By Stephanie Bomba
On your way to school one morning, you spot Denzel Washington out of the corner of your eye. “No, it can’t be him,” you think to yourself. This is Toronto , not Hollywood. What would he be doing on Yonge Street anyways? “I must be crazy,” you think anyways.
Don’t worry, you’re not. Chance are that really was Denzel ducking into HMV.
Toronto is brimming with Hollywood film stars all the time (how else could suck-up to the stars Rita Zekas have her own column?). In a good month, there can be up to 40 film crews shooting somewhere in Toronto. Countless films have been shot in and around Toronto, including on university campuses — for example Urban Legend was filmed at University of Toronto and Ryerson last year.
In 1997, 33 films were shot here; 13 of them were U.S. features, including Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. That’s not including television programs like PSI Factor or Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: The Final Conflict, or made-for-TV movies such as Anne of Green Gables: The Story Continues.
Many filmmakers and producers are drawn to this city because of its unique features and distinct locations. Toronto can easily pass for cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, L.A. or even English neighbourhoods — as it already has in several movies.
Toronto even has a phantom subway station located directly below Bay station which has been used to represent transit systems in New York, San Francisco and Boston. In fact, several films have been shot on location in the subway here (eg. Mimic, Johnny Mnemonic and Extreme Measures). The station was built in 1966 as a proposed extension to the existing system, but was later abandoned. During the day, the secret station is used as an emergency track for the TTC; at night, it is transformed into a U.S. subway platform for filmmakers. But this special film location isn’t the only reason Hollywood studios and production companies flock to Toronto.
The city is quickly becoming known as Hollywood North. Our fair megacity is the third-largest film and television centre in North America (next to L.A. and New York), accounting for more than 35,000 jobs and a $1.5 billion industry.
And it’s growing.
According to the Toronto Film and Television Office (TFTO), the film production industry has posted an average annual growth (in dollars) of 17 per cent. In 1997, major production companies spent $592 million compared with $219 million spent in 1990.
The growth in the industry in Toronto has increased the clout of the Ontario District Council (ODC) for the Directors Guild of Canada. ODC represents creative personnel in the film and television industry, ensuring good working conditions and guaranteeing rights of pay. Laurie Januska, membership coordinator of the Directors Guild, says U.S. studios and production companies such as 20th Century Fox, Castle Rock Entertainment, MGM and Paramount are drawn to Toronto for several reasons.
“The exchange rate made it boom,” she says, explaining the fall of the Canadian dollar gave these U.S. companies more incentives to film in Canada. “We got handed a great opportunity when the dollar plummeted and we have been smart in using this opportunity.” Mirimax has jumped on the bandwagon and will be filming In Too Deep, with LL Cool J, and The Third Miracle, with Anne Heche, until mid-December.
Currently, TFTO reports, there are subsidies as well as federal and provincial tax credits for foreign film producers (ie. Hollywood studios and production companies). On Nov. 1, 1997, Ottawa replaced production tax shelters with these tax credits:
The Canadian Film/Video Production Services Tax Credit — a refundable tax credit to the production services corporations (up to 11 per cent of their labour costs in Canada). However, this credit does not apply to productions in an “ineligible genre” such as pornography, news programming and talk shows, according to the Ontario Film Development Corporation (OFDC).
The Ontario Film and Television Production Services Tax Credit — gives foreign-based and non-Canadian-content productions in Ontario an additional 11 per cent refundable tax credit. It can be combined with the Canadian Film/Video Production Services Tax Credit, doubling the production company’s refundable tax credit.
The Ontario Computer Animation and Special Effects (OCASE) Tax Credit — a 20 per cent refundable credit for computer animation and special effects produced in Ontario for the film and television industry.
Another factor keeping filmmakers and producers in Toronto is the city’s policy on film permits. Currently, the city does not charge fees for issuing film permits. This has recently come under attack by city councilor Jane Pitfield (east York). In an October article in The Toronto Star, Pitfield said the city would benefit from charging fees for issuing these permits. She also said if the city charged $500 a permit, it would have made more than $2.5 million last year. The city issued 5,080 film permits in 1997, more than 3,000 of them for the downtown area.
Once the tax credits and free film permits are combined with the cheap Canadian dollar, it is easy to see why U.S. studios and production companies come in droves to film here.
But these producers and filmmaker return to Toronto for another reason, says ODC’s Januska.
“We’ve proven our crews to be very good,” she says enthusiastically. “We’ve done well in building a good relationship with the U.S.”
Of all the Directors Guild of Canada branches — including those in Vancouver, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia — the biggest in Ontario, with almost 1,2000 members.
The reason for this large number is the amount of categories the Ontario branch offers, says Januska. A member can be registered under one of the five different divisions available in the DGC: directors, assistant directors, locations crew, art department or editors.
Although the key personnel on any production in Toronto (and anywhere in Canada) are members of the DGC, explains Januska, American workers are permitted to work here. But, they are charged fees where the members of the DGC are not. This helps promote local workers in the industry.
Since Toronto is home to several colleges and universities that train students to work in all areas of film production, it is easy to develop a local workforce.
Graduates of schools such as Ryerson, York University, Centenniel College, Humber College and the Canadian Film Centre all add to Toronto’s expanding crew base.
“[Directors Guild members] now have all this experience under their belts,” says Januska.
And this experience will undoubtedly raise the already high level of esteem in which foreign filmmakers and producers hold Canadian crew members.
Would the Canadian film and television industry have ever been given a chance without the cheap loonie?
Januska says the loonie is just the catalyst behind a lucrative cycle. The low dollar draws these filmmakers and producers to Canada in the first place, but it’s the professionalism of the crews that keeps bringing them back, time and time again.