Westjet launches direct flights to L.A. Province’s film, TV industry ecstatic: ‘This is a big deal’

Winnipeggers, especially those in the film production industry, have dreamed about direct airline service to the bright lights of Los Angeles for more than 20 years.

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Winnipeggers, especially those in the film production industry, have dreamed about direct airline service to the bright lights of Los Angeles for more than 20 years.

On Wednesday, WestJet made that dream come true.

John Weatherill, the airline’s executive vice-president, and a former Winnipegger, said the three-times-per week 737 service will start Oct. 31.

ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS John Weatherill, Westjet's executive vice-president, speaks to reporters after the announcement at the Metropolitan Entertainment centre in Winnipeg Wednesday.

Tickets were already on sale.

It will be the first direct service from Winnipeg to Los Angeles, a market of 10 million people in a state with the fifth-largest economy in the world — and most importantly, global headquarters in the world of film and television production.

Dayna Spiring, CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg, does whatever she can think of to put Winnipeg on the global stage. This was something that her agency has been working on for a long time.

“The L.A. market offers Winnipeg so many opportunities for investment, tourism and talent attraction. We can sell our city more effectively when we make it easy for people and decision makers to get here and experience Winnipeg in person,” she said.

Manitoba has doggedly pursued the film industry for years. Its efforts were hampered by the lack of direct flights and winter weather inconveniences for Californians accustomed to sunny climes. Despite that, the industry here has grown 10-fold over the past 20 years and is the fourth-largest in the country. The last fiscal year was the busiest yet for the industry in Manitoba with production expenditures hitting $364.5 million.

Rod Bruinooge, interim CEO of Manitoba Film and Music, said he remembers when he was in the business 20 years ago and the industry was worth $30 million annually.

ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rod Bruinooge, Rod Bruinooge, interim CEO of Manitoba Film and Music, speaks at an announcement for a new flight path from Winnipeg to Los Angeles starting in October.

He said it’s conceivable it could top $1 billion in the next 10 years.

Along with a new 137,000-square-foot soundstage that is expected to be ready for business in the next few weeks — the first major investment in the industry in 25 years — industry folks were ecstatic about the news that travel to L.A. will become much easier.

At a buzzy event at the Metropolitan Event Centre on Wednesday, film industry executives from production houses active in Manitoba used the refrain that it is a “game changer.”

Anthony Fankhauser, the vice-president of production at Cartel Pictures, a movie-of-the-week producer, said he officially moved to Winnipeg from L.A. in 2020.

“This is a big deal,” he said. “No one likes waiting in the Minneapolis airport for four hours on a lay-over.”

He said he needs to bring in anywhere from five to 40 people for a production in Winnipeg.

“This is a big deal. No one likes waiting in the Minneapolis airport for four hours on a lay-over.” – Anthony Fankhauser, vice-president of production at Cartel Pictures

“You’re going to cut an entire day of travel in half as opposed to leaving L.A. at 5 a.m. and getting here at midnight,” he said. “It is going to take the stink out of travelling to Winnipeg.”

Ian Dimerman, president of Inferno Pictures, the co-producer of the CBC series The Porter, which was shot in Winnipeg last year, was the only Manitoba investor in the soundstage being developed on Inkster Boulevard.

“When studios first started coming here 25 years ago, Carole Vivier, the longtime CEO of Manitoba Film and Sound used to say we need a direct flight to L.A.,” he said.

“It opens up opportunities not just for studio executives to come to Winnipeg to babysit productions, but also for actors who want to come in and work and jet home to be with their families.”

JEFF MCINTOSH / CANADIAN PRESS FILES Winnipeg was one of the first five destinations in WestJet’s launch 26 years ago.

Just like other significant accomplishments in Winnipeg, it took collaboration between the provincial government, Economic Development Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Airports Authority.

Premier Heather Stefanson and a handful of cabinet ministers were on hand for the announcement.

“Manitoba’s film and television industry plays a key role in our provincial economy. This strategic investment that will have significant benefits not only for the entertainment industry, but for Manitoba’s tourism, trade and business sectors,” Stefanson said.

Winnipeg was one of the first five destinations in WestJet’s launch 26 years ago. WestJet provides more flights and more non-stop destinations — 22 with L.A. — than any other airline that serves the city.

A couple of years ago, the provincial government made its film and TV production tax credit — one of the most competitive in the country — permanent. Last week, it announced a $4.8-million grant to the Winnipeg Airports Authority to improve direct flight connectivity from Winnipeg to major international markets.

Airlines and airports negotiate incentives for airlines to provide service in their markets.

“Manitoba’s film and television industry plays a key role in our provincial economy. This strategic investment that will have significant benefits not only for the entertainment industry, but for Manitoba’s tourism, trade and business sectors.” – Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson

Nick Hays, CEO of the Winnipeg Airports Authority, said WestJet has long been a good partner; like any route, this one included a competitive arrangement for WestJet.

Kyle Irving, managing partner and executive producer of Eagle Vision Inc., an Indigenous-owned production company that co-produced the award-wining film Capote and made Manitoba winters famous through its Ice Road Truckers television show, said the deal is not just about the film biz.

“First and foremost, this is exciting for Manitoba… This is great for the province and the city to be able to connect with the fifth-largest economy in the world. The benefit the film industry gets out of it is terrific. That is the cherry on top.”

He said like any industry, film production depends on doing things quickly and on a large scale.

ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A boarding pass is revealed for a new flight path from Winnipeg to Los Angeles starting in October.

“So every efficiency is helpful,” he said. “Cutting the time it takes to travel from Winnipeg to L.A. in half will only help us.”

Kenny Boyce, the city’s longtime manager of film and special events, and the chief concierge for the industry, noted just how easier it will be for Winnipeggers to travel throughout the world by first flying to L.A.

While the airline industry is in an unsettled state with massive pent-up demand and challenged capacity, Weatherill said it was great to be able to make the Winnipeg-to-L.A. announcement.

WestJet is in the process of ramping up investments in Western Canada — and not so much in Eastern Canada.

He said that by winter, it will have increased its capacity in Winnipeg by 80 per cent over last year.

“That’s the largest year-over-year growth rate of any major airport in our network,” he said.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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