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Bigger films need bigger spaces 

The province needs bigger film studios.

Steve Gilmour keeps largely positive about the future prospects for the Nova Scotia film industry. For one, his Atlantic Film Studios is developing feature film scripts with European financers backing them. Those projects will be shot in Nova Scotia, taking advantage of what Gilmour calls “the best tax credit in the world.”

But one problem remains, as Gilmour sees it: The province lacks the volume of studio space necessary to attract larger shoots that bring bigger bucks into the local economy.

“Frankly, I’m embarrassed,” he says about revealing the studio situation. He has to ask himself: “Where the hell can I shoot it?”

An Australian entrepreneur and former politician, Gilmour has a profile in the local biz, thanks in part to his having led a bid to buy a large complex in Shelburne. A former naval base kitted out as a production facility some years ago, the Shelburne space played home to noted Canadian productions but has sat empty since 2003, when Wilby Wonderful shot there.

The deal Gilmour orchestrated fell through. The American couple now in the process of buying the complex has gone on record saying they’d like to run a number of divergent businesses, film production being just one possibility.

This disappoints Gilmour: “We have to put film facilities first, not as an afterthought...squeezed in behind fish farms, light storage and candle makers and possible new-unit home-building as is to be the case, currently.”

He adds: “Any international producers attracted initially by the lure of Nova Scotia shall regretfully be turned away to more equipped venues in the world, regardless of our high tax credit advantage, unless the government acts to retain facilities such as Electropolis and Shelburne and not let them be ploughed over.”

Gilmour’s concern for Electropolis, the biggest studio in Halifax, now managed and owned by Nova Scotia Power, was top of mind for many in the local motion picture industry in late 2007. NSP and then-tenant Halifax Film couldn’t agree on rent, so Halifax Film moved their animation shows to a building on Sackville Street. Rumours flew about NSP’s plans for the facility, but the power company rents the studio to other film companies on a short-term basis only.

An international co-production, an adaptation of the Jack London book The Sea Wolf, is now shooting at Electropolis. “I’ve been in here many times,” says Ginny Duzak, production manager on the show. “It would be a shame if this space was used for something besides a film studio.”

The studio’s availability may be temporary, however. The lease on NSP’s offices in Scotia Square expires in 2010, leaving the power company looking for a new location. “There’s no secret that we’re looking for green office space,” says Margaret Murphy, the manager for public affairs at Nova Scotia Power. She says though the building remains available as a film studio for now, NSP has been speaking to architects on the possibility of refurbishing Electropolis into an environmentally friendly office for itself.

“The possible loss of Electropolis would be a big blow,” says producer Bill Niven, a member of the studio committee of the Nova Scotia Motion Picture Industry Association. He was involved in the original government-funded project in the late-’90s to create the Electropolis movie studio. “We’re concerned. There’s no question studios are a critical part of the equation.”

But there’s some good news: The other film studio of any size in town, Tourtech East in Burnside, is set to expand, adding a new 41,000-square-foot studio and a smaller space to house a water tank for underwater filming. Tourtech president Peter Hendrickson says the business plan has been presented to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the department that funded Electropolis originally.

“The focus is to attract larger features,” says Hendrickson, agreeing with Gilmour. At the moment “even if we wanted the $30-$50 million features, there’s nothing to support it.” And though the strong Canadian dollar is keeping some American interests at home, Hendrickson doesn’t expect that condition to last after the US presidential election this fall. “Once they get a stable leader, the economy will adjust. The desire to film in Canada is still strong.”

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