Fifteen months ago, roughly 70 people commandeered a small area of old growth forest just off the Squamish River main logging road with full camera systems, lights, make up, an animatronic bear... and Leonardo DiCaprio.
They spent more than a week there, filming a small but pivotal scene in the movie The Revenant, the true story of a trapper in the early 1800s who is mauled by a grizzly bear, an event that shapes the rest of the movie. The crew needed old-growth forest to set the grizzly scene.
"These forests are no longer easy to locate with any kind of reasonable access outside of the few Parks that have preserved them," wrote Robin Mounsey, The Revenant's location manager, in a letter to the provincial agency, Front Counter BC. "For the few that know of this area it is locally known as the 'Derringer Forest.'"
Modern-day Squamish setting a 200-year-old scene.
Just this week The Revenant took best picture, and best actor for DiCaprio, at the Golden Globes.
While The Revenant will not do to the Sea to Sky corridor what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand (just a fraction of the movie was shot in B.C.), it's another sign of the growing demand in the area for all kinds of film, TV shows and commercial shoots, a demand that is only expected to get stronger this year as the $2 billion dollar industry heats up in Hollywood North.
According to statistics from the municipal communications department, there were roughly two productions per month in 2015 in Whistler, including media and travel shows. This is more than double the volume in 2014, which was about one production every one to two months.
In Squamish there were 35 productions in 2015, up 40 per cent from the previous year. Though that did not translate to more filming days (125 two years ago compared to 111 last year), it gives a sense of just how many crews are scouting out the area.
"Certainly the interest hasn't waned even in the beginning of 2016," said Squamish mayor Patricia Heintzman. "When Vancouver goes up, we generally go up too."
The provincial transportation ministry also issued 95 contracts, up from 83 last year. Many of those were for car commercials on the iconic Sea to Sky highway — VW, BMW, Land Rover, Audi, Volvo, Dodge Ram.
"Highway 99 and local roads are a key location for driving shots," said Holly Adems, special events and filming coordinator with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.
Not to mention film shoots for Bates Motel, Deadpool, The Slash, The X-Files, Midnight Sun and The Looking Glass, to name just a few.
Creative BC, an organization committed to the growth and development of the province's creative industries, reported the highest volume of production activity in the last fiscal year, based on the number of provincial tax credit certifications that were issued for film and TV production. There were 287 domestic and international productions that received certification, an increase of 15 per cent over the previous year.
"These productions are estimated to contribute $2 billion dollars to the provincial economy in production spending, an increase of 40 per cent from the last fiscal year," said Prem Gill, CEO of Creative BC.
Creative BC is expecting the trend to continue with the low dollar, which this week dipped below 70 cents for the first time in 13 years, playing a role in attracting U.S. productions to Canada.
There are other factors too, said Gill: competitive and reliable provincial tax incentives, experienced casts and crews, film-friendly communities, a wide range of locations, and a growth in animation, visual effects and post-productions industries.
"We get approached all the time for different opportunities," said Shawna Lang, Tourism Whistler's director of market development.
Tourism Whistler actively goes after filming opportunities in key markets. It doesn't deal with the commercial projects, but rather the reality shows and media broadcasts and docu-dramas, all with an eye to telling and promoting Whistler's story.
"We always look for opportunities in which we can influence content and make sure it's putting out positive stories about Whistler," she said.
Unlike Whistler, which has a distinct look, Heintzman said Squamish could be made to look like many things.
"You can dress it up to make it look like a small city; you can dress it down to make it look like a small town," she said.
This past year there were 24 days of downtown filming, compared to nine days the previous year.
Squamish's municipal hall also stood in as a police department in the TV series The Returned, which was set to return to Squamish for another season but hasn't as of yet.
The District of Squamish does exit surveys with the production companies in an effort to understand the economic impact of each shoot, individually and collectively. Not all production days are equal depending on the budget of each shoot. Squamish estimates the total economic impact in 2015 at $2 million.
"The nice thing about film money is that it's like tourism money; it's brand new money into your town, it's not just re-circulated money," said Heintzman.
"It's the purest form of economic development when you can do that."
While the dollar is playing a role to entice the movie business north, Adems said it's much more than that.
"They're looking for snow-capped mountains, windy roads, water views, woodsy areas. They're looking for our lakes and our trails and our great wilderness. They're looking for unique communities," said Adems.
Add in the proximity to L.A., which is in the same time zone, and the long-established reputation of the film industry in Vancouver, and Hollywood North starts to look more and more attractive.
"I think 2016 is going to be a big year but it's not going to be the dollar alone that's bringing people. They come for a look and they have a wish list of what they want... The dollar is the icing on the cake," said Adems. "B.C. right now is just a smoking deal."
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