Inside Ontario's Awards Season Success: "It's Nice to See Oscar Make Himself at Home Here"

Illustration by Mattias Adolfsson

The 'Shape of Water' and 'Spotlight,' two recent best picture winners, both set up shop in Ontario as film and TV production in Canada blossoms beyond Toronto to include Sudbury, North Bay, Kingston and other locales: "It's a coming-out party for us"

And the Oscar goes to ... Ontario!

As Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway crowned The Shape of Water the best picture winner at the March 4 Academy Awards, many of the film’s crew and talent jumped out of their seats at the Palais Royale in Toronto and filled the venue with wild cheers.

Earlier, as Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War fantasy walked off with the production design trophy, scenic artist Matthew Lammerich looked on with disbelief. “To be part of this team, it makes me feel as if we’re the best in the world, if only for this night,” Lammerich told THR as he watched del Toro and friends celebrate on the Dolby Theatre stage on a giant TV screen. Paul Denham Austerberry, who won the Oscar for production design, says he purposely began his acceptance speech with a shoutout to his colleagues “partying right now at the Palais Royale.”

“Filmmaking is a team effort, and we’d not have been up there if everyone behind us wasn’t doing such an amazing job and supporting us,” Austerberry insists.

And after Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, another locally shot production, won eight Emmys — including outstanding drama series — in September, Ontario’s world-class technicians and talent are suddenly Hollywood’s lucky charm.

“It’s a coming-out party for us,” Shape of Water producer J. Miles Dale says. “I’ve always tried to get people to come here. Guillermo has been an unabashed champion of this place and moved [work] here.”

Dale notes that virtually everyone behind the camera on Shape of Water, save for del Toro, cinematographer Daniel Laustsen and composer Alexandre Desplat, are Canadian. “If Guillermo is Canadian, it’s a Canadian movie,” he insists.

Adds Justin Cutler, film commissioner at the Ontario Media Development Corp., which markets the province to Hollywood: “From prep to post, The Shape of Water is an Oscar-winning Ontario film, and our companies and our talent will be adding the Oscar-winning qualifier to their calling cards.”

All this comes after Spotlight, the 2016 best picture winner, shot in Toronto and nearby Hamilton.

“The local film community rivals anyone at this point. It’s a treat to come up there,” Spotlight producer Michael Bederman says. “There are world-class crews, and they’re the kindest crews. There’s so much to offer, in varying looks and stages and equipment. It’s become a production hub.”

So how did Ontario spawn these awards season contenders?

For starters: generous tax breaks, including regional incentives for shooting outside Toronto; authentic small-town exteriors; and breathtaking wilderness. That has L.A. and local producers at work all over the province.

“You’re seeing that growth point, that bull’s-eye of Toronto, just get bigger and bigger, and we’re now calling it the Ontario industry,” IATSE local 411 business agent Chandra Li-Paul says.

Film and TV production has expanded in southern Ontario to include Hamilton while pushing north to Sudbury, North Bay, Parry Sound and beyond.

Jennifer Weiss, a principal at indie producer The Film Farm, chose a secluded location near Sudbury to shoot writer-director Darlene Naponse’s Falls Around Her. The drama, about a legendary singer who reclaims her life by seeking isolation, required a vast wilderness as a backdrop.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Weiss explains. “We’re shooting on the director’s First Nation reserve. It’s a stunning landscape. And yet, you drive 15 minutes, you’re in Sudbury, where we can put up crews and pull from different parts of the province.”

But while tax credits get the ball rolling, it’s the abundance of technical, creative and acting talent — and versatile locations — that sustains things.

Local cinematographers, production designers, set decorators, sound technicians, and makeup and visual effects artists have long worked on Hollywood projects with international partners.

Anthony Leo, who co-produced the Oscar-nominated animated feature The Breadwinner, executive produced by Angelina Jolie, was paired with the publisher of Deborah Ellis’ novel of the same name thanks to the Ontario Media Development Corp.

“[OMDC was] able to help us, financially, to option the rights to the novel. That kind of support goes a long way,” Leo says. “You’re able to shoot above your weight in terms of the pedigree of novels you can get access to.”

Mary Young Leckie, a producer on 2016’s Maudie — a Canada-Ireland co-production that starrs Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke — credits the OMDC with supporting an indie film 12 years in the making.

“We were delayed twice, significant delays, one for scheduling for an actor and another for a director, but they made the equity investment and stuck with us,” Leckie says.

OMDC president and CEO Karen Thorne-Stone calls the recent Academy Awards a watershed event for local production. “It’s nice to see Oscar make himself at home here,” she says.

An early impetus for the province’s expansion was the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. tax credit, launched in 2003. Helping to diversify mining and forestry towns, it invests up to $500,000 in local projects.

“Northern Ontario is a huge region, it’s bigger than France,” says Hideaway Pictures president David Anselmo, who has a pipeline of Netflix and Hallmark product coming through Sudbury and North Bay soundstages. “There are a lot of unique looks that we can accomplish.”

Robert Budreau, who shot 2016’s Born to Be Blue, starring Hawke as jazz icon Chet Baker, in Sudbury, says the NOHFC incentive, which was then $1 million and about 15 percent of his $6.5 million budget, was a big deal. “When I first went up there to make movies in 2005, there was absolutely nothing,” he says. “Now there’s a whole infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, the Hulu drama Cardinal and the Netflix telefilm Christmas Inheritance have shot in North Bay. “If it makes sense for them to shoot here — and Toronto being full is one reason — we have a solid, positive reputation,” says local economic development officer Tanya Bedard.

The production boom, dubbed “Hollywood Way Up North,” has locales nearer to Toronto playing catch-up. For example, in Oshawa, an hour east of Toronto, the spooky house in Warner Bros.’ It is being rebuilt for the sequel at James Street and Eulalie Avenue.

A host of U.S. TV series, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Starz’s American Gods and History’s Gangland Undercover, shoot in the Durham region. Regional film office liaison Eileen Kennedy notes that local hotels offer special rates for crews and convenient parking for equipment. “If you can shave a couple of hours for traveling, you’re gaining two hours of shooting time each day,” she says.

They’re also ramping up production in Kingston, whose market square dates to 1788 and where a Victorian penitentiary that closed in 2013 was reopened to allow the Netflix miniseries Alias Grace, based on a Margaret Atwood novel about a convicted murderer, to shoot inside.

Says film officer Alex Jansen: “Kingston has among the best architecture you’ll find in the country.”

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 10 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.