Toronto hopeful as prod'n ramps up again


TORONTO -- Monday's announcement that Universal/Marvel Entertainment's "The Incredible Hulk" will shoot in Toronto this summer came as welcome news for a city whose production cupboard has been bare recently.

Homegrown pic "Hank & Mike," starring Wes Bently and Joe Mantegna, is the only movie currently shooting in the city as planned studio projects were put on hold for the duration of the ACTRA strike.

The "Hulk" shoot marks the first major signing of a U.S. movie shoot here since North American producers and striking Canadian actors reached a new labor deal last week (HR 2/21).

There was no word on casting for film, which will be directed by Louis Leterrier ("Transporter 1 & 2"), and produced by Avi Arad, Kevin Feige and Gale Anne Hurd.

Other projects headed to Toronto are Twisted Pictures and Lionsgate's "Saw 4," which begins shooting in mid-April, and Rogue Pictures' and Universal's "American Pie 6." And Toronto-based producer Don Carmody ("Chicago") said Monday that he's planning to move ahead with shooting in Winnipeg and Montreal for "White Out," an action thriller from Silver Pictures and Warner Bros. about a U.S. marshal who pursues a serial killer to Antarctica.

The return of Los Angeles producers to local sound stages comes amid a major offensive by the Canadian film and TV production industry to woo back displaced or disgruntled U.S. studios and independent producers after settlement of the country's first-ever actors strike.

Richard Perotto, the Toronto-based business representative for IATSE local 667 in Toronto, cautioned that it was still early but said he saw encouragement from the phone calls fielded from Los Angeles since the settlement.

"They want to use Toronto. It's a big empty cavern now," Perotto said, pointing to vacant studio space looking for tenants.

Even during the six-week ACTRA strike, Universal and Marvel were scouting in Toronto for the second installment of the "Hulk" franchise, according to city officials.

David Zitzerman, an entertainment lawyer with Toronto firm Goodmans, said that the U.S. studios and cable giants he represents asked him beginning last October to set up dedicated Canadian companies for potential shoots, reasoning that if the projects didn't move forward in Canada, they would still have a registered company here for future use.

On the TV side, the Canadians accept that they'll come up empty during the upcoming pilot season, losing potential series if they're green-lit.

"We're looking at trying to salvage the summer," Ron Haney, CEO and executive director of the Directors Guild of Canada, said as he prepares to join a delegation of Canadian guilds and unions bound for Los Angeles to entice the major studios back north.

"We're going to Los Angeles to deliver a strong message of stability and predictability," Haney said. "We're open for business, looking ahead and not back."

Stephen Waddell, chief negotiator for Canadian performers union ACTRA, already is making the rounds of the major studios this week, explaining how the new Canadian deal impacts their ability to shoot in Canada.

"It's very encouraging. I expect they'll be back now that we have it resolved," Waddell said on the phone from Los Angeles.

Despite the post-strike optimism, the consensus is that Canada has a big job on its hands to win back studios who shifted projects to New Mexico, Louisiana or elsewhere during the recent dispute.

Paul Bronfman, chairman of the ComWeb Group, a leading Canadian equipment supplier for U.S. film and TV shoots here, envisions it could take up to six months to undo the damage from the recent strike.

But the Americans will eventually return, he added, even though they have a host of options such as the southern U.S. states to bring their projects to as well.

"The Americans still like Canada. But we're not as competitive as we once were," Bronfman said.

The ace in the hole for the Canadians is touting themselves as an island of labor stability as the major studios gear up for their own contract talks with U.S. guilds and unions, beginning with the WGA later this year.

"There's been a 180 degree shift. The instability is in the U.S.," the DGC's Haney said.

David Zitzerman anticipates U.S. producers increasingly choosing Canada for shoots this year ahead of possible labor disruption in their own backyard.

"If they come to stockpile product now, they can say they were here all along and not running away to evade any threat from the WGA talks," he said.

Ken Ferguson, president of Toronto Film Studios, who is currently building the city's mega-studio for effects-heavy Hollywood shoots, said his phone has been ringing since the strike was resolved.

"We've gotten a few calls, and thank God. (The calls) had really stopped last June amid the IATSE negotiations," Ferguson said.

He agreed that Canada could well be the beneficiary of possible labor unrest in Los Angeles later this year, given the recent struggle on the part of North American producers to establish payment formulas for Internet streaming for Canadian actors.

"I don't think they (studios) will be able to duck the issue like it was done here," Ferguson argues, referring to the major studios securing the right to defer payment of new media residuals until 2009 to avoid setting a precedent for contract talks with U.S.-based unions.

"SAG's not going to have that same luxury. They will have to solve it," Ferguson said.