The BC Film Commission: Location, Location, Location

Blitz Magazine, May 2000

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was rare for a Hollywood producer to consider British Columbia when choosing locations. If they wanted a mountain, a bear, a Mountie, a Mountie on a bear on a mountain, only then BC was the obvious choice. A few well-known films were made here—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Carnal Knowledge. The skill was here; Canadian broadcasting and film talent has always had an excellent reputation. But, by 1975, although there was a lot of television production going on, BC had gone five years without seeing a complete Hollywood feature shot here and the province’s craftsmen were leaving to work elsewhere. Finally, in 1978, the Social Credit government stepped in and created the British Columbia Film Commission.

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With that came people who were actively marketing BC as a location. By the end of that year, BC went from having no business to enjoying production spending of $38 million. In 1979, it was $55 million. Producers, directors and production designers started to talk to their peers about BC, and there were people here following up. This meant cold-calling producers who, often, had to consult a map to find Vancouver. It was sometimes a tough sell, but the commission staff concentrated on building relationships and providing ever-better service.

While the cost of shooting in Los Angeles continued to escalate, BC was enjoying watershed moments. There was Year of Rambo (1979). 21 Jump Street showed producers that you could happily shoot an episodic series here. Then came MacGyver, and Wise Guy. In 1987, after the provincial government made a substantial investment to up-grade the Bridge Studios, Stephen J. Cannell and Paul Bronfman teamed up to build Lions Gate Studios (now North Shore Studios). The list of hit features continued to grow. The Canadian dollar stayed low, the tax advantages piled up.

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So has the work. In 1998, 28 features, 26 TV series, 15 animation projects, 59 documentaries and 43 MOWs, mini-series and pilots were produced in BC, for a total value of $808 million (CAD). In 1999, there were 54 features, 30 TV series, 6 animated projects, 48 documentaries and 60 MOWs, mini-series and pilots, for a total value of $1.7 billion. That doesn’t include the $500 million non-theatrical ‘broadcaster bucks’ and television commercial expenditures. And conservative estimates place the spin-off economic impact at $3 billion.

The BC Film Commission (BCFC) is a branch of the Ministry of Small Business, Tourism & Culture and relies on the government for all of its funds. It employs just 10 people and has seen its budget regularly slashed in recent years, to the point where it currently operates on a stunningly low annual budget of $875,000. (This, while Montreal just received a $300,000. injection to its promotional budget alone.)

The BCFC mandate is to market, promote and facilitate film and television production in BC, and to market the services of BC production, post-product and ancillary service companies to the international film and television industry. It has four tasks: international marketing, location scouting, location services and community relations.

These days, the marketing function is restricted, to say the least. “Seven years ago, I had a $250,000 print advertising budget,” says marketing manager Alice To. “It’s now $50,000, including creative. We’ve gone from placing 45 ads a year to placing five. Those five are saved for when there’s a BC production that needs to be congratulated in the trade press. Now, we don’t have campaigns, we have reminders. We stand out by using illustrations—other film commissions run location shots. We used to advertise to the European and Asian markets, we used to publish a newsletter for schools and libraries, and we used to do a lot of media relations. But we don’t have the resources for that any more.”

The commission used to have an advertising agency (Campaign Communications, now Saatchi & Saatchi). It also used to host the extremely successful Friends of BC reception in Los Angeles—a party to thank people for filming in BC. The commission still goes to Cannes and is hosting a Business in BC conference in London this year, but the once all-important trade shows are now also a thing of the past.

“We used to do Location EXPO,” continues To. “You’d have all the film commissions under one roof and everyone competed to attract people to their jurisdictions—we’d pass out BC apples, water, salmon. And we used to exhibit at Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival. Now we don’t do that, not so much because of budget cuts, but because people aren’t interested in trade shows any more. They know about the commissions and they can get the information they need off the Internet.”

For the past two years, the BCFC has had a very effective web site ( It’s strictly for information dissemination and doesn’t carry advertising, but it is well-visited to the point of the occasional crash. On it, visitors find film lists, statistics, quick facts, news items, maps and information on customs, taxes, unions, equipment rental, studios and services.

To, who compares her job to doing the limbo under an ever-lower budget bar, maintains a large photo library and has managed to produce excellent location brochures showing various BC locations—not just deer in the woods, but alleyways, warehouses, docks, residential areas. There’s the occasional marketing project with BC Film (the non-profit society responsible for marketing completed made-in-BC projects) and, twice a year, the commission’s director, location and production services managers go down to Los Angeles to meet with film industry executives and engage in some good, old-fashioned product touting.


