Toronto’s Film Industry Is Booming

  • On eve of Toronto filmfest, city production is unprecedented
  • ‘This place is nuts,’ ‘Mary Kills People’ co-star says of city

TIFF Looking for Partners to Expand Globally

A woman in scrubs hustles a patient out of a hospital in a wheelchair and into a waiting black SUV, her face a knot of anxiety. Suddenly she sees someone and turns to leap into the car.

“Cut!” calls out a director on the Entertainment One Ltd. production “Mary Kills People” -- and immediately the real-life bustle of an afternoon commute resumes on the leafy Toronto street. A police officer lets through a held-up streetcar and pedestrians begin to navigate around cameras, electrical cables and lighting booms. Film shoots have become so common in Canada’s biggest city that hardly anyone bats an eye at the commotion all around them.

“This place is nuts,” says actor Richard Short, who co-stars with Caroline Dhavernas in “Mary Kills People,” a drama about a doctor circumventing legal issues to provide physician-assisted suicide. “Just last night we were one of three productions on one block. We’re sharing parking lots with other shows almost every day.”

Economic Engine

Stoked by a drop in the Canadian dollar against the U.S. greenback, favorable tax credits and a surge in demand for original content by companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, film and television production is at a record in Canada. Toronto alone will play host to almost 700 productions in 2016, according to the city. These include ABC’s political drama “Designated Survivor” starring Kiefer Sutherland, a movie version of the Stephen King thriller “It” set for release in 2017, and the CBS-led “Star Trek: Discovery,” which began shooting this month.

Foreign production in Ontario rose 52 percent to C$763 million ($594 million) in 2015, boosting spending to a record C$1.52 billion, thanks in part to mega-projects like Warner Bros.’ “Suicide Squad.” Producers on that big-grossing, critically panned film spent more than C$80 million in the province, according to the Motion Picture Association of Canada.

The Slack

The boom is bringing in more than C$5.5 billion a year across the country and employing more than 128,000 full-time workers, according to the Canadian Media Producers Association.

The biggest recipient has been British Columbia, where spending for the year through March 2015 surged almost 40 percent to an estimated C$2 billion, according to the provincial government. Quebec had more than C$1.5 billion worth of production last year, the province’s film and TV council said.

The growth has become all the more important to Canada’s economy as a slump in the price of oil and other commodities puts pressure on the manufacturing, technology and creative industries to pick up the slack.

The Toronto International Film Festival, which runs this year Sept. 8-18, attracts top talent from across the film world as the race for the Oscars unofficially begins. That in turn further extends Toronto’s brand and its ability to attract productions.

‘Comfortable With Toronto’

“Everybody’s comfortable with Toronto,” said J. Miles Dale, a Canadian producer currently working in Toronto on Guillermo del Toro’s latest feature “The Shape of Water.” “All the execs and the actors and everybody, they’ve been here. They know it, they know the hotels, they know the restaurants.” 

One of TIFF’s original goals was “to put Toronto on the map as a film production center,” says Piers Handling, the festival’s director and chief executive officer. “When the festival started 41 years ago, that was certainly one of the dreams of the founders.”

Wooing Producers

How long will the cameras keep rolling? The city’s industry has followed an up-and-down pattern, usually related to the Canadian dollar, which has dropped more than 20 percent against the U.S. dollar in the past five years. Growth also is affected by the whims of price-sensitive studio heads who can choose to shoot anywhere in the world. Other jurisdictions around the world like Atlanta and Prague have added tax credits to woo producers.

The longer-term risk is that the record level of TV production won’t be sustainable. John Landgraf, CEO of 21st Century Fox Inc.’s FX Networks, has said the industry is facing “peak TV,” arguing the networks and streaming services are producing more programming than viewers can watch.

“It’s inevitable that at some point there’s going to be some sort of correction,” said John Morayniss, CEO of eOne Television, a unit of Entertainment One.

Zaib Shaikh, a former actor and director who now serves as the city’s film commissioner, says Toronto will be able to remain strong because of the depth of its post-production talent: the film editors, animators and computer-generated effects artists that are an integral part of modern filmmaking.

‘Behind the Scenes’

“It’s nice to see Toronto has the talent base in front of and behind the scenes,” he said.

At the moment, though, the biggest challenge facing Toronto’s film industry is coping with its own success.

“It’s definitely being pushed to the limits,” Morayniss said. “What we’re finding is you have to go deeper and deeper to find the crews. That does have an impact on quality.”

Wayne Goodchild, president of the Toronto unit of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, says “all the productions’ demands are being met,” even though the sector is the busiest he’s seen in his 43 years in the business.

Controlled Blazes

None of the players are standing still. Pinewood Group Plc is working on doubling the size of its purpose-built film studios in the city to 600,000 square feet. Cinespace Film Studios, another of the city’s major studio space owners, is expanding as well.

At ACME FX, the west-end Toronto workshop that special-effects wizard John MacGillivray runs with five other industry veterans, space is at a premium. A crash-test dummy that looks like it’s been blown up one too many times greets visitors at the entrance.

Sparks fly as ACME workers weld metal into torches for CBS’ medieval drama “Reign.” In the lot out back, gigantic fans sit among snow-making machines. MacGillivray opens a shipping container to reveal lengths of hoses and tanks of fuel used to create controlled blazes, one of ACME’s specialties.

MacGillivray revels in the thought he’s never had so many opportunities to blow things up.

“This is the busiest time that we’ve ever had,” he says.

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