Filmmakers on Prince Edward Island and across Atlantic Canada have been kept busy and employed over the past year with projects commissioned by the Bell-owned television channel Fibe TV1.
As part of its CRTC broadcasting licence, Bell must spend a certain amount of money on community programming — but when COVID-19 hit, university sports usually covered by the broadcaster's community channel went dark. It needed to replace hours of programming, so it's investing millions of dollars in about 40 community-based productions in Atlantic Canada.
"At this point in time, when so many people are struggling to find work, we are just booming right now," said Kelly Caseley, co-writer and director of Aww, Shucks!, a comedy series set in P.E.I.'s Victoria-by-the-Sea, co-written with Graham Putnam and produced by Sharlene Kelly.
"I just feel so blessed — I hate to use that word, but — to be this busy and to have so much work to look forward to," Caseley said.
Aww, Shucks! was shot last October in the tiny seaside village, and is about the town's efforts to rebuild its economy post-COVID-19 pandemic by hosting a cooking competition.
The cast and crew were all Islanders.
"That really meant a lot to us. And we had a high percentage of women on the crew, and our main characters are strong female characters as well," Caseley said. "We also had a very diverse crew as well, which is something that was important to us."
The series has been edited and is now in its final stages. Caseley hopes it will be ready to air by mid-June.
Fibe TV1 has already green-lit another of Caseley's projects, Worth Our Salt, a reality-based cooking show about chefs and cooks from diverse ethnic backgrounds and how they use local produce in their dishes. The series will showcase some of the farmers and fishermen who produce the ingredients.
'Tell a great story'
The productions are two of more than half a dozen being created right now for the channel on P.E.I.
The channel airs from Manitoba east to anyone who has a subscription to Bell Fibe TV.
Fibe TV1 senior producer Paul Gardner said they're looking for locally-made programming with global appeal. Currently the channel airs nature documentaries, reality fishing and cooking shows and more. Gardner said Halifax Homicide, a true crime series, is one of the channel's most popular.
When the pandemic hit last March, Scarborough-based Gardner — himself an experienced filmmaker and producer — began contacting the film communities in Atlantic Canada to seek pitches from local filmmakers.
We do this one and then that kind of gives us the chance to look at doing something bigger later on. — Mark Sandiford
"We're really looking at what series do we really think is number one, going to reflect that community, two tell a great story and three, is achievable for that person," Gardner said.
Gardner said he's pleased with the quality of productions he's seeing in the region.
The P.E.I. producers said they are pleased with the amount of money TV1 is paying — Gardner confirms contracts range from $10,000 to $60,000 each, depending on the needs of each production. However such initial funding can allow producers to "leverage" the amount to be able to receive money from other production funds, giving some of them a final budget of up to $100,000.
They're also pleased with the terms of licensing: TV1 demands exclusive broadcast rights for only 30 days. After that, filmmakers can exhibit their series at festivals, or even sell to another broadcaster.
TV1 is happy to become a place where budding or experienced filmmakers outside the larger centres of Toronto or Montreal can dip their toes into professional production, Gardner said.
Louise Lalonde owns her own production company and runs boot camps for screenwriters on P.E.I.
She has two series in production for TV1: Threading the Needle will profile Islanders passionate about needle arts such as sewing, weaving, crocheting and embroidery. The other series is Summertime Camps, which will profile the array of summer camps for kids on the Island including horseback riding, filmmaking, and Holland College's School of Rock.
Lalonde said the injections from TV1 are helping to build the P.E.I. film industry by giving people a chance to add on-screen credits as producers, directors or technical crew, thereby advancing their careers.
"It's fantastic because they're giving people a chance to learn who might not otherwise have the opportunity," Lalonde said. "I'm really grateful."
'Going to be really funny'
Luc Trottier recently moved to P.E.I. and settled in St. Peters Bay, where he set his new comedy series The St. Peters Bay Community Players, about a community theatre group.
"It's going to be really funny, I have a lot of fun ideas," Trottier said.
Trottier is casting now for the show, and is looking to pay experienced and rookie actors to shoot over seven days in June. The show is scheduled to be finished by September.
"Bell's just really supporting our local community and giving us enough money to be able to pay a full Island cast and crew," said Trottier, calling Bell's funding "generous."
'See whether the story has legs'
Mark Sandiford is known in the arts community as the head of Creative P.E.I. and is an experienced filmmaker with his company Beachwalker Films.
In the next few weeks, he'll start shooting a documentary series for TV1 about the renovations at Glenaladale historic estate in Tracadie, called Saving Glenaladale.
Sandiford has in mind a larger production on the same topic, and sees this as an excellent opportunity to create a mini-version or proof of concept.
"To see whether the story has legs, and also to see whether it resonates with audiences."
Sandiford said it's also a great opportunity for everyone to work on small projects like this rather than large productions that demand full-time hours — the benefit being, crew members don't have to quit their day jobs, but gain valuable experience.
That experience is one of the huge benefits extolled by Renée Laprise, producer of The Ice Walk. The six-part documentary series will commemorate and give voice to the stories of Lennox Island First Nation members who died crossing the ice to mainland P.E.I. in winter, before a causeway was built.
The Ice Walk is being directed by First Nation member Eliza Knockwood, and used Mi'kmaw crew being mentored by a more experienced crew of allies, Laprise said. Mi'kmaw crew recorded stories of their elders.
Non-Mi'kmaw crew learned "how to decolonize" production, Laprise said, starting and ending each day with Mi'kmaw ceremonies, and allowing the elders to speak at their own pace. If crew members were touched deeply by what they were filming, Laprise said they were taken aside for a caring pause and ceremonial smudging.
"This is medicine we are creating," Laprise said. "The content is heartbreaking but the experience is wonderful."
She calls TV1 an "excellent partner" in the film series, not only for developing local talent and allowing creative freedom, but for allowing the Lennox Island First Nation to retain the footage, so it can have control over its own stories.
"It's been magical," Laprise said. She hopes the series will be done by the end of this summer, and adds she and Knockwood plan to work together on another production soon.
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