Out- of- work set painter takes what he can get
Many in the industry fear the writers’ strike, high Canadian dollar could dampen future prospects
For almost 17 years, Mark Tompkins has been painting sets here for movie productions and television shows.
The North Vancouver artist never set out to work in this capricious business. While going to university, he planned to become a child psychologist but after his first job on a film set, he was hooked.
“ T h e r e w a s t h i s g i a n t monastery made out of foam. It blew me away. I was watching all of these artists painting stones to look old and decrepit, to be covered with moss and dripping with age. It was really, really cool.”
Then he got his paycheque. That, too, was pretty cool. The dream of becoming a child psychologist dissipated like a cloud of vapour.
He has worked on some of the bigger features that have come to town, such as I. Robot, the X- Men films and Fantastic Four. He has also seen the film industry here flourish and wither like a fickle flower.
“ There have been peaks and valleys, lots of work, no work, feast or famine,” said Tompkins over coffee one morning at Lonsdale Quay. “ It has always been that way.”
But he and others fear that this time, what they are witnessing is not just a temporary shift in the wind.
“ My thoughts are this is more serious. I think our business is, to some degree, shrinking.”
The film and television business here has been dealt a double whammy with the strong Canadian dollar, which denies Hollywood productions the benefit of a weak currency where they are shooting, and the three- monthold writers strike that saw almost every U. S. television production here shut down.
The shows started shutting down in mid- November and fell one by one like dominoes. The first to go were Bionic Woman and Battlestar Galactica. Aliens in America, Reaper, Supernatural, Men in Trees and Smallville followed. According to the B. C. Film Commission website, the only U. S. TV show still in production here is Stargate Atlantis.
Add to that the fact that various U. S. states and countries in eastern Europe have ushered in tax credits equal to or better than ours.
The B. C. government provides a 35- per- cent labour tax credit for work by B. C. producers and a 25p e r - c e n t c re d i t fo r o u t - o fprovince producers. In addition, there is a regional tax credit of six per cent if you shoot in some of the outer fringes of the Lower Mainland and a digital animation or visual effects tax credit of 15 per cent of B. C. labour expenditures. The federal government provides a tax credit, primarily for foreign production, of 16 per cent of Canadian labour costs.
In recent years, the B. C. film and television industry has provided roughly 30,000 direct and indirect jobs. There is no ballpark figure available of how many of those jobs exist today. But preliminary statistics from the Canadian Film and Television Production Association for the period from March 2006 to April 2007 paint a sober picture.
Across Canada, domestic feature film production plunged 14 per cent to $ 282 million and service production dropped a precipitous 19 per cent, to $ 1.4 billion from $ 1.7 billion, taking it to its lowest level since 1998/ 99. That is really bad news for B. C., where service production accounts for well over 80 per cent of the industry.
True, overall film and television production was up by three per cent but that was thanks to sports and news broadcasts, enjoying increases of 17 per cent to $ 2.1 billion for the former and of 11 per cent to $ 1.1 billion for the latter.
All of which spells the need to find work outside the film and television business for many like Tompkins. He considers himself lucky in that he, along with carpenters and other trades people, can transfer their skills to the booming construction and renovation sector.
But what about all those great camera operators, script supervisors and film producers? Their skills aren’t so transferrable.
Then, too, the transfer of skills can be both a good and a bad thing.
Tompkins, who is now painting a bed- and- breakfast in North Vancouver, doesn’t have to put in the long work days that are customary on a film set. So he gets to spend more time with his two kids, ages 12 and 14. His pay rate is about the same.
But the work is so much more boring and he doesn’t get the big swak of overtime pay that he socked away during all those gravy years in the film business, enabling him to buy two homes in North Vancouver.
The other down side of working in the “ real” world is you often have to hunt down your paycheque and cater to homeowners who can be irritating at times. They always seem to find a missed spot or the need to fix this or that.
Ella Heinrich, who is a paint labourer on film sets, met The Vancouver Sun in an Irish pub. Between sips of her Snakebite, a combination of beer and cider, she speaks in an unmistakable New Zealand accent.
After moving here about six years ago, her partner, who works in the film and television business, found work for her, too. She had been working on the sci- fi television series Battlestar Galactica until it was shut down by the writers strike.
Heinrich’s job is hardly glamorous. She cleans brushes, keeps the shop clean, runs around the set and makes sure everyone has what they need. Yet her face is aglow as she describes the wonders of her job. Where else would you get to bask in all that creativity, to witness the painting of everything from haunted mansions and pristine doctors’ offices to grungy, aged derelict shacks?
Ever since the shutdown of Battlestar toward the end of November, she has managed to pick up odd jobs but she has largely been out of work. “ I miss my job incredibly,” she s a i d b e t w e e n s i p s o f Snakebite. “ I miss working in the film industry.”
Because she has worked on a television series for about four years, she has seen mostly the same people every day for all that time.
“ You really get to know them. They are like family and I miss my family. They are really great people and I miss seeing them every day.”
Still, in a way, she feels lucky that she doesn’t have a mortgage, car payments and children to support.
“ I pay rent and I pay taxes but I am luckier than a lot of people who have been out of work for a long time and they have kids to feed. They don’t have other jobs they can fall back on. They are struggling. It’s terrible.”
She supports her brothers and sisters in the U. S. writers union. What they are asking for, she feels, is quite fair. Still, she keeps her fingers crossed that the writers strike is about to end.
Otherwise, who knows? Maybe she will have to head back to New Zealand where the film industry has been booming.
Tompkins would like to believe that the downturn in the film and te l ev i s i o n i n d u s t r y w i l l b e reversed as swiftly as the stroke of a pen with the end of the writers strike, but he is doubtful.
“ Maybe people will be going elsewhere to find work. Maybe New Zealand. It’s sort of a bummer.”
Mark Tompkins, a scene painter on movie sets, works on refinishing a floor while working outside of the film industry.