The product is a region which has evolved from being a location to being a production centre. BC’s craftspeople are as good as, if not better, than those anywhere else in the world. We have 67 state-of-the-art sound stages, the best post-production facilities in the business, and we’re capable of having 35 A-list crews working simultaneously. All facilities and amenities are here; producers don’t have to bring anything with them. BC has architectural diversity, ethnic diversity and geographic diversity (it has nine of the globe’s 12 climates, lacking only arctic, tropic and sub-tropic).

“We used to just market locations, now we market Vancouver as a production centre,” says acting BCFC director Mark DesRochers. “We have the complete package now—the pitch to the popcorn. People have put a lot of money back into the business here, so everything’s up to date and the quality of the facilities here has been well attested to by the most grizzled of Hollywood veterans.”

But if there’s no marketing budget, no events budget and no media relations budget, how has the BC Film Commission succeeded?

Strategy, service and more service.

“The second part of our mandate—location scouting—can be challenging,” continues DesRochers. “If someone needs the Texas panhandle, we’ve got a problem. But maybe we can get that script rewritten for Montana. Double Jeopardy was originally supposed to take place in Boston. Then Bruce Beresford thought ‘Why am I trying to cheat this for Boston, when I can rewrite it to take place in the Pacific Northwest?’


“We have to get in at the contract-signing stage. After that, there’s not much we can do to change their minds. So we look at the trades, track production, call people up. The key is to get producers to think of BC first. A producer will send a script to a dozen locations and his concerns are budget and what a location offers. They come up here and I show them around and say, ‘We can do it for this much here and it’s going to look good. But then I may take them to the Okanagan and show them the perfect location for the script and say ‘If we do it here, for this much, it will look fabulous’. Then they’ll go back and fight for that location. It may cost them a little more to go up to the Okanagan, but they’re still saving money by filming in BC, and they don’t have to compromise on the creative side.

“Also, since 1995, we’ve had the Regional Film Commission of BC, a network of regional film offices that helps us give people exactly the location they want. Production budgets are shrinking and it’s expensive to send location scouts everywhere, especially in a region the size of BC.

“We know how thin the margins are on these shows and we have to service that margin. If a producer needs a mountain and he can get great shots on Grouse Mountain, we’re not going to have him drag his crew over to Mount Robson. If he wants the Queen Charlotte Islands and we know he can’t afford it, we’ll find the alternative.

“We learned a long time ago to never bullshit the customer. If someone needs tundra and musk ox, I’m going to tell we don’t have it. We don’t want to screw up or disappoint our customers, because some of our customers are people who would go out of their way to tell their friends what a bunch of wankers we are. If you market yourselves as being something, that’s what you have to deliver.”



Once a project has been landed, the third part of the BCFC’s job— location services—kicks in. The BCFC takes a hands-on approach, walking producers through the hoops and ladders of immigration, customs, tax credits, Canadian content issues and union agreements.

The latter, as has been well publicized, used to be a major bugaboo. “People want to come here and make movies, not learn labour law,” explains DesRochers. “There was a time when people considered the possibility of union problems if they came to BC. That may or may not have cost us business—and it did get to the point where the whole thing could have gone down the toilet. But out of that came the opportunity to figure out how to make it work. And we did. Now, unlike any other jurisdiction in North America, all of the unions and guilds have long-term agreements with the employers, and the union agreements are much more straightforward than they used to be. We now have labour peace.”

More recently, there was the issue of unrest among members of the Los Angeles film industry, many of whom were furious at the amount of business coming up here.

“This is a cyclical business, and the growth in production in LA has been more rampant than any other place on the planet,” says DesRochers. “But if there are impracticalities which cost money, and producers want to make a profit, they’ll go where they can get the biggest bang for their buck. Anyway, we haven’t heard much from them lately—the guy leading the charge had to resign to go work on a feature in Toronto.”

Delivering that bigger bang also means competing with 260 other North American film commissions—and with Toronto, Vancouver’s main competitor, whose film commission also gets way more support from its provincial government. Toronto also has location advantages that BC doesn’t have.

“The competition has to do with location-driven pictures,” explains DesRochers. “Toronto is always on the producers’ shopping lists. If you want that eastern city look—if you want New York, Toronto is more logical. But there’s the weather to consider. And we are chameleons.”

The BCFC’s final mandate component is community relations. This area is absolutely essential, given that, not too long ago, the goodwill and hospitality of British Columbians—Vancouverites in particular—was starting to run a little low.

“Vancouverites are easy to get along with, considering the amount of production going on in a relatively small inner city,” remarks DesRochers. “But we had to start spending more time making sure the neighbours were not going to lynch the next show. Now, the municipal and city fathers are educated on what all of this filming means to the economy. People get advance letters, friendly production people knock on their doors and answer questions. It may just be a courtesy or—if you want to land a helicopter on someone’s street at 2:00 a.m.—it may be crucial.

