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British Columbia Studio space in B.C. not meeting surge of TV-production demand

A stuntman dressed as Ryan Reynolds' Marvel Comics character Deadpool stands on an overturned vehicle before filming a stunt for the movie Deadpool on the Georgia Viaduct in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday April 6, 2015.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Warehouses and other empty buildings are being briskly renovated as studio space for British Columbia's feature-film and TV-production sector, but not at a pace sufficient to meet the demand from the booming sector, says the provincial agency overseeing the production sector.

Creative BC says the shortfall looms despite a new audit that has found 14 such conversion studios set to open across the province this year, adding an estimated 500,000 additional square feet of such space and boosting the total amount of Vancouver-region production space to 3.5-million square feet.

While B.C. has several purpose-built studio complexes, such as Vancouver Film Studios, where, for example, the feature film Star Trek Beyond was filmed, there's a boom in conversion efforts by standing studio operations and varied businesses.

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These studios include former warehouses, processing plants and even the former Pacific Press printing plant in Surrey where the new Netflix series Altered Carbon is being filmed – buildings that have outlived their former roles, and have been appropriated by the production sector because they are big enough to act as soundstages.

According to Creative BC, there are now 49 studios operating in British Columbia. This year, an additional 14 – all conversion properties – will open across the province, including one in Victoria.

"The only thing that's surprising is how much more is coming online," Robert Wong, vice-president and acting film commissioner at Creative BC, said, in an interview, of the conversion space.

"We may not have enough supply even at that rate."

While conversions have long been part of the mix for the B.C. production sector, Mr. Wong said the pace of such efforts is changing. "What we're seeing here is some exponential growth at this time," he said.

British Columbia is in the midst of a production boom.

Conventional broadcasters and film studios are funding the production of such network series as The Flash and Once Upon A Time, among many others, as well as feature films like Deadpool and Fifty Shades Darker. However, there is additional production to feed the needs of such platforms as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.

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"As more space comes available, it is going to get used. There is still plenty of opportunity to build and convert in British Columbia," Mr. Wong said.

He conceded the Creative BC audit may have missed some converted spaces now operating. Also, the number of conversion studios, sometimes called pop-ups, is fluctuating as studios are used for specific projects and then closed.

David Shepheard, named Vancouver's first film commissioner last fall after holding an executive role with Film London – the media development agency in the British capital – said his office will be talking to Vancouver-region municipalities about encouraging the redevelopment of such old buildings. "The film production community are very good at doing that," he said.

"The mixture of purpose-built studios and more flexible pop-up studios are part of a good ecology, really. Obviously, the purpose-built studios have grown over many years to service the local industry and then the pop-ups have come in to back-fill when the purpose-built studios have been busy."

About 15 years ago, Peter Leitch's company renovated a former retail warehouse in Burnaby into Mammoth Studios, a 217,000 square-foot facility that has housed such productions as a pair of X-Men movies, the 2013 Superman feature Man of Steel and the Steven Spielberg film The BFG.

"It was a natural because it had high ceilings. It had a huge expanse between columns and it was in a quiet area. It was ideal for the big features that are coming up here," Mr. Leitch said. "We've invested money in it in terms of improving offices and also we did a lot of work on the electrical [systems]."

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Mr. Leitch, chair of the Motion Picture Production Industry Association and president of North Shore Studios and Mammoth Studios, said it can be easier to do a warehouse conversion because it's very expensive to build new studios from scratch.

He said varied factors determine whether these projects make sense, including available parking options for crew, as well as whether the building is in a quiet area where outside noise won't interfere with production. Extra office space for the production is also helpful.

Still, he said there are limits to such properties in the Vancouver region given the high price of real estate. "People are tearing down those buildings and building new ones," he said.

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