Patricia Walter stands on the staircase of her home with Kathleen Gilbert

Selling Victoria on the big screen

Location manager turned film commissioner reveals tricks of the trade to attract productions to Greater Victoria

John Hunter, the Scot said to be the founder of scientific surgery and the inspiration behind Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, spent his days collecting specimens and his nights robbing graves in 18th-century London. But the setting itself could be 21st-century Victoria – at least when it comes to filmmaking.

When Greater Victoria film commissioner Kathleen Gilbert heard the rumour director David Cronenberg plans to adapt a book on Hunter’s life for television, the first thing she did, like any good researcher, was turn to the Internet.

“(I) went on Google Street View and drove down the streets of London and Scotland,” she said.

Gilbert found where Hunter had lived, collected images of the towns and then matched them to comparable sites around Greater Victoria. She packaged them together for Cronenberg in hopes of enticing Knifeman producers to locations in the Capital Region.

“We’re proactive,” said Gilbert, who was a location manager for 20 years prior to taking on her current role in 2010. “I don’t just sit here and wait for the phone to ring.”

If all goes as planned, Cronenberg’s team will appreciate the effort that went into Gilbert’s pitch. It worked for the producers of Strange Magic, last year’s TV movie on the life of English writer J.K. Rowling, which used local locations, including Bastion Square, to substitute for the Queen’s country.

“You don’t need to travel to Europe to shoot Europe. Europe is a two-hour flight from L.A.,” Gilbert said.

It’s a line used by the lone, full-time employee of the Vancouver Island South Film and Media Commission to lure prospective U.S. filmmakers to Victoria-area locales.

The commission has a database of an estimated 10,000 registered locations, both private and public.

If producers like what they see, Gilbert follows up the locations package with a local crew list and a welcome package – a run-down of everything crews need to know about filming in Greater Victoria, from contacts for immigration to rug rentals.

Gilbert regularly attends one-on-one pitching sessions and makes annual appearances at the Locations Expo and the Produced By Conference, a trade show for film commissioners held each spring in Culver City, Calif.

“I can’t compete with Quebec City (as a proxy for Europe), but it’s easy to get here from L.A. and we’re in the same time zone. Our weather is a lot better than most other parts of Canada. More sunshine and less rain than Vancouver,” she said. “The other thing that’s a really big sell for producers: everything is close. I can get you almost every location within a half-an-hour of each other and most of them within 10 minutes.”

Despite the perks, including the federal film or video production services tax credit and the film incentive B.C. program for tax credits, the Victoria film industry has taken a hit since the Capital Region was removed from the distant location regional tax credit, a provincial program that offers a six-per-cent rebate to productions shot outside established film-production areas in B.C. (the Lower Mainland is the other area).

Since 2006, direct local spending from film shoots – on items such as hotels, food, equipment rentals and local crew wages – plummeted from about $20 million to $7 million annually.

Barbara Coultish, founder of Victoria talent and modelling agency Coultish Management, is among those trying to reinvigorate the local film industry. Coultish, a former member of the commission’s board of directors, was asked to return after the industry fell into a slump.

“It’s one of those industries that Victoria desperately needs to bring back, and we’re all pushing to make it grow again,” Coultish said, noting the range of trades that benefit from film productions – be it set-building or other behind-the-scenes workers.

Coultish said the loss of the distant location credit is one of the key factors in the decline.

“(Productions) have been going everywhere but here and it’s caused a lot of grief for a lot of us,” Coultish said. “Six per cent on a few million dollars is huge. … If that went away I think we would see this industry flourish again really quickly. (Crews) love shooting here, but they’re going to go where they can save money. … It’s been rough. That’s for sure.”

After a flurry of film activity in the fall and a bit of a winter lull, the outlook for summer productions is positive, Coultish said. It’s a hope Gilbert is working hard to realize, one pitch at a time.

“Fingers crossed,” she said. “Maybe David Cronenberg will be shooting here sometime in the near future.”

Most shot location around town

Since The Crimson Paradise was filmed at Hatley Castle in 1933, Royal Roads University continues to be the region’s most shot location.

“We’re happy to welcome film production crews, happy to showcase the national historic site,” said Doug Ozeroff, spokesperson for the university. “I can see why it’s been so popular. … Hatley Castle: that’s the money shot.”

While Royal Roads’ mandate is to maintain educational standards for students, the productions are welcomed, Ozeroff added. Crews are all self-contained and, in most cases, leave without leaving a trace of their shoot, he said.

Top 3 locations

• Royal Roads University, Colwood

• Bastion Square and lower Johnson Street, Victoria

• The Uplands, Oak Bay

Register your home as a location

The commission relies on residents registering their homes – from Uplands mansions to apartment suites – in its locations database. The homes of young families, most often character houses in Victoria’s Fairfield or Fernwood neighbourhoods, account for about 60 per cent of the locations used. For more information on how to register your home, visit

Cutting costs

B.C. Ferries has agreed to a 10-per-cent discount for film industry trucks, which generally come with a ferry fare of about $25,000 per production. The commission has also been in talks with the City of Victoria to reduce the parking rates, bills that Gilbert has seen as high as $50,000 in her time as a location manager.

Cost of the commission

The Vancouver Island South Film and Media Commission set a budget of $174,298 for 2012. Municipal grant funding won’t be confirmed until budgets are due later in the spring. In 2010, the commission received $42,246 in provincial grants and contributions, as well as $88,400 in grants from area municipalities. This spring the commission asked for $3,000 from Oak Bay, $35,700 from Saanich, $1,000 from Esquimalt and $45,000 from the City of Victoria.

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