New studios give city chance at former glory

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the major Hollywood studios trot out their Oscar hopefuls at the Toronto International Film Festival, producers are also in town working feverishly behind the scenes to complete film and TV projects ahead of new contract talks with Los Angeles writers and actors.

For the locals, a recent spike in foreign location shooting here is welcome news after Toronto was mauled by the surging value of the Canadian dollar and, most recently, an actors strike.

"It really does go against logic to suggest that production is up when the (Canadian) dollar is meeting new highs, but that's the case," says Paul Bronfman, chairman and CEO of the Comweb Group, a major Toronto production equipment supplier.

Foreign location shooting in Ontario has suffered in recent years as Hollywood producers have shifted projects to southern U.S. states and other foreign locales in search of lower production costs and more generous tax rebates.

But while Ontario's competitive edge has diminished somewhat, location shooting around the city of Toronto has remained steady.

"The good news is at 96 cents, we're still getting exploratory phone calls from Los Angeles for projects beginning late this year and early next year," says Jim Mirkopoulos, vp facility management for Cinespace Film Studios in Toronto.

Cinespace is currently hosting Paramount's Mike Myers starrer "The Love Guru," Lionsgate's "Repo! The Genetic Opera" and "The Echo," produced by veteran Canadian producer Don Carmody (2002's "Chicago").

Elsewhere in town, New Line is shooting "The Time Traveller's Wife," Universal is shooting "The Incredible Hulk" and Christina Applegate and Rainn Wilson are toplining "The Rocker," a Fox Atomic theatrical comedy.

Nevertheless, Toronto is still far from the levels of local and foreign production achieved during the go-go '90s, before it succumbed to the effects of 9/11 and the 2003 SARS health scare.

A good gauge of whether the city can restore Hollywood film and TV production to its former glory will be the eventual interest in new state-of-the-art soundstages proposed or under construction here.

FilmPort, comprised of an initial seven soundstages with more than 260,000 square feet of studio space for marquee Hollywood shoots, is set to launch in early 2008 on the city's waterfront.

Ken Ferguson, president of Toronto Film Studios, which is spearheading the $60 million FilmPort project, says construction is on target for a March 2008 opening.

The megastudio, which spent years on the drawing board before construction recently got underway, hopes to announce its first Hollywood tenant at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The first phase of FilmPort will include a 45,000-square-foot soundstage with 60 feet of clearance height at its peak, big enough to house a full-sized replica of the Parthenon. If all goes according to plan, the studio will eventually comprise 550,000 square feet of soundstages and support facilities on Toronto's abandoned port lands.

Bronfman's Comweb Group and Toronto real estate developer Rose Corp. have invested $30 million in FilmPort. GE Real Estate, a division of the General Electric Co., is providing a loan of $28.5 million.

FilmPort aims at easing a chronic shortage of quality studio space in Toronto, unlike in Montreal or Vancouver, where purpose-built studios readily accommodate blockbuster movie shoots.

Other welcome news for Toronto's film industry was local real estate developer Alfredo Romano's announcement in April that he's partnering with Britain's Pinewood Studios Group to build 100,000 square feet of new studio space in the city.

Romano says the $35 million studio complex, to be built on a five-acre site in mid-town, is aiming at a fall 2008 launch to give Pinewood a "foothold in the North American market."

"Toronto has a strong infrastructure, and its culture is conducive to Pinewood Shepperton," he adds.

In 2004, both Pinewood and Romano's Castlepoint Development narrowly lost out to Ferguson's Toronto Film Studios for the right to build a megastudio on the city's waterfront for high-end, effects-heavy movie shoots.

In its latest incarnation, the proposed Pinewood Shepperton studio in Toronto will have two major soundstages, likely in the 28,000-32,000-square-foot range each, in addition to three smaller stages.

While the new studio space does nothing to combat the rising Canadian dollar or the generous incentives offered by certain U.S. states, Bronfman insists the challenges of shooting in Louisiana or New Mexico are still greater than in Toronto, where crews and infrastructure are more established.

"(Producers) have to import a lot of talent and services and labor into these states to make these shows," he observes. "The logistics are significantly harder than mounting a show in Toronto."

An added benefit is the Toronto fest, which plays a substantial role in convincing foreign producers to shoot future projects in Ontario.

To that end, says Donna Zuchlinski, manager of film at the Ontario Media Development Corp., the provincial government agency charged with helping foreign producers find locations, will market Ontario and the city of Toronto when it hosts the second annual International Financing Forum at the Toronto festival.

"Some key foreign producers at IFF we talk to individually," she adds. "And we're always meeting the international producers who are at the Toronto festival."
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