I first met Marc Almon back in 1998 when he was the proverbial bright-eyed and bushy-tailed president of the Kings College Independent Film Society and I was the Program Administrator for the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation. Marc had applied for a small operating grant for the society. He talked passionately about why KIFS was important and what it meant to him and his fellow students. I recommended the application to the Board at NSFDC, largely based on having talked to Marc, and like all of my recommendations when I was there it was approved. A few months later, I attended their annual screening of the short films they made with the grant, and I wasn’t surprised in the least that Marc and KIFS had managed to pack the Rebecca Cohn auditorium.
As it turns out, Marc did indeed pursue a career in filmmaking, and by 2015 had emerged as one of the top up-and-coming young film producers in Canada. He produced the critically-acclaimed and award-winning feature film Blackbird by director Jason Buxton, had been named as one of the “20 Young Canadian Stars on the Rise in Hollywood” in 2013 by the Hollywood Reporter, and had a number of projects ready for production in 2015.
And then all hell broke loose in April, 2015, when the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil released a budget that contained massive cuts to the Nova Scotia film industry, including the closing down of Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia and the slashing of the film tax credit to levels that were simply unworkable for producers. As the chairperson of the fledgling industry association Screen Nova Scotia, Marc was thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, as he led the fight to save the film industry from complete disaster even as he tried to keep his business going and get his own productions financed in a world where the old financing model no longer existed.
It’s a testament to Marc’s ability as both a producer and a leader that he managed to succeed in both tasks. While the film industry in Nova Scotia isn’t what it was prior to the Liberal cuts, it also isn’t gone altogether, and that’s due to the efforts of Marc and his colleagues at Screen Nova Scotia. In terms of his own business, Marc managed to recover from the setback of last April and found a way to pull together the financing to get the feature film Nineteenseventysomething made, directed by Bruce McDonald and written by Daniel MacIvor (the film is currently in post-production, and Marc plans to debut it at this year’s Atlantic Film Festival).
Marc’s term as chairperson of Screen Nova Scotia came to an end last month, so I thought it would be a good time to sit down with him and reflect upon the hectic events of the past couple of years.
Here is that conversation.
PK. So here we are sitting in the Humani-T coffee shop in the North End of Halifax, Marc, and as I take another sip of my vanilla bean latte I can’t help but think back to a little over a year ago, in early April 2015. I imagine you sitting in a coffee shop then as the chairperson of a relatively low-key film industry talk-shop called Screen Nova Scotia, sipping a cup of joe, and wondering what was going to happen in terms of the film industry in the Liberal government’s soon-to-be-unveiled 2015 – 16 budget. It was a different “universe” for us, wasn’t it? A kinder, happier universe. [Laughs]
MA: [Laughs] Yeah.
PK: I wasn’t in the government’s super-secret lock-down room when the budget was released, but you were, and I’ve always wondered – what was it like in there for you? Did you have any expectation of the tsunami that was about to hit us all, and what were your immediate reactions when you finally saw what the Liberals had done to the film industry?
MA: We had an inkling that it was going to be bad, mainly because of what occurred on March 25th of 2015, when Finance Minister Diana Whalen gave her pre-budget speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. That’s when she attacked the film tax credit, and leveled accusations at the industry that were misleading, like the idea that 99% of companies don’t pay taxes and that the tax credit wasn’t really a tax credit, and so on. I remember receiving a phone call from Lisa Bugden, the CEO of Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia, giving me the heads-up about this speech, and I could tell that she was really unnerved by it, and very surprised.
PK: Did the heads-up from Lisa come before Whalen had delivered her speech on the 25th or after?
MA: The speech had been delivered, and so I got the heads-up and then immediately searched for the YouTube video of it. All of us at Screen Nova Scotia kind of dropped what we were doing and watched the clip and realized that this was very bad. That’s when we started to prepare for the worst. For example, we organized a petition in very short order, and we got 24,000 signatures in the space of forty-eight hours. The #NSFilmJobs hashtag was invented at that time, and it ultimately went on to have over 74 million impressions on Twitter.
PK: As Darth Vader would say – “impressive.”
MA: It was impressive. So I went into the budget lock-up on April with Alistair Jarvis from the video gaming sector, whom I invited because I thought it was important for us to have somebody there from digital media as well, and they closed the doors and took our phones. It was a room filled with two hundred people, maybe more, in the Marriott. I sat down and they already had the big budget documents there for us, so I looked through it to find the stuff that was relevant for us. When I found the information relating to the creative industries, it was utterly shocking. They were shutting down Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia, they were changing the tax credit so that 75% of it was non-refundable, which meant that 75% of the tax credit being offered was no longer useful to us at all…
PK: It created a tax credit that was effectively 12.5%.
