Coronavirus: How Travel Restrictions Could Boost Hollywood Production in Canada

Pinewood Toronto Studios - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy PT Studios Inc.

"We could benefit from the stay-at-home attitude of Americans," says Pinewood Toronto Studios chairman as the Canadian dollar tumbles, adding to currency savings for Hollywood.

The COVID-19 outbreak has bludgeoned the global entertainment business with travel restrictions and event suspensions and cancellations.

But the way local production players see it, an oil price-linked Canadian dollar tumbling to a four-year low below 72 cents this week, compared to the American greenback, could be a boon for Hollywood North as major studios and streamers eye even greater currency savings on top of tax breaks when producing in Canada. 

And that's especially true if Los Angeles producers don't have to leave North America, as the U.S. suspends flights from certain international regions.

"It could go either way. We could benefit from the stay-at-home attitude of Americans and the trust they have that Canadians do a good job," Paul Bronfman, CEO of William F. White International, the Canadian film and TV production equipment rental giant, told THR.

Netflix's last year launching a production hub in Toronto by locking up eight soundstages — four each at Pinewood Toronto Studios and Cinespace Film Studios — sparked a local space race by Hollywood streaming giants scrambling for soundstages on which to create new high-quality film and TV content.

Disney's acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets ahead of launching Disney+ and taking full control of Hulu — and rival streaming services set to come from WarnerMedia, Apple and Comcast — also greatly expanded the volume of foreign location shooting north of the border.

But Hollywood production hubs in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal have had to keep pace with the U.K. and other international jurisdictions offering equally lucrative tax breaks and other incentives to the major studios and streamers.

And with Americans increasingly weary about flying as the virus outbreak spreads globally, the Canadians see short term risk in their production sector going eerily quiet as Hollywood puts itself on hold as a safety precaution.

"Unless they're all going to fly up here on private jets, we could get hurt," Bronfman, who is also chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios and operates separate studios in Toronto and Vancouver filled with Hollywood projects, added.

The low Canadian dollar compared to the American greenback has long kept the film industry in Vancouver busy as Hollywood producers reduce costs by flying north. And the Canadian loonie sliding in value against the American dollar has local players making bets on even more American film and TV production headed to Vancouver once the coronavirus pandemic ends.

Daniel Jones, CEO of Vaudeville Sound Group, on March 12 expanded the reach of his postproduction company beyond London and Los Angeles by opening a Vancouver facility, and offering sound design and mixing for film, TV and digital content.

"We're surrounded by the noise of the COVID-19," Jones admitted as he opened the doors on Vaudeville Vancouver's three postproduction studios. But he anticipated added business from clients in Los Angeles seeing benefits in shifting work to Vancouver as a cheaper destination for location shooting and posting.

"We have L.A.-based clients who also do work in Canada, there's the labor tax incentives for Canadian-based companies and the currencies all make it favorable for sure. It's growing here," Jones explained.

The duration of short term uncertainty for the Canadian production sector could well hinge on the extent of coronavirus-era travel restrictions keeping Hollywood film and TV producers at home. 

"One can’t help but feel that if Americans continue to reduce air travel — even to Canada —this will have an impact on the industry," Eric Birnberg, a co-producer with High Park Entertainment on Netflix's October Faction, said.