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Greetings From VANCOUVER

So many productions are in town, one player calls it 'Hollywood sleep-away camp.' But this urban retreat offers tax incentives and a low-key attitude.

October 01, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

VANCOUVER, Canada — 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."

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