Greetings From VANCOUVER

Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

The sky stays light quite late on a summer night in British Columbia, but you don't have to strain to see stars.

Much has been written about runaway production, about all the jobs fleeing Los Angeles as movies and TV shows seek less-expensive pastures and the government tax credits that flow from filming in Canada. Considerably less is said, however, about the impact all that production is having on a city such as Vancouver, where, thanks to this flood of film and TV work, it's beginning to look a lot like Hollywood, despite the snow-capped peaks and densely wooded forests.

Indeed, in spots such as the Sutton Place Hotel, you're apt to encounter more working actors than at most celebrity haunts in Los Angeles, from the Four Seasons at Beverly Hills (it's technically on the wrong side of Doheny to say "in") to the Hotel Bel-Air. At times, the Sutton Place's cozy bar, Gerard Lounge, looks like a meeting of the Screen Actors Guild, with small groups of actors and crew scattered in different corners almost every night.

"You have as good of a chance of seeing a celebrity at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver or the Four Seasons in Toronto as you do at one of the big hotels [in Los Angeles]," says Tom Russo, Paramount Television's senior vice president in charge of made-for-TV movies and miniseries--a segment of the TV business that, more than any other, has migrated north.

Some of those star sightings are lesser lights, to be sure, recognizable faces hard to connect with names. Wasn't that the fellow from "Jerry Maguire" walking through the lobby? Isn't she Denise somebody, that beauty from the last James Bond film? Hey, didn't I see that guy in "Cabaret" on stage?

Yet actors are just one wave of this invasion. Oversized production trailers associated with film and TV shoots are referred to as a "circus," and practically anywhere you look in the vicinity, the circus is in town.

Drive through lush Stanley Park and a crew is filming on the beach. Head north to scenic Grouse Mountain, whose sky ride is one of the area's tourist attractions, and trailers line the narrow highway. More production vans jam the streets near the Vancouver Art Gallery, a historic building in the center of town.

Local residents are mostly blase about all the production in their midst, although it can hardly pass without notice. With more than 40 projects of varying scope in production here circa Labor Day--most either in the episodic series or made-for-TV movie genre--the talent pool has been stretched to its limit.

"It's so odd--this is like going through a big back lot," observes writer-director Caroline Thompson, on the set of the upcoming ABC movie "Snow White." "I'm sure when you drove from the airport, you saw circus after circus. It's pretty astonishing."

"On the way to work you see all the trucks that are not part of your shoot," adds actress Miranda Richardson, playing the evil Queen in "Snow White"--opposite an unknown young Canadian actress, Kristin Kreuk, who landed the title role--after shooting the Sylvester Stallone film "Get Carter" in the area. "There are just loads of things going on."

The number of celebrities and film crews regularly spotted in this rapidly growing city is the most overt example of a cultural and economic phenomenon that can be examined on various levels.

In one sense, Vancouver has become what Charles Eglee--executive producer of the new Fox sci-fi series "Dark Angel"--accurately characterizes as "Hollywood sleep-away camp."

On his last trip to the city, Eglee recalls, he stayed at the Sutton Place and encountered people he knew practically each time the elevator stopped.

"It must be like the last 30 seconds of drowning, where your life flashes before your eyes, because every person I've ever worked with was there," Eglee says.

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To the actors, directors and producers who find themselves spending months in Canada on these productions, Vancouver represents a home away from home, and a nice one at that.

"I'd work here [again] in a heartbeat," Thompson says, gazing around at the greenery of Deer Lake Park, which provides an appropriate aura of fantasy for "Snow White." "I love it here."

For actors landing parts on series, Vancouver has evolved into a sort of summer camp, spring break with long hours. They are primarily young and good-looking, in keeping with television's emphasis on youthful demographics. Moreover, because actors must follow work wherever it leads, many make the journey without fretting about the family commitments executives and producers often have in Southern California.

"I was actually excited about [coming here]," says Kate Hodge, one of the stars of "Level 9," a UPN series about high-tech cyber-crime-fighters. "I have no real roots in L.A."

Some performers take apartments in Yaletown, a SoHo-esque district (there's even a SoHo Cafe) that's home to numerous fine restaurants and funky bars. There are also plenty of daylight pastimes, from roller-blading through Stanley Park to skiing in the nearby mountains.

Vancouver is clearly a livable environment, with home-style touches for transplanted Southern Californians. Sushi restaurants abound, and it's not uncommon to see one Starbucks Coffee shop across the street from another.

"It isn't like you're going to Eastern Europe," says Reid Shane, senior vice president of finance and production at Paramount Television, which produces several TV series in Vancouver. "You're going to a very cosmopolitan city--very safe, great restaurants, very friendly to the industry."

