Toronto: Inside Hollywood's Love Affair With Ontario
With its generous tax breaks and versatile locales, the province makes for a studio's dream.
As Canada's biggest tourist attraction, spray-soaked Niagara Falls isn't used to the luxury trailers and fancy catering of a Hollywood movie set. But that didn't bother Jonathan Sobol, the Canadian director of Dimension Films' The Art of the Steal, who seized on his hometown's tacky attractions and folksiness when shooting the Kurt Russell-Matt Dillon heist comedy. "We deliberately embraced the kitsch, neon, campy, garish vibe," says Nicholas Tabarrok, who produced the film, which receives its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 11.
But it wasn't just the location's quirks that drove Tabarrok to shoot in Niagara Falls; it was also Ontario's tax credits, soundstages and technical crews. "I've made a lot of films in Toronto — north of 15 — so yes there's the tax credit bump," Tabarrok adds. "But I also know the crews, the unions and the suppliers. I know the studios and am very comfortable shooting in southern Ontario."
He's not the only one. Ontario's mix of tax breaks and production talent increasingly has Los Angeles producers taking the flight to Toronto as tax incentives are reduced or repealed in rival locales north of the border. Toronto recently hosted shoots for Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim and MGM's RoboCop and Carrie remakes. And international co-productions shot locally include Paul W. S. Anderson's Pompeii and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, starring Lily Collins, which will have just premiered when The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes starts shooting here in late September.
Ontario's film tax breaks also are juicing up local film and TV production activity. Vancouver-born Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills, 90210 fame recently shot the Canadian road movie Cas & Dylan, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany, in the province, while Michael Dowse lensed Daniel Radcliffe's first romantic comedy, The F Word, and Atom Egoyan shot the thriller Queen of the Night, starring Ryan Reynolds and Rosario Dawson.
Local producers, needing bridge financing to close a gap ahead of production, typically turn to banks to secure an advance on an Ontario tax credit. That bridge loan allows the producer to shoot a film or TV show, with the bank collecting a final check from Canada's tax man down the road. "What works so nicely is we're insulated against the fluctuation of the dollar as we demonstrate a strong domestic industry," says Karen Thorne-Stone, president and CEO of the Ontario Media Development Corp. (OMDC), which promotes the province as a film and TV destination and oversees its tax credit regime.
Projects also are taking advantage of the province's expanding production infrastructure. Quebec director Denis Villeneuve chose to shoot his first English-language picture at the Cinespace studio in Toronto. That film, the Jake Gyllenhaal starrer Enemy, will have its world premiere at TIFF and is repped by WME. "I was looking for a massive studio in which to shoot the movie," says Villeneuve, "and quickly decided on Toronto because the city had all the elements we were looking for — a big metropolis with a strong visual potential." Enemy sees Toronto actually playing Toronto for once. "For me, [Enemy] really is a love letter to Toronto," adds Villeneuve. "We had the freedom to do what we wanted in the city. It was a small budget, and yet we had a strong collaboration from the people."
Toronto, especially its Lake Ontario waterfront, also provided a backdrop for virtually all of The F Word, a romantic comedy starring Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks). "I thought the crews were great, the weather was great at the time we shot, and once you see the film, you'll see a unique side of Toronto," says David Gross, a producer on F Word, which will also bow at TIFF.
Shuttling between Los Angeles and Toronto or elsewhere in the province, seasoned production crews are re-creating a host of exotic backdrops for everything from shoestring indies to tentpole franchises and sequels. "It's Terminator in the Arctic," director Sturla Gunnarsson says of the winter 2013 shoot for the Sony sci-fi thriller The Frozen, which stars Dominic Purcell, Adam Beach and Michael Ironside. For coming north to Sudbury, Ontario, which stood in as a rough-and-tumble oil town, the film's producers received — on top of the usual provincial and federal tax breaks — another $1 million from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. "For us, the landscape totally lent itself to what we were doing," says Gunnarsson. "We used some of the slag heaps covered in snow and ice for Arctic tundra, and we shot on the Whitefish First Nation reserve for most of the rest. It's one of the most beautiful lands I've been on."
Priestley's Cas & Dylan also tapped the regional subsidy by shooting in Sudbury. "That was quite a versatile city that really embraced us with open arms," says Cas producer Mark Montefiore of shooting an hour north by air from Toronto. "They were incredibly supportive of the industry and what they're trying to do up there." Montefiore also tapped the OMDC Film Fund. "[The OMDC] came in two weeks into our production. It couldn't have been at a better time," he recalls.
And for Hollywood producers weighing the availability of incentives, soundstages and local crews, Ontario's 25 percent all-spend film and TV tax credit has proved alluring. Foreign production, most of it from Hollywood, has gone from $127 million in total spend in 2008 to $404 million in 2012, buoyed by tentpole shoots at Pinewood Toronto Studios and the growing number of U.S. TV shows shot locally.
[Foreign producers] are definitely coming more often and they're staying longer because TV, by definition, is more stable," Kristine Murphy, OMDC's director of industry development, observes. NBCUniversal for one is returning to Toronto with additional seasons of Suits, Covert Affairs, Defiance and Warehouse 13; CW like Beauty and the Beast and Nikita also are being shot locally; and Gaumont International Television has brought two of its projects, Hannibal and Hemlock Grove, back to Toronto for new season shoots after shooting in North America for the first time. Canadian productions also keep local talent and production crews busy.
Says OMDC's Thorne-Stone: "We've reached a place of strong and steady."