Could Fort McMurray become Hollywood Far North?

Photographer Rick Falls, front, takes a photo on the red carpet of the Fort McMurray International Film Festival in Fort McMurray Alta. on September 5, 2015. Back, left to right: Todd Hillier, Tito Guillen, Theresa Wells, Steve Reeve, Ashley Laurenson. Garrett Barry/Fort McMurray Todayé Postmedia Network

Photographer Rick Falls, front, takes a photo on the red carpet of the Fort McMurray International Film Festival in Fort McMurray Alta. on September 5, 2015. Back, left to right: Todd Hillier, Tito Guillen, Theresa Wells, Steve Reeve, Ashley Laurenson. Garrett Barry/Fort McMurray Todayé Postmedia Network

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece on dog sledding as it relates to economic diversification in our region, and it undoubtedly piqued some interest as the kind of diversification to which I referred was perhaps not the usual sort we think of as having significant potential impact. The reality though is that we have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to consider all potential sources of diversification, from the large to the small, and even those that include what some might dismiss as a “hobby”.

What I am writing about this week is one of those sources some might consider a “hobby”, but which could have potential impact for possible economic diversification. Once again it begins with an out-of-the-box idea, but this time instead of dog sledding it’s about filmmaking.

Fort McMurray resident Tito Guillen has been making films since high school. For the past decade he has been honing his craft, and along the way he has worked with dozens of other community members to develop short films and projects that are receiving not only local but national and even international acclaim. Among these projects have been Night Hawks (2008), Arkham Rising (2012), Cover (2013), Reddit 2 Sentence Horror Stories (2013), The Good Survivor (2016), and most recently World’s Finest (2016). As Guillen says, technology has opened up the world of filmmaking to virtually anyone with a smart phone, a good idea and time. Once someone has become involved in filmmaking, whether as a producer, director, actor or through one of the many support roles that go into bringing a project to life, they begin to seek ways to refine both their craft and the end product.

Guillen uses the most recent collaborative project World’s Finest as an example.

“This was our most ambitious project to date and took a lot of time to get it where we were all happy with it. Steve Reeve and Ashley Laurenson have both grown leaps and bounds since we started making films together and both have become phenomenal producers. Steve Reeve, with his background in radio, has learned to apply that training into professional level sound design and mixing. Ashley Laurenson, a talented cosplayer in her own right, has taken her costume and make-up skills to new heights. Brodie Dransutavicius, our Bruce Wayne/Batman, also did all of our fight choreography and continues to apply those skills through his Keyano Theatre involvement. The list goes on but I can safely say that the team involved both on and off the camera gave their all to the project,” says Guillen.

And what involvement on the project has led to is intriguing.

“It’s interesting. Less than a week after World’s Finest premiered, Ashley Laurenson was commissioned for make-up work. I would say the films serve as a resume to show the technical skills the cast/crew can bring to future films or other artistic projects as mentioned above,” Guillen says.

What is the root of economic diversification other than the development of new skills and the possibility to explore new opportunities? As these filmmakers explore their “hobby” they are actually refining their talent. How can this play into economic diversification?

The current state of the Canadian dollar makes Canada a very appealing place for Americans (and others from around the globe) to develop films and television projects. While many film companies have filmed in southern Alberta for winter scenes, as was seen recently during filming of The Revenant, unpredictable warm spells can make such filming a challenge. It seems very possible that film and television production companies may begin to turn their eyes further north, taking advantage not only of our winter scenes but our boreal forest, our long summer days and the value of our dollar.

And what could make us even more appealing? Individuals with experience in filmmaking who have been working to hone their skills and who can lessen the need to bring in large numbers of individuals from other places to work on these projects. There is no reason Wood Buffalo cannot position itself as a potential strong contender for film and television projects, particularly given increased accessibility through our innovative and modern airport and the almost-completed twinning project on Highway 63. What will give us even greater strength as a candidate to consider for these projects is the availability of local individuals who can support them with talents and skills they have developed through creating their own projects, just as Guillen, his filmmaking partners, and others involved in the filmmaking community in the region have done.

There are, of course, those who will dismiss this and deem any possibility of Wood Buffalo becoming “Hollywood Far North” as absurd – but to refuse to consider any potential avenue towards diversification simply does not serve us well. It also means we need to ensure we continue to support those locals who are exploring their talents and skills, understanding that these talents and skills may well someday be the ones that bring new revenue streams into our region. Support these local efforts, attend the film festivals, share the finished products on your social media and encourage them to aspire to reach their goals – because in the end it may very well assist all of us in reaching the goals for our region, too.

Theresa Wells

Today Columnist

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