Ta-ta Hollywood, hello Vancouver. `MacGyver' among shows finding Canada cheaper, more scenic

Peter Thornton's houseboat office doesn't rise and fall with the tide. That's because it is located on solid ground inside a massive former steel warehouse here in suburban Vancouver. The nice but cluttered room ``inside'' the imaginary houseboat is part of the illusion of a Monday-night television series, ``MacGyver.'' The warehouse, converted to studio space, is one of the attractions for American producers of TV shows and movies of what is sometimes called ``Hollywood North.'' (Since Toronto also has attracted many American producers, it sometimes claims that title.)

Last year, 25 film projects were shot in British Columbia, with Vancouver usually the production base. The British Columbia Film Commission notes that these films altogether had total production budgets of C$156 million (US$118 million), of which $83.4 million was spent in the province.

This year spending in British Columbia on film productions ($152 million) will just about match total production budgets for 1986, while total budgets (which include costs outside the province) grew to $283 million.

Hollywood productions of movie features here this year include two Walt Disney productions (``Stakeout'' and ``Mountain King'') and three by Paramount Pictures (``Reckless Endangerment,'' ``Experts,'' and ``Distant Thunder'').

American TV series filmed here, aside from ``MacGyver,'' include ``Stingray,'' ``Beans Baxter,'' ``Wiseguy,'' ``J.J.Starbuck,'' and ``21 Jump Street.'' Productions also include 14 TV movies, all stemming from Hollywood. Altogether, some 28 films will be made this year in British Columbia.

Stephen Downing, the ex-Los Angeles cop who is now executive producer of ``MacGyver,'' offers several reasons why American shows are often being shot in this Canadian province.

For one thing, it is cheaper. Wages are comparable in terms of dollars per hour, says Mr. Downing, but these are Canadian dollars. Because of the exchange rate, they cost American producers about one-quarter less in US dollar terms.

Moreover, the film industry trade unions are more flexible here than south of the border. Mr. Downing says it is possible for him to get waivers from union rules if he has a reasonable case. Whereas in Hollywood, he never even met a union executive, here he has friendly chats with them.

``George Chapman will drop in and say hello,'' he says.

Mr. Chapman is the union representative for two film industry locals. Chapman says producers can come to Vancouver ``with a Chevrolet budget and walk away with a Cadillac.'' The minimum film crews are smaller. Most important, the local employees ``try harder. We put out the extra 10 percent. We keep them coming back.''

Then there is the variety of locations. After shooting 44 hour-long episodes of ``MacGyver'' in the Los Angeles area, the show was getting a ``stale look,'' says Mr. Downing. If crews were driven outside a 30-mile zone around Hollywood to new locations, wage costs went up as travel time had to be included.

Here in Vancouver, Downing has the choice of different locations and somewhat more flexibility on the 30-mile travel zone.

``We thought we could improve the look of the show,'' he says.

Episodes have been filmed in such nearby locations as Capilano Canyon, Cypress Mountain, Squamish, Indian Arm, and Britannia Beach.

``A 10- or 15-minute drive and you are in another world,'' says Downing, referring to the variety of habitats - mountains, harbor, inlets, rivers, city, suburbs, canyons, and so on.

``The economics allow me to put more on the screen,'' he concludes.

The ABC Television action/adventure ``MacGyver'' series is now in its third season, with a contract for 20 episodes from the Vancouver area.

Starring Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver, the show is produced by Henry Winkler/John Rich Productions in association with Paramount Network Television.

Downing will find out perhaps in April or May whether the show has won another season, but since its rating put it among the top 30 shows (and higher after the football season), he has high hopes it will continue.

For one thing, he loves Vancouver. ``It is probably the most cosmopolitan city I have ever been in,'' he says.

The people of Vancouver include many immigrants from around the world, so the city has a wide variety of restaurants and cultural facili-ties.

Downing also praises Vancouverites for being friendly and courteous. He says life here is ``not so hectic. People enjoy their time off here.'' Nor does he find the pretentiousness common in Hollywood.

``There is a different level of honesty and sincerity with people here,'' he adds.

Also, Downing enjoys the TV series he is producing, partially because it is less violent than the average hero-villain show. MacGyver applies scientific techniques to ordinary items to escape impending doom for himself and others. He relies on his ingenuity and knowledge, rather than violence, to complete dangerous missions. These are often assigned by Peter Thornton (played by Dana Elcar), director of field operations for the Phoenix Foundation for Research, a think tank operation.

``We try to be fresh and different,'' says Downing. ``We rarely have a car chase. MacGyver never uses a gun. He tries to find a way around violence.''

He calls the use of science techniques ``MacGyverisms.'' Teachers of science apparently love this aspect of the show. The producers sent out ``MacGyver and Science'' teaching aids to some 28,000 schools in the US in September as a promotion project. They got an 11 percent response within 10 school days from teachers happy to have adventure and action connected to science and mathematics.

``Kids love the activities,'' one teacher said of the kit.

Downing retired in 1980 as a deputy police chief in Los Angeles. One job was commander of the Bureau of Special Investigations. During most of his 20 years on the force he wrote free-lance miniseries, telefilms, and TV series, using his police experience as material. ``It contributed to the smell of my writing,'' he says.

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