Making Movies in Manitoba
Heritage group Meeting of April 16, 2015
John B. Lowe, a self-confessed proudly Canadian actor, riveted the attention of 26 Heritage Group members at our regular April 16th meeting. Sharing his own fascinating personal odyssey, he transported us behind the scenes of the broader Manitoba film industry.
A thirty-year veteran of theatre, film, and television, John has produced, written, and directed both film and video projects, including the award-winning short film, Windows Of White. John is active with Broccolo Creative, his media and performing arts company, has acted in many feature films and TV movies, has been a regular in the TV series Cashing In and Nothing Too Good For A Cowboy, and has appeared often on many TV shows such as X-Files, Cold Squad, and The Pinkertons. In his current role as the School and Community Programs Director at Prairie Theatre Exchange, John trains and coaches emerging and established actors, specializing in Acting for The Camera.
You know something has to change when your own daughter doesn’t recognize you.
John is not a native Winnipegger (having bravely ripped his 12- and 15-year-old daughters from Vancouver a decade ago), giving him a fairly objective viewpoint of Manitoba’s film industry. Where some look at a career in the arts as akin to taking an oath of poverty, he underlines the unique character of our arts community and what a great place it is to live and work. Nowhere else in Canada will you find so many native-born artists who have left and then chosen to come back. Yes, other centres may offer more work opportunities, but the competition for those jobs is also more intense. If you are based in Edmonton, for example, you can also work in Calgary, Regina, or Saskatoon. From Toronto you can hit Stratford, Sudbury, New York, and beyond. But it also means that you are always on the road. Once, having been away for several weeks, John came home for a daughter’s birthday party only to find she wouldn’t come near him because she didn’t recognize him without his beard. That’s when a “day-job” in Winnipeg that would allow him to spend more time with his family started sounding pretty good. An added attraction was the fact that artists here are invested in the community to a degree that you don’t see anywhere else in Canada.
So, you want to be an actor, eh?
Like so many others in the business, John had his start in theatre. His varied stage credits include plays for Kelowna’s Sunshine Theatre, the Chemainus Theatre Festival, Edmonton’s Citadel, the Western Canada Theatre of Kamloops, and of course our own Prairie Theatre Exchange, as well as many independent theatre projects including the award-winning, Greater Tuna and Giant Ants. But, as John points out, it is almost impossible for a Canadian actor to survive doing only theatre. Though the $1,000/week A-house pay scale may seem quite reasonable, such rates tend to be offered only to the big-name draws, contracts are typically no longer than six to eight weeks, and it is extremely rare to move directly from one contract to another. That’s why most actors, commonly multitalented, frequently supplement their theatre income with other freelance work in TV and film, but also by working as musicians, artists, writers, teachers, and so on.
But, why do you want to make films that nobody wants to see
Thanks in large part to the “video art” movement of the seventies and eighties, the overlap of the previously distinct worlds of video, television, and film has also been a boon for actors. Being cheaper and much more accessible than film, video allowed budding filmmakers to develop their art and creativity, unconstrained by commercial considerations. “But, why do you want to make films that nobody wants to see?” Lowe’s mother once asked. His father explained that John was making “fillers” for TV.
Manitoba’s film industry has been largely built and dominated by women
And so Manitoba’s film and video community evolved. Organizations like the Winnipeg Film Group and Video Pool sprang up to foster the creation of artistic works, not necessarily for a commercial audience, but for festivals and to share artistic vision. Largely artist-run, these groups continue to rely mainly on grants for their survival. But other profit driven projects eventually also spawned a vibrant commercial film industry that now boasts some 40 producers and a dozen production companies such as Buffalo Gals Production, IMDb, and Frantic Films. Interestingly, our local film industry has been largely built and dominated by women such as Kim Todd of Original Pictures (Falcon Beach, Fargo), Phyllis Laing of Buffalo Gals (Less than Kind, Keyhole, Mad Ship) and Lisa Meeches of Eagle Vision (Sharing Circle, Indigenous Peoples Music Choice Awards, Capote). The documentary film industry has also seeing a renaissance, particularly in our Francophone community, thanks to the Internet and new channels like Netflix that showcase what used to be only fill-ins on the major TV networks. And some local filmmakers, like Guy Madden, have successfully straddled both the artistic and commercial camps.
Not only is film-making very expensive and competitive, it is also very portable. It can go anywhere and tends to follow the money. That’s why government incentives can be so important. Just as Vancouver’s very attractive fiscal climate in the nineties drew a plethora of movie and television production north from California, recent news that Nova Scotia was cutting its film tax credits brought thousands out in protest. Manitoba offers a complete package, including the highest film tax credit in Canada, crews with decades of experience, world class producers and service providers (writers, artists, actors, directors) in a city with a wealth of historic buildings and farms just outside of town. In some cases, such as Midnight Sun (shot in Churchill), one simply can’t find such locations elsewhere.
We hear much more about the big blockbusters and Hollywood stars who misbehave than we do of our local success stories. Few in the public know that Winnipeg can crew two feature films at a time without going outside, attracting millions of dollars in spending that stays the province. Some projects are initiated here, but most will be co-productions hosted by a Manitoba company with access to funds. It might take a producer five years just to raise the money, perhaps by pre-selling broadcast rights or distribution. In this development phase, the story is likely still being written. But once the money is in place, Manitoba can support every phase from pre-production (where to shoot, bookings, design, building, creating, casting) to production (shooting) to post-production (editing, sound mixing, printing). John highlighted a number of recent Manitoba successes, including Heaven Is For Real (huge audience before even released), The Illegal Eater, and The Good Lie. He also noted that, despite American appetites for U.S. locations, we are seeing more and more shows set in Canada.
An so, John B. Lowe provided us not only a window into Manitoba’s artistic community this Thursday morning, but a welcome reminder of why Winnipeg is such a great place to live. Sometimes only an adopted son can adequately express what the rest of us take so easily for granted. Thanks to committed artists and actors like John, we are all richer. And, just in case you have always wanted to get into the business, John ended his presentation with a reminder that his role at Prairie Theatre Exchange is part outreach. Give him a shout.