H'w'd neglect of Montreal coming to an end

MONTREAL– Production is up in the City of Saints, where Hollywood shoots are booming. And while the concurrent decline in Toronto business could be attributed to SARS fears, Montreal insiders say it has more to do with Hollywood rediscovering the charms of this European style city after years of neglect.

For years, Montreal was passed over by Hollywood in favor of Toronto and Vancouver, with lensing hitting an all-time low in 1992 — when no foreign shoots came to town.

Since then, the Hollywood business in Montreal has grown steadily and peaked in 2002 with C$368 million ($269 million) worth of U.S. shoots. The overall production total last year, including foreign and Canadian shooting in Montreal, was $546 million. The best year was 2000, when producers spent $605 million in the city.

Montreal film commissioner Daniel Bissonnette expects the U.S. total to at least equal $269 million this year and it might even top last year’s foreign tally, depending on what happens this fall.

This year’s action-packed shooting lineup in Montreal includes Martin Scorsese’s pricey Howard Hughes biopic, “The Aviator”; “Taking Lives,” a serial-killer thriller starring Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland and Olivier Martinez; Warner Bros./Columbia Pictures’ co-production “Gothika,” with Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr. and Penelope Cruz; and “Secret Window,” a Columbia Pictures thriller written and directed by David Koepp, based on a novella by Stephen King, and starring Johnny Depp and John Turturro.

Bissonnette says there are numerous reasons for the invasion of Hollywood filmmakers, including the province’s generous tax credits, diverse architecture that can stand in for both modern U.S. and 19th-century Europe, and that both stars and filmmakers love the city.

“We’re building on the reputation we’ve earned in the last few years in L.A.,” says Bissonnette, who took over as film commissioner earlier this year. “Montreal is now more often on the shortlist and that means we’ll be chosen more often.”

Another major draw is all the studio space in Montreal, which has giant state-of-the-art studio facilities that are simply not available in Toronto. In particular, Mel’s Cite du Cinema, with its two locations, is one of the biggest studios in Canada, with 13 megasoundstages. The other major facility is Cine Cite Montreal in St. Hubert, just across the river from Montreal. The size of the city’s studios was a key reason that Roland Emmerich’s “Tomorrow” and “The Aviator” chose to shoot in the city.

“When I took Roland Emmerich to Mel’s when he was looking for ‘Tomorrow,’ his jaw dropped,” says Nick Barker, of the Montreal Film Commission. “It clinched the deal.”

Even rival heads of studios in Toronto concede that Montreal has more to offer in terms of studios, which is the main reason Toronto developers are in the process of building a megastudio on the city’s waterfront.

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