Saskatchewan Party leader Brad Wall (left) and New Democratic Party leader Cam Broten (right) make small-talk before kicking off the 2016 Leaders’ Debate with the film tax credit on March 23, 2016. Photo by Jessie Anton.

Backgrounder by Jessie Anton

On March 21, 2012, the Saskatchewan Party government discontinued the Saskatchewan Film Employment Tax Credit, shocking the local film industry and the province’s Chamber of Commerce alike. Although there was no talk of the film tax credit during the 2011 provincial election, the subsidy has resurfaced in 2016 party platforms, being the first topic of discussion at the provincial leaders’ debate on March 23, 2016.

During the debate, New Democratic Party leader Cam Broten said he plans to reinstate the tax credit, claiming, “(The film industry) not only made us proud of Saskatchewan people, but it made us millions.”

Saskatchewan Party leader Brad Wall argued that Creative Saskatchewan, a provincial crown agency created after the cut, is an improvement because it offers support beyond just the film industry. “It’s important to balance in respect to funding for all (creative) mediums,” he said.

When the tax credit was cut four years ago, finance minister Ken Krawetz claimed that the province couldn’t afford the $8-million-a-year program, which offered a tax credit of up to 55 per cent for labour costs in film and video productions.

The credit was instrumental to series like Corner Gas and TV movies like Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, among other local favourites.

In 2012, the province’s Chamber of Commerce partnered with SaskFilm to study the tax. The 2012 report concluded that for every $1 million the provincial government spent on the film tax credit, the economic benefit was $44.5 million. The Chamber insisted the cut was ill-conceived; however, the government refused to reinstate the subsidy.

According to Layton Burton, a Saskatchewan director of photography of 33 years, as soon as the government cancelled the film tax credit, productions disappeared nearly overnight, along with most of the Saskatchewan film community.

“It’s just that kind of business,” said Burton. “As soon as you take away incentive for people to come, no one is going to come. It’s kind of a no-brainer for governments to understand that.”

Like Burton, most people in the film community were at odds with the government’s decision. Later that year, in hopes of finding some middle ground, the Saskatchewan government created the Saskatchewan Screen-Based Media Initiative which—according to a 2012 report prepared by Probe Research Inc. for the ministry of parks, culture and sport—would provide a production cost rebate of up to $5 million per project to eligible companies registered to do business in Saskatchewan.

Since then, Creative Saskatchewan has replaced that initiative with the Screen-Based Media Production Grant, which covers 30 per cent of eligible Saskatchewan production activity expenses to an annual maximum of $250,000 per production company.                                                                                                     

Although the film community is thankful to have some support, many believe the measure falls short of creating a competitive film business model for Saskatchewan.

“(The Screen-Based Production Grant) is not competitive with other jurisdictions in Canada,” explained Burton. “The fact that it has a cap will not attract anyone.”

While many feel that axing the film tax credit decimated the industry, according to Mark Wihak, an associate professor and head of the University of Regina film department, the independent film community has grown more robust than ever. This year, there will be five independent feature films coming out of Saskatchewan, which is the largest volume of independent production in the province’s history.

However, Wihak said there is a catch.

“The reality is that most (independent feature films) are made on budgets under $100,000, so people aren’t paid to work on those films or not paid much. So, to a large degree, those films are labours of love coming out of the independent community,” explained Wihak. “It’s not the kind of filmmaking that creates employment or contributes tax revenue to the government.”

As for Wihak’s film students, he said it was demoralizing to those who were just entering the program when the tax credit was cut, causing many to make plans to leave the province in order to pursue their careers in film.

But not everyone is leaving. Kolbie Nesset, an award-winning U of R student filmmaker, is among those who enrolled in the film program just as the provincial government discontinued the tax credit. Although she plans to stay in Saskatchewan, Nesset said that, even as a student, she sees the impact of the cut.

“Families are having to move other places for work and, to me, stuff like that is really distressing,” said Nesset. “We’ve lost millions of dollars in our economy because of it and people think that it only affects creative people or people in the arts community, but it doesn’t—it affects everyone.”

Another item of debate has been the use of the Canada-Saskatchewan Sound Stage, an $11.9-million state-of-the-art film and television production facility, which remains underused since the credit was axed.

In August 2015, the Saskatchewan Party government launched an online questionnaire seeking peoples’ input on repurposing the Sound Stage into a venue for all creative bodies. Although more than six months have passed, the results of the questionnaire will not be released until after the provincial election.

Many in the film industry believe that if Saskatchewan had a competitive film tax credit, the Sound Stage wouldn’t be the empty building it is today—a position equally supported by the NDP.

“With the dollar below 80 cents, a facility like (the Sound Stage) and a tax credit, Saskatchewan could be really busy right now with film productions from other jurisdictions, primarily from the U.S.,” explained Wihak. “They would be hiring local people, they would be spending money and they would be renting the Sound Stage.”

Still, Wihak is optimistic, regardless of who wins the election.

“I hope (the future government) will look closely at how we can keep our talent within Saskatchewan because we’ve lost quite a bit in the last four years,” said Wihak. “I’m working with a generation of talented young people right now, and I would like to see them have the opportunity to stay in Saskatchewan, show their talent and build the industry back.”