“Like any business, once you’ve done your marketing and landed the business, your future success lies in how efficient you are at servicing that business. We have a multi-tiered client base and we don’t want anyone to feel used and abused.”

In 1995, the BCFC needed someone to deal only with community relations. It didn’t have the money to pay that salary, so it went to those with a vested interest—lawyers, accountants, post-production facilities, unions etc., and had them each chip in $4000. to pay 75% of the salary for a community relations person, something which most film centres don’t have.

The BCFC’s community affairs manager, Gordon Hardwick, is responsible for working with production companies and helping them deal with municipal administrators, Crown corporations and the private sector—helping them cut the red tape.

“I’m currently trying to organize municipal administrators to discuss ways of standardizing things,” he says. “The Greater Vancouver Regional District has 21 municipalities, all with different application and permit processes. Each year, filmmakers make 1,250 applications to the City of Vancouver, which has 400 files open at any one time. So things can become quite complex.”

Hardwick is also working on a marketing plan aimed at raising public awareness of the industry’s fiscal benefits.

“The film community supports a lot of charitable and service organizations, and there are many good-news stories to be told. We have a very low complaint level, but sometimes people get this idea that they’re being exploited by Big American Film Companies. Once they realize that a lot of the productions are Canadian, and that the guy next door makes his living this way, they understand. So the goal of the marketing plan will be to get the good news stories and the economic information out on as localized a level as possible.

“My job is to find ways to accommodate everyone and communicate with businesses and residents so that they can plan their lives around what’s going to be happening. Without that communication, communities would get fed up with the road blocks and noise and racing vehicles and say ‘forget it’. That’s what happened in some communities in the Los Angeles basin, which simply no longer allowing filming. Collectively, our locations are a resource that needs to be managed, with an eye to preservation for the future, just as the fishery or forestry resource does. This is a resource that needs to be both promoted and protected.

“The film industry here grew as a location-based industry—it was never about studios and back lots. We’ve always needed public support and understanding and the willingness to accept inconvenience once in a while. This industry employs 25,000 people—you don’t want it to go away just because it occasionally blocks your driveway.”

Perhaps the human element complicates things more than in this industry than in other sectors. But the other key to the BC Film Commission’s success is that it has been very good at forging solid, long-lasting relationships.

“We’ve developed a great rapport with the decision-makers in this industry,” says DesRochers. “When I go down to LA, I meet with people and find out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. We stay abreast of their desires and wishes and respond quickly. People there know we’re open to suggestions and that we’re committed to delivering the goods. That confidence is better than any advertising you could run.

“This is show business—a mix of creativity and fiscal responsibility. You can’t separate money from the other benefits. You can’t put a dollar value on knowing that you’re going to get the product you want, on time and on budget. And those relationships may save money in the long run, even if the up-front cost is a little higher. So you’ll get producers who come here again and again, no matter what company they’re working for.

“Sure, there’s the exchange rate and the tax advantages, but it’s also the people. Producers know they can depend on our people. We’ve earned the respect of our community on both sides of the border—from studio guys, to unions, to composers, to the guys renting cell phones. We’ve done a good job in forging relationships and keeping those warm and fuzzy feelings about us.”


On Dicks & Democracy


Blitz Magazine, May 2001

I used to spend a lot of time with a political strategist. I’ll call him Dick. I can’t say I knew him well, because it was his goal to not be known well. Once, he had too much to drink and let slip his mother’s name. The only time I got a direct answer from him was when I asked the time.

I thought of Dick while watching the ‘debate’ during the run-up to the recent provincial election. There were four candidates, facing four seasoned journalists. The journalists asked questions. Their questions were not answered, not even indirectly. The robots spouted scripted statements vaguely relating to the subject. No one was challenged; there was no debate of any kind. Later, the media discussed who won.

There were only three notable things about the session: the incumbent’s response to every question was a tired deflection against Gordon Campbell; Campbell’s constant repetition of the words ‘British Columbia’, as if to remind himself what province we’re in. And Green Party leader Adrienne Carr’s statement that she “truly believes” that private sector businesses would “find a way”, on their own, to establish wage parity. Sure. Have another joint.

I’ve had several conversations with Premier-Elect Campbell over the years. Ordinary, interactive conversations. But for this election, he’d clearly put himself thoroughly in the hands of a Dick. So had the others. I could hear the conversation, applicable to any one of them.

“You said we weren’t supposed to speak to the public.”


“Then why am I doing this debate?”

“Just recite one of the responses you’ve memorized.”

“What if the response doesn’t match the question?”


“What if the journalists notice?”