MA: Yes, exactly. It dropped us from 50% to 12.5%. They talked vaguely about setting up a creative economy fund of six million dollars, but had no details. Basically, I looked at it and thought, “this will cause the total collapse of the film industry.” And then I had to sit there for the next hour and a half while Byron Rafuse, the Associate Deputy Minister of Finance, went into more detail about the various budget measures. It was so devastating. The only other person in the room who really understood what was happening was Alistair, and his industry was okay because they didn’t do anything crazy to the digital media tax credit. But to me and my community I knew this was going to be so devastating. I knew, for example, that projects I had been working on for years were in jeopardy, and I knew a lot of other people were going to be facing the same problems, but I couldn’t leave the room. I was just trying my best to hold it all together, and I did manage to ask some questions. When they finally opened the doors I ran out of the room with the budget documents, and I remember Geoff D’Eon and Jay Dahl were there waiting for me – they told me later on that I looked white as a sheet. I told them it was far worse than we had anticipated.
PK: What did you do next?
MA: Screen Nova Scotia had rented a room at the Marriott, and our board of directors along with a number of other stakeholders were there. I arrived and described to everyone what was happening. People were in complete disbelief. That’s when we decided that we had to get ahead of the message and communicate to Nova Scotians how absolutely devastating this was to the industry, and that unless something was done the entire industry would collapse.
PK: I still see a lot of people asking the question of why the government did this. What’s your take on that? Do you think they specifically targeted the film industry, or was it all just a mistake?
MA: I think it was a mixture of both. It’s true that the government didn’t fully understand the implications of what they were doing, which came from a lack of consultation. At the same time, it’s pretty hard to refute what those actions constituted. They shut down Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia without a real plan to replace any of their programs. The idea that NSBI would just take over and take care of it speaks to the lack of respect that the government has for the film industry, and their lack of understanding of what the industry requires in order to be competitive and to be a healthy contributor to the economy of Nova Scotia. Losing Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia was a huge blow, particularly their programs – equity investment, script development, travel assistance, and so on. Anyway, I think what likely occurred behind closed doors was the Finance Department convinced people within the government, particularly the Finance Minister and the Premier, that the film industry was a huge money loser, which is totally bogus. Once they convinced them of that argument, however, then the government basically said, “Well, what’s the purpose of having Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia, if all it does is bolster a money-losing industry? Why not give some of those responsibilities to NSBI and wind up the other programs?” If you follow that logic, what they did really does make sense with the agency.
PK: So what do you think needs to happen going forward?
MA: We managed to get a digital animation tax credit in place, which saved hundreds of jobs. We did get the new film incentive program put in place, which is not perfect but it seems to be working for some productions. I still think improvements are going to need to be made to those programs as we go forward because they were instituted very quickly. But the next step, frankly, is we need to start fixing a lot of the programs that were lost with the closure of Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia, which has created gaps in financing structures for a lot of local producers. In my view, the only way that we’re going to be able to do that is for either Screen Nova Scotia to take on those responsibilities somehow, or it’s run through the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. I don’t think NSBI is the right vehicle. I think they can administer the Film and Television Production Incentive Fund, but I don’t think they are ideal for running the other necessary programs that we need to have in place, and I think that it seems like the government agrees because they have given the administration of the creative economy fund to Communities, Culture and Heritage.
PK: I’ve always been a believer that any money that winds up in Communities, Culture and Heritage is right next to the cutting block, because it’s the least important ministry within the government, in terms of financial and institutional clout. I would rather have a stand-alone Crown agency again under Business and then let them do their thing, like they used to.
MA: That’s an interesting perspective. I wouldn’t be opposed to that. Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia was a crucial part of my success and I know for a lot of other people it was important. There were some things about it that drove me crazy at the time, and there were some issues for sure, but in the end I think we were all very lucky to have such a dedicated crown corporation working in our interests.
PK: When you were sitting in the budget lock-up room last April, what were you thinking about your own projects that you had applied two months earlier, in good faith, to Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia for funding? Talk a bit about how this affected you personally, and the people who you were going to employ.
MA: I actually had three projects that I was trying to set up for production in 2015. On two of those three projects I had been hoping to secure equity financing from Film and Creative Industries, so of course when they were suddenly shut down that blew a big hole in the financing for those two projects. On one of those projects in particular, with Bruce MacDonald, I wasn’t sure how I was going to proceed without equity. So yeah, I was sitting there and thinking, “great, I’ve just lost all of my income for the next year.” These were projects I had poured my heart and soul into for years, so that was really disturbing and deeply upsetting to me.
PK: It must have been really rough. You were following up on Blackbird, which was a critically-acclaimed, award-winning feature film. It was supposed to be the film that opened the doors for you to the next level. That’s how the system was supposed to work for our up-and-coming young filmmakers. And then it was all taken away without any warning.
