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The Way to the Heart movie project leaves local crews hungry for more

Filmmaker Sara Shaak says Prince George still an untapped market for location shooting

In the past three months Prince George has provided the backdrop for location shooting for two movie productions and there more could be more in store for the city.

Filming for The Way to the Heart, a romance directed by Wendy Ord, wrapped up on June 11 and a film crew from Vancouver spent three weeks working on location with local actors, camera operators, technicians and support staff to make it all happen.

For two weeks The Way of the Heart cameras were trained on Forests For The World park, Cranbrook Hill residences and the former Noah’s Ark Adventureland, and some the quiet roads east of the airport in Pineview. Vancouver actors Megan Heffern and Jon Cor had starring roles in the romantic comedy which centres around a farmers market during a classic car rally.

The movie was produced by Norm Coyne of Barker Street Cinema, and backed by local investors, Nada and Tom Newell. Directed by Wendy Ord, the film project was made possible by Sara Shaak, the former Prince George Film Commissioner, through her companies Anamorphic Media and Trilight Entertainment.

Shaak was also behind A Great North Christmas, a romance filmed in the city in March. The budget for The Way to the Heart was nearly double that of A Great North Christmas, and Shaak is already thinking ahead to other film productions which could be coming in Prince George.

“I think we did a lot to prove out our model with these last two shows,” said Shaak, from her home in Calgary. “Between the community champions and the quality of the crew and suppliers starting to understand our needs, we really can take things to another level and attract bigger projects.

“Our lead actor (Cor) said the crews in Prince George are as good or better than anywhere in the province doing these small films. I was thrilled to hear that after only two shows. A lot of it has to do with the will and the attitude, everyone really cared about things being successful and that’s a big part of the selling feature here, they aren’t entitled and really want it to work out.”

Best known locally for her work in bringing major Hollywood movies Double Jeopardy, Reindeer Games and Dreamcatcher to the city in the early 2000s, Shaak said business leaders in the Prince George region are now contacting her to find out about investment opportunities in the local film industry, which has never happened to her before.

“We did these last two local ones and they were controlled and financed by my company but as you get bigger there’s other partners in mind that can more reasonably share that risk because they see that it works in Prince George and we might be able to attract the bigger stuff with some larger partners,” said Shaak.

“I had more time on this one to meet with business leaders, both public and private sector, and a lot of people said to me it comes down to champions; we’re not quite there yet where we’re going to open the floodgates and everyone will start arriving,” she said. “There still needs to be a lot of hand-holding and I feel a lot of that pressure’s on me, but on the other hand, what an exciting way to give back to a community. I just feel everything we can pull off benefits a lot of people. This can be life-changing for some people if they see a career path they weren’t expecting or see an opportunity they didn’t think would be there. This whole area is untapped and everything we do is going to help make it better.

“We know what the opportunities are and maybe what the issues are in terms of our capacity now and we’re tackling everything bit by bit to see what we can bring next. There are so many things going for Prince George and the north. Logistically it works so well. You can be in the hotel and in 10 minutes you’re at a location. It’s really turning out to be a smart move and the timing is right, too. Everyone is pretty excited about what’s next.”

Shaak estimates the two most recent movies while they were being shot in the city brought close to $1 million to local businesses and the people directly involved in the movie.

She said the film industry has changed since the early 2000s when movies like Dreamcatcher commanded $50-60 million budgets and films that require that much investment are rarely made now. There are the odd exceptions, such as the $100 million budgets for Marvel superhero movies, but movies are most often being made for less than $5 million.

There’s also competition for viewing audiences from streaming platforms which did not exist two decades ago when films were more dependent on theatrical releases. Because it’s so easy to stream movies on the major platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the market is flooded and Shaak said film projects no longer command such high prices for distribution rights.

“Everything is kind of leaner and meaner,” said Shaak.

The Way to the Heart won’t be released for broadcast until sometime in 2022. Shaak is planning on returning to her Prince George hometown for the public screening of a Great North Christmas, which was shot in the city in March. Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation, which supplied Christmas decorations and volunteers from its Festival of Trees event for the movie, will be the beneficiaries of the movie premiere, likely to happen in October.

A Great North Christmas is slated to be broadcast on one of the major TV networks in the weeks leading up to the holiday season. It’s is being marketed at the Cannes Film Festival in France this week by Shaak’s film financing firm Anamorphic Media.

“We have it with our sales team at Cannes, looking for some more partners around the world, and the feedback has been really strong,” said Shaak. “We wanted to get it ready in time for Cannes. It’s still the most influential market in the world and an important place to be.”

Shaak produced the thriller Girl, starring Bella Thorne, which was a finalist for an award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but the event was cancelled due to the pandemic.