“They’ll be drunk.”

“And later, when journalists gather around me to scram-”

“Scrum. Say nothing. Be in a hurry.”

“But what about democratic principles? What about my obligation to be open, honest, forthwith—”


“That too.”

“Forget democratic principles. This is an election.”

BC politics has always been unusual. But this election was extraordinary. I’ve never seen an election, anywhere, where the Dicks so obviously orchestrated everything. No attempt was made to hide that fact that Dicks had total control. Over every movement, every syllable spoken. No one got a direct response to any question, from any candidate, at any time. No citizen was able to spontaneously communicate with any candidate: when a candidate arrived somewhere, the grassroots members that everyone’s always gushing about were unable to get near him without literally muscling through the pre-arranged barrier of placard-waving supporters.

Thomas Paine is often misquoted. He didn’t say that ‘power corrupts’. He said that ‘authority corrupts’. The difference is evident here. Those who have attained power ceded the authority to acquire that power to highly-paid Dicks, Who are faceless, invisible, simultaneously paid by many differing interests, accountable to no one.

Who loses? Any pre-existing good intentions on the part of prospective politicians are smothered, which must make politics torture for the well-meaning. Governments vanish behind a fog that we can’t rely on journalists to dispel, because centralized media ownership dictates their positions. And the man on the street? What man on the street?

When Dicks run the show, we lose, Dicks win. The Dicks gotta’ go.


On Being Sick of the Blood

Blitz Magazine, January 2007


The year of BC news-viewers’ discontent has begun, and in the most appalling fashion. It was yesterday that the first trial of alleged serial killer Robert Pickton began. We had been duly warned: Global began to advertise its up-coming coverage a week ago. Now, it has become clear that the news-viewing public will be forced to watch the media engage in the agonizing process of sucking every ounce of blood from this already-bloody story.

Pickton, as you know, is accused of killing 26 women, whom he lured from the Vancouver’s skid row to his suburban pig farm. He is now on trial for six of those murders. A cursory view of CTV showed that its coverage was in pretty good taste. Global was a different animal altogether, with anchor Deb Hope using her nauseating ‘there, there’ voice to repeatedly warn squeamish viewers to use their discretion, following which no fewer than five reporters filed from the courthouse.

Every available family member was tagged for comment, a diagram of the courthouse was shown and explained, the judge was profiled, the Crown prosecutor and lead defense lawyer were profiled, the victims were profiled. The biggest guffaw was elicited by an interview with a child psychologist who advised how to counsel parents on how to help their children deal with this coverage—although I noted that he did not advise turning the TV off.

We all know about the ‘if-it-bleeds-it-leads’ mantra. We’re used to it, which is why we’re all so desensitized to the carnage we watch on the news every day. But so much has been said about ‘thinking outside the box’, that one would think that news organizations might pick up on that. They haven’t. No news organization seems to want to dare to step outside of said box and make changes so that their news delivery is more dignified and professional. Instead of wanting to simply inform and enlighten, they want to continue to pile it on, feeding the most base and prurient thoughts to be mined from the minds of viewers.

Does this help society in any way? Not a whit. In fact, I would suggest that it contributes to stress, anxiety, negativity, fear, callousness, even crime. Not everyone watching these stories is rational, intelligent and strong enough to listen to this crap without being influenced by it. Indeed, perhaps Robert Pickton is one of those people.


On Being Fed Up With Crap Television News

When you read the Letters section in this issue, you may be one of the many who will empathize with Robert Fripp, the former Fifth Estate producer who says that he hasn’t watched television news or current affairs programs for over 10 years because “The steady drip-feed of Shock-Horror, negativity, finger-pointing and a press-room compass eternally pointed towards noire, is no more conducive to good mental health than is television.”


I can remember a time when I would have been mortified if I’d been caught not being informed; if, during cocktail conversation, I was found guilty of not knowing about the latest gaff of some politician, or what kind of reviews a certain movie received. Now, I don’t care. Neither do a lot of people. Because the trend seems to be that we’re backing away from the media. No one is embarrassed to say so any more. I have friends who no longer own television sets. People have made the decision because anything to do with mainstream media these days is maudlin crap, slanted reporting, That Blowed Up Real Good!, or Oh The Humanity! It’s stressful and depressing.

When I first heard about the Tsunami in December, I thought ‘Oh, poor people.” Then I thought ‘I bet newsroom journalists all over North America are just jumping for joy.’ I was right. There was a palpable giddiness in the reportage of the event’s aftermath, as if producers were shouting ‘We’ve got enough Human Interest for last for months!’ Reporters flocked to the region to report on sick orphans and starving people. Global News BC sent a native of the region, along with a reporter and cameraman, for that ‘first-hand, personal’ touch while, at home, its reporters were doing remotes from coffee shops whose owners were smart enough to see a great promotional opportunity when it arose.

