Why Rapid COVID Testing Could Make Alberta Hollywood's Next Production Hub

Heartland Director Pierre Tremblay with crew
Courtesy of Michelle Faye Fraser/Heartland

'Heartland' director Pierre Tremblay with crew

American film workers can now quarantine for just two days before stepping onto a set in the western Canadian province: "It's a game changer."

As the coronavirus outbreak bludgeons Hollywood with global travel restrictions, Alberta has rolled out rapid COVID-19 testing that has A-list stars now able to safely cross a closed U.S.-Canadian border and step onto a local film and TV sets in just two days.

Consider it Canada's express lane for American talent and crews as cases of COVID-19 rise in both countries.

"We're looking at real-time data to make sure we have the best possible (COVID) protocols, and the best protocols can be fast," Doug Schweitzer, Alberta's minister of jobs, economy, and innovation, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The pilot testing program has American film and TV workers cutting to the front of the line by agreeing to voluntarily take a rapid COVID-19 test on arrival at Calgary International Airport.

Then they quarantine until they receive results within 48 hours, and if they test negative, casts, creatives, and crew members while being closely monitored can set foot on a local film or TV sets in as little as two days, rather than the mandatory 14-day quarantine restriction required at Hollywood production hubs in British Columbia and Ontario.

"It's a game-changer for Alberta that I hope this means we have a new normal," says Fargo producer Chad Oakes of Calgary-based Nomadic Pictures, which just wrapped production on the fifth and final season of Syfy's Van Helsing amid the pandemic.

Alberta's platinum service can also speed up the processing of non-Canadians as essential workers when applying for work permits, while the province is also leading the Canadian industry in pandemic production safety rules, including sick pay.

The recent agreement between Hollywood’s top studios and unions related to COVID-19 filming protocols stipulated that all union employees receive 10 days of COVID-19 paid sick leave, per production. "We see those protocols as the gold standard," Damian Petti, president of IATSE Local 212 in Calgary tells THR.

Calgary-based Prairie Dog Film + Television recently signed up to five days of worker sick pay for pandemic-era production, a high-water mark for the Canadian industry.

Ron E. Scott, a showrunner and director at Prairie Dog, who is about to start production Nov. 17 on the second season of the APTN drama Tribal, points to stringent on-set safety protocols on his set. "Going in, I feel like we've done everything. We have the unions and guilds on board, and the film commission is in full support," Scott tells THR.

Before the pandemic, Alberta busily hosted movie production for Jason Reitman's Ghostbusters: Afterlife and a unit shoot Jumanji The Next Level, both for Sony Pictures; Focus Feature's Let Him Go; and Walt Disney's Togo, which starred Willem Dafoe and portrayed a famous sled-dog relay.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the province has also hosted shoots for Netflix zombie drama Black Summer and Syfy's fan favorite Wynonna Earp, which shot six episodes this summer with revisions to the original storylines and no on-set infections, says executive producer Tom Cox of Seven24 Films.

Cox elsewhere is prepping a third season shoot for the comedy Jann, recently picked up by Hulu, and is currently filming 10 episodes for the 14th season of the CBC ranching family drama Heartland.

"We're so far, so good, using essentially the same protocols, with some production differences, and that's proving to be successful again," Cox tells THR about keeping the COVID virus at bay on his sets.

Canadian singer and songwriter Jann Arden says she insisted Jann, a show she co-created and stars in, had to be shot in Calgary, her hometown. "Calgary has played host to so many TV shows and movies over the years, but it’s usually not playing itself. It’s usually some U.S. town or Montana, or Fargo, or Purgatory, never itself. I wanted to showcase Calgary, and show it off to the world. It’s a gorgeous city that literally has it all," Arden tells THR.

Elsewhere in Alberta, Samantha Quantz, the locations officer for the Edmonton Screen Industries Office, says the recent success of her city's NHL bubble model in allowing pro hockey players to safely play out their 2019-2020 season amid the pandemic, could be modified for a major Hollywood film or TV production seeking its own self-contained hub.

That scenario would see a film or TV crew rent out their own hotel, have sound stages at the 51,500 square foot Film Alberta Studios to themselves, and use the city's DynaLife laboratories for rapid testing. "Those relationships are already there. We had a meeting with the labs that did all the testing. The turnaround is 24 hours," Quantz explains.

Of course, among the biggest upgrades and perks that Hollywood producers want are still tax credits and other incentives to choose Alberta over rival locales. Calgary film commissioner Luke Azevedo points to the new Alberta Film and Television Tax Credit with a 22 percent all-spend rate for foreign producers, and no sales tax in the province.

On a CAN$5 million ($3.8 million) production budget, Alberta's foreign film tax credit would rebate around $1.1 million ($840,000), on top of currency savings currently running at around 30 percent, based on the low Canadian dollar, and cheap hotel and car rental rates in Calgary and Edmonton as the local tourist industry faces a pandemic slump.

"We have great crews, we have great vistas, we have great infrastructure [and] our Calgary Film Centre," Azevedo argues. "But at the end of the day it's how we attract and incentivize people to come to Alberta."

The Calgary Film Centre has three purpose-built sound stages with 50,000 square feet of space, three workshops and warehouse spaces, and William F. White International on site for equipment rentals.

At the same time, with Alberta's film tax credit having a CAN$10 million ($7.6 million) per-production cap, Azevedo notes the incentive is under review by the provincial government to make it more competitive with rival locales that routinely attract tentpole projects.

"For us to compete with other provinces and other jurisdictions for a $100 million film, at that point it starts to be difficult for us, with the cap on the amount per-project," he says.

That's echoed by minister Schweitzer, who's consulting with the local industry and Hollywood on how to bolster the provincial tax credit. "We've talked to industry leaders in the space, we've talked to people in Los Angeles and internationally to see how we can position our province for success and some of that relates to the tax credit," Schweitzer says.