MA: It’s frustrating to think about the setbacks I experienced from really poor government policy over the last three or four years. Besides the McNeil Liberals pulling this, there was also the difficulty in dealing with the Harper Conservatives, who cut funding from the CBC, the National Film Board, and Telefilm. The arts have really been under assault for the last five to ten years. I’m thankful that we have new policies under the Trudeau Liberals and the re-investment that they are making in the arts. It’s just really unfortunate that our provincial Liberal government is so out of sync with their federal counterparts. But I think it’s important for us not to dwell on these things, you know. Shit happens. We’re in an industry where funding can fall apart for projects at a moment’s notice. We have to be prepared for that. I’m just grateful that we now have something in place that will allow me to envision having a future here in Nova Scotia. It’s certainly a tougher future than I had been expecting, but hopefully that won’t keep me from pursuing my dreams as a filmmaker.
PK: If someone came to you right now and said, “Marc Almon, you get to be Premier of Nova Scotia, and you can design a new film funding system from scratch,” what would that new system look like?
MA: I would love to see an independent production fund with a really streamlined, efficient administration, free of any political interference, with a board of directors that would have some really competent, smart people on it that could provide guidance for the people applying for funding. We’re a small province, with just under a million people. We should be able to have institutions that are responsive and able to offer guidance. I would also want to see support for script development. We need to encourage our writers to stay here. We also shouldn’t be afraid to work with writers from outside the province as well. Let’s face it – we need to be working with talent from around the world. I’d love to see Screen Nova Scotia take up some of the roles that Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia had, like promoting the province internationally, and providing mentorship and professional development support for our emerging filmmakers. And the reason I like that idea is because Screen Nova Scotia is a member-driven organization, so therefore it’s accountable to its members. So that’s sort of how I envision the future. If we can find a way to invest in our local filmmakers again, then I think that we’ll be alright. The digital animation tax credit and the film production incentive fund aren’t perfect, but I think with some tweaking they’ll be okay. Hopefully that will happen through dialogue with government.
PK: If the tax credit is good enough for the digital animation sector, why isn’t it good enough for a film production? What about the idea that some people like John Wesley Chisholm have floated, of a “media industries” tax credit that would apply to all sectors?
MA: I’m not opposed to that idea. The problem with the old film tax credit was that the administration of it was so slow. It was really bad. At least with the new incentive fund, being based on an all-spend model, it seems more straightforward, and it seems like it’s going to be administered a lot faster at NSBI. That’s a huge advantage, just having it move much faster. Also, frankly, the all-spend model makes it more simple, in terms of being able to just say, “here are the expenditures in Nova Scotia – I can expect to get a certain percentage of that back.” That encourages the development of more infrastructure here, like studios and equipment houses and things like that. I think that if you can try and turn the new production incentive fund into as much like a tax credit as possible but maintain its positive features then that could be a viable way forward as well.
PK: Let’s travel back in time for a moment, to when the Broten Report came out in 2014. Could the response by the film industry been more conciliatory? Should we have accepted some of the recommendations that we might not have been in favour of by way of showing good faith, and a commitment to do our part to try and help sort of the financial difficulties that Nova Scotia is in?
MA: I agree with that sentiment. I think it would have been smart for us to go in there offering to give something up, and to say that we understood the fiscal difficulties the province is facing. That would have been smart of us. But there was so little communication between Screen Nova Scotia and the government in that time period, driven in part by inconsistent messaging from the government. They were coming out and saying that they were going to preserve the tax credit, and even the Broten report said to keep the tax credit, but to make some tweaks. I think that we would have been fine with those tweaks. I know that there were definitely people within Screen Nova Scotia who were hopeful that there would be no changes whatsoever, because they viewed it in the sense of we need to be competitive with other jurisdictions. But I do think the time has come to rethink that. You’re seeing other jurisdictions gradually bringing their tax credits down, which only makes sense in the context of the American dollar right now and also, frankly, certain places like Vancouver are developing such a strong critical mass of talent that it allows them to operate more efficiently and without the need of a really large tax credit. But there was so little consultation here, and the Broten report wasn’t really listened to anyway. So it wasn’t really an opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue. I do agree though that we should have been more proactive. I think a little bit of that comes down to the fact that besides the strange messaging we were getting from the government, which made us feel like we didn’t have to worry about anything, there was also frankly a lack of understanding on our part of how to engage with the government. Screen Nova Scotia was built off of the bones of the Nova Scotia Motion Picture Industry Association (NSMPIA), which had gone dormant in 2011. There was so little knowledge and so little infrastructure there that nobody really knew how to go about engaging with government.
