A waterfront home in Qualicum Beach is used for the beachfront B&B in Chesapeake Shores. — Lauren Collins photo

Port Alberni missing out on Island’s flourishing film industry, says insider

Lack of investment, poor listings in film database just two barriers to success

One Port Alberni resident is hoping that Port Alberni can get involved in a new and fast-growing industry on Vancouver Island.

Sandy McRuer was in council chambers on Monday, Feb. 25 with a request for the city and regional district to get involved in Vancouver Island’s film industry. He presented the same pitch to the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) board on Wednesday.

Vancouver Island North Film Commission (INFilm) is a key player in bringing TV and film productions to Vancouver Island. In the last 18 years, several productions have come to the regional district. Tofino and Ucluelet, for example, have been the set locations for several big budget films, including the Twilight saga, Man of Steel and the two most recent Planet of the Apes films. The nearby Parksville Qualicum Beach area is also a popular location with INFilm—it has served as the set location for Hallmark’s Chesapeake Shores for three seasons, and Parksville is also the home of the first film studio on Vancouver Island. But no productions have been filmed in the Alberni Valley since Insomnia in 2002.

The ACRD, pointed out McRuer, has only contributed about $7,500 a year to INFilm for the last six years. In comparison, the City of Campbell River and the Regional District of Nanaimo each contribute $50,000 per year, while the Comox Regional District contributes $15,000 and the province contributes $30,000.

“This is the price to get into the game,” explained McRuer.

McRuer has a personal connection to the film industry, as he has worked as a scout for films and TV shows, including Chesapeake Shores. But his interest is not all personal. McRuer says his goal is to help diversify the local economy, and he describes the film industry as “low-hanging fruit.”

B.C. has seen extraordinary growth in film and TV productions in the past two years, he explained, and there are no longer enough facilities on the Lower Mainland to accommodate the demand.

“This industry is booming now,” said McRuer. “It has outgrown the Lower Mainland.”

He offered a few reasons for Port Alberni’s lack of representation on the screen. INFilm’s online catalog of film locations is badly outdated when it comes to the Alberni Valley, with many locations mislabelled or shot in poor lighting. For example, the only cabin accommodations in Port Alberni listed on the database are at McLean Mill National Historic Site, and uptown’s Harbour Quay is mislabelled as “Victoria Quay.”

McRuer also acknowledged that there is an accommodations issue in Port Alberni, with hotel competition between sports teams and film crews. The cost of getting crews to Port Alberni can be somewhat expensive.

“There’s also the quality of accommodations,” he added. “A film crew for a major film can be up to 200 people. They expect excellent conditions.”

Perception also plays a role in a filmmaker’s decision. The gritty crime thriller, Insomnia, for example, was set in Alaska and included a log chase scene at Catalyst Paper. Other shoot locations were the Somass Hotel, which is now demolished, and the Arrowview Hotel, which is soon to be demolished.

“I think really we’re typecast in a gritty mill town role,” said McRuer. “Although parts of our town fit this role, other parts of the town and in the Valley may be overlooked. We need to show this to [INFilm].” He gave the examples of forest and mountain scenes, which are often shot in Campbell River.

He urged the city and the ACRD this week to establish a relationship with INFilm and contribute more funding, in order to improve the commission’s online database with regards to Port Alberni and—hopefully—attract more productions to the Alberni Valley.

“I don’t want to see us miss this opportunity,” said McRuer. “We need to get the attention of INFilm and make it clear that they are welcome here.”

The ACRD and the city both agreed to invite INFilm film commissioner Joan Miller to upcoming meetings to hold discussions. Miller will also be invited to an upcoming Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce dinner meeting.


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