City revamps arts areas to draw more big shoots

MONTREAL — Mayor Gerald Tremblay has ambitious plans to turn Montreal into one of the cultural capitals of North America with a big new entertainment district in the heart of the city. And it’s a dream that is close to reality, as the city is the HQ for the prolific Cirque du Soleil and hosts two of the world’s leading arts festivals, the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs comedy fest. Now if only he could convince Hollywood filmmakers to come back to Montreal.

It has been a tough year for American shoots in all the main production centers in Canada, but Montreal has been the hardest hit. There were a couple of smaller U.S. films lensing in the city early in the year, but there is not a single American production in town this summer (traditionally the city’s busiest season for Hollywood shoots) and nothing signed on yet for the fall.

That’s a big drop from last year, when the city attracted roughly $260 million worth of American productions, including such high-profile offerings as “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” “Get Smart,” “Death Race” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

“This year is more difficult for all the reasons we know,” Tremblay says, singling out the usual culprits — the weaker U.S. dollar, the more attractive tax incentives provided by numerous U.S. states and the labor unrest in Hollywood.

But the Montreal mayor remains upbeat. He was in Los Angeles in June to try to entice filmmakers to make the trek north, and he says producers understand that his city has a number of highly valuable assets, including skilled crews, European-style architecture that cannot be found anywhere else in North America and state-of-the-art studios.

“We realize that the competition is stronger, but we’re a film-friendly city,” Tremblay says.

Culture is a top priority for the mayor, which is why he took over responsibility for the culture dossier at City Hall and has pushed an aggressive — and pricey — project to develop what the city is calling the Quartier des Spectacles in the heart of downtown.

Last November, the city administration, the Quebec provincial government and the federal government announced that they would be kicking in $38 million each to fund a four-year project to create an area around the Place des Arts complex for cultural activities, with part of the plan calling for the creation of the Place des Quartier des Spectacles, which will be an outdoor venue to be used for live shows by the Montreal Intl. Jazz Festival, Just for Laughs and the Montreal World Film Festival. The area will also be home to the new concert hall for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The jazz fest will be building a permanent Maison du Jazz that will include a museum and a concert venue.

The Quartier des Spectacles is just one small part of the mayor’s bigger vision for the city, called Imagining — Building Montreal 2025, a $61 billion plan that includes 130 projects.

Quebec film commissioner Hans Fraikin says the city’s drive to brand Montreal as a cultural metropolis can only help entice Hollywood filmmakers.

“It just adds to the flavor of Montreal,” Fraikin says. “One of the things producers like about Montreal is the very intense cultural aspect of the city, and so the Quartier des Spectacles will just bring that cultural aspect of Montreal to another level.”

Tremblay notes that there are more than 90,000 full-time jobs in the cultural sector in Montreal, and it generates approximately $5 billion in economic activity each year, making it one of the most significant industries in Montreal. The culture biz here covers a wide spectrum — from prominent videogame producers like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts to Cirque du Soleil to visual effects firms like Hybride Technologies and Softimage.

“Montreal is a creative center,” says Tremblay. “But if we want to remain competitive, we have to establish partnerships.”

The other advantage Montreal has is its large local French-language film and TV production scene, Tremblay says. Of the $1 billion in production spent each year in Montreal, 75% of that is local, from the producers who need to feed three French-language TV nets and pay TV channels hungry for local Franco fare.

That means the city can better weather the vagaries of American production in Montreal. But though he’s happy to have all the local shooting, Tremblay wants to make it clear that he and his colleagues will still do everything they can to bring American filmmakers back.

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