COVER STORY: Insider KnowledgeVirtually every Vancouverite knows about the Vancouver International Film Festival, which launches its 29th edition Sept. 30. But mention its trade counterpart, the Vancouver Film + TV Forum (Sept. 28-Oct. 2), and the most likely response will be a distracted “Huh?”
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the VFTF may be the best kept secret in town. Every year, a host of industry insiders — from directors to writers to producers — flocks to the four-day symposium, which offers an assortment of panels, workshops, and networking opportunities. Though the event caters primarily to hopefuls peddling a script or a project, it’s open to anyone who might be interested in getting the inside scoop from established Hollywood types and indie auteurs. And the increasingly high calibre of its special guests is just one sign that Vancouver’s position in the industry has evolved from a cheap location for cash-strapped projects to that of a major player on the international scene.
WE rounded up four very different participants to provide a sneak peak of this year’s VFTF: Michael Schur, the Emmy-winning writer and co-creator of Parks and Recreation; Vince Gilligan, the Peabody Award-winning creator of Breaking Bad; VFTF board member Michael Ghent; and writer-director-teacher Michelle Bjornson.
The ExecutiveMichael Ghent is the Vice President of Factual Entertainment for the Vancouver-based Make Believe Media. If “factual entertainment” sounds like a dressed-up name for reality programming, you’re not far off. “Lifestyle, reality, special events, documentary — any kind of TV that has no script or no actors... even though there are a lot of actors in it,” Ghent says, laughing.
Ghent has been a fixture of the local entertainment business for over 15 years, starting as a production assistant on a locally filmed U.S. TV show, then working his way up to development. He’s weathered the industry’s peaks and valleys, and is a staunch believer that VFTF’s growth reflects the maturity and viability of Vancouver’s film and television industries among their international peers. “Vancouver’s held its stronghold thanks to great unions and crews and proximity to Los Angeles,” he says. “Our shows are taken seriously, and programs like Smallville hold their own.”
The diversity of Vancouver’s entertainment industry is also legend, he says. Ghent credits the city’s reputation as a “gaming mecca,” the numerous special-effects houses, and the recent influx of animation studios (Disney giant Pixar being among the most recent) with expanding the scope of our local industry.
The DirectorMichelle Bjornson was fresh out of film school when she volunteered for the very first VFTF. Instantly hooked, the award-winning writer-director of several dramas and documentaries has made it her mission to keep coming back every year.
“I find it absolutely remarkable, the high level of creators they manage to get in. It’s a real who’s who: the writers of the hottest TV show, the producers of the most distinguished feature films,” Bjornson says. “It always stuns me that we get that calibre of people to come to Vancouver, even though Toronto is kind of billed as where it’s at.”
As a teacher in Langara College’s Film Arts program and owner of her own production company, Point of View Film Inc., Bjornson feels the VFTF puts other, similar trade events to shame. “A few years back, I was at the [Toronto International Film Festival’s] Forum, and I was just shocked by the — I won’t say Mickey Mouse, but I just didn’t get as much meat out it,” she says. “I’m always stunned that some of my colleagues don’t go [to VFTF]. I think they think they know everything, but I find that every year I go, even if I only come away with one or two pieces of information, it’s given me the jump on what the trends are going to be in financing or international co-productions or other things.”
The Funny GuyHe spent six years writing for Saturday Night Live before moving over to write for The Office (where he found himself periodically in front of the camera as Dwight’s cousin, Mose), and eventually going on to co-create Parks and Recreation. So, who was the benevolent benefactor that set New York-based Michael Schur’s career in motion?
“My very, very first paid writing gig was when Jon Stewart was writing a book called Naked Pictures of Famous People,” Schur says, laughing. “He paid me a very small amount of money — which to me was a massive amount of money — to pitch him ideas for the book, and I don’t think he even used any of them. But that was a very mensch-y, Jon Stewart-y thing to do.”
Even if you don’t have a Jon Stewart in your life, though, Schur believes there’s never been a better time to be a writer, thanks to the Internet. “There’s this kind of democracy of ideas that exists in the world that didn’t [as little as] five years ago, where anybody who has an idea for a TV show can get a camera, film it, and put it on the Internet and try to use it as a calling card,” Schur explains.
