This story originally published on my previous website October 22, 2013, as Part 1 of a two-part story. The second part of this story was waiting for the results of an FOI request investigation which has come in. Watch for the second part of this story later this fall.
Capilano University backs graduates in production of Worst Places in Canada
By Faye Bayko
Before they arrived in Fort McMurray to start filming the pilot for a new reality television show three young filmmakers from Vancouver knew they were in trouble.
A friend’s mother had posted the reason for their trip on Facebook and included their contact information. The gesture was meant to be helpful but the result was a flood of warnings via emails, voicemails, and comments made on a local radio station’s blog. “Basically, they were saying, ‘Fuck you, don’t come here,’” explained Denis Ogrinc, co-owner with Chris Bayko and Madison Leigh in Que Pasta Films which was producing the reality-show Worst Places in Canada.
Threats made contained various methods of running the filmmakers out of town if they dared to show up. It was enough to make the partners reconsider their choice to profile the well-known oil town.
“There were some hateful things,” admitted Bayko. “A lot of people had trouble with the title, but that (reaction) was kind of what we wanted.”
Part travelogue, part buddy road trip, the show would explore why people choose to live in places others considered unliveable. The title was a natural, they thought.
The Worst Places in Canada
“We’re shining a light in the dusty corners of Canada,” explained Bayko from his home in Vancouver where all three partners had gathered for a recent interview, “and, we’re trying to nationalize people.” The title, he said, may bring out fierce loyalty, as demonstrated by their Fort McMurray experience, but it also got people talking about what makes a place one of the worst places in Canada.
“Everyone’s got an opinion about where the worst place they’ve ever been to is and it often doesn’t sync with someone else’s,” said Bayko.
While there have been economics-based lists compiled in the past, the partners wanted to approach the subject from another angle. They wanted to look at how reputation colours perception. “So, we came up with a list of worst places to live based on reputation, rumour, and what you hear,” said Ogrinc.
They chose Fort McMurray for the pilot episode because it would give the biggest bang for the budget they had.
The Launchpad Fund
Created to assist graduates of the school’s Motion Picture Arts degree program with a head start in the making of a low-budget feature or high-quality short film, the $100,000 fund was the brainchild of the university’s film centre director, Bill Thumm.
The Worst Places in Canada project would be the fund’s trial run, providing the learning curve necessary to create a bigger and better fund the following year, said Thumm, who was hesitant to make any announcements. “I don’t want to come off as paranoid, but I also don’t want people stealing my ideas until they’re fully realized.”
Thumm convinced acquaintances within the film industry to commit to making $5,000 annual contributions to the fund for five years. With 20 contributors he would have the $100,000 needed each year to invest in the university’s film degree graduates. “It’s not easy money to come by and it’s also a commitment, not only from the people who are contributing, but from us to those people,” he explained during a quick cellphone interview. “We want to make sure that they see that the projects they are supporting are actually viable, or have potential to be.”
Filmmakers who were recipients of the fund would be expected to sign a contract that promised to return a percentage of any future success to the fund. “My hope,” said Thumm. “is that somewhere in those first funded productions we can return enough that ideally it becomes self-funding. I’d like the students who got the opportunity (from the fund) to be able to, by being a success, help provide the opportunity for students who come behind them.”
While the fund would, theoretically, have $100,000 to spend each year, the projects chosen would not necessarily be awarded the whole amount. “The $100,000 was an arbitrary maximum based on a low-budget feature film, not a 22-minute television pilot, the budgetary demands of which are significantly lower,” said Thumm.
A panel of three industry professionals not associated with the university would select each year’s project, Thumm explained. “This year we had a producer, director, and an actor of some note.”
The projects would be drawn from graduates of the Motion Picture Arts degree program. “Grads are eligible within five years of getting their degree,” said Thumm. With 2012 being the first to produce graduates of the four-year program, there were only three projects submitted: two feature films and the reality show.
Thumm found it interesting that the judges, who all came from dramatic-scripted television and film backgrounds, selected the reality project. But, he said, what it came down to was the panel felt the reality project was closest to being producible and marketable. “Given the appetite in the world for reality these days,” Thumm said. “the concept of Worst Places was something they could see was immediately marketable and ready to go.”
There were a couple of conditions placed on the receipt of the award: the production budget would not involve the whole $100,000 for the project, an experienced on-air host would have to be hired, and the Worst Places name would be registered in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. The judges felt that the concept had the potential for a broader scope.
Time, though, was what was missing in the first year’s roll out, according to Thumm. “I think the amount of time for development wasn’t sufficient this time around. And, part of it was just because we had gone to a lot of trouble to get people to donate, to sponsor this and didn’t want to then say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to run the program this go-round.’”
The launching of the Launchpad fund so soon after the first fourth-year students graduated did not allow them the needed time. “To be honest,” added Thumm. “we always knew that the first year would be tough.”
Television: An Expensive Business
For the three filmmakers, the Launchpad Fund was a mixed blessing.
