Few projects migrate to the north

Montreal gets big pics, but wants consistent TV sked

MONTREAL — This has been a rough year for Canada’s production community. After years of rapid-fire growth, often in the range of 20% per year, there was a slowdown in both foreign and domestic lensing in the first half of the year in the country’s three leading production centers, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Shooting has picked up a little since, most notably in Toronto, but the dip has many in the industry wondering if the boom years are a thing of the past.

Making matters worse, the topsy-turvy 2002 production schedule comes on the heels of last year’s white-knuckle roller-coaster ride of a year for shooting. Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal were working at full throttle in the first six months of 2001, as the studios cranked out extra pics just in case the industry was shut down by labor unrest in the summer.

Although the actors’ and writers’ strikes never happened, shooting slowed down in summer months. Then just as things were set to swing back into action in the fall, 9/11 sideswiped the biz and left studios in Canada empty in the fall.

‘Confessions’ in Montreal

Montreal has had a decent year with major U.S. productions, with a number of high-profile films lensed in the city, including George Clooney’s Miramax pic “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” Richard Donner’s Michael Crichton Paramount Pictures adaptation of Michael Crichton’s “Timeline” and Hayden Christensen starrer “Shattered Glass,” (both for Paramount). Also, Roland Emmerich will be bringing his pricey weather-systems-gone-wacko pic “The Day After Tomorrow” to Montreal in November.

“We get the big shows, but we need the ongoing business of TV series,” says Montreal film commissioner Andre Lafond. “For more regular employment for the technicians, we need the TV stuff and unfortunately that’s where there’s a crisis right now.”

Prominent U.S. pics shooting in Canada this summer include “X-Men 2,” starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, and lensing in Vancouver, and, in Toronto, Franchise Pictures’ “Til Death Do Us Part” and Miramax’s “My Baby’s Mama.”

But things are still too slow for the taste of most in the industry. Business insiders blame a number of factors for the slump this year. There is a worldwide downturn in shooting as many sources of international financing dry up. In addition, the U.S. is producing a lot less TV movies, a traditional staple for the Canadian service industry, particularly in Toronto. The move to lower-cost reality program, by U.S. and Canadian broadcasters, is also hitting the production milieu hard.

“For the first six months of last year, there were 30 features,” says Rhonda Silverstone, Toronto film commissioner. “This year, there were only 17 in the first six months. And those are your big spenders. But production is down globally. It’s not just Toronto. People are still working, so it’s not all doom and gloom.”

Another factor is the Canadian government’s decision to eliminate its popular tax-shelter program for Hollywood producers shooting in Canada. This tax program used to allow foreign producers to cut 6% off their budget for Canadian-shot pics.

Others believe the growing anti-runaway production movement in California is beginning to have an impact as well, with producers staying home to shoot to placate the militant Blame Canada lobby in Hollywood. “Terminator 3,” originally slated to shoot in Vancouver, was shifted back to lens in California, and many believe the move was due to “Terminator” star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wariness of alienating the anti-runaway production camp.

Less drama

Homegrown Canadian production has its own set of problems as well, particularly in the TV sector. Thanks to the one-two punch of a loosening of the broadcast regulations for Canuck networks and the growth of reality fare, local webs are producing a lot less Canadian drama. This year, there are five one-hour 13-episode Canadian-content dramas in production. Three years ago, there were 13 dramas on the go.

“The creative community is alarmed that this might be a trend,” says Steve Ord, executive vice president at the Alliance Atlantis Entertainment Group. “Broadcasters in Canada and worldwide have shifted their programming away from drama production to other less- expensive forms of programming. The reason the drop is concerning people is that the most distinctive Canadian programming has the closest connection to the Canadian creative community and people who’d normally work on these shows aren’t working.”

With all these problems, film commissioners and everyone else in the production sector have their fingers crossed and are hoping they have a blockbuster last quarter.

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