U.S. Money Pours in and Fuels Production Boom in Ontario

Let by Toronto, the province has a big footprint in film and TV content creation

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ontario’s entertainment business is in the midst of a golden age.

That may seem like a dubious proposition. The province, after all, is not exactly renowned for churning out domestic blockbusters or bankable movie stars, Ryan Gosling notwithstanding. But by all accounts the industry is flourishing to an unprecedented degree — and the prosperity is arriving from abroad.

“Ontario’s film and television industry has never been stronger,” says Ontario film commissioner Justin Cutler, whose job is to market the province to prospective domestic and foreign productions. “What’s really exciting right now is the fantastic mix of criical and commercial success stories, everything from Aaron Sorkin’s forthcoming directorial debut ‘Molly’s Game’ to CBS’ new ‘Star Trek: Discovery.’”

The combined financial impact of such achievements on Ontario is huge: taken together, domestic and foreign productions spend more than 1 billion Canadian dollars annually in the province.

Kristine Murphy, director of industry development with the provincial government’s Ontario Media Development Corp., attributes this boom in part to Ontario’s “very competitive tax incentives,” including a credit worth 35% of a qualifying production’s domestic expenditures — one “harmonized” with credits offered at the federal level in such a way that producers can maximize savings.

Not only is this appealing to movie and TV financiers. It’s exceptionally rewarding for people in the province. “A foreign production will want to crew everyone they can in Ontario, because all that local labor is eligible for the credits,” Murphy says.

Moreover the credits are refundable, or worth cash. Whereas a production brought to, say, Chicago receives what is essentially a coupon from the state entitling a corporation domiciled in Illinois to a percentage back on its taxes — a coupon foreign producers are obliged to sell at a discount — a production in Toronto receives a check. No incentive is more compelling for the budget-conscious.

Cutler points out that credits alone do not account entirely for the recent windfalls. “What sets us apart is a combination of financial incentives, outstanding talent, diverse locations, and world-class infrastructure,” he says.

Paul W.S. Anderson agrees. “I love Toronto,” enthuses the English director, who’s shot several big-budget actioners in and around the city. Anderson was introduced to Toronto while closing production on his 2002 film “Resident Evil,” which he shot mainly indoors in Berlin, but which needed a downtown street in North America for its final shot. The Toronto shoot lasted only a single day, but the city bent over backward to host it.

“We were able to close down a huge stretch of one of the major streets,” Anderson says. “Good luck trying to get that kind of road closure in the center of London.”

Even more impressive, Anderson says, was “what a nice city it was to shoot in.” Many of the director’s subsequent features came to Toronto in large part because he enjoyed spending time there. “It’s cosmopolitan. It’s got architecture and facilities and culture of a big city, but it’s very compact and has that friendly, small-town feel.”

Anderson also praises the versatility of the city’s shooting locations and its “broad, good, and deep crew base.” These factors, for him, are more valuable than tax credits or a weak Canadian dollar. “For me it’s about whether I can make a good movie there.”

But as the industry continues to flourish — and as more directors like Anderson discover its appeal — the infrastructure available to satisfy these surges in demand is under strain. “We’re victims of our own success,” says Jim Mirkopoulos, VP of Toronto’s Cinespace Film Studios.

Mirkopoulos, whose facilities span more than 2 million square feet of soundstage and backlot space, says the current boom times have created a space crunch in the city — a run on facilities that has left people scrambling to convert old warehouses to fill the demand.

The problem, he adds, “has been exacerbated by the fact that we have way more TV in Toronto than ever before.” Unlike films, TV shows don’t wrap up in nine months. They tend to stick around — and use up tens of thousands of square feet of space — for years.

“There just isn’t enough production space to accommodate the requests,” agrees Megan Guy, VP at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, home to “Suicide Squad” in 2015 and “Star Trek: Discovery” right now. Guy says when Pinewood’s local facilities were erected nearly a decade ago, they were designed to attract the tentpole features the city wasn’t courting at the time. Now the city’s practically overrun with them.

“The time is right for the industry to grow,” says Pinewood Toronto president Blake Steels. “Right now we’re doing what we can with the facilities we’ve got, and that’s great — but in order to grow the business we want to be ahead of the curve where we can accommodate the productions to come.”

(Pictured: Warner Bros.’ “Suicide Squad” filmed at Toronto’s Pinewood Studios.”