When the Tsunami story started to cool, the same news organization invented its own story. A Thai princess came to Vancouver to settle legal and insurance matters relating to a property she owns here, and that almost burned down last year. Global reported on that fire at the time, and likely knew exactly what she was doing here. Instead, it reported that she came here to ski, swarmed her at the airport, demanded an interview with her representative here, and did ‘people on the street’ interviews.

Man oh man oh man….

While North American news organizations were squeezing every last sad drop out of the tsunami story, and many of us were hoping for some other disaster so the subject could be changed, the temperature plummeted to a (Vancouver) record of -7. I’m schlepping winter clothes to the Salvation Army and thinking “Hmmm…we’re sending millions and millions and millions overseas but, uh, doesn’t charity begin at home?” That same day, Nelson Mandela’s son died of AIDS. In South Africa alone, 600 people die of AIDS every single day—that’s 219,000 every year. While recording artists in every country are organizing concerts for those affected by the Tsunami, I’m thinking: “Whatever happened to Bob Geldof’s push for famine relief in Africa?, and “Why aren’t more people fundraising for HIV meds there?”

I used to be a fundraiser—I organized my first event at 14 and hung up the ball gowns about 10 years ago. I know how easily good causes can fall out of favour, or lose their cachet. There’s a status attached, or not, to each one. But once the media sees the opportunity to show the Blood & Guts, and countless images of suffering and pain and loss and damage, our response is to jump on! Do something now! Buy an Armani t-shirt (made in Mexico—I checked), send little kids on door-to-door collection excursions. That’s great, but then the cause in question seems to become obscene to us. After a very short period of time, people turn away, repulsed, or bored. It’s March now, and few of us think of the tsunami disaster; by the summer, most people will have pretty much forgotten about it. (The answer of course is for everyone to give a monthly sum to a broad-reaching charity.)

I digress. I turned on the news today. Services for the slain RCMP officers—an event that has grieved and disgusted the entire nation. Paul Martin’s ongoing support from his party. The US border’s closure to our cows. This is good—this is news that is relevant and meaningful to Canadians. But I’m watching the CBC. At 6:00, I will turn to one of the local channels—Global, CTV or CHUM. I will hear about the latest car accidents, house fires, some out-of-bounds skier being rescued. In ‘international’ news, it will likely be news of a landslide in California, a bad car accident in Holland, or a flood in Wales—anything gut-wrenching to fill the time.

We need to write to news directors and ask: ‘Why are you doing this to us? Why can’t we have fresh stories, discovered and developed by Canadian reporters, about things that actually mean something to us? Why is it that, when we are finished watching the news and there was an important issue mentioned, we’re left asking questions about it? Why give reporters 2 minutes, when they need at least 6 to lay out the facts? Why is all of our news coming from the wire services? Have you forgotten that there is, or used to be, something called ‘investigative journalism’? Are you appealing only to those who use TV as a dinnertime opiate? Or are you trying to frustrate us all and force us into blissful ignorance?’

That may be the route I’m taking. In fact, it is. I used to spend time writing essays about ‘Big Important Issues’. Now, I’m writing children’s books. My new main sources of news are the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. I’m tired of being depressed by every news show. I’m tired of listening to junk no one cares about. I’m turning over a new leaf. I have a new ‘tude: Don’t ask me nuthin’ because I won’t know nuthin’.

Blitz Magazine, 2006

Donny, Marie & BC: BC Children’s Hospital Is #1 in Telethon Fundraising

 Blitz Magazine, November 1998


 To cynical television viewers, fundraising telethons can be nightmarish marathons of show tunes, dance acts and maimed children gasping over puppies while sleep-deprived celebrities sob in the background. On the other hand, all that tackiness works — it keeps the phones buzzing and the money meter humming.

               In 1983, Donny and Marie’s Osmond Foundation decided to improve on the concept and founded the Children’s Miracle Network (CHM), which facilities the staging of telethons for pediatric medical facilities. One reason that some telethons turn out to be so hokey is that certain markets may have a very limited amount of local entertainment. With the CHM, all members have their telethons on the same week-end. But the telethon in, say, Little Rock may have only enough local material to fill 20 minutes in an hour. As a CHM member, for the other 40 minutes, it goes by satellite to the main CHM event in Orlando, where Donny or Marie or Mary Hart or John Schneider could be performing. The foundation is paid a fee by the hospitals and, in exchange, provides access to national sponsors and, for promotional purposes, national celebrities. Today, there are 160 North American facilities under the CHM umbrella, and BC Children’s Hospital is number one — ‘has been since 1994.

bcch3               How can that be?, you ask. BC’s population has only just hit four million and we know that Americans are way more generous when it comes to supporting hospitals. And it’s true that there are hospitals in markets like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles which take in $60. million a year. But that money is gathered through planned giving, where corporations and individuals make long-term charitable commitments; and through major gifts from estates, trusts and foundations. Where BC Children’s Hospital wins out is in annual giving.

