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Okotoks and Foothills becoming an A-list film destination

Alberta screen industry is looking back on a successful 2022, which featured a number of big-budget productions, and looks forward to a booming 2023.
SA-Last of Us Film Set BWC 3510 web
Production vehicles and crews for HBO's "The Last of Us" line Robinson Drive in Okotoks, Alta. on Feb. 10, 2022.

Alberta's screen industry has boomed this year, and the Foothills have a spot on the red carpet.

"It’s been a super exciting year again, building off the success of 2021,” said Brock Skretting, head of advocacy with Keep Alberta Rolling, a non-profit organization that advocates for the Alberta screen industry.

Several major TV and film productions came through the region, he added, and some are already hitting the screen for the new year, such as HBO's The Last of Us.

“The first half of the year the big one that’s going to be coming out very soon in January is The Last of Us, of course, filmed in High River, Okotoks and throughout the (Foothills) County and all sorts of places,” Skretting said. “It would probably be faster to list the places it didn’t shoot, honestly.”

Also continuing to deliver is Heartland, going into its 16th season as one of Netflix’s top five shows for streaming minutes.

“So amazing, continued success from Seven24, a local Alberta production company (which produces Heartland),” Skretting pointed out. “They also started a new series with Hallmark this year, called Ride which filmed in Foothills County, Millarville area and all over the place.”

Among others to grace the region were Joe Pickett’s season two and the new Amazon Prime series High School created by Calgary-born pop stars Tegan and Sara.

“There were all sorts of shows, continued success and $560 million that came into the province in spend on these productions, which is consistent with 2021 and shows the growth of the industry,” Skretting said, adding the vast majority of that came to the southern Alberta and Calgary region, which saw $520 million come in.

“It’s created thousands of jobs, so we’re really excited with how the year went and just trying to keep building on that success for next year and lean into some of these projects as they come out and continuing to promote the communities in which they were filmed.”

Communities welcoming productions with open arms (and doors, lawns and roadways) has been a huge help.

“In general, Alberta is becoming known as one of the most film-friendly jurisdictions in North America, if not the world,” Skretting said. “That really comes down to the people being very welcoming and excited about the industry.”

While it may not always be smooth sailing as a major production turns a street into a film or TV set, Skretting explained a culture of partnership with communities has offset that.

“It’s no surprise that depending on what the filming is, it can be a nuisance or in the way like construction, but knowing that there’s that back-end tourism and promotion that’s going to come from these projects, people have really been on board,” Skretting said.

“That also goes down to local leadership putting in policy that lays out the rules of engagement for some of these projects.

“Film industry likes to tell stories and make good projects, but it's also so important to have local support and buy-in, and who wouldn't want to have a project filming in the community?”

Okotoks has already seen the benefits of those productions and Mayor Tanya Thorn hopes to keep that door open.

“It’s a great uptick, and I hope it’s a trend that continues,” said Thorn. “It’s a really strong economic driver in our community from a lot of different lenses; not only our restaurants, but our local hardware stores and set builds, local people that are employed by the films or series.

“I would love to see Alberta become one of the top destinations for film and series productions, and Okotoks as one of those locations is a key element."

On a provincial level, Alberta filmmaking and stunt industry legend John Scott said the Alberta Film and Television Tax Credit also helped roll out the red carpet for productions.

“This whole thing is built on 2021 when the government finally came on side, put in a decent tax credit, and threw some money into the film fund," Scott said, pointing out the credit is contingent on Alberta-spent dollars.

“That means for Alberta labour and Alberta products."

The more productions come to the Foothills, the more resources are needed.

"We got so much business so fast we could barely handle it, but we did employ about 6,000 people last year (2021), and very similar to that this year,” said Scott, who has seen the boom up close with various productions using his sprawling ranch near Longview.

“We’ve had a lot of pictures working out of here – we had four pictures going on at one time – we're servicing pictures like Ride and Joe Pickett, Heartland, Fargo 5."

The highest demand, he added, will be for those skilled in screen trades.

"Like sound and special effects and wardrobe designers and things like that – they're a specialized talent," Scott said. "Some of the other jobs you can get by with bodies, but it is specialized people, stunt co-ordinators, people like that that know what they're doing.

“Next year is just going to explode, and we’ve got so many pictures trying to come in. It’s going to be a fantastic year."

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