PK: As a former president of the Nova Scotia Film and Television Producers’ Association, which preceded NSMPIA, I can tell you that we had trouble getting quorum for meetings. We had real trouble getting producers to be engaged with policy matters. I remember one meeting that a producer named Lesley Ann Patten called over some matter that she thought was important, so I managed to assemble a quorum of the board at the old Salter Street offices on Barrington, across from the Roy building, and we waited for 30 minutes and she didn’t show up. So we adjourned, and as I exited the building I saw Patten across the road in front of the Roy, where she had her offices, casually chatting with a friend. So I went up to her and asked her why she didn’t come to the meeting that she had called for, and she just smiled and said that she thought we would take care of it, and that she had more important things to do. And I remember thinking, “fine… where do I hand in my resignation.” So, if there’s a silver lining to take out of the past year, could it be that Screen Nova Scotia has emerged as what the Producer’s Association and NSMPIA never were, namely an effective industry organization that is member-driven and active?
MA: I’m immensely proud of Screen Nova Scotia and the distance that it’s come. You’re right – it’s been forged by this adversity. We’re exceptionally lucky that it happened to be in place when this crisis hit. Previous groups would come together and then they would go dormant. One of the biggest problems, I think, was either that they were just seen as producers’ organizations, or when they did include other groups like the unions the producers would never show up. In April 2014, a group of producers were brought in to speak to Laurel Broten as she was preparing her report, and there were members of the Finance Department there, and it was a very hostile environment. It was clear that the Department of Finance had a strong dislike for the film tax credit, and I think the film industry in general, and they did not hide that hostility in the meeting. That’s when people started to become really scared. So the next day a group of about thrity producers got together in the board room of Stewart McKelvey, and it was a bit unruly, so I stepped up to chair the meeting. That’s how I sort of got roped into becoming the chairperson of Screen Nova Scotia – I just happened to be there at that time. It was determined at the end of that meeting that we should really try and resuscitate some sort of industry association, and I got left with the task of organizing the next general meeting and…
PK: That’s what Senator Palpatine said, just before he took over the Republic and turned it into the Galactic Empire.
MA: [Laughs] I had been chair of AFCOOP before, and president of the Kings Independent Film Society, and so I had the experience and I just sort of felt a sense of obligation to my community to step in. So I organized an annual general meeting for May, 2014, and luckily we still had the bylaws of NSMPIA and about $2,000 in the bank, so that’s what I used to get us going again. We made a point to put together a board of directors that had strong representation from different sectors, including producers, unions, AFCOOP, stakeholders and so on. It was a good group, and as a result it allowed us to sort of stick together through thick and thin during that first year, even though we were constantly struggling with apathy. I had two resignations in the month before Whalen’s Chamber of Commerce speech on March 25th 2015. Like you and the old Producer’s Association, I had struggles getting quorum sometimes. Even though this was a great group of people, they had to focus on their businesses as well. And that’s extremely dangerous. Our industry is dependent on government policy, and so therefore we need to be engaged and we need to have a strong industry association. Now that there’s no Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia at all, it means that Screen Nova Scotia has to remain strong and deeply engaged with its community.
PK: I think that’s one of the problems we had over the years – we grew too reliant on Ann MacKenzie and the government film agency in its various incarnations to carry our water for us.
MA: Yes, absolutely. I definitely agree that Ann MacKenzie was very effective at her job. She was so effective that the tax credit was perhaps pushed to a rate that was ultimately unsustainable. You have to keep in mind, however, that the film industry was quite fractious, and the Department of Finance was at numerous points in time trying to get rid of the tax credit altogether. It nearly happened in 2010 – 2011. The NDP Finance Minister got the same pressure. Luckily at that time Graham Steele and Darrell Dexter met with the industry, they heard our arguments, and in the end they agreed with us. In fact, they implemented changes that really helped the animation sector of the industry in particular. But they were getting frustrated as well. Because there was no single industry voice, it was causing them a lot of trouble. Graham Steele is on the record, I think, as saying that the film industry was one of his most difficult files. So when the NDP created Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia to replace Film Nova Scotia, they didn’t want it to be a lobbying organization for the film industry. That’s not the purpose of a crown corporation. So when Lisa Bugden was brought in to replace Ann, I think it was made clear that Film and Creative Industries was not to act as a lobbyist to government on behalf of the film industry – that’s the film industry’s job. As a result Lisa encouraged the film industry in general, and me in particular, to get the industry association going again, because she said we needed it. Publishing and music had very effective associations for years, and we were by far the bigger industry but had nothing really, because for years we had been way too reliant on Film Nova Scotia and when that organization fundamentally changed in 2012 we perhaps didn’t recognize all of the implications of that as quickly as we should have. That’s why it’s so important to have Screen Nova Scotia, not only as an advocate for its members but as a provider of crucial services for those members.
PK: Thank you, Marc.
MA: My pleasure, Paul.
Marc’s award-winning short film “Faire Chaluim MhicLeoid”
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