               Then you ask: But, if our government uses our tax dollars to pay for our hospitals, why do they need more money? John Morton, Director of Marketing & Communications for the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, says that that is the question which he’s most often asked. And that its answer is the reason that there has to be a foundation in the first place.

               “Our tax dollars pay for operating costs. That money — $140. million annually in the case of BCCH — keeps the doors open, the lights on, the staff coming. It doesn’t allow for capital expenditures, new equipment, research, patient programs or staff and family education. For that, we have to raise our own money. So the foundation, which is a stand-alone entity with 30 full-time employees, is the hospital’s fundraising and marketing arm. We raise awareness and bring in funds so our care-givers can concentrate on taking care of children.”

               Although there has been a hospital for children in Vancouver since 1897, BC Children’s Hospital (BCCH) has officially been in existence since 1947. It is the only children’s hospital in the province (Ontario has three) and it is charged with providing BC with leadership in clinical care, access to specialty health care and research. It is the provincial centre for pediatric trauma, critical care, neonatology, cancer treatment, kidney transplants and the training of medical specialists in child health care. Last year, the hospital saw 139,000 patient visits (65% from outside the Lower Mainland), its ER treated 32,000 patients, its staff cared for 600 premature infants and critically ill newborns. One thousand cancer patients were treated last year — it sees 110 new cases each year and 75% of patients survived last year, up from 20% in 1988. In 1997, it performed 86,000 surgical procedures, including 200 open-heart surgeries and 20 bone marrow transplants, and it has BC’s only MRI scanner (which is used by other hospitals). It operates 40 ambulatory clinics and 162 out-reach clinics, provides treatment for HIV-infected women and children, and runs a vaccine evaluation centre, a family resource library and an injury prevention program. All of this, of course, costs bags of money — $154 million in 1997.

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               Raising money for the short-fall would, some may think, be easy — you produce pictures of cute sick kids and ask for the dough. Who could refuse? What possible argument could there be against wanting to make children healthy?

               In fact, fundraising is a hugely competitive business, and BCCH competes with 1,000 active BC charities. Most charitable giving is based on emotional appeal, and most charities are targeted in that appeal — if your spouse has kidney disease, you would be more disposed to giving to the Kidney Foundation; your passion for animals would direct your money to the SPCA. The two charities which are so broad-based that everyone feels good about supporting them, though, are the United Way and BC Children’s Hospital. But fundraising is expensive and the United Way is a huge organization with lots of money to spend.

               The answer to what could be a David-and-Goliath situation for BCCH is two-fold — it maintains innovative communications programs and it thinks of itself as a for-profit business.

               “We make a concerted effort to position the hospital in the same way as we would in the for-profit sector,” says Morton. “We’re a charity and many people donate all or part of their services to us, but we don’t shy away from the fact that there’s a cost to doing business and that investments have to be made in resources, people and marketing tools. We have the same demanding standards in marketing and communications as any professionally-run company would, we pay the same attention to cash out-lay — but we stay with the non-profit rule of never allowing costs to exceeding 20% of funds raised.”

               BCCH raises funds in a variety of ways. Smilewear, or branded apparel, is sold in banks, retail outlets, over the BCCH web site and at the hospital’s gift shop to bring in $100,000.00 a year. Financial gifts come from individuals and corporations. But where BCCH comes out of the gate is in annual telethon fundraising. And although about $250,000.00 is raised each year through call-in donations on the telethon week-end, the bulk of annual funds comes from activities conducted throughout the year for the telethon. And this happens through what Morton calls ‘systemic fundraising’.

               The foundation divides its telethon fundraising cabinet into industry sectors and recruits volunteers from these sectors — Tourism/Hospitality, Information and Technology, Construction, Transportation, Retail/Wholesale, Forestry, Finance, Real Estate, Mining, Energy, Professional (doctors, lawyers) and the Public Sector. In each sector, one volunteer becomes chairman of the committee for his or her industry, recruits more volunteers from that industry and is responsible for that committee’s activities. In addition, the Chinese-Canadian, Indo-Canadian and Italian-Canadian communities have their own committees, and there are 13 additional committees to handle donations management, catering, production etc.

