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Toronto may have shut down production for nearly four months due to COVID-19, but its film industry has come roaring back stronger than ever now that strict protocols have been launched to manage the pandemic’s impact.

Local officials say production has already returned and is set to exceed its pre-pandemic levels. Some 1,500 projects, including commercials and music videos, are expected to shoot in the city in 2021, the same number as in 2019, but production value for this year is actually expected to surpass 2019’s $2.2 billion high water mark.

It’s a boom that is set to extend even further. A recent government study of the city’s screen industry work force found that studio space in the provincial capital is set to grow 63% over the next five years.

While welcome, growth at such levels leaves Toronto with a tricky task: training enough workforce to keep up with production demand. In the next five years, Toronto must grow its currently 35,000-strong production labor pool by about a third, mining local talent for some 12,000 new workers, officials say.

“Who has a 63% increase? It really is historic,” laughs Marguerite Pigott, the city’s Film Commissioner tasked in part with overseeing the massive, rapid growth in personnel.

The historic opportunity comes with a historic challenge. “As studio space comes online, we need to ensure that every show coming here has all of the crew that they need trained and working at a world class level. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation,” she admits. “How do we scale and where do we find people? That’s what we’re really focused on.”

Her municipal office is working in partnership with unions, guilds, community groups and educational institutions in its efforts to meet the target. Major efforts are in place to reach out to black, indigenous and POC talent. Currently, 200 such newcomers are in a workforce development program fast-tracked towards union membership, the first cohort of more to come.

A recently announced $250 million studio complex called the Basin Media Hub is set to be built on 8.9 acres of promising waterfront property in Toronto’s Port Lands. It will be the site of 500,000 square feet of new film, TV and digital media studio space, as well as a home for 750 more permanent jobs. As part of the development deal, developers Hackman Capital Partners (HCP) and its affiliate the MBS Group have earmarked an initial $1 million investment to set up an endowment for local training program.

The projected 63% rise in studio space doesn’t just account for ribbons being cut and projects already announced. It includes projects that Pigott’s office know are coming down the pipeline but haven’t been publicly unveiled yet.

“We are taking a very long view and working towards what we know is coming. We’ve already launched the programs to meet the demands for stuff that hasn’t even been announced yet. We need to be planning on that basis,” she said, emphasizing that the city and the industry hope to rise to the occasion “in a collected and unified way.”

That will be welcome news for the numerous studios seeking to expand their Toronto footprint or put down deeper roots, as productions continue to be drawn in by the reliability of the city’s 21.5% tax credit.

Among those expanding include Amazon and Netflix, which announced this year that they will be opening a new Canadian headquarters in the city, as well as Pinewood Studios, Dufferin Gate Studios, and Studio City Toronto. Visual effects company Pixomondo recently opened a second virtual production studio there, making it one of the few places in the world with large-scale LED volume facilities. And over the summer, HCP announced another major new $156 million film studio development in Downsview that will starting next year add a million square feet of sound stages and create at least 2,500 full-time jobs.

“We’ve shown that production after production can come here and absolutely compete, whether for box office, awards or whatever you want,” Pigott said, citing projects like “Star Trek: Discovery,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” among many others as evidence of an ongoing track record.

“This is not a story of a city saying, ‘Hey, we’re world class, too.’ This is a mature production jurisdiction that is now just poised to scale based on past the successes, existing capabilities, financial incentives, and infrastructure that’s here. All of that is coming together and it’s being leveraged for growth.”