‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Film Studio Expands as Toronto Demand Grows

  • Cinespace enlarges facility so another production can be shot
  • Film industry contributed $1.38 billion to Ontario’s economy

Elisabeth Moss attends the FYC Event For Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' at DGA Theater on Aug. 14.

Photographer: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

In a cavernous warehouse in Toronto’s west end, one of North America’s most acclaimed drama series is gearing up to restart shooting. After months of quiet on the set of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” workers are taking measurements outside the dark, mysterious home where much of the action in the series takes place while star Elisabeth Moss talks on the phone in the studio’s parking lot.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is emblematic of the city’s studio crunch. The producers decided to continue leasing the space after the first season wrapped rather than dismantle the set and risk losing the location. That was a good move. The show, streamed in the U.S. by Hulu, was renewed for its second season and the dystopian series was nominated for 13 Emmy awards.

Cinespace Film Studios

Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

That kind of demand is prompting Cinespace Film Studios, which owns the facility where the show is filmed, to add 50,000 square feet (4,645 square meters) of space to its 32-acre Kipling Avenue location, one of four it owns in the Toronto area. The company announced Thursday it will build a studio big enough to hold an additional production on a lot that recently served as a location for the The CW’s drama “Reign.” 

The city’s film boom has been driven by a Canadian currency that’s trading at about 82 U.S. cents, generous tax breaks, a wealth of post-production talent and the prestige of the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts Thursday and runs through Sept. 17.

‘Space Situation’

“The Catch-22 is, the more successful we are, the more renewal rates we get, the tighter we make our space situation,” says Jim Mirkopoulos, a Cinespace vice president and second-generation member of the company’s founding family. “It forces us to turn shows away. Or do what we’re doing right now and growing organically.”

Film and television contributed C$1.69 billion ($1.38 billion) to Ontario’s economy in 2016, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to data from the Ontario Media Development Corp. It was driven by a 10 percent jump in foreign spending on TV series from the likes of Netflix Inc. making creative content. It’s the sixth year that the industry generated more than C$1 billion for the province.

Owners of production facilities face the same issues as residential and office developers in North America’s fourth-largest city: there’s a shortage of space, and what’s available is pricey. There’s also some unique requirements for studios, such as distance from residential areas because trucks move equipment at all hours and filming can be loud, with outdoor explosions and construction. Cinespace and its handful of peers, including Pinewood Group, need at least 10 acres for a facility, according to Mirkopoulos. That size isn’t available close to the core, and what is available is owned by the government.

Near the Core

A further complication: a production’s talent likes to bed down in the more active city core, close to restaurants, shops and ritzier hotels, so the further a studio is from downtown Toronto, the less appealing it is for producers.

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” adapted from the Margaret Atwood novel, tells the story of a U.S. ravaged by environmental disasters that’s transformed into a totalitarian Christian society where women are brutally subjugated and forced to bear children for the ruling class.

“The series is a real Canadian success story,” and with expansion in the future, studios will be able to turn fewer potential success stories away, Mirkopoulos said.

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