ESIO seeks impact instead of returns from rejigged investment fund

· The Pulse

The Edmonton Screen Industries Office is seeking permission to use a $4-million fund to build capacity in the creative industries rather than investing in productions with the expectation of financial returns.

The change, described in a report to go before city council's executive committee on Feb. 15, would allow the fund to have "a more enduring effect," said Tom Viinikka, CEO of the ESIO, which supports the creation of film, television, and interactive digital media in Edmonton.

"Our goal is not to make money," Viinikka told Taproot. "It's to make an industry that then makes money."

The Edmonton Screen Media Fund (ESMF), which was established in 2018, has been structured like a venture capital fund, investing in productions that seem most likely to be successful, in hopes that the returns from a few big winners will more than cover the losses on projects that don't work out.

The ESIO wants to replace it with the Strategic Initiatives Fund (SIF), which would invest in infrastructure to support local creatives and attract foreign producers; leverage other financing to support the creation of intellectual property; and help local talent develop skills and commercialize products. Administration supports the move, which won't cost any money but requires council approval.

As the ESIO's report puts it, "we want to amplify our ability to create impact by moving from investing in individual projects to investing in things that will create increased opportunity and growth for many projects at a time."

Screen industry projects in Edmonton are having a bit of a moment, with the runaway success of Skinamarink, a local production that has earned 100 times its crowdfunded budget of $15,000; the high profile of HBO's The Last of Us, part of which was shot in Edmonton; and massive anticipation of Nightingale, a steampunk-infused survival crafting title in production at Inflexion Games.

Does the new funding structure mean we'll see more Skinamarinks? "That would be the hope," said Viinikka, attributing the film's success to the creative team that found ways to spend time together and mess around with unique ideas. If the SIF can help others find that kind of time and space, more great work will emerge, he said.

An overhead shot of film-crew members beside derelict cars on the set of The Last of Us

Creating a strong film industry in Edmonton requires more than attracting big shoots like The Last of Us, says Tom Viinikka, head of the Edmonton Screen Industries Office, who wants to invest in creating opportunities for creative talent rather than making bets on successful productions. (Mack Male/Flickr)

"We can't buy technology that's going to change us. We can't buy an asset that's going to change us. We can't (incentivize) production, I don't think, to the point that it's going to change us," he said. "What we have to do is create a really great environment for creativity."

It will likely be a long time before Edmonton sees another production on the scale of The Last of Us, regardless of the structure of the ESIO's fund, Viinikka said. A strong local industry may help the region get a bigger share of the locations when such productions come to Alberta, but he expects greater impact from creating the conditions for homegrown creators to develop amazing work.

"Talent is evenly distributed around the world. Opportunity is not," Viinikka said. "If we give them more opportunity and show them a path and inspire them to be part of it, then we can grow those people."

The new fund would have less impact on interactive digital media, as shops like BioWare and Inflexion Games are well-resourced, and the gaming industry isn't structured like film and TV. However, "these two industries are moving closer and closer together," Viinikka said, which means video games, VR, XR, and the like will benefit from the pipeline-building that ESIO wants to engage in.

"What's good for one, I think, will become increasingly good for the other in the future," he said.

The proposed fund would also give the ESIO more tools to encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion by spreading the resources more broadly, he added.

"That's maybe the biggest opportunity with this. We are more capable of affecting the industry as a whole using this format for the fund than we were before."

The fund is separate from the ESIO's operational funding of $1.2 million per year, which was approved in the 2023-2026 operating budget. The organization had been seeking more than $1.5 million per year, to help with inflation and to host more events, but approval of that increased amount was narrowly defeated in a 6-7 vote.