“The Lonely Island guys from SNL, with Andy Samberg — those guys, to me, are the poster children for this new thing that’s happening. They were just three funny guys who hung out together in California and started making shorts and got a bit of a following, got on SNL, and then made [the SNL digital short] ‘Lazy Sunday.’ And then YouTube was sold for a billion dollars... Even 10 years ago, before YouTube, they were still hanging out in California, trying to get network writing jobs. But now, instead, they have their own thing, they make their own movies, they have a mini-fiefdom that they totally created by themselves. That’s really inspiring to me, and it should be inspiring to anyone who’s an aspiring writer.”
The ‘Bad’ GuyOver the phone, Vince Gilligan is a friendly voice with a smoothly Southern drawl, laughing readily and waxing poetic about a recent trip to Banff. It’s hard to reconcile this voice with the mind behind the critically adored, Emmy-winning TV series Breaking Bad, a darkly funny drama about a mild-mannered chemistry teacher’s descent into making and dealing crystal meth.
The Virginia-born Gilligan is excited about his trip back to Vancouver — eager, finally, to flesh out the on-off relationship he’s had with the city. “We spent a lot of time in dark alleys [making] The X-Files, of course,” Gilligan says, laughingly recalling his lengthy stint as a writer and producer of the popular series. “But from the limited views I had of it, it’s a wonderful city.”
The X-Files is often credited with giving birth to Vancouver’s infamous nickname, Hollywood North, and Gilligan, who also co-created short-lived X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen, has witnessed firsthand how the city led the way in luring film and TV productions away from California. Heck, Vancouver was even briefly considered as the filming location for Breaking Bad. “When we started Breaking Bad, Vancouver was definitely one of the quote-unquote ‘usual suspects’; [it comes up when] your studio says, ‘Where should we shoot this?’” Gilligan says. “Southern California is... sort of Hollywood in name only these days.”
Ultimately, Breaking Bad set up camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico, thanks in part, says Gilligan, to Vancouver’s example as a viable second home to the film and TV industries. “Places like Albuquerque, Detroit, northern Louisiana, and Atlanta have learned lessons from the successes of Vancouver, and seen how economic incentives and being hospitable to filmmakers pays dividends down the road,” he says. “I think, unfortunately for Vancouver, its great success has spawned a lot of imitators.”
For more information on the Vancouver Film + TV Forum, visit VIFF.org/forum.
EXPERT ADVICEOur four Vancouver Film + TV Forum guests share their insights and anecdotes
Michelle Bjornson: “There’s an expression in the film industry: ‘What’s better than a yes is a quick no,’” Bjornson says, laughing. “I had been pursuing a project on and off for quite a few years, and there was a panel on co-productions. I managed to talk to one of the panelists during a schmooze event, and I found out immediately there was no point in pursuing this project. I didn’t pitch him, but we talked about projects and I alluded to it, and he set me straight.”
Michael Ghent: “Television’s very character-based right now. Whether it’s on HDTV or the History Channel or TLC, they really want strong characters doing interesting things. They either want ordinary people doing extraordinary things, like Deadliest Catch or Ice Pilots, or extraordinary people doing ordinary things, like Gene Simmons and his family [on Family Jewels].”
Vince Gilligan: “I got my start by winning a screenwriting contest. I went to NYU and wrote a movie script for my senior-year thesis project called Home Fries, in 1988, and I entered a contest in my home state of Virginia. I was lucky enough to be one of three winners that year, and the judge of the contest was a producer named Mark Johnson, who became my mentor in the film business. He’s the producer of movies like Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam, and he called me up after the contest ended and he said, ‘I really like that script Home Fries. Do you have any others?’ And I said, ‘Luckily enough, I do.’ I’d been working away the last year and a half writing other movie scripts, and he became my producer of record. We’ve worked together for 20 years now. He’s even my executive producer on Breaking Bad.”
Michael Schur: “Even if you’re really funny and you have a funny script and you’ve sent it to someone who can help you, there’s no guarantee that person’s ever going to read it; or if they read it when they’re in a bad mood and their favourite football team’s just lost their game, they’re not going to respond to it. The difference is, now you can make a short. And people are so much more willing to watch a five-minute short on their computer than they ever were to spend a half hour reading a script. It’s literally show versus tell.”