Hooray for (Winnipeg to) Hollywood Manitoba film-industry, government and Indigenous delegates board first of WestJet’s direct flights to L.A. to drum up more ‘action!’ for province
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/10/2022 (217 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
LOS ANGELES — Heard of a New York minute? Same sort of thing, only warmer. And sunnier.
WestJet’s plane hadn’t been on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport long, but Flight WS1315’s Winnipeg passengers had no time to waste; they had places to go and people to talk to in Hollywood.
Interim Manitoba Film and Music CEO Rod Bruinooge was meeting with executives from the Lionsgate entertainment conglomerate. Sit-downs at Sony and Netflix were on Culture and Heritage Minister Andrew Smith’s agenda.
Nearly two dozen people connected to the province’s burgeoning film industry were on the airline’s inaugural direct flight between Winnipeg and the City of Angels early Monday morning.
It was a much quicker trip home for John DiMaggio, the voice of Futurama’s Bender the Robot.
DiMaggio boarded the 7 a.m. flight before sunrise, and Winnipeg Airports Authority volunteers offered him blue WestJet sunglasses — a gift to celebrate the “historic” flight, as crew member Ian Carter described it.
The early start to the day was worth it for DiMaggio. After spending the better part of a day in three different airports on his way to Winnipeg’s Comiccon, where he was one of the featured guests over the weekend, getting back to L.A. Monday via a four-hour flight was a better journey for the actor.
And that’s what made the flight — and those to follow — a big deal for Manitoba.
“When you say there’s no direct flight to Winnipeg, that’s a big ‘X’ (among) various checkmarks (for bringing film productions to the city),” said Jamie Brown, CEO of Frantic Films.
Brown was part of Manitoba’s first-ever delegation to promote the province to the centre of the film universe.
“It’ll be busy,” Brown said of his week-long stay. “We want to make the most of it.”
His agenda included meetings with potential co-producers and financiers. He had 30 meetings to fit in between Monday and Saturday.
The new WestJet route, scheduled three times weekly, is a key part of Rod Bruinooge’s elevator pitch to Hollywood executives.
“This flight comes at a time when we’re growing,” Bruinooge said while waiting to clear U.S. customs.
There is, roughly $1 million in film production daily in Manitoba; the industry attracted approximately $365 million this past fiscal year, Bruinooge said.
Take a close look at Flag Day, a 2021 film starring Sean Penn, and you can catch the odd glimpse of a location in the province.
Same goes for Nobody with Bob Odenkirk, Champions with Woody Harrelson and The Ice Road with Liam Neeson.
Over the past two decades, Manitoba has attracted a who’s-who of Hollywood names and notable box-office successes along with a truckload of Hallmark films.
Big Sky Studios, a 187,000-square-foot film production centre, opened on Inkster Boulevard in September.
Bruinooge hopes, with the direct flights, film production in Manitoba will hit $500 million annually within five years.
“In 10 years, it’d be great if we were in the billion-dollar range,” he said.
And that explains the number of deal-hungry industry, government and Indigenous delegates aboard WestJet’s Boeing 737 Monday.
The team is hosting Hollywood producers at L.A.’s Consulate General of Canada this week.
“Every big studio that you can think of — Warner, Universal — have been invited,” Bruinooge said.
Kenny Boyce, the city’s manager of film and special events, said Winnipeg’s competitive edge is “amazing.”
“The cost of doing business is just so (much) less,” he said, referring to the price of cast and crew accommodations compared to bigger centres such as Vancouver and Toronto.
And the province also has one of the most competitive tax credits for film productions in the country. Production companies get up to 65 per cent back on their corporate income tax if they staff their sets with Manitobans. A second credit allows for a return of up to 38 per cent if directors shoot in Manitoba.
The two tax credits can’t be combined.
Boyce has been working for nearly 25 years to secure a direct flight.
When he joined the City of Winnipeg in 1998, Manitoba’s film industry was generating $7 million in production annually.
He realized how marketable the province is; sandy, rocky Lake Winnipeg can easily pass for an ocean. The well-preserved turn-of-the-last-century Exchange District architecture can stand in for many other cities.
But he knew those attributes were a tough sell without a direct flight to Los Angeles. He and others in the industry began meeting with Winnipeg airport officials in the late 1990s, suggesting a direct path to Los Angeles would boost Manitoba’s film industry.