               As the telethon is held each June, the 28 committees start planning in October, and all funds raised over the next eight months become part of the telethon total. The foundation provides a relationship manager for each committee to provide support, but the committees are pretty much left to themselves to raise funds in their own way. And they don’t need much help.

               “We tend to attract people who are at the top of their industries, and they got there for a reason,” says Morton. “We have fundraising initiatives that we’ve perfected over the years, but these are extremely creative people and they’re good at coming up with their own ideas.”

               The Finance committee raises about $1. million by selling hot dogs and Sunny Bears (the hospital’s mascot), and by hosting a stick-on toonie campaign at teller wickets. The Tourism/Hospitality committee conducts a chocolate hedgehog campaign, a Coffee for Kids campaign and a golf tournament. There is a Mining For Miracles campaign. Canada Post sells cook books. A Slo-Pitch tournament brings in $420,000.00. Then there is Jeans Day, where people buy $5. buttons and, if they wear the buttons, can wear jeans to work on a designated Friday each year. Jeans Day alone raises $620,000.00 and it was an idea that came from Bryant, Fulton & Shee, which has been the foundation’s advertising agency, on a pro bono basis, for the past ten years and which gets a lot of credit for making the telethon fundraising campaign the success that it is.

               Because communication is the key to successful fundraising. If you’re a non-profit organization, people have to know why you exist, what you do, why they should give you money and what you would do with it. You have to create awareness of yourself as a brand, and you have to keep reminding people that you’re still doing what you do and that you still need money. It’s not easy, given the competition and our persistently unstable economy.bcch2

               After the BCCH foundation joined the Children’s Miracle Network in 1986, its fundraising plugged along at a steady pace, hitting $2.7 million in 1990. Public awareness of the hospital and its activities grew, as did the foundation’s work with Bryant, Fulton & Shee but, in 1993, it was decided that a heavy branding campaign was in order.

               “The foundation had developed a bit of an advertising campaign and had decided on the image it wanted to portray,” explains Jeff Schulz, Bryant, Fulton & Shee’s Director of Response Marketing. “That image was that the hospital is there to put smiles back where they belong — on the faces of children. But, for 1993, we decided to go bigger, to create a bigger sense of the hospital and to put an emotional face on it.”

               A new strategy was developed, and it is this strategy which remains today — the strategy which propelled BCCH to the top of the telethon fundraising heap and keeps it there still.

               Two campaigns were launched, both using transit, radio, TV, outdoor and poster advertising. From July to April, a general awareness campaign does not ask people to donate money, but it reminds them that the hospital is a provincial care-giver which puts smiles back where they belong. The second campaign raises awareness of the telethon. It is a call to action, encouraging people to support the telethon by participating in the committees’ telethon-related activities.

               One of the key components to the success of both campaigns was the 1993 incorporation of direct mail. There are now direct mail campaigns in the spring and fall. Each is a three-wave mailing: three consecutive letters are sent to 50,000 households, most of which include current or past donors. The mailings include wish lists, i.e. ‘this is the piece of equipment we need, this is what it would do and this is what it costs’. There have been notes from parents and children — such as ‘I want to be a airplane lady,’ or, from Brandon, ‘I want to be a firman’, with an accompanying photograph of Brandon in a firefighter’s suit. The goal is to create what fund-raisers call ‘the warm fuzzies’ — the tug at the heartstrings which opens the door to the bank account.

               The direct mail campaigns have also included a design strategy. “We tried to do some interesting, less traditional things,” says Schulz. “Most non-profits print two-colour materials. We found that four-colour generates a better response. Most donor forms are 3 1/3” x 8” — we went with an 8 1/2” x 11” form and simplified it to make it easy to complete. So we use strong, bright colours, make donating easier and put interesting graphic treatments on the envelopes — large images of children, strong headlines. We’ve included a stamp program with children’s art which we later auctioned off, and that had the effect of involving donors. Meanwhile, the direct mail works with the advertising so that when donors see a TV ad or outdoor board, they relate it back to the direct mail pieces.”

               Campaigns we’ve seen lately have included the Superman theme (using the Crash Test Dummies hit song), which points out that too many children discover that they’re not made of steel. There have been taped parent and care-giver testimonials and, recently, Vancouver Grizzly Antonio Daniels warbled hackneyed ballads with the promise that he’d stop if people donate. The print/poster ads have been extremely effective, with arresting images and headlines.

               “Some of the campaigns are a little edgy, but we always want to convey a sense of hope,” says Schulz. “With the drama, there has to be a positive spin. We want people to feel good about giving.”

               The result of the 1993 change in strategy — the heavy branding campaign using the hospital’s sunshine logo combined with direct mail and a strong television presence, created a massive jump in public awareness for the hospital — to 93%. And the resultant momentum has carried through financially: last June’s telethon brought in $5.5 million. As the foundation has an endowment which covers its administrative costs, all funds raised go directly to the hospital– less the cost of staging the telethon which, last year, was $323,000.00.

