Film industry feeling real estate woes
Updated: Aug 25, 2017
A loss of older buildings and character homes has made location scouting increasingly difficult
The owners of Shannon Mews still allow filming in the main building, but condo redevelopment around it has changed the grounds quite a bit, eliminating much of the historic gardens.
Adam Hogarth’s job challenge is a byproduct of Vancouver’s empty-home crisis and the freak show that is the region’s real estate market.
Mr. Hogarth is a location scout for television shows and he’s often on the hunt for old buildings. They don’t always have to be charming or quaint, but to fit the script, they should have the patina of a building several decades old. But Vancouver’s current lust for redevelopment means the old buildings are coming down at a rapid pace: It is a city erasing itself.
He says it’s a worrying trend for an industry that contributes 25,000 direct jobs to the economy. Vancouver has long been the chameleon for the film and TV industry, usually in the role of middle-class American city. But as historic buildings get demolished in favour of the generic and new, the city’s “look” is becoming a lot more homogeneous.
Mr. Hogarth has been scouting locations for film and TV for 20 years, and he feels strongly about the loss of locations.
“Trying to find older locations is becoming more and more difficult,” says Mr. Hogarth. “What I’ve been noticing is that the buildings that we would go to are now being redeveloped and turned into condominiums, and we are losing locations that we have frequently gone to in the past. We are having to look further and further outside Vancouver for good locations, both residential and commercial.
“And the size of the industry is so much larger, so you are competing with other film companies. Vancouver, being such a small city compared to L.A. and New York, and Toronto – we didn’t have a huge amount of locations to choose from to start with,” he adds.
Mr. Hogarth cites the loss of the Ridge Theatre on Arbutus Street, old houses along the Cambie corridor, and retail buildings around Main Street, near Chinatown, which will continue to undergo redevelopment. It’s not easy to replicate a character bar like the Ivanhoe Pub on Main Street.
The region’s diminishing stock of character homes is not helping, either. Older Craftsman houses are desirable because they have the look of houses in American cities, and they are architecturally appealing. But it’s getting tougher to find spacious old houses to shoot in, and to find groupings of them for street shots.
“Trying to find an old theatre to film in is almost impossible,” he says. “The main point is that as time moves forward, I just don’t feel there has been enough attention to the fact that we rely on houses or architecture of Vancouver as the main draw for producers when they come into our town. They are not necessarily looking for a nice beach or nice country road. We have all of that, great.
“But 80 per cent of the time, they are looking for architecture, so they will film in places like Steveston or older communities like [Port] Hammond, in Maple Ridge … these old houses in those areas get used time and time again. New Westminster is a wonderful place for old houses, and thankfully, that has stayed relatively preserved. But beyond that, you go into Vancouver, and a lot of houses just get torn down and replaced by something that looks … you know.”
It’s not just a job issue, either. Mr. Hogarth was raised in Vancouver and lives in the city, and he can’t make sense of the affordability crisis when he sees so many empty houses. Mr. Hogarth has the on-the-ground advantage of seeing Vancouver’s speculative housing market in full swing. He routinely knocks on doors scouting for suitable locations, but on the west side of the city, there’s often nobody home.
“On Drummond Drive, in Point Grey, I can think of six places off the top of my head that are just sitting empty,” he says.
“Shaughnessy is difficult to scout because it’s hard to reach the people who own the houses because they don’t live in the houses most of the time. A huge number of the houses are sitting empty and you know they are sitting empty if you look through the gate and the grass is overgrown and one or two of the windows are broken or whatever. Nobody is living there. And if they are, it’s maybe one person and you might, if you are lucky, be able to get a phone number for a property manager that would simply tell you the owners aren’t interested because they live some place else.
“It’s definitely changing, the demographic is changing and a lot of the houses like those upper-middle-class houses in the Kerrisdale and Dunbar area are being sold and redeveloped. And quite frankly, the houses that have been redeveloped or torn down and rebuilt, they all look the same. They are identical. You can get 10 or 12 of them and they all look the same. They are spacious on the inside, but don’t have any quality architecturally that make them stand out from one or the other.”
The historic neighbourhood of Port Hammond, in Maple Ridge, has been used repeatedly because it’s an intact community, he says. However, it too is transforming.
“[Port] Hammond looks like a small town in the Midwest and even out there, a lot of the houses in that small neighbourhood are being torn down and redeveloped … the character is being taken right out of it. The houses were built maybe in the 1920s, and they have a certain kind of look and feel that you can’t replicate, and they are being torn down and replaced. Fairly soon, I would say in 10 or 15 years, that whole community will look completely different, and won’t retain the quality that we look for when we are out scouting.
“There are so few places like that.”
Location manager Mary Jo Beirnes has also been in the business for two decades. She says her industry makes opportunistic use of buildings that are in transition or vacant, but that benefit is lost if they’re just left empty without an owner to approach.
“What I find the most, I think, frustrating, is just empty homes. It’s hard to track down who owns them,” she says. “We often use a location awaiting redevelopment, maybe a ship yard or a saw mill that is now defunct and awaiting redevelopment – that’s a great opportunity for the film industry to step in and create an economic opportunity where it didn’t exist before. But when we see empty homes, we want to create a win-win situation, where at least some economic impact can be achieved.”
Although location scouts have a tougher job, the industry as a whole is booming. The Netflixes of the world are driving demand for new content, says Creative BC vice-president Robert Wong.
Production-dollar tallies aren’t official yet for 2016, but they surpassed $2.4-billion for 2015, he says.
“It is a real challenge, but the city is growing, right, and as it grows there are more looks they can find now,” Mr. Wong says. “Maybe it’s not that Tudor style house you are looking for, but if it’s that ultra modern place they can definitely find it here. It’s just a different look in Metro Vancouver. That’s just the nature of the beast.
“It might just mean they have to expand the search out of the downtown core and into other municipalities.”
North Shore Studios’ president Peter Leitch says the problem isn’t exclusive to B.C. As well, the industry has the resources and municipal support to tackle it. Cities such as Victoria, Langley and Surrey benefit as the industry increasingly moves outward.
“There has been a lot of development, no doubt about it, so we have to adapt and find other locations, that is the nature of the game, and it always has been, to a certain extent,” Mr. Leitch says. “With the volume of production and redevelopment going on in Vancouver, it does become a challenge, but it also does create opportunities elsewhere, to discover other places where we can shoot.
“We are exploring new locations that have not been shot before.”
However, Mr. Hogarth says redevelopment is a growing concern among people working directly on projects that need old buildings. To keep costs down, they scout for locations near studios.
He says the television series Timeless, which shot in Vancouver for one season but moved to Los Angeles, may have been, at least partly, a casualty of the region’s new generic look.
The show’s production designer John Marcynuk was quoted in a Globe and Mail article earlier this year saying that it was becoming tougher to film period pieces in Vancouver because the city “doesn’t preserve its history, it reinvents it.”
“I am concerned that we are going to be losing spots,” Mr. Hogarth says.
“Especially when working on Timeless, I was feeling we were barely able to find locations to do this show. And the show ended up going to L.A. because it has new tax incentives. It was also for a lot of other reasons. I don’t think it was to do with Vancouver not having locations, but I think it was a factor, because it was discussed among producers and the way our city is being redeveloped … They are thinking about building more studios, which is fine, but we need the resources of locations within the city to accommodate the filming we are having.
“If that changes too much, we could start losing shows that decide not to film here because they know they won’t be able to find locations.”