A Big Year For Ontario, But Funding Snags Loom

With the future of federal and provincial financial incentives shrouded in uncertainty, producers in Canada’s most populous province are coming off their best year ever with more questions than answers.

Until the rules governing a new federal refundable tax credit are known and funding for the Ontario Film Development Corp. is confirmed by the provincial government, the fate of the industry next year and beyond is a question mark.

It would be a cruel irony if the success of Ontario-based production companies, which many attribute in no small measure to government incentive programs, persuades politicians that no further help from the taxpayer is warranted.

Certainly, 1995 was a year to remember. Although final results are not yet available, production spending in Ontario is projected to be at least 30% ahead of 1994, when it climbed 48% over the previous year to a total of C$501 million ($368.2 million). In that year, according to OFDC figures, foreign – mainly U.S. – production more than doubled to $104.3 million, while Canadian production was up by 34% to $264 million.

Those dollar values represent 69 Canadian and 25 foreign television projects and 34 feature films, 23 of them domestic. Projects to benefit from OFDC funds ranged from Alliance Communications’ CBS show, “Due South,” to several feature films, including Alliance’s “When Night Is Falling.”

Most of the action was in Toronto, where the city’s film and television office calculated that $358.6 million was spent on 133 projects, not counting $1 million worth of musicvideos. A year earlier, spending reached $232.5 million on 113 projects.

“Our production volume is up and we’re looking at 1996 as being one of our best years ever,” says Michael Hirsh, chairman of Nelvana Ltd.

Alliance Communications also has a record production slate with five new TV series and eight TV movies in development at the major U.S. networks. On the film side, “The Boys Club,” with Chris Penn, is scheduled for completion by the end of the year, and “Crash,” directed by David Cronenberg and starring James Spader and Holly Hunter, should wrap in ’96.

Among Canada’s strongest providers of TV product worldwide is Atlantis Communications Inc., which has a full plate with 25 projects under development for Canadian and U.S. networks, pay TV, cable TV and syndication. Among them are four series: “The Psi Factor,” “Otaku Patrol Group,” “Underground” and “Sinbad.”

Sullivan Entertainment Inc., still reaping benefits from “Anne of Green Gables,” and its spinoff TV series, “Road to Avonlea,” is well into production of “Wind at My Back,” a drama series. Sullivan’s latest film, “Under the Piano,” preems on CBC Jan. 7.

Paragon Entertainment Corp. has been busy with “Kratts’ Creatures,” 50 half-hour daily episodes slated for delivery next summer. It also has begun production on “Tourist Trap,” a 13-part half-hour comedy/travel series, to air on Life Network, and has started shooting “Frequent Flyer,” a two-hour TV movie.

Catalyst Entertainment Inc. is completing two new hourlong “Shining Time Station” specials, co-produced with Britt Allcroft Inc. and Thirteen WNET, New York, and it recently wrapped a half-hour comedy pilot, “One Minute to Air.”

Phoenix Animation, partly owned by Catalyst and Britt Allcroft, is producing a half-hour holiday special for Fox and has other classical animation projects on the go, the latest being Bedtime Primetime Classics, 12 one-hour animated specials.

Chesler/Perlmutter Prods., which developed “The Hitchhiker” series for HBO, is looking at a $65 million production slate in 1996 with series and movies in development with many U.S. cable and broadcasting networks. It’s co-producing “Strangers,” a half-hour series for HBO, and “Undertow,” shot in Lithuania.

“We’re an Ontario-based production entity and we haven’t done anything in Ontario since a year last summer,” co-founder David Perlmutter says.

Officials worry a growing number of companies will follow Chesler/Perlmutter’s lead.

“I think governments shouldn’t make the mistake that a company can be weaned off a minimum level of support when the reason for its success is that support,” says Paragon chairman Jon Slan.

Support or no, for U.S. producers, Ontario is still the land of flexible unions, sophisticated facilities, experienced crews and the 74(2 dollar.

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