City of Angeles

By Tom Charity

Vancouver is never quite itself when it comes to cinema

In June 1913, the British Columbia Moving Pictures Act established a provincial censor for the first time. By October, the American studios were issuing complaints about his severity. A particular bone of contention was the depiction of the Stars and Stripes, anathema to the censor. The following year, he banned 50 reels of film for this reason, an infraction surpassed only by copious instances of licentious behaviour.  

It is safe to say that the honourable gentleman would not be well pleased by British Columbia’s subsequent cinematic history: years of neglect and stagnation, followed by rapid industrial growth dominated entirely by American capital. Today, the film industry ranks alongside timber and tourism as one of BC’s biggest businesses. But if you were asked to list memorable homegrown BC movies, the fingers of one hand would probably suffice: The Grey Fox (1982); My American Cousin (1985) and Kissed (1997) are the first to come to mind.

Vancouver in the movies is like one of those ubiquitous character actors whose name and face become familiar from over exposure, even if you’re not entirely confident you could put the two together. The city pops up in all manner of places, but it’s hardly ever cast as itself. The popular TV series The X Files shot here for its first five seasons, but Vancouver only got star billing in the final episode, when the production team had a ball including all the giveaway road signs, mounted policemen and moose which they’d been hiding for years. Then they moved back to L.A.

There’s an equally knowing joke in the amiable Airplane-style spoof Kung Phooey, which begins with a shot of the (unmistakeable) Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, over which appears the legend: Vancouver, Canada. The city’s Lion’s Gate Bridge has stood in for its more famous counterpart on numerous occasions. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Boston, Detroit, London, Hong Kong; Vancouver has played them all.  

If it’s more than a little ironic that one of the world’s most spectacular cities is typecast as an anonymous cinematic backdrop, Nowheresville, USA, on its website the BC Film Commission boasts about the area’s chameleon qualities: Skyscrapers, mean streets, mountains, marinas, Vancouver is every great city in the world rolled into one (yup, even the squalid Downtown Eastside has its civic uses, even if it’s only to supply ready-made deprivation for the likes of Catwoman).

The real reason film has become one of British Columbia’s biggest industries is because the provincial government aggressively courted Hollywood with tax breaks and industry services in the late 1970s and then supported substantial studio facilities 10 to 20 years before most of North America wised up. The famous ‘Hollywood North’ tag was coined as early as 1982. (Californians prefer a less flattering label: ‘Brollywood’). This provincial support has generally fallen under the umbrella of the Department of Tourism, although as movies become more computer generated, it’s hard to see quite what ‘touristic’ value the likes of Fantastic Four might serve.

Employing some 30,000 locals and bringing in $800 million dollars in 2004 alone, the investment has paid off in mean industrial terms, but Hollywood is an inconstant partner. Competition has intensified. Toronto now vies with Vancouver for the title ‘Hollywood North’ (precipitating a precipitous tax-inducement spiral) and with the US dollar falling against its Canadian counterpart the studios are as likely to choose Prague, Sydney or London for their bigger blockbusters.

That’s left Vancouver with an unfortunate reputation as a haven for cheapjack productions. In the last couple of years the roll call is far from distinguished: Catwoman, Elektra, The Chronicles of Riddick, Are We There Yet?, White Chicks, Alone in the Dark, Blade Trinity, Scooby Doo and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, for starters.  

On the other hand, some of the less embarrassing titles over the years include Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park and McCabe and Mrs Miller, Out of the Blue, The Fabulous Stains, First Blood, Housekeeping, Roxanne, The X Men films, I Robot, Elf and We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

If you’re looking for landmarks, your best bets are the 1986 Mel Gibson, Goldie Hawn thriller Bird on a Wire (which relocates the Harbour Centre Tower, Gastown and the BC Hydro Building to Detroit); the scenic Ted Danson, Isabella Rossellini romance Cousins (1989); and especially 1994’s Intersection, which has the rare distinction of actually being set in British Columbia (Richard Gere’s architect works in Gastown and counts the UBC Museum of Anthropology among his designs).

Indigenous film production was scarcely an afterthought in the provincial government’s scheme of things, and it’s only relatively recently that the Toronto-centric Federal funding institutions have reached out to the west coast, so there’s a credible argument that it’s the presence of the American industry which has fostered local filmmaking, providing a steady supply of technicians on tap, as well as the studio facilities and service industry professionals. These days BC filmmakers turn out more than two dozen features annually, but they’ve yet to make a mark on the international stage, with one significant exception. In the field of interactive games design Vancouver is a world player. Years of Hollywood patronage has made this fertile ground for reimagining cyber space.

Tom Charity has recently relocated to Vancouver following years in London, England. Former Film Editor of Time Out London, his books include studies of The Right Stuff and of John Cassavetes.