Six men, two dories and the North Atlantic

Salter Street Films – named after the street where that first office was located – quickly became a key cornerstone of the Nova Scotia independent film and television production industry, responsible for programming as diverse as Life with Billy, a reality-inspired movie about a wife who kills her abusive husband, and Codco, the satirical sketch comedy show that eventually morphed into the long running This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Salter Street also produced Lexx, a German-Canadian co-produced sci-fi series that ran for four seasons, and Bowling for Columbine, American Michael Moore’s acerbic anti-gun film that not only won an Oscar but also earned more than $60 million, making it, at the time, the highest grossing documentary of all time.

In 2001, Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis bought Salter Street for $82.3-million, only to close its Halifax office three years later.

A year after that, Michael Donovan and another former Salter Street executive opened Halifax Film, now DHX Media, a publicly traded, vertically integrated entertainment company responsible for 40 television titles and eight children’s series.

Salter/DHX is far from Halifax’s – or Atlantic Canada’s – only industry success story. Today, the TV and film industry in Atlantic Canada has become a major source of economic activity and employment, generating the equivalent of 3,600 fulltime jobs.

Trailer Park Boys, for example, the cult Canadian television mockumentary series about friends, drugs and life in a trailer park, ran for seven seasons on Canada’s Showcase channel, sold internationally and has spawned two top-grossing Canadian feature films with a third likely on the way. That second film, 2009’s Countdown to Liquor Day, took in $1.32 million at the box office during its first weekend and went on to gross more than $3 million during its theatrical release, winning Telefilm Canada’s 2009 Golden Box Office Award for commercial success.

Chester, N.S.’s Big Motion Pictures, which produced two “wildly successful” mini-series about the life of Pierre Trudeau as well as Black Harbour, a drama series that ran for three seasons on CBC, is currently co-producing Haven, a $27-million American sci-fi series now in its third season. Close to a third of its budget gets spent in Nova Scotia.

Thanks to its look-alike New England towns and scenic and historic backdrops – not to mention its experienced crews – Nova Scotia has also become a mecca for such “guest” productions: everything from big-budget Holywood epics like The Scarlett Letter and parts of Titanic to American TV dramas like Tom Selleck’s long-running detective vehicle, Jessie Stone, to movies of the week (MOWs).

Most choose to film here primarily because it’s been cheaper, thanks to the formerly low Canadian dollar and attractive tax credits that help offset production costs. Jessie Stone, for example, has qualified for $3.9 million in tax credits since 2004 because it employs Nova Scotia actors and crew.

According to Film Nova Scotia, the province’s industry-boosting and investing agency, Halifax is now the fourth largest production centre in Canada behind Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. In 2011-12, Nova Scotia productions – four indigenous feature films, 14 documentaries, 12 drama series, five lifestyle series, five animation series and one new media production, not to forget eight “guest” productions – generated $115 million for the economy.

Across the Northumberland Strait, the story is equally upbeat. The Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation boasts that for every dollar it’s invested in the film industry, “the total GDP return to the province was $2.86.”

It may be even more.

Consider Republic of Doyle, the quirky father-son detective series, the “largest original television project ever produced” in Newfoundland. It attracts a million viewers a week for its CBC airings. Better, the show – with St. John’s as both colourful backdrop and key character – is now airing in “96 countries,” according to its star and co-creator Allan Hawco. What that means, adds Newfoundland Finance Minister Tom Marshall, is that Republic of Doyle is “marketing our province to an international audience.”

Which is one reason why the Newfoundland government happily invested $3 million toward the series’ fourth season.

Another reason is that Republic’s seven-month-a-year production schedule “sustains” 110 full-time jobs in the province, “with 90 per cent… paying over $25 an hour, and with some… over $100 an hour.”

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