Friday October 24, 2014

Corner Gas and film politics both back


It may be the most well-known rural Saskatchewan community … even if it really doesn’t exist.

Dog River cannot be found on a Saskatchewan road map, but viewers across Canada and in 26 other countries around the world know it as the home of Corner Gas.

And after a five-year disappearance, the home of Brent, Oscar and Emma Leroy, Hank Yarbo, Lacey Burrows, Wanda Dollard, Sergeant Davis Quinton and Constable Karen Pelly is about to be rediscovered in Corner Gas: The Movie.

(You will all be familiar with those last names — all of them, Saskatchewan rural communities that Corner Gas star and series creator Brent Butt slyly slipped in as a tribute to his home province. Even bit characters like bartender Phil Kinistino and liquor store/insurance business owner/operator Wes Humboldt were named after Saskatchewan communities.).

The return of Saskatchewan’s most beloved community and its quirky residents should be more of a good news story than a political one.

That said, there’s been nothing in this province as political as the funding of film and TV industry… unless it’s the demise of government funding two years ago.

Notwithstanding the immense popularity of Corner Gas (politicians, including premiers Brad Wall and Lorne Calvert, MP Ralph Goodale, Senator Pamela Wallin and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper all lined up for guest appearances), the entire industry was always a source of political tension between the NDP and the Sask. Party.

Some in the film industry were viewed to be very close to the NDP… or at the very least, had a certain knack for getting a lot out of its government.

It was through these close contacts that the NDP government was convinced that Saskatchewan needed its very own soundstage, built on Regina’s College Avenue by converting the old normal school building.

And it was through these connections that the Saskatchewan Film Employment Credit — a grant/tax break based on the number of jobs created — was born. It was a complex grant system based on everything from the number of people hired to where they worked. (Corner Gas was shot in Rouleau, because it was the minimum distance from Regina that still qualified a company for the rural employment component of the tax credit grant.)

But it was also the industry’s penchant to win favour with the NDP government through projects like Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas story that secretly made the government’s opponents livid.

That said, it would have been political suicide for Wall’s government to pull the plug on funding if meant harming the immensely popular Corner Gas.

However, Corner Gas ran its course in 2009 and the Sask. Party government did away with the entire SFEC in the 2012 budget. Not even valid arguments from the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce that spin-off benefits alone made the industry economically beneficial were to help.

The SFEC was replaced with Creative Saskatchewan that coincidentally seemed more interested in developing country music — a pet interest of Wall and the Sask. Party.

But talk of a remake of Corner Gas in movie form left the Sask. Party with the problem of Saskatchewan’s most beloved show being filmed in Alberta or Manitoba that still support the film industry through tax breaks and grants.

So what could the Sask. Party do? Well, two year’s worth of Creative Saskatchewan’s maximum $250,000 per year grant for a film was handed out ($500,000) and the Crown corporation Tourism Saskatchewan “invested” another $1.5 million in the movie project as promotion. In total that is $2 million or 23 per cent of the Corner Gas movie’s $8.5-million budget.

That’s $2 million from government — a subsidy level for a film from the Sask. Party government that would make the NDP blush.

Corner Gas is back, but so is the somewhat less comical politics in the film and video industry.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.



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