Being the first project of a new funding program meant expectations were high and support sporadic as everyone was learning as they went.
“Before we even got our feet on the ground in Fort McMurray half our budget was gone,” said Bayko.
With less than a third of the $100,000 to work with the three had to hire a crew, including another host, rent equipment, and work out the logistics of producing a show based on their travelling somewhere. At first this did not seem a problem as the partners had worked together on film projects during their time at Capilano University so knew most of the routine. Where they ran into problems was when they were told they had to create a business entity that was separate from the school. This meant the budget had to allow for the expense of setting up a film production company: incorporation fees, accountant fees, lawyer fees, business insurance and licence fees, and so on.
“Making movies is expensive,” said Bayko. “And participating in that world as a small business is expensive. It’s hard to break into the industry that way because unless you have a lot of capital you can’t start shooting. As it is, we didn’t pay our people, or ourselves, even close to industry standards. We’re well into the hole for doing the show.”
Flying a seven-person crew to Fort McMurray was no longer an option. A van was rented and six of the crew set out from Vancouver on a very cramped 12-hour drive up to Edmonton where they met the additional host who had been flown in from Toronto. After a night of sharing one hotel room, the full crew continued by van for the remaining five hours to Fort McMurray.
The crew consisted of six young men (Rory Tucker, sound; Dave Gattey, B-camera; Marshall Whitlock, A-camera; Chris Bayko, host; Denis Ogrinc, host; Evan Campbell, host) and one woman (Madison Leigh, logistics).
“It was a long time to be stuck in a van with six dudes,” said Leigh. “Although, I think I took the nitty-gritty stuff better than some of the boys did.”
People management and conflict resolution skills were being learned on the fly as the crew spent the next week crammed together in a single hotel room. “We argued a lot,” said Bayko, shaking his head. The trouble was that the crew who had worked together before had developed a shorthand, non-verbal communication style that ultimately set Campbell, the imported host, as an outsider.
Having to include a host who was not part of the team ate away at the production in a way that the threatening emails and texts had not. The three filmmakers struggled to keep what they were filming in line with what they had originally pitched, a buddy travel show. “That’s what’s at the heart of the show: best friends inviting viewers to travel to places they probably wouldn’t normally go,” said Bayko.
That invitation was also extended to glimpses behind the camera. “I wanted (the show) to be like Cinema Verite,” said Bayko. “Where we don’t hide the film crew.”
This meant when they hired the crew they chose with an eye for their character and how they would play off each other on screen. It also meant that no one person would be the focus of the show, something the new host let the others know he had not expected.
One of the conditions of receiving the money for the project was that the group had to bring in an experienced host. Thumm suggested Evan Campbell as he had on-air experience through his time spent with Winnipeg’s Breakfast Television. He was also a past graduate of Capilano’s film diploma program.
The group used precious budget resources to fly him to Vancouver from Toronto for a weekend to see how he fit with the team. While the weekend went well, the three filmmakers made the decision to hire him based on expediency rather than suitability.
Campbell’s inclusion meant the show had to be rewritten. “We always wanted (the show) to be a best-buddies show but then we had to bring in Evan. How do we explain the relationship between us and Evan?” said Bayko.
“I wasn’t totally convinced that I was an element that was necessary,” admitted Leigh. “Chris and Denis would have pulled it off fine on their own but having Evan come in,” she shrugged. “Four people in the mix, deciding what we should do became too much so I stepped down.”
It was decided that Campbell would replace Leigh on camera. The lone female in the group took over the administrative activities and became responsible for logistics.
The group didn’t see Campbell again until they picked him up in Edmonton on their way up to Fort McMurray.
Pulling it off
In the pitch, The Worst Places in Canada was to show best friends crossing the country investigating what makes a place earn a label of being the worst and discover whether redemption could be found in a town so labeled.
During their week in Fort McMurray the filmmakers explored some of the stereotypical lifestyles of people living in a boomtown. They brought their irreverent style to the show while drawing out a surprising honesty from those having to live in a company town. In one scene Bayko and Ogrinc send Campbell out into the night to buy drugs, a task that became blatantly obvious he had never done before. In another scene, they draw out of a rig worker just what it means to face long, lonely nights.
“The whole idea is that it’s funny,” said Bayko. “You can’t be The Worst Places in Canada and be solemn about it because we’re telling a solemn story and you have to do it with a laugh because it’s the only way people will listen to the problems that are at hand.”
A sense of humour helped the crew survive the close quarters of living and filming in one of the worst places in Canada but after Campbell had flown back to Toronto and the rest returned to Vancouver it was up to the three partners to shape a marketable pilot out of the raw footage and that was a serious matter.
“We went into it with the intention that we were going to live up to everything. We were going to deliver it early. Everything was going to go smoothly and great and (the school) was never going to regret giving us the money,” explained Leigh.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated, including the faculty and the admin type people who put this together — I don’t think they really knew what everything was going to entail,” said Bayko.