Pilot season looms, studio closure causes worry

TORONTO — Location managers are beating the bushes in Toronto. No empty warehouse is unexplored, the local soundstage shortage just one reality — not to mention the strong Canuck buck and Quebec’s recently announced boost in tax credit for foreign productions — keeping the city’s 25,000-plus production workforce on edge as the busiest season ramps up.

The space crunch hit the local headlines earlier this month when union and guild members rallied outside the locked gates of Toronto Film Studios, launching a public campaign (open629.com) to reopen the downtown complex, shuttered since December after 20 years of service to countless productions, including David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence.”

TFS was slated for demolition but co-owners Rose Corp. and Smart!Centres were denied permission by municipal officials in March to rezone the site for retail development. They have “absolutely no plans” to reopen TFS, says Rose Corp. CEO Sam Reisman, also founder and majority owner of Filmport.

“I think people don’t appreciate the major state of disrepair,” Reisman says. “We’ve been moving business that might have otherwise belonged at (TFS) to Filmport.”

Toronto’s megastudio opened its first phase last August in the same neighborhood at TFS and is currently hosting the NBC Universal series “Warehouse 13″ and providing one studio to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (which is headquartered and shooting primarily at Cinespace).

The megastudio’s seven large, expensive state-of-the-art stages aren’t for everyone — but where to go? Much of Toronto’s warehouse space has been eaten up by development. That and the loss of TFS and Cinespace’s four stages at Marine Terminal 28 in 2007 mean small- and mid-sized productions are scrambling from Oshawa to Hamilton, small neighboring cities known, respectively, for auto and steel manufacturing.

Veteran Toronto-based producer and industry watcher Don Carmody, while not directly affected, warned of this crunch several years ago.

“What about Canadian productions and foreign MOWs?,” he says now. “These productions are the industry’s bread and butter and they need less expensive space.” While major production (domestic and foreign features, TV series) spending in Toronto dropped from $655.73 million in 2007 to $499.23 million in 2008, the city’s successful U.S. pilot season will likely bring some series back to town. Workers here also expect the SAG resolution to bring in more business.

“It should mean more greenlighting so we expect a resurgence of tradition work after a too-long, slow period,” says Bob Hall, union prez of IATSE Local 873, which also supports the campaign to reopen TFS.

In anticipation, the Ontario Media Development Corp., the cultural agency that maintains a proprietary locations listings, recently partnered with the Directors Guild of Canada’s Ontario chapter and sent out location pros to identify suitable convertible industrial spaces.

“The TV pilot season resurgence is an area that was our mainstay before features took hold,” says campaign open629 organizer and veteran set decorator Cal Loucks, who spent her winter working on the Brooklyn-set feature “Lullaby for Pi” in Regina, Saskatchewan. “But who in a recession wants to retrofit warehouses when we have something sitting right here?”

But the latest rumblings are pushing TFS closer to demolition. Last week the City of Toronto listed the site as one of six considered for its new light rail vehicle maintenance and storage facility. Now the DGC Ontario chapter has more formally entered the fray, issuing a letter urging members to attend public hearings, held last week, noting that the “noise and activity” from a such a project would “compromise the existing, ever-shrinking studio space in that area.”

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