How Ontario Became Hollywood's Indie Backlot

5:00 AM 9/10/2016

by Etan Vlessing

High-profile success stories — like two of this year's biggest Oscar winners — are helping to fuel an influx of cost-conscious producers hoping to take advantge of the province's versatile locations and tax breaks.

From left: 'Mean Dreams', 'Lavender' and 'Two Lovers and a Bear'
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Recent indie successes Room and Spotlight have more in common than critical acclaim and Oscar wins: Both made use of the versatile locations, valuable shooting incentives and experienced film crews in Ontario, Canada.

Indeed, while big-budget tentpoles like Suicide Squad and xXx: The Return of Xander Cage continue to flock north of the border, indie producers are increasingly making use of all the benefits Ontario has to offer. That includes packaging projects as international co-productions, allowing Canadian and partnering foreign producers to share the risk, tax breaks and generous subsidies on offer to multi-passport movies.

Karen Thorne-Stone, president and CEO of the Ontario Media Development Corp., says her agency, which markets the province to Hollywood, especially is thrilled about the success of Room, a Canada-Ireland co-production, because it has helped facilitate similar projects.

“This year we’re looking forward to watching two more Canada-Ireland co-productions take off at the Toronto Film Festival: Maudie and Unless. Both are superb examples of strong Ontario producers working with international partners,” she says.

Adds Ontario Film commissioner Justin Cutler: “The OMDC supports productions at all budget levels with filming across the province. We level the playing field for producers with an array of resources. All of this adds value to their films.”

THR asked Ontario filmmakers to discuss how to use tax credits, Hollywood stars, Toronto landmarks and versatile locales to add value to their own indie films.

  • 'Lavender'

    Canadian talent helps lock in valuable subsidies

    Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

    Ed Gass-Donnelly’s haunted-house thriller Lavender landed Abbie Cornish as its lead, with Diego Klattenhoff, Dermot Mulroney and Justin Long rounding out the cast. That quartet, it turns out, was the Ontario-shot indie’s ticket to more international distribution.

    Says Dave Valleau, Lavender’s Canadian producer: “With the market so fickle about what it wants in the types of films and the level of sellable actors, we were fortunate that we had four leading actors that we could put in roles to help sell the film and make it attractive in the international and North American marketplace. That started with Abbie, who is perfect for the role. And Abbie and Diego Klattenhoff play together, and we’re a Canadian film, so having your second-highest paid actor a Canadian is important to us

    Indeed, there are more “Canadian content” subsidies in a co-production if the second lead is Canadian, according to a points system overseen by the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office. That’s one reason why such Canadian actors as Christopher Plummer and Jason Priestley pop up in so many Canadian movies and TV shows — they bring the international name recognition the producers want for foreign sales and bigger Canadian-content co-production subsidies.

  • 'Mean Dreams'

    The rugged landscape of Sault Ste. Marie takes over for Texas

    Courtesy of TIFF

    The love-on-the-run thriller Mean Dreams, which had its world premiere in Cannes, landed director Nathan Morlando and lead Bill Paxton to play a corrupt cop not long before the cameras started rolling in the northern Ontario wilds of Sault Ste. Marie, a steel town on the Canada-U.S. border that’s diversifying into local film and TV production.

    Says Paxon: “I was doing a couple days and a small part on the movie The Circle, and it was my last day and I just finished. So I sat in my trailer and started reading, thinking I was going to wait for the traffic to die down before driving home. And the next thing I know they were knocking at my trailer door and wanted to move the whole camp. And I asked if I could just stay until I finished the whole script. The next thing I knew I was only my way to Sault St. Marie in October. I’d never been in that neck of the woods.”

    Adds producer Allison Black: “The movie is originally set in the American south, like Texas. [We felt] that location was thoroughly explored. We wanted to explore the northern Ontario landscape after doing Edwin Boyd (Morlando’s 2011 feature debut) in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. We didn’t feel we’d seen the broader northern landscape as a character, and we thought that would be quite extraordinary. It’s a very diverse landscape.”

  • 'Don’t Talk to Irene'

    Hamilton offers a small-town vibe — and a tax credit

    Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

    The producers of Pat Mills’ sophomore feature Don’t Talk to Irene, a coming-of-age tale that stars Oscar winner Geena Davis, needed a cost-effective location beyond busy Toronto. Enter nearby Hamilton, where the indie took advantage of a regional tax-credit bump for producers shooting outside the capital of Ontario.

    Says producer Alyson Richards: “Creatively, Hamilton fit the script. It’s set in a smaller town, outside Toronto. The locations worked out well. And then financially, with the regional tax credit bonus, every dollar counts. Every dollar means another shoot day, treating your crew that much better. And we found that the people in Hamilton were very receptive to our production. It hasn’t been shot as much as Toronto, yet there are a lot of TV shows, a lot of features being shot there. It’s a very welcoming community. And it’s so close to the middle of nowhere, with local water and hiking trails. You can shoot a downtown scene and then a waterfall in the middle of nowhere with a small unit crew.”

  • 'Goon: Last of the Enforcers'

    They shoot and Barrie scores as a neat hockey locale

    IMDB/Screenshot/Jay Baruchel

    With Jay Baruchel’s comedy Goon: Last of the Enforcers filled with bare-knuckle fighting at center ice, a key requirement is, quite obviously, a hockey rink. And with Toronto rinks in summer 2015 filled with Pan American Games events, Baruchel and his crew were diverted 90 minutes up the road to Barrie and its high-tech Molson Centre arena. The good news is they got an uninterrupted month of shooting and a 10 percent tax-credit bump for filming the sequel outside Toronto.

    “During the first Goon movie, we would shoot at night, and there were hockey practices and teams playing during the day. So we had to wrap every night and start over the next day,” notes David Gross, a Canadian producer on Last of the Enforcers. “Also, in Barrie we qualified for the regional [tax] incentive. It’s an extra 10 percent bump. It’s very valuable if you can get it.”

    Many Ontario movies are similarly made outside Toronto to tap the regional tax-credit bump and for outdoor/indoor shots that can double for small town or big city U.S.A.

    Says Cutler: “Movies made in Ontario often have terrific success stories. The Witch, one of the highest-grossing indie films this year, doubled Ontario for New England, and the Oscar winning Spotlight shot Hamilton for Boston.”

  • 'Two Lovers and a Bear'

    A rom-com set against the backdrop of the Great White North

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Kim Nguyen’s Arctic romancer Two Lovers and a Bear, starring Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan, was shot under the spectacular colors and lights of Canada’s Great White North in Timmins, Ontario and the territory of Nunavut. In return for braving frigid wintry conditions, the indie drama captured on location the peace and calm of an eerie North Pole landscape.

    “It’s really one of the most beautiful places I’ve every been,” says Maslany. “I would love to be able to go back there. We shot in a place where it gets down to minus-40 Celsius. We were so cold there. But the air is dry and we were well dressed, because we weren’t pretending it was California; it was where it was. We had electric long underwear and other clothing to make sure we were OK. And there’s a lot of sky and snow and space. You can look out for days and see very little. There’s very little noise and chaos, and there’s a real simplicity for the senses that you’re taking in.”

    Adds producer Jonathan Bronfman: “The challenge was the cameras could only operate for a short window before they needed to be warmed up. So we built a camera rig on a back of a snowmobile that pulled Maslany and DeHaan on a sled. [Canadian] Nicolas Bolduc is one of the best DOPs, and not only in this country. His work speaks for itself. Some of the footage he captured is beyond belief. It was not only shooting outside, but some of the footage — and the rigs he built and the lighting setups he put in place — were unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

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