Producers might stay on location months before filming and weeks after. A roughly four-hour flight is easier to swallow, to see family, than a day-long, multi-pronged odyssey.
“It was always this, ‘What am I doing for the holidays? Can I sneak back home for these life moments of birthdays and weddings and so forth, or do I have to stay in Canada?’” Boyce said.
“It was like… ‘build and they will come.’”
Flights between Winnipeg and Los Angeles run Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays.
More than 2,000 people work in the province’s film industry, according to Manitoba Film and Music data.
“This is an industry that we really see an opportunity for, and we need to prepare people for (it) because it’s growing,” said Kirk Johnson, Red River College Polytechnic’s dean of business, information technology and creative arts.
The college launched its digital film and media production program in 2021 after consultations with industry leads.
It has graduated its first 13 students and now accepts 20 to the program annually. Students learn about videography, audio, lighting and post-production, among other things.
“Crew is a huge issue,” noted Frantic Films’s Brown. “It’s probably the No. 1 limiter to get production (in Manitoba).”
And along with crew members, accountants and management staff are needed, said Monique Perro, a lead with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees’ Manitoba branch.
Crew levels grew 28 per cent during the pandemic, she added.
“People who are coming in… need to know you have somebody good in certain roles, like the director of photography and the head camera person,” Brown said, noting Manitobans often get those jobs when shooting is done here.
Productions also benefit college students in trades, culinary and hospitality, Johnson said.
“People need sets built. They need caterers, they need hotels,” he said.
Bob Brown anticipates seeing more customers in the 65,000 square-foot film studio he manages in the coming years. Continuous direct flights to Los Angeles help, he said.
He noted California’s scale. It’s set to become the world’s fourth-largest economy — surpassing Germany — according to a recent Bloomberg report.
“It’s great to be connected to that directly,” he said.
Jared and Sarah Unrau had no clue they were boarding a special flight Monday — the couple just wanted an inexpensive ride.
“I was literally at work, and I was like, ‘I want to leave Winnipeg,’” Sarah said.
So there they were, ready for fun at Disneyland, touching down in Los Angeles surrounded by the film delegation.
“We’re just ecstatic to bring this to (the community),” said Nick Hays, president of the Winnipeg Airports Authority, which received $4.8 million from the provincial government for flight connectivity costs.
Economic Development Winnipeg president Dayna Spiring is also pushing for direct routes to Chicago, Denver and New York City.
“We think we’ve lost a lot of business in the past few years because we haven’t had that direct connectivity,” Spiring said, noting that it’s hard to track how much film-industry business has been lost because production companies don’t report why they chose a different location.
Economic Development Winnipeg sent a team of three to Los Angeles on Monday. In addition to meetings with people in the film industry, they will also be sitting down with California-headquartered technology and green-energy companies, Spiring said.
The regular connection to Los Angeles could create more jobs and investment in Manitoba’s zero-emission transit, industrial and agricultural equipment manufacturing sectors and the aerospace industry, the province said.
“This connectivity may prove to be a good investment for them — it may help them decide to make Winnipeg another one of their posts,” Spiring said.
Apple and Google are among the state’s tech giants, and Spiring pointed to international videogame company Ubisoft, which opened a studio in Winnipeg after building a headquarters in Montreal.
Ubisoft is creating 300 jobs in Winnipeg.
Manitoba’s tech industry adds more than $2 billion to the economy, but people shouldn’t be expecting established companies to race here, said Tech Manitoba CEO Kelly Fournel.
“A direct flight would… be more icing on the cake, as opposed to opening up the floodgates. If a company really wants to be here, they would find a way,” Fournel said.
Manitobans may be able to work for international companies remotely, she said. Even so, the line between Winnipeg and Los Angeles could lead to new relationships with an untapped market, she added.
Smith was preparing winter-vacation ideas for California organizations.
“People in California are going to love the idea of the polar bear. That’s a side benefit… to sell Manitoba as a tourism destination,” he said.
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Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.
Updated on Monday, October 31, 2022 11:35 PM CDT: Minor tweaks to a sentence about flight times
Updated on Tuesday, November 1, 2022 9:52 AM CDT: Clarifies that Winnipeg Airports Authority volunteers offered DiMaggio blue WestJet sunglasses, not WestJet employees.