BY DAVID LENNAM
Allen Lewis’s office at Front Street Pictures is adorned with a collection of paintings from Timothy Wilson Hoey. They’re from the Victoria artist’s Locals Only series: storefronts, signs, anything commonly identifying the city. It’s a subtle reveal to the filmmaking approach of the 56-year-old Lewis, embracing a buy-local bent and commonly identifying Victoria in each frame.
Lewis, who annually produces up to 10 Hallmark movies in the region, grew up on the West Shore, waited tables at Chandlers, worked the door at the Haida Theatre, went to Belmont, married his high school sweetheart (which sounds a bit Hallmark-y) and is widely recognized through a rare connectedness to the community he’s always known.
One of his go-to directors, Mark Jean (they’ve made 15 films together), says Lewis is impossible not to like. Not only is he fun, he is a legendary storyteller. He is also protective of his home turf.
“The thing about Allen is — he cares. He wants to make good movies and he does. And he wants to make them in Victoria whenever he can. He nurtures the film industry here. It’s his home, and he treats it as such,” Lewis says.
In conversation with the gregarious Lewis, it becomes apparent how much he loves his hometown, even though he generally only gets to spend weekends at home in Metchosin (where he’s comfortable golfing in gumboots and a T-shirt).
As VP Production at Front Street, and a partner with the Vancouver-based moviemakers, he’s used to a lot of money crossing his desk during those blink-of-an-eye shoots. “Yeah, it’s stressful,” he says with no hesitation. “We spend a lot of money in three weeks, over $2-million, and you’ve got to hold on tight.”
Always with a good analogy, Lewis references that scene in Goodfellas when a frazzled Ray Liotta, all sweat and road map eyes, races around in his Cadillac, a paper bag full of handguns in the trunk, a cocaine smuggling operation in the works and a pasta sauce that needs to get made. Helicopters circling, everyone yelling. “That’s what I feel my days are like sometimes.”
The one degree of separation that puts most Victorians in each other’s pockets is what jazzes Lewis. The interconnectedness, the routine coincidences of everyone knowing each other.
“That’s what’s cool about Victoria,” he says. “We’ll be out scouting (for locations), and my sister-in-law calls and says, ‘I’ve got some guy in my house, scouting,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s our guy.’ ”
Delicately, I bring up the almost punchline reputation of the Hallmark brand, tiptoeing around its over-the-top saccharine, uh … Hallmarkness. Without making me suffer an uneasy silence, or snatching across his desk and throttling me, Lewis is braced. “That’s exactly it. It’s a brand. Like Disney. Some of those brands are iconic. People know what they’re going to get when they show up and see a Hallmark movie. I don’t mind that.”
Just how big that brand is might surprise you.
“They’re freakishly popular,” reveals Lewis. “We beat HBO on a regular basis. The Christmas movies are unbelievable. (Hallmark) owns Christmas; the ratings they get, it’s phenomenal … We just did The Wedding Veil series, a trilogy. It was one of the highest-rated cable programs ever.” Bantering about how the uplifting, comforting, often predictable mood makes the films so attractive, we surprise each other, on cue, by adding, “but oddly entertaining.”
Lewis’s contributions go far beyond the $20-million Front Street spent in the Capital Region last year. Because Lewis is all about hiring locals and training them, much of that money has stayed here.
“I’m proud of this team; the art department and our cinematographers are all local. These are people who started with our company and have worked their way up through the company.”
Which is what Lewis, then in his 30s, did after getting a job as a lowly PA in a film production office.
He’d just returned from Japan where he taught English, had two daughters and received a master’s degree in international relations. He accepted that entry-level film position from a friend who told him to just kind of fake his way through it. His BS must’ve been brilliant. The president of Front Street, then in its infancy, offered him work in Vancouver. One of the production managers quit, and Lewis discovered he had a knack for doing budgets.
“I read a script, and then I have to quantify it and say what I think this will cost to make. And for some reason, I was good at that. I was able to read something and understand what the expectations are and what we need to do to deliver a product that they’ll love and that the creative team will be satisfied with. But at the same time, it’s a financial thing. So I’m the little wedge between these two opposing forces. It’s a really great combo for my personality.”
Production designer Michael Goodwin likes how Lewis has fit himself into the film scene here — or maybe fit the film scene around him. “Allen likes to talk to people. I daresay he’s the definition of loquacious. And after all, communication is key in this industry. I’ve always found him to be fair and a good problem solver. He needs to be, given what he drives.”
And how he drives it. Lewis is big on loyalty. By giving regular film work to locals, he gets it back. “We’re a family. I know it sounds corny. [Crew] are either friends or people we’ve gotten into the business … We’re very much a homegrown company here, and I want to keep it sustainable. I want to keep working here for the next 10 years; I’m not ready to retire. And I would like to keep getting new people into the industry and getting them trained up.”We hope he stays in the biz, too.