $10,000 and $20,000 to residents and merchants,” Cave said. “As such, 76 days of filming in 2020 generated between $760,000 and $1.5 million of supplemental income to residents and merchants.”

Cave said Creative BC also estimates 925 New Westminster residents work in the film sector, having a combined payroll value of $47 million – part of which is reinvested in New Westminster.

Aside from contributing to city coffers and generating income for some residents and businesses, Cave said the film industry contributes to the community in other ways.

“Filming is a very unique industry that often does not get credit for its quiet contributions to local charities and fans. In New Westminster, for example, in 2019 and 2020 Warner Brothers Entertainment (i.e. Riverdale, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Arrow and Batwoman) donated $6,000 to local social services organizations,” he said. “An example of a unique fan experience is from the Batwoman production who learned of a young resident who was a big fan, which resulted in the boy being invited on set to watch the filming action and given a limited-edition Batwoman baseball cap.”