Comweb Group celebrates 20 years


Paul Bronfman has endured many ups and downs during a career supplying high-tech soundstages for Hollywood shoots in Canada.

This year Bronfman's Comweb Group (which he founded and where he now serves as chairman and CEO), one of Canada's largest suppliers of production equipment, celebrates its 20th anniversary. The Toronto-based company got its start in 1988, when Bronfman partnered with Los Angeles producer-writer Stephen Cannell to open the North Shore Studios complex in Vancouver.

"It wasn't a money deal. (Cannell) could have funded the whole thing. He was looking for a working Canadian partner," he recalls.

Bronfman sold North Shore Studios to Lionsgate in 1997.

The ebbs and flows Comweb has experienced over the past two decades are mostly due to the exchange rate, whose fluctuations largely determine the flow of major studio shoots to Canada.

Rewinding back to 1989, Bronfman acquired William F. White International, one of Canada's oldest suppliers of film, TV and theatrical production equipment, and a year later partnered with Bulloch Entertainment Services to offer finance guidance to film and TV projects.

By the early 1990s, North Shore Studios was overbudget and WFW International's financier, the Bank of Nova Scotia, was breathing down Bronfman's neck.

"It was touch and go because the (Canadian) dollar went to 90 cents (to the American dollar) at the time," he recalls.

But by the mid-1990s, around the time Bronfman's cousin and Seagram scion Edgar Bronfman Jr. engineered a $5.7 billion acquisition of 80% of MCA from Matsushita, the Canadian film and TV production sector was booming.

Comweb's WFW International would go on to support shoots for Oscar-winning films like 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," 2002's "Chicago" and 1997's "Titanic." Bronfman's production shingle, Comweb Prods., also began to finance movies and TV projects.

And long before U.S. states became competition in the tax-incentive war, Bronfman formed Comweb Film Capital in 1997 to provide local and foreign producers with advice on how to tap tax credits on offer by the federal government and individual provinces.

"We had 70 cents (Canadian to the American dollar). We couldn't keep up with demand," he recalls of those heady days.

WFW International also supported movies south of the border, including 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."

"There were no tax credits in the U.S. per se, and the (Canadian) dollar was extremely favorable," Bronfman recalls.

Comweb's U.S. expansion was timely because the Canadian production industry was about to contract.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, dampened activity, as Hollywood producers and talent were suddenly loath to travel far from home. Then the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto slammed the door shut on foreign location shooting in Ontario.

But despite the rising Canadian dollar and competing tax credits on offer stateside, Bronfman is bullish on the future prospects for the Canadian production sector.

He's currently marketing Filmport, a high-tech studio in Toronto that he bought last year in partnership with local property developer Rose Corp.

"Filmport will ultimately be successful. These (studios) are not 'Field of Dreams' things. If you build it, they might come, and only if it's the right facility and if you price it accordingly," Bronfman says.