Producers With `Caviar Tastes' Follow Loonie to Hollywood North

  • Lower costs help fuel Canada film and television boom
  • `Furious 7' and `Reign' part of industry's second coming

In a crowded back lot in Toronto, the King of France is waiting for his close-up.

“I spend 10 months of the year here now,” said London native Toby Regbo, the 23-year-old lead actor who plays King Francis II in the CBS Corp. historical romantic drama “Reign,” currently shooting its third season in Canada’s biggest city.

Toby Regbo
Toby Regbo
Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

Regbo, in an embroidered, crushed-velvet tunic and oversized ring on his finger, is standing outside his trailer while crew members scurry to put the finishing touches on a war room on a sound stage at Cinespace Film Studios.

“Reign” is one of six TV productions simultaneously shooting at the facility, part of a return to form for Toronto’s film industry as the 12 percent slide in the Canadian dollar this year to near the lowest level since 2004 has helped push spending on film and TV production to a record in Ontario.

“It is a boom time for Toronto,” said Jim Mirkopoulos, vice-president of family-owned Cinespace. “Our last sales trip to L.A., all of a sudden it was like our industry was on steroids.”

Economy Restructures

The surge in production in Toronto and west-coast hotbed Vancouver is part of a larger restructuring of the Canadian economy as the price of oil has plunged and the loonie crumbled. Automobile exports overtook energy as Canada’s biggest export in July for the first time since 2007.

“When you invest $1 million and it gets you C$1.3 million here, that’s an extra day of shooting or an extra fight scene you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford,” said Warren Sonoda, a Canadian film director whose holiday comedy “Coopers’ Camera” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008. Actors and producers also see their per diem stretch further, he said. “That’s the real bonus, you end up spending more back into the local economy.”

TIFF kicks off its 40th anniversary Thursday with the world premiere of “Demolition,” directed by Quebec’s Jean-Marc Vallee and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The festival will also debut “Heroes Reborn,” an NBC show about superheroes at its first-ever Primetime line-up featuring TV programming.

Experienced Crews

Foreign production spending in Ontario rose to C$503.6 million ($381.2 million) in 2014, boosting total movie and TV spending in the province to a record C$1.29 billion, according to data from the Ontario Media Development Corp. In British Columbia, spending for the year ended in March eclipsed C$2 billion based on the latest tax credit applications, surging almost 40 percent from a year earlier, data from Creative BC, a government agency, show.

Donna Zuchlinski, Ontario’s film commissioner, said the industry is on track to match those figures in 2015 thanks to a combination of the currency’s impact, experienced crews and the province’s tax-credits system, which encourages local spending.

“Since about mid-2013 we’ve seen a real increase in international production,” Robert Wong, the acting film commissioner for Creative BC, said by phone from Vancouver.

A medieval town is set up in the back-lot of Cinespace Studios
A medieval town is set up in the back-lot of Cinespace Studios
Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

Business has been so good Cinespace has had to turn some shows away from its three Toronto studios, Mirkopoulos said while walking briskly through Reign’s standing sets including an outdoor medieval village, a two-story castle with battlements and a musty throne room.

Love Triangle

“Reign,” which airs on The CW Network, a joint venture of CBS and Warner Bros., chronicles the palace intrigue and romantic entanglements of a young Mary, Queen of Scots in 16th Century France, caught between the affections of Regbo’s blond King Francis and his dark-haired, dashing bastard half-brother Bash. “Heroes Reborn” is being shot at another Cinespace lot in the city’s east end.

Movies recently filmed in Toronto have included “Furious 7” and the upcoming “Suicide Squad,” the DC Comics adaptation about a team of supervillains led by Batman nemesis the Joker.

Frank Siracusa, 53, a Canadian executive producer of “Reign” and “Beauty and the Beast,” a retelling of the fairytale filming its fourth season at Cinespace, said the Toronto film industry was built in part thanks to the period from about 1990 to 2002 when the Canadian dollar was below parity, slumping as low as 62 U.S. cents.

“It helped us create a business,” he said in an interview in one of Cinespace’s boardrooms.

TV Booms

Toronto’s film industry has matured over that period, with several established film schools now producing hundreds of graduates ready to enter the workforce each year and a well-oiled machine ready to accept them.

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, the largest union representing cultural workers in Canada, counts more than 15,000 of its 22,000 total membership in its Toronto unit. Unifor’s film, TV and new media shop represents another 1,000-plus members in Toronto.

Crew members move equipment for the television show Reign
Crew members move equipment for the television show Reign
Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

Toronto is set for further growth through the increasing demand for TV programming, said John Weber, 44, Siracusa’s fellow executive producer on both shows. Their production companies, Take 5 Productions and Whizbang Films, work with partners such as CBS to develop projects around the world.

“Back then there was a ton of Movies of the Week, it wasn’t TV series,” Weber said. “Now, the city is driven by TV.”

L.A. Slows

TV shows such as “Reign” that get renewed for multiple seasons produce a source of lucrative recurring revenue in a line of work that otherwise offers few guarantees, Mirkopoulos said.

Meanwhile, TV production in Hollywood has slumped in recent years as California faces increasing competition from Canada and other states such as New York and Louisiana.

By 2014, California’s market share for 1-hour TV series had slumped more than 50 percent from 2005 levels, even as the number of programs shot globally has almost doubled, according to an August report from the California Film Commission. California has since revised its tax credits, attracting four programs back to the state for the 2015-2016 season.

“There are so many cable networks that have caviar tastes, but can’t necessarily afford it all by themselves,’’ so they go to countries like Canada to save costs, said Rob Kenneally, an agent in the television department at Hollywood talent giant Creative Artists Agency.

By the time their current seasons wrap up, Toronto productions “Reign” and “Beauty and the Beast” will have contributed about C$300 million to the Ontario economy through the life of their respective series, Weber said as he observed one of his crews filming a scene in a narrow hallway filled with smoke and debris for an upcoming “Beast” episode.

Mirkopoulos, also watching the hive of activity, figures at least 2,400 people are working on shows at his Kipling Avenue studio alone, one of three in Toronto. The company also owns a studio in Chicago.

“This is the economy right here,” he said with a grin. “These are the jobs.”

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