Not long ago, writer-producer Steve Franks heard a rumor: If the exchange rate for a Canadian dollar reached $1.10 in U.S. currency, his USA Networks show “Psych” was going to be uprooted from its production base in Vancouver, British Columbia, and relocated to an unspecified American locale — a cruel irony given how hard the producers had worked to make the rainy Canadian city convincingly portray the show’s sunny Santa Barbara, Calif., setting.
“For the first season, we dragged around the same eight palm trees and stuck them in the background and shot towards the ocean as many times as we could,” Franks recalls.
In the end, “Psych” stayed put, but Franks’ story shows how much things have changed since the ’90s, when Canada was the undisputed champ of runaway production destinations, hooking producers with generous tax credits and a favorable exchange rate.
Then in 2002, Louisiana and New Mexico established competitive production incentives programs, kicking off a free-for-all of incentive one-upmanship that eventually spread to 40-plus states in the U.S. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. dollar began to weaken against its Canadian counterpart, the loonie, which had been hovering around 65 U.S. cents for the previous half decade. This eroded another key advantage of the Great White North.
In the years since, the Canadian provinces have fought back with larger tax credits. For example, British Columbia now offers a 33% credit for local hires on top of the 16% provided by the federal government, as well as a 17.5% credit for B.C. digital animation and vfx labor expenditures and other smaller enticements.
But what has allowed the country to remain a top production destination isn’t so much the size of its incentives as its collective commitment to their continued viability. This is in stark contrast to many U.S. states, where incentive programs have either been eliminated outright (Iowa, New Jersey) or targeted for reduction by elected officials (Michigan, New Mexico).
And while the exchange rate has been problematic in recent years, “there’s a very stable and reliable (tax credit in Canada), which is very attractive to us,” says Mark Binke, senior VP, production of cable and digital production for Universal Cable Productions/NBCUniversal, which has five shows based in Toronto (“Against the Wall,” “Alphas,” “Covert Affairs,” “Suits,” “Warehouse 13”) and three in Vancouver (“Eureka,” “Fairly Legal,” “Psych”).
“When we do these series, we’re making a bet on a seven- or eight-year life. We don’t want to spend millions of dollars starting up a show, then in season two or three, a credit goes away.”
Toronto has about 30 films, TV series and telefilms in production at the moment, and it has enough experienced crew to staff 10 more, according to Karen Thorne-Stone, prexy and CEO of the Ontario Media Development Corp.
Vancouver has a comparable number of experienced crew members, according to B.C. film commissioner Susan Croome. The abundance of indigenous crew helps producers minimize travel, lodging and per diem expenses and maximize tax credits.
U.S. states with newly minted incentives don’t always have comparable crew depth, and visiting productions generally have to convert warehouses into makeshift soundstages and ship in lighting and grip equipment. But in Canada, the consistent presence of the incentives and, in turn, ample production resources has enabled the country to develop an impressive array of top-flight vfx vendors, rental houses and modern studios complexes — including 4-year-old Pinewood Studios Toronto, currently home to Columbia’s remake of “Total Recall,” starring Colin Farrell.
“Total Recall” has built a futuristic city on the facility’s Mega Stage, which at 4,300-square-meters (nearly 50,000 sq. feet) is the largest soundstage in North America. The producers are also shooting against the backdrop of Toronto’s actual cityscape, from the city’s Gardiner Expressway, which was shut down to lense a car chase in July, to a variety of late 19th- and 20th-century buildings.
“It’s set 100 years in the future on Earth and there’s a territory called Euro America, which feels like it’s probably the U.K.,” says the film’s producer, Toby Jaffe.
Toronto is famous for its numerous onscreen portrayals of New York City, but “Covert Affairs” producers Matt Corman and Chris Ord have discovered that it can also convincingly stand in for exotic locales such as Venezuela and Iraq with the help of a truckload or two of sand, along with some second unit location footage inserted in post.
While no right-minded producer would shoot Canada for the tropics, Alberta has been home to many Westerns (Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”) and Saskatchewan has many locations that can double for the Midwest or even the outskirts of Vegas.
“A seedy hotel room is seedy hotel room no matter where you go,” points out SaskFilm CEO and film commissioner Susanne Bell.
Perhaps the greatest secret to Canada’s success is its peculiar brand of film friendliness, exemplified by the residents of the small prairie towns of Kipling and Provost, which partnered with Corbin Bernsen to finance, co-star in and help crew the films “Rust” (2010) and “Barlowe Mann” (2012).
“The beautiful thing is, on one hand, they’re fascinated by what we do,” says Bernsen, who wrote, directed and stars in both films. “But all that desperation you see in Los Angeles isn’t there.”