               Which, if you think about it, isn’t bad. That’s for a week-end on Global Television, with sets which have to be built, technicians and staff who have to be paid. Then there’s the cost of producing the telethon’s video presentations. Much of the telethon’s visual content is four-minute video vignettes — patient stories including interviews with doctors, nurses, family members. Along the way, comedians perform to keep the energy up and the whole thing is meant to be a happy, cheerful celebration of caring and giving, although events can occasionally alter that.

               “We had started to tape a vignette on a child, then it became apparent that her treatment wasn’t working,” recalls Morton. “The child died but we ran the vignette anyway, as a tribute to her. What we do is desperately serious and it’s not a bad thing to occasionally remind people of that in a tasteful way.”

               As the telethon is the culmination of all of the committees’ activities for the previous eight months, a good deal of time is also spent on volunteer and donor recognition, which takes the form of on-screen acknowledgments and cheque presentations from committee delegations. There are, of course, the phone banks and, to keep people calling in the off hours, there are Fast Five Minute segments where sponsors give away products to those who call within those five minutes. Callers can have $25.00 donations added to their telephone bills and, this year, the foundation brought in new technology to facilitate increased call-in donations.

               “We set up a 1-900 line a month prior to the telethon with a voice mail tree which allows people to donate without having to talk to anyone,” says Morton. “People have turned to that in a big way.”

               As mentioned, smaller-market telethons have to turn to the satellite feed for entertainment from the Children’s Miracle Network, which is taking place simultaneously in Florida. BCCH, however, is lucky to have a large talent pool; enough to fill 14 of the 21 telethon hours with local content, so it uses the satellite feed only from midnight to 8:00 a.m.

               The BCCH telethon isn’t about entertainment anyway. “We’re an educational telethon,” says Morton. “We’re showing people what we’re here for and how, with their help, we’ve been successful. Every telethon has its own voice and its own way of broadcasting — the educational, up-beat route is most effective for us.”

               And what about the rest of the Children’s Miracle Network members? While you would think that the American hospitals would be way more aggressive as fund-raisers, given their lack of choice, Morton says that they’re not yet up to the BC speed.

               “We go to the Children’s Miracle Network conferences and discuss strategy with other markets. They’re smart, capable people and we learn from them, but many are taking baby steps. They are either not as far along with road or they’re not being innovative.

               “Our telethon is the most successful because we have extremely high brand awareness and we are a simple proposition. We’re in the business of making sick children better — that’s compelling and easy to understand for everyone. The other side of the equation is cerebral and is fulfilled by managing our business well, having thousands of creative and energetic volunteers and communicating to the public in an extremely sophisticated and effective fashion.”


On Money for Media

Blitz Magazine, January 1999


The TV commercials which currently make me most grateful for my mute button are for Scotiabank. This campaign offers a series of homey scenarios, over which some guy with one of those squidgey, vaguely-creepy voices describes, in a stream of sentences annoyingly beginning with ‘Because’, why the people in those scenarios are Scotiabank customers. All age groups in the middle-class target are covered; extra comfort (for Riverdance fans at least) comes from Celtic music. And I now know that, if I ever lose my mind and want to work on my lap-top while perched on a stool in the middle of a lake, my account with Scotiabank will allow me to do that.

          Condescension is insulting. Humour works best. And, as we’ve seen with Richmond Savings’ successful ‘Your Money Is Our Money’ campaign, humour does work for financial institutions. For what they pay for creative, surely the Big Banks can come up with something funny.

          For example, envision a 35 year-old woman meeting with a Big Bank loans officer. She has a terrific, original idea for an interactive, educational game. She has a business plan, a marketing plan and a solid resume. She needs $100,000. and doesn’t want to liquidate any assets to raise it. But she has trust fund statements, photographs of the West Vancouver police arriving at her mortgage-burning party and notarized promissory notes offering her children as collateral. And the loans officer says: “So you call this ‘New Media’? Hmmm. Could you get your ex-husband or parents to co-sign?” Ha ha ha ha.

          Well, that’s not funny but it’s pretty much the way it is, even in this supposed Age of Big Bank Enlightenment. Which is why anyone trying to get ahead in new media and/or film needs access to money. Lots of it. With easy, patient terms and helpful, co-operative administrators.

          For extra advice, you can book a lunch date with Kim Campbell, the Canadian Consul General to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, while you’re down there, you can also drop in and say hello to the guys at Totally Hip Software. Now, thanks (they say) to the BC government’s lack of support, they’re there too.