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Set photo from The Last of Us // courtesy Twitter

The Last of Us filming in Calgary is an important project for our emerging film industry

By Abdul Abbas, February 18 2022—

Calgary is known for many things. However, a popular filming location is not one of them. Not yet, at least.

Over the past three years, Calgary has been the filming location for a handful of big-budget Hollywood productions. During the summer and fall of 2019, Sony’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the continuation of the popular 1980s film series, was filmed in and around Calgary, with a reported budget between $30-$50 million.

Directed by Jason Reitman and starring Paul Rudd amongst many other actors, the film released theatrically on Nov. 19. This summer, the fifth instalment of the Predator franchise and an FX-produced limited series starring Andrew Garfield were also filmed in Calgary. 

However, those pale in comparison to the production scale and budget of HBO’s limited-series adaptation of the popular video game series The Last of Us.

With a reported production budget of $100 million, The Last of Us is Canada’s largest television production of all time. Starring Pedro Pascal from the Mandalorian (2019), executive produced by Craig Mazin from Chernobyl (2019) and directed by Neil Druckmann from The Last of Us video game series (2013), this production has transformed large portions of Calgary, Edmonton, Canmore and other Alberta towns into apocalyptic versions of American cities. The most notable shutdown in Calgary was when the 4th Avenue flyover and parts of Memorial Drive into downtown were closed-off for filming in mid-October.

Online sources have suggested that the prior mentioned $100 million figure was just a number HBO provided to the press, with Forbes claiming that the actual budget “well exceeds” the reported figure, suggesting a $15 million USD budget per episode. Taking into consideration the exchange rate and that the season will be ten episodes, this means that the total budget could be anywhere in the $150-$200 million range. 

It’s important to note that in most unionized film productions, the film crews are composed of local technicians and assistants and not film crews from Hollywood. This is why the local Albertan crews reportedly felt overwhelmed by the production, as no project of this size has ever been filmed in Alberta let alone Calgary.

But there’s a reason why Alberta has recently been chosen for these large-scale film productions. In 2019, when HBO was contemplating where to film The Last of Us, Alberta was competing with other regions across North America to be the filming location for the series.

Film productions bring large investments along with them, as studios rent out hundreds of hotel rooms for months, catering from local restaurants, use local services and pay the cities they film in millions of dollars for street closures. So, to incentivize film studios to film in their region, governments use a tool called a film tax credit.

A film tax credit is an amount of money that a government allows a film or TV studio to write off in their taxes for filming in their region. Simply put, in our case, the Alberta government will give HBO a 30 per cent discount off of taxes owed for goods and services purchased in Alberta during filming. Based on figures reported by CTV News Calgary , the discount ends up being at least $3 million for HBO.

But Alberta’s Film and Television Tax Credit was not always as generous as it is. The tax credit was almost completely reformed in January 2020 by the Kenny provincial government, specifically for The Last of Us, as he and his cabinet were dead-set on using the production to stimulate the Alberta economy. 

Photo of 1st street in Calgary used as a set piece for The Last of Us // courtesy Twitter

And it worked –— it’s been reported by CTV News Calgary that The Last of Us will generate “upwards of $200 million in revenue to Alberta” creating jobs and stimulating local businesses in the process. In just four days of filming in Edmonton, it was reported that HBO spent $372,000 to film, which was paid to local crews, technicians, carpenters, caterers, security workers and to the city, amongst many others.  

Global News has reported that “31 medium-and large-scale productions have been approved” by the provincial government. This not only brings international attention to Alberta but essentially creates an entirely new industry in the province, which benefits us all. HBO transformed much of Canmore, Alberta into a remote Wyoming town in November, and are doing the same to Okotoks right now. According to ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) The Last of Us will be filming in Alberta until June 2022.

As annoying as street closures may be, these film productions benefit the Alberta economy long-term. So, the next time you’re sitting in Calgary traffic watching Hollywood actors play make-believe, just remember that you’ll be reaping the benefits, one way or another.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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