For decades Vancouverites have worn (and still sometimes wear) examples of American television series and films shot in their city as badges of honour.
When I told my mother I was interested in pursuing a career in the industry, she smiled and said, “Hollywood North! I remember when they used to film The X-Files in Delta. Spooky.” On my orientation day at the University of British Columbia, we toured the campus. Along the way our guide pointed to various sites that American productions had occupied for weeks at a time. “And that’s where they filmed The Butterfly Effect!” The guide said, and then waited for a response. As a group we nodded and smiled with reserved awe, however in hindsight maybe a smattering of sarcastic applause would’ve been the right call.
This is because, as of late, I’ve noticed a turn of the tide. Now some people wrinkle their noses at “Hollywood North”. Maybe the nickname isn’t cool. Maybe it’s even a little patronizing. “Sure, you can be like us — sort of.”
How is Vancouver supposed to cultivate its own cinematic identity when it bears another city’s name? Why is Vancouver never allowed to play itself?
About a year ago, a Vancouverite at his wit’s end addressed this very issue — film editor and essayist Tony Zhou, creator of the beloved web series Every Frame A Painting. Each instalment of the series explores a different aspect of filmmaking.
In an episode entitled, “Vancouver Never Plays Itself”, he tries to suss out the reasons American productions like to shoot the city, but never use it as a setting. As he lists movie after movie that takes place in America and yet does nothing to hide Vancouver’s features (worst offender goes to Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx, which keeps Vancouver’s mountain range in clear view behind “New York” sky scrapers), it becomes increasingly hard to understand why making a movie with striking geographical mistakes is better than setting a film in Vancouver.
What did Zhou learn from his research? Foreign productions use the city because of its tax incentives.
In other words: we’re not Hollywood’s partner, we’re its accessory.
There are glimmers of hope for Vancouver that arrive and fade like spectacularly disappointing shooting stars. These glimmers come in the form of actual stars, Canadian actors and filmmakers who have planted themselves firmly in the American consciousness. Every so often they try to sneak their hometown into blockbuster films, or at the very least they use their fame to draw attention to its industry as a whole, but it doesn’t work.
Vancouver-born Seth Rogen has made two notable attempts. First, he co-founded the production company Point Grey Pictures, which he named after his old high school. Second, when he and creative partner Evan Goldberg wrote Superbad, they set it in Vancouver. That is why, for example, there are references in the movie to cross streets such as “12th and Granville”, and not “Sunset and San Vicente”. Unfortunately, as the film moved forward into production, the studio strong-armed the pair into setting it in an anonymous Los Angeles suburb.
Not even Ryan Reynolds, another world-famous Canadian export, is able to do much good. To the people that live here, it’s obvious Deadpool is set in Vancouver, as the movie makes no attempt to hide landmarks such as the Georgia Street Viaduct and the Cobalt Hotel, but once again, officially, the movie takes place in an anonymous location.
This means the American studio system would rather set Deadpool somewhere unknown than have the Vancouver name potentially reduce its audience size. That is embarrassing. That is the most damning, disheartening proof we have that Vancouver is in trouble.
The fact is, too many people in power (both in Canada and outside of it) think there’s nothing going on here that outsiders find interesting.
Luckily there’s proof that notion is wrong.
In 2015, The Globe and Mail asked, “What is wrong with the Canadian film industry?” They spoke to a variety of industry figures, including Mark Slone, a vice president of eOne Films Canada, and he explained international audiences’ interests now trend towards uniquely Canadian projects. “…Now, a lot of the films that are actually finding success in the market are ones that are unabashedly Canadian in some way… I believe we’re now in the era where we are very comfortable seeing ourselves represented on screen…”
In the same article, Hussain Amarshi, founder of Toronto-based film distributor Mongrel Media, candidly spoke about our priorities. “We have to remember: Why are we putting our taxpayers’ money into films… It’s because it is part of our identity… It cannot be just about creating jobs… It has to be driven by the original impetus: That we as a nation… have stories to tell, both to ourselves and to the world. And we need to create the conditions under which we can do that.”
I’m not trying to tell you that international runaway productions (come, shoot, leave) are all bad. They pay Canadians well, credit them, and inevitably return the following year; and it’s nice to claim responsibility for American classics, such as the aforementioned X-Files series, Juno, or (yes, it’s a classic) Happy Gilmore.
But if it’s a choice between a credit that feels like an after thought on another American movie, or turning inward, forcing a change with regards to where and how much the government invests in its arts and entertainment funding (including promotion), and working in the long term towards the ability to brandish true Canadian classics over our beanie-covered heads, I choose the latter.
You know what sounds better than “Hollywood North”? Vancouver, Canada.