Star Gazing

Raoul Bhatt is used to being behind the scenes of Alberta’s energy sector.

Born and raised in the province’s capital city of Edmonton, he is a tech entrepreneur who has built cutting-edge technology for Alberta’s oil and gas industry amongst other business areas across the world, such as law enforcement, defence, aviation and automotive.

But he’s also used to being behind the scenes in the film industry. Bhatt is an accomplished cinematographer, working locally in Alberta and in Los Angeles on major productions, including a producer for the Daytime Emmy Awards and for Universal Studios. With such experience, Bhatt could have picked nearly anywhere around the globe to write and produce his first television series pilot, but he was eager to showcase the people, stories and culture in his home province of Alberta while also hiring and nurturing local crews.

Pipe Nation tells the story of a single mother working in the oil sands of northern Alberta. The series – which Bhatt plans to shop to one of the “big guys” (think Netflix, Disney, Amazon Prime or the like) – was filmed during the first wave of COVID-19 in the province, a curveball that Bhatt was not expecting to encounter when he was writing and planning for the initial shoot in late-2019.

“We had always planned on keeping this purely Albertan and hiring local crews and cast,” he says. “When COVID hit, it was a challenge, but we also saw an opportunity because where all other productions stopped, we were able to keep going.”

About 200 people from Alberta were hired to work on the set of Pipe Nation. Photo courtesy of Raoul Bhatt Instagram @raoul

Bhatt’s team wrapped up shooting the pilot in the summer of 2020 and about 200 individuals were hired on the set of Pipe Nation. The series was filmed primarily in Sundre, a town of approximately 2,700 people that’s 100 kilometres northwest of Calgary at the base of the province’s rolling Foothills, while other locations included Edmonton and its neighbouring City of Leduc. Bhatt was determined from the get-go to produce the show in a way that would support not only Alberta’s film and television sector but also communities and individual businesses across the province.

“I had an opportunity to collect royalties as opposed to producing this myself,” he says. “I could have sold the script to a [British Columbia] crew. That team would have come in, told the story their way and then left, and that wasn’t right for me. I wanted to tell this province’s story with our people and assemble my team.”

“We had always planned on keeping this purely Albertan and hiring local crews and cast.”Raoul Bhatt, writer and producer of Pipe Nation

Jon Allan, economic development officer with Sundre, says efforts between the town, Alberta’s film development advocacy organizations such as Keep Alberta Rolling and the private sector have been championing bringing a production like Pipe Nation to Sundre for quite some time.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in film and television for locations across Alberta. The natural beauty of our locations is obvious, but also smaller towns and communities allow productions to produce wonderful work that doesn’t break the bank because we aren’t charging producers an arm and leg for access to public spaces,” Allan says.

“It’s not just our mountain vistas that are attracting local and international film makers and digital media producers. It’s areas in central Alberta: our vistas and rolling hills, our rural towns, which make beautiful authentic backdrops for storylines,” he adds.

Filming in central Alberta provided Pipe Nation with an authentic backdrop. Photo courtesy of Raoul Bhatt Instagram @raoul

Allan estimates that Sundre and the surrounding community benefitted with over $100,000 in advertising equivalency value just from the publicity that Pipe Nation has offered to date, and the pilot has still not even been picked up by a network for full production.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent in communities in a matter of days of shooting when a film production comes to a community,” Allan says. “These crews need lumber from local hardware stores, they need hotels for cast and crew, they spend money in restaurants and think of all the little shops and businesses who also benefit.”

Allan adds that the community was ecstatic to have the production onsite. Many businesses and individuals sponsored their time and resources for the production in return for the publicity the pilot would bring.

Stout Gloves – based in the nearby central Alberta City of Red Deer and maker of protective wear worn by many energy operators – was one of those businesses that threw their support behind Bhatt’s team. Shelby Hrechuk, president and owner of Stout Gloves, says he sponsored the costume gear on Bhatt’s pilot because he was so impressed with the dedication the story had to Alberta’s energy story and workers.

“It’s a great story about a strong woman working in [oil and gas] and facing a lot of the challenges many women in the industry are faced with. That’s something that resonates with me as an Albertan raised by a single mother,” says Hrechuk, who has already seen a notable increase in word-of-mouth marketing attention from Stout’s involvement in the pilot.

“We’re getting calls and emails and a lot of callouts on social media. We’ve also had interest from factories around the world that have reached out to do business with us producing our gloves,” he says.

As Bhatt prepares to secure a distribution deal, he is also looking for private investment to produce the full series, which on average is anticipated to cost $2 million an episode.

“These productions are expensive to produce, but the pay-off to investors is tenfold,” he says.