To Noah Hawley, there was no better place than British Columbia to produce his FX television series Legion. Until there was.
The first season of the quirky series riffing on the X-Men comics was produced in the Vancouver region, making particular use of the University of British Columbia main campus and the city's brutalist architecture. But the second season will be shot in California after the production qualified for tax breaks in the state.
This move comes after Hawley described Vancouver as a perfect canvas for his series about a powerful mutant played by Dan Stevens. Asked about Vancouver, Hawley, whose other FX series, Fargo, has been shot in Alberta, wryly told a December conference call with journalists, "I heard all television shows are shot in Vancouver. That's why we went up there." Then he got serious. "Vancouver offers an amazing array of looks and feels and, obviously, a great crew base and everything. We're thrilled to be there."
It remains to be seen if Team Legion will be equally thrilled about Los Angeles. They may be able to compare notes with two other Hollywood-produced series departing British Columbia for Los Angeles – sending a few ripples through the otherwise buoyant narrative around the booming production sector in British Columbia, one that employs about 20,000 people and is now going through one of its booms.
Days after a senior Warner Bros. Entertainment official told The Globe and Mail this month how Vancouver was a great place for production, citing the nine TV series the entertainment giant is shooting in the region, word came that one of those shows, Lucifer, was heading to Los Angeles, too. The show, featuring Welsh actor Tom Ellis as the fallen angel exploring Los Angeles, shot its first two seasons in Vancouver but will now be filmed in California.
Both Legion and Lucifer qualified for tax incentives under a two-year-old California drive to lure TV production to the state. And there's another departing series. According to the IATSE Local 891 union, representing production workers in British Columbia, the Shut Eye series on the Hulu streaming service, starring Jeffrey Donovan, will be relocating to California – where its story is set – after shooting its first season in Vancouver.
The co-showrunners of Lucifer said, in a statement issued by the California Film Commission, that, "Los Angeles is a key character in Lucifer, with the storylines revolving around iconic locations in Hollywood and Southern California, so we are thrilled that the California incentive now makes it competitive to base the show in the L.A. area."
And in an interview with the Deadline Hollywood website, Hawley said he wanted to be more hands-on with the show. "With our shooting Legion in Vancouver, it was just really hard for me to go write this show, edit the show and be on location for the show." A Los Angeles-based Legion would allow him to "centralize everything in one place for all this work I am doing for FX." Hawley added that the show could have been financed at a higher cost or moved, but did not elaborate. "We could shoot it in Austin, I suppose, which is where I spend a lot of my time."
Industry leaders in British Columbia are remaining sanguine. To them, this is a teachable moment about the realities of a sector in which nothing about where production is based is personal, but rather linked to the best financial options for production. That reality has worked for British Columbia, and also worked against it.
"We're not concerned about it. Everything is going to fall in line," said Phil Klapwyk, business representative for IATSE Local 891. "Business is business. [Producers] are going to go where they get the best deal."
Hollywood speaks of "Vancouver," but filming occurs across the Lower Mainland, on Vancouver Island and elsewhere in the province. There are big feature films such as Deadpool – and its looming sequel – as well as Star Trek Beyond and Steven Spielberg's BFG. But movies come and go while TV provides continuing, lucrative jobs. Hollywood finances much of it. Vancouver has been alluring to U.S. producers because of its experienced crews, abundant sound stages and a supply of older buildings that can be used as sound stages – Legion's extravagant sets were built in a former supermarket warehouse in Burnaby. The province offers tax credits worth 35 per cent of eligible B.C. labour costs. The Canadian dollar allows Hollywood producers to stretch their budgets. British Columbia is a short flight from Los Angeles, and in the same time zone, so decision-makers and producers operate on the same schedule.
Tom Fedechko, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Film School, which sends 1,200 graduates a year out into the production realm, says the size of the B.C. sector explains the loss of series. "When you get to be this big, you're bound to lose some shows every so often. You're also bound to pick up some shows," he said in an interview. "A lot of major players have invested a lot in Vancouver. They're not going anywhere. Our grads are playing key roles in some of those companies."
Vancouver has been down this road before with departing series, notably with the The X-Files. Filming on the iconic 1990s-era series began in Los Angeles, but the forests there did not have the visual quality that creator Chris Carter was looking for. So production was shifted to Vancouver for five seasons. Then production was shifted back to Los Angeles, largely at the request of star David Duchovny. A recent continuation of the series, which went off the air in 2002, was shot in Vancouver.
Neither Lucifer, Legion or Shut Eye had time to become as much of a Vancouver fixture as The X-Files. Still, their departures are sad, said David Shepheard, the Vancouver Film Commissioner. "It is disappointing because the creatives and the technicians from Vancouver helped create the success of those shows, so it is disheartening to see them leave," he said in an interview.
However, he responded to the departures by issuing a list of shows still in British Columbia. It includes six pilot episodes for new series, though word is a total of seven are shooting. And there are 23 series listed – oddly enough including Season 2 of Lucifer. Warner Bros has had nine series shooting in British Columbia, each with an annual budget of about $54-million. Other shows include The Man in the High Castle, Once Upon A Time and a new version of the 1960s-era series Lost In Space.
From her Los Angeles office, the executive director of the California Film Commission rejected any suggestion that her office is targeting specific Vancouver shows and luring them to California. "I'm not just saying this to be PC," Amy Lemisch said, noting her office informs major TV producers of the program and leaves the decision to them.
Over the past two years, she said, the California incentives program has drawn series from various states, including New York, Louisiana and North Carolina. Since the program was revamped in 2015, it has attracted three Vancouver shows: Lucifer, Legion and the series Mistresses.
Under the program, Legion will be eligible for $11-million in tax incentives in its first fiscal year. Lucifer will receive $16.8-million. The figures are calculated as 20 per cent of the basic labour and other expenditures to produce a series. In California, productions have to apply for their share of a limited pool of funds. Projects get a green light depending on where they rank over rivals in creating jobs.
Lemisch said she is respectful of Vancouver's appeal, ticking off the Canadian exchange rate – "an added benefit to productions that go up there" – and "significant" infrastructure, including studios and crews. That said, she noted that California offers its own infrastructure, a large pool of acting talent, good weather and the largest crew base in the world.
"It's not an easy decision. It is costly. It is difficult to break down and pack up all the sets," she said. "You have to pack them up and ship them, reconstruct them. You have to relocate the talent. There is a lot that goes into the decision to do that."
Still, the film commission will soon be taking applications for the next round of tax credits for series that want to move there.