By Heather Exner-Pirot
Can you tell me a bit about the Saskatchewan Media Production Industry Association?
It began in 1984 just as new graduates were coming out of film production programs in universities and colleges across the country, including a strong program at the University of Regina.
The growing number of new producers, skills and talent lead organically to the establishment of SMPIA as a strong representative organization in fostering discussions with the government about what it would take to build a screen-based production industry in Saskatchewan, too.
Right now, SMPIA is re-energized and focused on helping the Saskatchewan economy grow by capturing its share of the Canadian screen-based production market, a market that reached almost $10 billion in Canada. Even a starting share of that market for Saskatchewan would result in almost 800 full time equivalent jobs, jobs that could easily mean new career growth in the Indigenous community.
In your opinion, what’s the state of Indigenous involvement in this industry? Is it nascent, growing, or is there a large cohort that’s already engaged?
Currently, there is a new crop of emerging, young Indigenous producers and talent in every aspect of the industry. They are looking for a place to develop and hone their skills, a place to train and to be supported with mentoring and financial investment in their ideas. They are both incredibly creative and trying hard to be entrepreneurial at the same time.
Saskatchewan has a strong history of Indigenous production and talent in this industry, whether you are talking about a great actor like Gordon Tootoosis or filmmakers like Doug Cuthand or young producers like Candy Fox and Chris Tyrone Ross. Like Peter Brass, who SMPIA helped sponsor into the Indigidocs program at the National Screen Institute, Candy and Chris took advantage of that program at the NSI. If we had more programs like that in Saskatchewan to support emerging filmmakers and storytellers, we would likely see Indigenous storytelling through film growing rapidly. SMPIA has some great workshops, but we have limited funding.
We are delighted with the results so far with limited funding, but so much more could be done. Great programs have come and gone. They are not usually sustainable because the funding sources are not stable. When I was President and CEO of SCN 15 years ago we helped start the First Stories and Second Stories series that supported a number of indigenous filmmakers. Then again, a couple of years ago, the NFB invested supporting the development of Indigenous Saskatchewan talent, like Tasha Hubbard, but that was a transient program as well. Tasha has had great success with her documentaries.
Blood Quantum just came out on Netflix and has earned a lot of buzz. Do you think its success might spark a new generation of Indigenous directors and producers?
There’s no question about that. It’s happening in a big way in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and B.C. The success of directors/producers like Jeff Barnaby in Ontario have a tremendous influence on emerging Indigenous filmmakers, and it can happen in Saskatchewan, too. Saskatchewan has the base of talent, creativity and emerging producers, but they need the support of developmental and production funding that could help them take flight. It takes three things to make this industry work for Indigenous talent in Saskatchewan as well: 1. Creativity – there’s a huge capacity for storytelling by Indigenous filmmakers in Saskatchewan. 2. Development and investment – that support comes from a combination of investors and a competitive incentive that would give Creative Saskatchewan the capacity to provide the production support to Indigenous filmmakers that they really need to be airborne; and 3. Training – to develop the knowledge and skills needed to make solid creative screen-based productions.
One production leads to another to another and all of a sudden there’s a strong Indigenous filmmaking industry in Saskatchewan that is sustainable and contribute new careers and well-paying jobs. People like Jeff Barnaby are making it happen in Ontario. It can happen here too.
Many First Nations and Métis people are naturally inclined towards the arts. But what opportunities do you see to generate strong businesses from the media production industry today?
As we reactivate a dormant screen-based production industry in Saskatchewan I can see new business growth for Indigenous people in every aspect of production: actors, set designers, camera, screenwriters, producers, directors, costume, makeup, and suppliers of services that are needed to support the crew, like food catering, transportation, set construction, sound and lighting, business agents, financial management and accounting, location managers, and on and on. Lorne Cardinal was a major actor in Corner Gas in Rouleau, a series which resulted in bus tour companies dedicated to visitors who want to go to that place.
The potential is huge. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a large community of people working together to make a film. It can even lead to the growth of tourism for places highlighted in film.
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will alter the industry in the next few years?
The global marketplace was already very hot before the pandemic. The demand for new content was huge among the streaming giants like Netflix, Disney, HBO, etc. But during the pandemic people have been chewing up content on their screens rapidly and the demand for new content will be even greater. Worldwide, screen-based production value was about $120 billion. It will only continue to rapidly expand and Canada is well-placed to take advantage of that super-heated marketplace. Creative Saskatchewan is a great partner in funding screen-based media development and production, and there is so much more it could accomplish to help Indigenous people take advantage of this huge global market with the introduction of a competitive incentive.
At the same time, Saskatchewan wants to, needs to, re-open the economy during the pandemic and the options for triggering new industries and careers are going to develop slowly. But, in Saskatchewan we also have a base from which we can quickly trigger a dormant screen-based production industry through a competitive incentive that would provide production opportunities on a large scale very quickly. We have about $50 million of production that we know of from Saskatchewan film and TV producers that could be brought to Saskatchewan this year if the incentive was there. That’s 780 full time equivalent jobs, and it’s just a start. Within five years in Saskatchewan, $50 million in production value could look more like Manitoba’s $300 million in film production last year. That’s a lot of new careers, new businesses, and new jobs.
What are the first steps budding Indigenous artists and entrepreneurs should take if they want to turn their passion for film and media into a career?
Develop the training needed to fuel those passions for being involved in the screen-based production industry, for making new content and building new production companies. If that training capacity is not there yet to meet the demand by emerging Indigenous talent, then we can sit down and talk about ways and means to make that happen.
Indigenous investors should look at getting their fair share of a rapidly growing screen-based production economy as well. Creating pools of capital and making it available for investment in this industry is worth thinking seriously about.
Give new creative talent a way to express themselves in a sustainable way. Storytellers need a way of expressing themselves in this medium. New companies and career paths will go a long way in helping Indigenous creative talent to tell their stories, whether they are documentaries that express Indigenous life yesterday and today, or whether they are zombie films that simply get young people interested and excited about the creative opportunities. All that Indigenous creativity and its expression fits so well with the culture of storytelling through filmmaking.
There is a long history of excellent ground-breaking Indigenous filmmakers, actors and crew here and there in Saskatchewan, but it needs to become a critical mass of activity and people that start to sustain and feed off each other in terms of both creativity and business development. SIEDN can be part of creating that critical mass and SMPIA would love to work with the Network to make that happen.