Joan Miller calls her entry into the film industry “an accidental journey”, though the unintended career path was actually decades in the making.
Growing up at Elk Falls Park, as part of the close-knit community of families working for BC Hydro, allowed her the opportunity to not only “play in the forests and enjoy the beautiful gardens”, but also accompany her father on helicopter rides where she ran around on snowshoes across various mountain tops in the region.
Little did she realize at the time, but her many childhood ventures into the backcountry, coupled with her strong sense of community, were setting her up to become a catalyst to help bolster an entire industry on Vancouver Island.
Taping her innate skills
“I fell into something that I didn’t even know relied on my skills,” says Joan, who admittingly comes from a “family of type A women”.
When tragedy struck with the death of her husband and left her with two young kids on her own, she set up a seafood café in downtown Campbell River that eventually led to a happenstance encounter with a location scout for The Scarlett Letter (1994).
“Though people here were used to big names from the past who came for the Tyee fishing (Bob Hope, Bing Crosby…), the community was still excited to welcome such a big production.”
It was shortly after the film brought in $3 million to the community that the BC Film Commission asked Joan to participate at a BC Cineposium, after which the City of Campbell River defined the film industry as a real growth opportunity.
Fostering the film industry
“We created the Campbell River Film and Broadcast Commission and started getting calls from all over with people looking to our region to make feature films, documentaries, TV series…” says Joan, who remained focused on promoting the region’s communities. “It became my job to ensure that both sides benefit from productions, even for smaller things like music videos, documentaries and commercials. It had to work for both the clients and the community in the lead-up to, during and even postproduction.”
But the learning curve of working in the film industry was steep for Joan, and the commitment demanded was large.
“I felt that I was going to the university of motion picture industry. In this industry, you have to be available 24/7,” says Joan, referencing phone calls in the middle-of-the-night to mitigate fires or dealing with locked backcountry gates from hundreds of miles away. “But that’s the key to success. The harder we work, the more the communities benefit.”
Encouraging and developing skills training
Joan is one of only 300 film commissioners around the world and has a lengthy list of film industry association accolades. She has served on the board of the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI) and helped develop the Certified Film Commission (CFC) training program, of which she was one of the first trained. Skills development is an area she is passionate about, particularly when she sees women flourishing on set as a result.
“I feel great pride in seeing people learn new skills,” says Joan, who began working with North Island College (NIC) eight years ago to help provide industry training, which then pivoted online during COVID. Today, they offer micro-credential courses that are steppingstones to pursuing film careers.
Pursuing new paths
In terms of Joan’s own career, she is pondering her imminent retirement.
“I know this region through and through,” says Joan who was instrumental in developing the ICET-supported digital database of nearly 50,000 images, with GPS coordinates, of film locations around the region. “It’s hard to replace this kind of local and industry knowledge based on the longevity of what I’ve been doing and the relationships and trust that I’ve built up over the years.”
But there are plans to transition Joan’s job slowly, as new priorities for her come to the fore.
“You’re only as strong as those who believe in you,” says Joan. “This has been a real journey for me and it’s really hard to get off.”
There’s little doubt her absence will be felt when Joan does step down. But her legacy in helping prop the film industry up as a main economic driver in the region will live on. And that’s by no accident.
Joan is currently working on the next iteration of accessible film skills training for rural and remote communities of BC in partnership with North Island College, as well the development of Film Tourism opportunities with Tourism Vancouver Island.
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