Surging Hollywood Shoots Force Hunt for New Toronto Soundstages

Toronto Skyline - H 2015
AP Images

Toronto Skyline - H 2015

Too little quality studio space has Toronto losing out to Vancouver in the big-budget arena.

Toronto is bursting at the seams, churning out Hollywood movies and TV shows for an ever-expanding global market.

But the production boom, showing no signs of slowing down, has Los Angeles producers up against a familiar wall — a chronic shortage of quality soundstages in Toronto as rental demand surges and local studios are hard-pressed to expand. And that has Toronto losing out to Vancouver in attracting Hollywood producers chasing tax credits and currency savings from a weak Canadian dollar.

"Vancouver has hundreds of thousands of square feet of new studio space being built, or on the drawing board. And we're not doing anything here," Paul Bronfman, chairman and CEO of equipment rental giant William F White International and chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Pinewood Toronto Studios is filled to capacity, especially with CBS having just booked the facility's 46,500-square-foot mega-stage for its Star Trek live-action TV series. Rival Cinespace Film Studios also has filled virtually all of its Toronto soundstages as the town stands in for New York City and Chicago for Hollywood shoots.

"We are very near capacity, and yes, Vancouver is ahead in terms of studio infrastructure, but our clients tell us they prefer to be in Toronto whenever possible, for many reasons," Cinespace vp Jim Mirkopoulos reported. Cinespace in Toronto has hosted shoots for FX's The Strain; EuropaCorp's Miss Sloane movie shoot, which just wrapped; Netflix drama Between; Reign and American Gothic for CBS; and Warner Bros. pilot Recon.

But with studio demand outstripping supply, Mirkopoulos and Bronfman are backing a campaign by Film Ontario, a consortium of local studio operators and rental equipment suppliers, to get more quality soundstages built locally so Toronto can reach $2 billion in annual film and TV production — or where a booming Vancouver is now.

Toronto is running at full capacity in large part because Cinespace launched its Kipling studio in the city's west end and Pinewood Toronto Studios opened in 2008 to give the city the quality studio space required to compete in the big-budget arena against rival studios like Pinewood in London and Babelsberg in Berlin.

High-profile movie shoots in Toronto for Pixels, Suicide Squad and currently xXx: The Return of Xander Cage followed. But expanding local studio inventory is being hampered by a lack of government will, bank financing and warehouse space in downtown Toronto being turned into condominiums in a frothy property market, rather than soundstages.

A host of local shoots are using retrofitted warehouses or local landmarks for location shooting. The Real Jerk restaurant on Queen Street hosted rapper Drake and singer Rihanna for their recent collaboration on the music video Work.

And some new local studio space has opened up. Google's YouTube on April 26 opened the doors on a new 3,500-square-foot studio space with pull-down green screens at George Brown College’s King Street campus for video creators.

Liam Collins, head of Americas for YouTube Spaces, told The Hollywood Reporter the goal is seeing local YouTube creators with at least 10,000 subscribers move from their kitchens and basements to creating digital content in a purpose-built facility. "Talking to [Toronto] creators, there's a palpable sense that the creative community is growing and evolving," he said.

But Toronto studio inventory is being lost elsewhere. Cinespace recently sold one of its facilities at 721 Eastern Ave. to General Motors of Canada, which plans to build new office space and an R&D facility on the site. And next door at 629 Eastern Ave., a proposal for a refurbished studio site to get the mothballed Toronto Film Studios facility back into business has faced persistent delays and under-funding.

That prompted former executive director Ken Ferguson to exit the upstart facility in late 2015. "Toronto is getting very busy. Could it use those studios and more studios? Of course it could," Ferguson said of the 629 Revival development on Eastern Avenue.

But he insisted banks are reluctant to finance new soundstage development in the city, especially when studio operators can't predict tenancy for more than a few months out, unlike a hotel or commercial office building. "Banks know that if the [Canadian] dollar changes, or the tax credit changes, the studio could be worth nothing. So it's difficult to finance new studio space," said Ferguson.

?" asked Ferguson.

Cinespace's Mirkopolous insisted the right conditions for new studio space sought by Film Ontario need to include a stable and reliable Ontario tax credit. The Toronto production sector was caught flat-footed last year when Ontario trimmed its provincial tax credit to help lure Hollywood movie and TV shoots to Toronto.

And any financial incentives for studio development from the city of Toronto or the Ontario government has to be "fully transparent," Mirkopolous added, and be made available to all studio operators looking to build more infrastructure, not just favored players.

New studio development in Toronto has long been hampered by successive Ontario provincial governments proving unwilling to offer public subsidies, unlike in rival provinces like Quebec and British Columbia, which also compete with tax credits and other soft money to woo Hollywood producers. 

Pinewood Toronto Studios' Bronfman said the Ontario government won't solve the city's studio shortage on its own. He called instead for Ontario to offer government-backed guarantees or low-interest loans to spur private sector investment in the studio sector.

"The reason British Columbia has such a huge advantage over Toronto is governments over the last 20 years provided us with an interest-free loan. That provided around 20 percent of the financing," Bronfman, who has long been a player in the Vancouver studio and production equipment rental sectors, said.

Representatives of Film Ontario could not be reached for comment.