Although Vancouver gets its share of rain, the climate in summertime is generally pleasant. The one ostensible blight is a sizable homeless population--less a product of unemployment or economic hardship, locals say, than disaffected youths who have simply chosen to drop out of society. One was holding a sign that read, "Need $$$ for pot."

"It's kind of a merger of Aspen and San Francisco," notes Christopher Brough, president of Sextant Entertainment Group, a Vancouver-based production company. "It's this pocket little city that's totally manageable, surrounded by this amazing wilderness."

Not surprisingly, few of the actors employed here voiced any complaints, and many have grown accustomed to boarding that flight from Los Angeles. "Almost every job in the last four years has been in Vancouver," says Max Martini, a co-star of "Level 9" who made the same trek last year for the short-lived Fox drama "Harsh Realm." "I'm so used to it at this point."

On this particular day, Martini is shooting an episode set in Seattle, which is easy to believe as long as you don't turn around and view the majestic Lions Gate Bridge spanning the Burrard Inlet and leading toward the Vancouver skyline. His first job in Vancouver was in the mid-1980s, and he has watched as the industry has matured over time.

"Now the crews are just on par with Hollywood in terms of efficiency, and the people are great. It's very enjoyable," he says.

"It's a nice break from Los Angeles," notes Richard Gunn, a co-star on "Dark Angel," which is housed in the same building that was home to "The X-Files" before its move to Los Angeles. If the show is successful enough to warrant a full season, Gunn will likely relocate, which he understood when he signed on for the series.

"As long as I'm working I didn't care where I had to go," he says. "[And] if you're staying at the Sutton Place, you're bound to run into 50 people you know."

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Even truly famous stars, for the most part, can move about unmolested here. At the Sutton Place--where you actually overhear people in the bar saying such things as "Don't worry, we'll fix it in the editing" and "I hear it's going to go direct to video"--days went by without a single paparazzo or autograph seeker to be found.

John Sandor, the hotel's general manager, points out that recognizing actors off-screen--hidden under baseball caps and three-day beards--isn't always that simple, especially for the average business traveler, a group that comprises a much larger percentage of the Sutton Place clientele.

Actors employed in Canada frequently work unusual hours, and the hotel lobby is small, so it's not the sort of place where people loiter. The hotel doesn't market its celebrity guests--most housed in a separate wing of long-term apartments, as opposed to standard hotel rooms--but doesn't hide from its show-business reputation either.

"The bar is highlighted as a place to be seen, but it's not Sunset Boulevard," Sandor says. "We don't have anybody going, 'Wow.' No one would treat you differently if you were a movie star. They just blend in. It's very comfortable."

A six-year veteran at the hotel, Sandor does acknowledge the dynamic is a departure from other luxury establishments where he has worked.

"We've had some high-profile actors and actresses here in our restaurant, and I don't recall them ever having to hide in the corner. They just act naturally, and it works," he says. "I worked at a resort in Hawaii where they had stars, and it was very different. I had a number of clients come to me and ask for a corner where they could hide. It's different here."

As nebulous as it sounds, some attribute that to a quirk of the national character.

"Canadians are terribly polite, almost to a fault," suggests Sextant's Brough. "Celebrities enjoy working here because I don't think there's a huge amount of attention. Everybody notices them, but they're given a good degree of space. . . . The city enjoys the fact that it's a growing part of its culture. The back burner is slowly kind of turning itself up in that direction."

Although the British Columbia Film Commission is attached to the Ministry of Tourism, its director, Mark DesRochers, concedes little is done to highlight Vancouver's status as a show-business haven.

"The X-Files" spent its first five seasons in Vancouver, and some die-hard fans visit town wanting to see locations where the program filmed. Still, even if you scan local newspapers, the entertainment industry's presence remains low-key.

"It's not that we're not blowing our own horn about it," DesRochers says, citing gossip columns that take note of stars sighted browsing on Robson Street, a main shopping drag around the corner from the Sutton Place. Rather, he says, "we kind of honor these people's privacy more than other places on the planet."

While the leading stars, directors and producers on these film and TV productions usually hail from Los Angeles, the vast majority of crew personnel are invariably home-grown Canadians. For them, with so much activity going on, the phone seldom stops ringing.

"This is the busiest it's ever been," says Bob Kay, an assistant location manager, who has been employed in the area for 11 years. "I haven't stopped working since February of '98."

"I know of people who have delayed production waiting for other [projects] to finish so they can steal their crew," adds Vladimir "Val" Stefoff, co-producer and production manager of "Level 9" who previously worked on "The X-Files."

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The principal reason for shooting in Vancouver is as green as the foliage in Stanley Park. Savings associated with producing a TV movie or series can reduce the budget by 25% or more, thanks both to the strong U.S. dollar (a room at the five-star Sutton Place, for example, $249 in Canadian currency, translates to about $170 U.S.) and tax credits the government provides as an incentive to companies filming here.

