Originally Published in the Toronto Star. Tony Wong.
Alfredo Romano’s spacious second-floor office in Toronto’s Port Lands overlooks a science fiction fan’s lust-worthy fantasy: the set of the new Star Trek: Discovery television series.
“This is pretty cool, right?” says Romano, taking a peek outside his window at a film production crew loading sets onto the mammoth 46,000-square-foot sound stage, the largest such purpose-built facility in North America.
Romano, tall, gregarious and given to thoughtful, meandering answers, is a former academic turned developer who studied religion and philosophy at Harvard. He is the director of Toronto’s Pinewood Studios and his family is the largest private sector stakeholder in the Toronto waterfront area.
He also has a lot to crow about: Not only is Pinewood the site of the most anticipated television show currently being filmed, sources told the Star it will also be the site of the first big Toronto blockbuster film produced in 2017: Fantastic Voyage, from the titanic team-up of Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron.
It is a remarkable coup, considering that not too many years ago a high Canadian dollar and a mortgage-related global financial collapse had all seemingly conspired to put the brakes on the Toronto film industry. And the studio, owned by developer Romano, film mogul Paul Bronfman, pension fund investor ROI Capital and the City of Toronto was seen as the most visible white elephant.
In 2008, when Pinewood first opened, production in the city descended to an ominous low of $499 million. Contrast that to 2016 when film and television production soared to a remarkable $2.01 billion. It is the third record-setting year in a row, up from $1.5 billion in 2015. And this year, based on interviews with producers, studio owners, unions and the city, that figure is on track to be eclipsed.
Much of that confidence is because of purpose-built space such as Pinewood Studios, which allow the kind of high-priced, special effects-laden productions that have become increasingly popular to film in Toronto.
And make no mistake, size matters: Few North American studios have the scale of facilities to film a feature as ambitious as Fantastic Voyage, about a nuclear sub that is shrunk to atomic size and injected into a human body. Moreover, it is to be directed and produced by two of the most demanding giants in the genre world: del Toro (Pacific Rim) and Cameron (Avatar).
Romano refused to confirm whether Fantastic Voyage, based on a remake of the classic 1966 science-fiction movie, would be filmed at Pinewood, but several sources contacted by the Star say it is a lock.
This would be welcome news, since it would be the first blockbuster tent-pole production to be announced for Toronto this year. Del Toro is a fan of the city, and already shoots his science fiction television series The Strain here.
This past week the city of Toronto’s film advisory committee said growth in the industry was being strangled for lack of purpose-built studio space. But things are changing, especially in the Port Lands area.
Romano gave the Star an exclusive sneak peak at the lot where ground is already broken on what will house Toronto’s newest movie studio, a 30,000-square-foot complex. The new studio is expected to be a game changer for the Toronto market since it will feature a unique, technologically advanced special effects stage.
“This is pretty exciting, because it will allow much more ambitious special effects work to be done in the city,” says Romano, standing on soil freshly broken for the new studio, while dressed in the Hollywood mogul gear of a seersucker suit and Stan Smith tennis sneakers. “This means when producers think of a big show, Toronto will always be top of mind or at least in the conversation. It continues to make us relevant.”
Not far from that building site is the giant sound stage where sets are being loaded, shrink wrapped and covered in tarp so paparazzi won’t be able to see the latest Star Trek sets. In fact, the name of the “top secret” production is not Star Trek: Discovery, but goes by the innocuous title of Green Harvest in an effort to throw off fans who might be tempted to jump the fence. (The name seems to be in homage to George Lucas, who called his production of The Return of The Jedi “Blue Harvest” in order to throw off press.)
The Discovery stage is massive — it is where del Toro shot his monster robot movie Pacific Rim, and it has housed other blockbusters such as Suicide Squad and Total Recall. It wasn’t so long ago, though, that the only takers for such a large studio space were CBC TV’s reality ice dancing show Battle of the Blades in 2009.
“It was all we could get, and I tell you, we were happy to have them,” Romano says.
Now, instead of a reproduction of Maple Leaf Gardens and a sheet of ice, production workers are diligently stenciling the words “STARFLEET COMMAND” in giant letters on concrete. Behind them is a militaristic and imposing grey-toned set representing Federation headquarters. If you are a Trekkie, you would be forgiven if you felt a tingle or two.
While Toronto has long been known as Hollywood North, the reality is that the industry is powered not by moviemaking, but by television, which spends three times as much on production. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Toronto has become one giant TV studio.
The city is home to series such as legal drama Suits (better known to some as that show staring Prince Harry’s girlfriend Meghan Markle), with downtown Toronto subbing for New York, to Kiefer Sutherland’s Designated Survivor, where a full-scale mock-up of the White House oval office can be found at the former Downsview military base.
In particular, the rise of online broadcasters such as Netflix, Hulu, Crackle and Amazon have seen an unprecedented surge in production using big budgets and A-list stars in what some are calling a new platinum age. Netflix alone is expected to spend an astounding $6 billion (U.S.) this year on new content.
“There are so many shows that are shot here that most people don’t realize,” says Councillor Michael Thompson, who heads the city’s economic development committee.
The city advisory board on the industry’s report this week called for Toronto to assume the role of a “leading advocate and champion” of the sector. That includes building new infrastructure and keeping existing tax credits to compete against other cities such as Atlanta and New York.
“Toronto is seen as a great place to make television and film and it’s for a variety of reasons, from the low dollar to tax credits to the diversity of talent and culture, and the excellence of the crews you can find here. But we have to work to maintain our position,” Thompson says.
This year, Thompson says he was visiting Los Angeles with Mayor John Tory and visiting a film set where the post-production technician was working in real time with a digital-effects specialist in Toronto.
