In the middle of a booming B.C. film and TV sector, industry veteran Joshua Jackson is betting that Hollywood North’s star will continue to rise with the convergence of video streaming and higher-powered wireless networks.
Jackson, famous for his parts in front of the camera dating to the 1990s’ TV hit Dawson’s Creek, has signed on as chairman of a Vancouver-headquartered venture aimed at acquiring the intellectual property for video games and animated series to create even more video content.
“The drive to create more things, the drive to create more content has never been higher right now,” said Jackson, chairman of the Liquid Media Group, whose chief financial officer is longtime friend Daniel Cruz.
Behind the camera, Jackson is now betting on being able to ride a wave of increased production that has been untethered from traditional broadcasting models by streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. That dynamic has already disrupted entertainment from the movie studios right back to film schools that have all had to adapt to new ways of doing business as a result.
“As soon as 5G (wireless phone networks) come on line, it’s going to change (distribution) again,” Jackson said. “Because you can already stream a movie on a phone, but that democratization of access has completely changed the business.”
Jackson and Cruz expanded on their vision in the boardroom of a video-game studio in the commercial zone off Grandview Highway in Vancouver. Both worked on sets in Vancouver’s film scene as young actors and watched how it has developed, though Cruz’s career took him to business school and banking.
They like Vancouver as a headquarter for what they’re trying now, Cruz said, “because it’s a supercluster of live-action, video games (and) visual effects (talent).” Within that environment, Cruz said they saw a business opportunity in creating a public company (Liquid Media is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange) and opening it up to investors to own a stake in the library of content they’re acquiring and trying to create.
Last year Vancouver overtook Toronto as Canada’s biggest production centre for film and TV, according to the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) report on screen-based media, making it the second-biggest production centre in North America after Hollywood. B.C. saw $3.6-billion worth of screen-based shows shot in the province during 2017-18, a 21-per-cent increase from the previous year, according to the report; 40 per cent of the almost $9 billion spent on such shows shot across Canada during the year.
Ontario, in the meantime, saw $2.9-billion worth of productions shot in the province in 2017-18, an almost five-per-cent decline from 2016-17.
Financial figures for the fiscal year ending March 31 aren’t in yet, but production in B.C. has remained “very similar to last year,” said Prem Gill, CEO of Creative B.C., the main industry support group for the province’s entertainment sector.
That isn’t to say the explosion of video streaming hasn’t presented its challenges, according to the CMPA.
While overall spending on screen-based film increased, the organization noted that was due to a surge in what the industry refers to as foreign-location service productions, the term used when U.S., European and other foreign studios come to Canada to shoot for the U.S. and international market.
Canadian domestic production, however, decreased eight per cent to just over $3 billion in 2017-18 from an all-time high of $3.04 billion the previous year, with a decline in financing using licence fees from Canadian private broadcasters.
“It’s no secret that ‘cord-cutting’ and shifts in audience viewing habits are upending the system,” said CMPA CEO Reynolds Mastin in releasing the report.
Gill, however, said some of the notable hits coming out of B.C.’s production sector have included shows that have crossed over the lines of traditional TV to online streaming, such as the teen melodrama Riverdale and the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
“We’ve certainly seen an increase in activity globally around content (creation) and more opportunities for producers and creators for distribution through all services,” Gill said.
One thing that she has found surprising is the emergence of more diverse stories involving Indigenous filmmakers, people of colour and women.
“We’re actually seeing that audiences really want more (of that content),” Gill said. “I think it’s a changing landscape and I think the B.C. production industry and independent producers have always been very entrepreneurial and resourceful. Hopefully they will be channelling that into B.C. stories and content.”
The convergence of content with streaming services and mobile delivery via smartphones has altered the way the industry prepares the next generation of filmmakers, or rather, content creators.
“It’s absolutely had an impact,” said Christopher Ian Bennett, executive producer and head of marketing for the Vancouver Film School.
On the technical side, Bennett said they’re teaching students how to shoot video in formats usable on different screen sizes since content isn’t just going to TV or film screens anymore, and then write stories specifically for the phenomenon of “binge-watching.”
However, forecasts that some 3.5 billion smartphones will be in circulation by the end of this year are part of what is driving the change, Bennett said.
“When you’ve got half the world with small televisions in their pocket, that has huge implications for content creation,” he said.