‘Milestone year’ for Nova Scotia film industry spoiled by COVID-19


If it was a movie plot, 2020 would have been the year Nova Scotia’s down-but-not-out film industry emerged from the shadows of the 2015 decision by the McNeil government to eliminate the film tax credit, a popular incentive that had fuelled industry growth over two decades.

But like all good plots, COVID-19 is the dramatic twist no one expected, or planned for.

“Let me tell you, we were all very, very excited about 2020,” said Laura Mackenzie, executive director of Screen Nova Scotia, the voice of the film and TV industry in the province.

“We were poised to be in production, or at least pre-production and production from January through to December of this year, which would have been a milestone year.”

Mackenzie said there would have been at least six larger budget, scripted productions being filmed in the province, as well as at least 40 smaller-budget productions.

Laura Mackenzie is the executive director of Screen Nova Scotia. She says for the film industry to resume production, the 14-day self-isolation rule when entering the province needs to be eliminated. (Screen Nova Scotia)

“But at this point, every single production is trying to sort of find their way forward,” she said.

Although film production was not one of the businesses ordered closed by the province, the fact only essential out-of-province workers are allowed into Nova Scotia is a major impediment for an industry that relies on outside crews and expertise for much of its most lucrative work. 

The need for people to keep their distance from one another will be an ongoing challenge for crews who are sometimes forced to work in close proximity to one another and for actors who need to, well, act.

‘There’s gonna have to be some exceptions’

Michael Volpe, the president of Topsail Productions and co-producer of the Oscar-nominated film The Lighthouse, said there’s a need to adapt restrictions to the reality of the industry, particularly physical distancing rules.

“There’s gonna have to be some exceptions to those things,” he said. “We’ve talked a lot about testing and, you know, there’s the option of testing key people, not only when they enter the province, but during the production and maybe that’s an answer or you just have to rewrite things.

“There will be times when the social distancing is broken, just by the very nature of intimate scenes, so maybe testing is the answer. It’ll be a big experiment for all of us here.”

Edward Peill, the president of Tell Tale Productions Inc., the Canadian partner on The Curse of Oak Island, a popular TV series set in Nova Scotia, said he can’t talk about whether the show will be shot here this summer, but said his company has come up with new protocol for other projects.

Michael Volpe, the president of Topsail Productions, is shown on the set of Mr. D in this undated photo. (Topsail Productions)

He said crew members would be told to give each other extra space and they would be screened every day.

“We’ll be taking their temperatures and recording that on the sheet,” he said. “And if anyone has any symptoms or their temperature’s abnormally high, then we’ll ask them to not continue and to go to the hospital and get tested.”

Peill said crews will no longer travel together and on set, crews will wear face masks and physically distance from each other. There will be a strict protocol for cleaning equipment and when possible, gear won’t be shared.

Like Volpe, he’d like to see some restrictions eased to meet industry requirements, such as the 14-day quarantine requirement for those coming from out of province, which could be “cost prohibitive.”

Edward Peill is the president of Tell Tale Productions Inc. He says there will be many actions taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including taking the temperatures of crew members. (Tell Tale Productions)

“We want to respect the 14-day quarantine, but bringing a crew person in and then paying them to sit in a hotel room by themselves for 14 days before they can start working, you can imagine the challenges that creates if they’re only coming in for a week of work or two weeks,” Peill said.

Mackenzie is more blunt. She said for production to move forward, the 14-day quarantine period needs to be eliminated. She said Screen Nova Scotia is working with the provincial and federal governments on the issues the industry is facing.

Volpe said a healthy film business isn’t just good for the industry itself.

“This type of production really helps out all the businesses that are really hurting the most,” he said. “You know, the restaurants, the hotels, bars and all that economic activity that is really just coming out of the COVID shutdown.”

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