The Last Picture Show, by Rob King

“Well it was a good run, almost twenty-five years,” said Kevin DeWalt. He was referring to his film company and the film industry in general. We were sitting in a fishing boat, lines in the clear water of Besnard Lake. The lake is north west of La Ronge and Chris and Patty run the camp we were calling home for a few days. We’ve been going there for thirty years, leaving a few of our hard-earned dollars behind.

It’s not easy making a living in film anywhere, let alone Saskatchewan where agriculture and now natural resources predominate. It’s a place where culture and art flounder in the grip of a vague idea that they are trivial and unnecessary. Yet in 2008 alone the film industry brought $60 million into the province. And now in the age of the 500-channel universe and YouTube, we are about to see all those revenues go away and most of our images too.

Frankly, it’s beyond depressing and it’s embarrassing.

What really irks so many is that the Government made its cut then waged a war of misinformation to justify that cut. Tax credits paid out for Saskatchewan labour, and largely already part of the film’s budget after a film had been shot, became “grants”. Single purposes companies, preferred by banks, investors, insurers and CRA for the production of a film, became “shell companies.” The Premier has said his government refuses to participate in “a race to the bottom.” To the bottom of what, I have to ask?

But trying to explain the truth to the average taxpayer was a steep, uphill endeavor. The damage was done, aided by a minister who could care less for the industry he was charged with helping.

Ironically DeWalt, others and myself were all there around NDP Finance Minister Janice McKinnon’s table when tax credits were initially put into play. The NDP at that time did not support the idea. The opposition Conservatives championed it.

How times change.

They change for good and bad, but this one is a whole scale slide into an abyss that will haunt the province for decades.

I wheel my car into the Extra Foods gas bar every week. The owner Mike makes about $200 off our family as we fuel our vehicles. Like the Safeway on 13th Ave, Atlantis coffee shop, the Shoppers on Broad Street, the Italian Deli, The Mercury Cafe and many more daily, weekly or monthly stops for me–Mike at the gas bar will find new customers. But I’ll be gone. More than thirty years of work, community volunteer time, of building friendships, owning homes, raising children and paying bills will go too.

The industry has done a great deal for me. It has allowed me to pursue a dream,. It has allowed me to travel the entire province. For that, I am eternally grateful. I have done this on foot, on horseback, on four wheels, on snowmobiles, boats of every sort and many times in a helicopter—all of them rented from Saskatchewan companies.

I remember the first big movie we the industry made. We shot most of it around LaRonge and featured the forest, the lake, the Churchill River Bridge. We filled a few motels, made deals with the local Cree Band for catering, trucks, water and so on. On our days off, we rented house boats, hired local fishing guides and golfed on the nearby course.

I remember spending several days in Val Marie with a small crew a few summers ago. A big storm blew in and knocked out the power. We used a gas generator to get the television going in the bar, so the crew and the locals could see the end of a Rider game. The owner made about $100 in donations off of us for the girls’ baseball team. That same night, the local theatre was hosting a Sex In The City night and many women were dressed in their finest. We watched them running home in a wind that was blowing 100 kilometers an hour, skirts and dress and hats lifting and twisting every which way.

I remember taking the cast of The Englishman’s Boy through the badlands and part of the Cypress Hills, filming passages of them riding over hills and through trees. We were documenting the lead up to the Cypress Hills Massacre, a piece of Saskatchewan history filmed in the place it actually happened. We were adapting a novel by Saskatchewan author Guy Vanderhaeghe. No one else would or could have done that.

Film people don’t get a pension. They don’t get every second Friday off. They do not have paid holidays. Their work is cyclical. When it’s there to be had, they work long hours. Consider that a $10 million dollar film may spend years in development but when it comes together, it happens fast. In the space of a few months, an office with full bore communication technology is established, a hundred people are hired, locations are found, lumber is purchased and sets are built, wardrobe is put together, actors fly in, hotels fill up, an enormous number of vehicles are rented, cameras roll and then, eight weeks later the whole thing is wrapped up. The accounting and legal work, all done by local firms, goes on for years but an entire corporation is formed, run successfully and then dismantled in the blink of an eye. That takes enormous skill and intestinal fortitude.

People have been taking the risk associated with big filmmaking here in Saskatchewan through several governments and since Brad Wall was but a kid. Countless roads have been paved and re-paved in that time. Endless farming subsidies have been implemented and withdrawn. Potash has risen and fallen and risen again in the world markets. Tax credits of every shape and size have been provided to oil and gas, mining and construction industries. Small businesses have staffed themselves with young people whose wages are subsidized by the federal government. Women entrepreneurs have received loans with friendly terms to help them be successful. Even our professional football team has survived in part on dollars raised through public fundraising campaigns. Now we are going to get a new hospital thanks largely in part to more public fundraising.

All these industry and business credits and subsidies, donations, cuts and grants will cycle through again long after Mr. Wall has moved on. Such is the fleeting, temperamental nature of politics.

Other industries have suffered cuts. Chiropractic patients, for instance, lost $6 million a year in government subsidized treatment. Since that time, health costs associated with back problems have increased significantly because people are going to specialists and emergency wards instead of the chiropractor. But for ten minutes, the cut seemed to some like a wise budgetary move. It’s enough to make me ache.

Film has roots here in Saskatchewan stretching back to the 1920s. Now those roots are being torn out, choked off. There will always be people making films of some sort here, but the big projects—the ones that really helped pay the bills and finance the development of high quality indigenous work—will be gone. And they won’t be back, even if the government changes hands in the next election, or the one after that. It takes time to build an industry, to build trust with potential investors and Hollywood companies. It took but a few months to destroy decades of work with an un-researched plan and a heavy hand that stopped all meaningful communication between government and the thousand people who want to make films here, who want to live in the province they love.

What people simply need to know on an economic level is that we made films. That ten or fifteen percent of the money needed to make a film came from a tax program that rewarded the hiring of Saskatchewan residents. The rest of the money was raised by a Saskatchewan based producer and his or her foreign partners—new money that flowed through cities and towns and many, many places of business. It was dynamic, environmentally clean and it was built on youth and moxie.

Beyond, far beyond the economics, our stories, complete with moving images and sound, stretched far back into our past and ahead to our future. The simple truth is that if we want culture, we have to help pay for it, like we help pay for education, better roads and health care. It’s about a quality of life, a sense of pride and a legacy beyond the slag heaps, salt piles and new office towers that say we were once here.

Rob King