“It’s really mind-blowing, the amount of impact that Toronto can have on a very specialized industry in front of the camera, behind the camera and across borders,” Thompson says. “This is a vitally important industry to the city.”
This year, there are expected to be a record 500 new English-language scripted television shows in North America alone, up from the 455 recorded in 2016. That’s original shows, not reality television or returning shows such as Big Bang Theory or Grey’s Anatomy, a phenomenon that has resulted in a lot of bleary-eyed broadcast executives and television critics.
“It’s been incredibly busy,” says Wayne Goodchild, president of IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 873.
Billings and work hours, he says, are up significantly already in the first quarter of the year compared to the comparable period last year.
The Toronto union also expects to grow by 500 members by the end of 2017 to 3,000 strong. Five years ago, membership was a third of that. But the allure of the film industry has created a boom in Toronto, including attracting more workers wanting to be set designers, builders and special effects crews. Significantly, they are much younger. Five years ago there were 16 members of the local under 35 years old. This year there are 445.
“That’s a huge difference,” Goodchild says. “It speaks to the confidence in the future of the industry.”
Toronto has been a beneficiary of this peak television moment, recording $950 million in 2016 for TV production, with film at $273 million. Animation, special effects and commercials account for the rest of the more than $2 billion.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and this is as busy, or busier, than I can remember it being,” says John Weber, president of Take 5 Productions, at his Liberty Village office.
Weber, like Romano, is riding an unprecedented crest. He is the man who brought audiences the fantasy drama Beauty and the Beast and historical drama Reign, both shot on Toronto sound stages and consumed globally.
But his company has stepped into a higher, Emmy-worthy gear this season. He is the co-executive producer of The Handmaid’s Tale, online broadcaster Hulu’s first entry into prestige television based on the classic book by Margaret Atwood. It has been earning the best reviews yet of any English-language series on television this year.
“It is visually a stunning production and it speaks to the talent we have here since we shot it all around Toronto using local crews and production talent,” Weber says.
Weber isn’t joking when he says he’s busy. He’s currently in pre-production of Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, producing 10 episodes of spy thriller Condor (inspired by Three Days of the Condor) starring Mira Sorvino.
He is also completing the fifth-season finale of the popular History series Vikings of which he is executive producer. And, if that’s not enough, he is also a co-executive producer of Star Trek: Discovery.
“There is just this huge output that wasn’t there before. And in the last few years episodic television has been a huge driver of the growth you’re seeing in Canada,” Weber says. “There have been this explosion of series both foreign and domestic and there is such a strong demand for content from all kinds of platforms.”
One problem that Weber and other industry professionals are concerned about is that the city may already be becoming a victim of its own success. Crews are harder to find. And the development boom in condos has meant fewer retrofitted studio spaces to work with.
“It’s definitely getting full, and tougher to find the right spaces and crews,” Weber says. “We need more infrastructure if we are going to continue to grow.”
Studio owner Romano says Pinewood has had to be in the difficult position of turning away business.
“It’s a nice problem to have. But it’s a serious one. There is a shortage of space. The conundrum has always been, how much do you build and what do you build?” he says. “It’s not just about four walls any more; you need to build an entire package of offices and services that can compete with the best studios in the world.”
Canada is unquestionably on a roll when it comes to film and television production. And despite hitting the $2-billion mark, it may come as a surprise to some that Toronto is not the centre of the Canadian movie universe.
That honour goes to Metro Vancouver, which surpassed $2 billion in 2015. (Figures for 2016 have not been released but sources say they are significantly higher than the previous year.)
With a time zone that’s shared with Los Angeles, a shorter flight time, and better weather, it has long had a few natural advantages over the nation’s largest city, including more purpose-built studios.
It also happens to be the unofficial superhero capital of the world, with shows such as The Flash, Arrow, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and the blockbuster movie Deadpool, which famously tied up Vancouver traffic during filming.
Vancouver residents, meanwhile, have gotten blasé about actors in spandex walking downtown, even with Supergirl relocating there last year from Los Angeles.
For that you can thank Andrew Kreisberg. The writer and creator of the Supergirl series, as well as Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, is practically a one-man comic book TV industry.
“There is a lot of synergy where we’re able to share sets and crew and even shoot things for one another. Vancouver makes it very easy to do this,” Kreisberg says.
“But the reality is, it’s mostly financial. In the case of Supergirl, we needed to produce the show at a level we are proud of, which necessitated the move to Vancouver.”
The decision to initially use Canadian facilities and fly cast north may be based on profit. But movie makers stay because they see other advantages, says studio owner Romano.
Hollywood is knocking at Toronto’s doorstep because of tax incentives and a low dollar. But he says that won’t last.
“We can’t just rely on a lower currency model to compete. That’s foolhardy. Right now we’re the darlings in North America because we’re cheaper. But we’ve got to build our model on the fact that we’re better. That we can give them the kind of state-of-the-art, quality production and environment for their crew that they can’t find elsewhere. And I think we have shown we can do it.
“But we still need to continue to build that infrastructure and to have those discussions to truly make this a great studio city.”
How Toronto can remain Hollywood North
Spotlight on Toronto: A strategic action plan for the film, television and digital media industry, looked at the importance of the sector to the city. The report, released to city council on May 30, makes several key recommendations, including:
Competitive, stable tax credits
The need for more physical infrastructure such as studios and back offices to service the industry
Creating and grooming top talent in the industry through training opportunities and academia
A “concierge” service model for filming in the city where staff assists clients in every stage of planning for a shoot.
Source: Spotlight on Toronto