The $4-billion current of the Hollywood North economy could be rippling into the Kootenay region at a steady stream very soon.
And the conduit for that flow is the newly appointed Kootenay regional film commissioner, John Wittmayer.
A veteran of the film industry in Vancouver — but born and raised in the Slocan Valley — Wittmayer has the contacts, background and experience in one of the largest industries the province has to offer.
Combined with his knowledge and love of the area he has become the advocate for the under-utilized cinematic possibilities of the Kootenay region to some of the biggest names in the film industry.
“In my view it is a very under-represented region, and its potential as a premier film destination is truly not being fulfilled,” he said. “I believe a more equitable distribution of production dollars currently concentrated in Metro Vancouver and the Lower Mainland should be spread out to the Kootenay region of the province.”
But beauty and pristine geography are not enough to educate producers to venture outside of the Lower Mainland. They need to be made aware of the added economic benefits of shooting out here, said Wittmayer, as well as the fact there is a significant roster of resident industry professionals.
He pointed to the government film production tax credits as one of the major reasons that the film industry has grown as quickly as it has in B.C.
“These tax credits are available for our region too, and they would help offset the perceived cost of bringing production out here,” he said, adding that there is a substantial basic, regional and “distant” film tax credit status that is available to producers.
Many of the local film service production companies — that produce the Hallmark and Lifetime movies, and all of the network TV movies — need to be convinced to operate outside of their comfort zones of Metro Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, he felt.
He said the film community’s concerns regarding travel time, accommodations and the perceived lack of infrastructure for filming in the Kootenay region are valid, but to meet some of those objections he has established “excellent transportation, accommodation and equipment packages, and we are making it easier for productions to hire experienced film crew locally, as much as possible.”
This will build the necessary infrastructure, Wittmayer explained, and training programs will be an important way to help build a local crew base.
Lights, camera, roster
One of the things Wittmayer has brought to his role as film commissioner is to really develop the resources that the region has to offer a film production.
He has worked at expanding the local film crew and vendor database, scouted and expanded the location photo base, and brought together local filmmakers and film-related resources.
“We’re currently working on a website (Kootenayfilm.com) and we hope to have that completed by the end of the year,” he said. “We’re also beginning to build up our profile on social media platforms such as Instagram and LinkedIn.”
Location, location, location
One of the major problems associated with filming in the Lower Mainland is some of the best locations have been overdone.
“I’ve seen so many locations lost over the years from over-filming, saturation and from other significant issues on the coast,” he said.
As a result, filming has begun to move out of the Lower Mainland and into Squamish, Hope, Merritt, Kelowna, Penticton and even into Vernon. Victoria and Vancouver Island have been enjoying increased production as well, Wittmayer explained.
“This is a good trend, and it perhaps shows that the Lower Mainland may no longer enjoy the complete dominance that it has had for the last 30 years,” he said.
Now a piece of that $4-billion pie needs to come to the Kootenay region. Wittmayer said if production companies were to discover the merits of filming in a unique heritage setting like Nelson, Rossland, Trail and its surrounding communities, the sheer volume of TV movies with Christmas themes alone would increase substantially.
“Bigger budget feature films may follow this trend, once the infrastructure is in place,” he said.
The bottom line
There has been potential film production office space offered through the City of Nelson for interested production companies, said Wittmayer.
The permitting process is quite simple and cost effective, he added.
“Film location fees in our region are very low compared to Metro Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, and this is another important attribute,” he said. “If a cost analysis were accurately performed regarding the true expense of bringing shows our way, then many of the reservations and hesitation that some producers have about filming here would likely be reduced.”
Again, the coastal comfort zone keeps the production companies in the small southwestern section of the province, Wittmayer said.
“(I)t may be that film production volume could actually increase over the next few years if they were made aware of the more remote regions like the Kootenays and the possibilities that exist,” he said.
The essential Wittmayer
The list of film credits Wittmayer brings to the film commission table is long.
Now a senior member of the Directors Guild of Canada – British Columbia District, he started in the B.C. film industry 36 years ago, logging credits in over 60 TV movies, feature films, TV series, documentary films and TV commercials, ranging from location manager, to production manager and unit manager to producer.
He is still active in the film industry today, still heavily involved in the studio he started — The Ridge Studios — and now in working to bring productions east.
Having lived back in the Kootenay region since 2005 — currently in the Slocan Valley — he maintains close ties with the local community as a board member of Kootenay Land Trust and Winlaw Watershed Committee, as well as a member of the West Kootenay Conservation Program, West Kootenay EcoSociety and Valhalla Wilderness Society.
The role of film commission is not foreign for Wittmayer. He has scouted film locations throughout the Kootenays for several years, going back as far as 1995 when he was part of the film crew for the feature film Magic in the Water, which was shot in the Kaslo area and starred Mark Harmon, Harley Jane Kozak and Joshua Jackson.
A decade later he helped land the TV movie Christmas Miracle in 2005, which used locations in Queen’s Bay and Nelson, following up five years later in landing the feature thriller The Tall Man, which filmed in Salmo, Ymir and Nelson and starred Jessica Biel.