As a result, niche-oriented programs operating on smaller budgets, such as MTV's new boy-band show "2gether: The Series," can make those dollars go further. More expensive action or special effects-oriented projects also generate a bigger bang per buck--one reason "The X-Files" stayed in Vancouver so long and a series like "Level 9" was packed up and sent north in the first place.

In a genre such as TV movies, where production costs have risen while the fee that networks pay to the companies making them hasn't, those savings are a financial imperative--indeed, insist the few remaining independent producers, the difference between life and death.

"Shooting in Canada makes TV movies affordable," says producer Paul Kaufman, who spent seven months in the country last year on various projects. "If it wasn't for Canada, a lot of television movies would never get made,"

There are other inexpensive locations around the world, to be sure, including Australia, South Africa and Eastern Europe. But working in Canada--and Vancouver in particular--affords U.S. producers several unique benefits.

For starters, it's in the same time zone as Los Angeles, meaning writing staffs can easily communicate with producers and directors on the scene. The relatively short flight (about 2 hours and 45 minutes) also allows top-line creative players to commute on weekends, missing fewer of their kids' soccer games and piano recitals.

Vancouver possesses a chameleon-like ability to approximate the look of other North American cities (Toronto does the same on the East Coast). The most glaring exception would be the Southwestern United States, and even that can be achieved a few hours outside of town.

With the U.S. production community unable to resist these assets, some question if the Canadians have bitten off more than they can chew.

"I think they're overextended," says J.C. MacKenzie, a co-star in "Dark Angel" and native of Canada. "I'm not sure they can handle any more production up here. . . . My friends who are up [in Toronto] now, they just can't stop working."

Some stories about the glut of production are comical. One actor was said to be biking to work and stopped at the wrong set, assuming the production trailers he saw were from his show, not another. He got as far as makeup before realizing the mistake.

Equipment can be scarce at times, especially if something unexpectedly breaks down, and certain locations are used again and again. Production after production files through older buildings (a rarity in the city) and more specific sites, such as Riverview Hospital, a psychiatric facility that can have several projects shooting there in a given week.

Canadian officials and production staff say they are cautious not to "burn out" neighborhoods with excessive filming in a given area, as happens occasionally in parts of Los Angeles; still, with so much happening, such restraint is difficult to manage.

Even the film commission's DesRochers concedes the volume of production "gets a bit hairy sometimes. . . . The one thing we shouldn't do is take this business for granted."

Having previously worked on the ABC series "The Marshal" here a half-dozen years ago, Aaron Lipstadt--at present a producer and director on "Level 9"--has witnessed the talent crunch tighten noticeably in even that short span of time.

"It was hard then, and it's really hard now, because there's a huge stress on qualified crew people," Lipstadt says. "You hear it all the time from other producers. You don't have many choices when hiring. People are competing for the same creative people. You end up hiring sometimes because there's no choice, and you can't replace people easily."

Despite the kind words showered on Canadian hospitality, many U.S. residents who find themselves spending months here each year also feel a certain sadness in the toll runaway production takes on the economy at home. Current estimates are that more than $700 million in production takes place in British Columbia each year, roughly a five-fold increase since the late 1980s.

While various figures have been tossed about regarding the negative impact of filming in Canada on California (and Canadians insist some of those figures are inflated), it is undeniably in the billions of dollars, and the anecdotal evidence is inescapable.

Thompson, her fondness for Vancouver notwithstanding, hopes the U.S. can eventually reclaim some of the business.

"It's so excessively much that you feel like there has to be a bounce in the other direction," she says. "I do think it's a tragedy to be in L.A. and see so little going on."

"For our own piece of mind and convenience, we want to be home," Lipstadt says. "And not to take anything away from Canadian crews, it hurts to be up here when you have friends in L.A. who aren't working. That's the hardest thing."

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Recovering any significant percentage of work that has fled to Canada, however, is hard to imagine so long as programmers find themselves pushed to spend less to offset a fragmented audience. Indeed, while TV movies, one-hour series and low-budget feature films have long come to Canada, more major studio projects are creeping into the country as well, including the upcoming live-action version of "Josie and the Pussycats" and last spring's box-office flop "Mission to Mars"--both shot in Vancouver, as well as "X-Men," which was filmed in Toronto.

Yet even with the dramatic surge in production, entertainment remains a relatively small aspect of the local economy. And more subtly, Canada has a long way to go before show business is deeply ingrained in its consciousness, despite all the famous and near-famous faces one espies in the first-class section of virtually any flight to or from Vancouver.

"It's still quite different here," says Matthew O'Connor, president of production at Sextant. "Los Angeles is so focused on the industry. I think we have a long way to go before we're a Hollywood town."

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