ROCKY VIEW – Alberta’s film industry is on track to experience a boom in productions, building on the rich history of movie magic in the province.
Alberta boasts a strong and interesting history of film productions, said Keep Alberta Rolling head of advocacy Brock Skretting.
“It is top to bottom a beautiful province,” Skretting said. “That’s why filmmakers love it.”
Keep Alberta Rolling is a non-profit organization with a mandate to showcase the benefits and potential of the screen industry in the province.
The province is appealing for film crews largely due to the variety of landscapes found within a short drive from the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the desolate badlands of Drumheller, Skretting said.
The Cochrane and Kananaskis area has a long history of projects including Superman in 1978 and the cult-classic movie Rad in 1986 to more recent movies and television shows such as Fargo, Hell on Wheels, The Revenant, Heartland, Tin Star, Black Summer, Togo and many others.
“There’s been a growing number of bigger productions, but then there’s also the smaller local filmmakers,” Skretting said.
When a film production comes into town “there is a large spend on goods." This includes lumber to build sets, gas for transportation, catering and hotel rooms for actors and crew, along with purchases of costumes and set props or decorations.
“There’s a lot of different business that goes on behind the scenes that is something that we really need right now,” Skretting said.
He noted $2.1 million was spent by Togo alone in Cochrane and the film hosted its world the premiere at the Cochrane Movie House.
“It was very exciting, they had an executive from Disney and even a couple of the dogs who starred in the movie,” Skretting said.
Currently, Alberta is the fourth most filmed province in Canada, behind British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. The key to growing the industry will be support from the provincial government to market the industry.
“Having them declare to the industry and market the industry to the world to say, ‘We want you here, please come bring your business, please create jobs,' ” Skretting said. “Let’s go to work and let’s showcase rural Alberta.”
Skretting said the film industry was one of the first to feel the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, through innovative leadership paired with new health protocols, a variety of solutions have been created to make productions possible.
“Coming out of COVID and looking long term I see this as an industry where the demand for the product continues to grow,” Skretting said. “It only grew exponentially because of COVID, because people were watching shows and using their streaming services to entertain their kids or to enjoy it themselves.”
Cochranite and boom operator Les Pahl said he thinks people continue to underestimate the revenue productions can bring into the area they are filming.
He added productions can also have direct benefits by giving back to communities. As an example, Togo supported the Cochrane and Area Humane Society with a $10,000 donation after filming wrapped.
“The reasons we get big shows like Jumanji, and Togo, and Black Summer is because of the mountains,” Pahl said. “It’s easy money for small towns."
The Kananaskis area is especially popular because of the beautiful vistas available paired with proximity to urban centres.
Cochrane has lots of potential when it comes to supporting the industry, he said, and it could become a go-to place for productions in the province.
Many areas near Cochrane have been featured on the silver screen including Bragg Creek, Jumpingpound and a local ranch located off Highway 22 with a fake town originally built by Lonesome Dove that is used to this day.
“We have all the stuff you could want here – we just need the tax credit,” Pahl said. “The money is there for the taking.”
He noted the best way to grow the industry would be through the introduction of a labour tax credit incentivizing films to choose Alberta as a destination.
British Columbia has become a popular province for film and television productions due to the generous 28 per cent uncapped tax credits available. He added Manitoba introduced a similar tax credit to British Columbia two years ago and has seen an exponential increase in productions.
In Alberta, there are currently two tax credits available for either 22 per cent or 30 per cent. The program is capped at $10 million per production. To qualify for the 33 per cent tax credit, the production is required to meet several eligibility requirements – including ensuring the copyright is held, at least partially, by an Albertan and at least one Alberta-based producer must be involved.
“Hopefully they decide that they need to start diversifying sooner or later and start looking to us for revenue,” Pahl said. “Everyone wants to be more like B.C.”
Film industry makeup artist and actor Shelley Russell has seen the benefits to the local economy first-hand working on the television show The Detour— Which filmed right in Cochrane.
“It was one of the most enjoyable shows I think I’ve ever worked on,” Russell said with a laugh. “We shot in Cochrane – we shot at places like the Texas Gate and the Cochrane Palace ... It was a lot of fun."
She estimates she has worked on almost 30 film productions as an actor and more than 20 as a makeup artist – all of them in the province of Alberta and many shot around the Calgary area.
The film industry is more involved in the Cochrane area than residents might think, Russell said.
“They think there’s not that much going, but really there is,” Russell said. “It really is quite a viable industry and it really does drive a lot of money being invested into the community.”
Russell was also worked on Hell on Wheels for four seasons as a makeup artist and stand-in. It was an exciting experience and one of the most memorable shows she has been a part of.
“We had a lot of different weather to deal with. It was such a dirty grungy kind of show,” Russell said. “Lots of mud. It seemed like every time we were shooting, especially in the spring, it was so muddy – and so was the crew. It wasn’t for the faint of heart.”
She is hoping to see the industry grow in the Cochrane area and highlighted the important role the provincial government can help through tax incentives.
She noted lowering tax incentives in the province “cut the drive” for productions to come to Alberta.
“We have so much to offer – we have the vast scenic views and the mountain vistas from the prairie plains to the urban city and the small-town feel,” Russell said. “It’s a shame the government should really just open it up.”
Lyle Travis works as an off-set dresser – setting the stage for each scene in a film.
His first gig was helping set up the studio stage as a member of the rigging and grip department while shooting a scene from Game of Thrones.
“It was a big hush, hush secret,” Travis said with a laugh. “I actually still have a name tag that I had to wear at all times that says I was working on ‘Faith of Angles.’ It didn’t even say Game of Thrones on it.”
Travis has never worked directly in Cochrane, but has been on sets nearby the town, including local farmlands.
Productions are picking up, Travis said, explaining there seems to be an influx of shows coming down the pipe in Alberta.
“It’s such an awesome experience – it’s changed the way I watch TV,” Travis said.
He hopes people support local film and the industry continues to grow in Alberta.
“A lot of money goes into this, a lot of jobs,” Travis said. “A lot of businesses profit really, really, well off us.”
For Stoney Nakoda actor Helmer Twoyoungmen, 73, the Alberta film industry served as his launching pad to explore the world.
He got his start in the film industry at the age of 23 acting in his hometown of Morley.
For those interested in the industry, Twoyoungmen said, Alberta, is the perfect space to kick-start a career.
“The place that we live in is really beautiful, everyone who comes to look at it feels like they belong here,” Twoyoungmen said. “I think that’s a reason they always choose here.”
The movie Little Big Man was filmed in the Cochrane area and inspired Twoyoungmen to pursue a career in acting. He saw Chief Dan George on screen and from the moment he dreamed of appearing on the silver screen.
Twoyoungmen learned they were filming the 1976 western Buffalo Bill and the Indians and managed to score a part as an extra in the film.
“Even to show my face for 10-seconds, I was so proud,” Twoyoungmen said. "I enjoy it, I like it – I enjoy acting, I enjoy entertaining.”
His more recent roles include appearances on the television shows Tin Star, Hell on Wheels and the film Zombies and Indians.
The industry has expanded in Alberta since he first started acting, Twoyoungmen said, adding he appreciates it has helped him make his dream of being an actor come true.
“I always tell people, ‘If you have a dream hang on to it. It will come true,’ ” Twoyoungmen said.