Canada’s production sector depends on a growing number of partners, but municipal governments and regional film offices ensure success when the camera rolls
When a film or TV crew arrives in your town, you can be sure that economic benefits are soon to follow. Take, for example, the horror TV series Channel Zero. Seasons one through three were shot in and around Winnipeg, Manitoba. In the first two seasons alone, the show spent nearly $10 million on local production and labour crews, plus $5 million on goods and services in the province. It created over 300 jobs. A fourth season is in the works.
It, the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s classic clown-phobic tale, filmed across southern Ontario, including Port Hope, a small community approximately 100 kilometres east of Toronto. Over 60 days of filming, It hired 1,255 local cast and crew and spent nearly $30 million in the province—close to $600,000 in Port Hope alone. Filming for the sequel began in Port Hope this summer, and the town’s marketing and tourism manager Kevin Narraway predicts a film spend of up to $1 million this time around. “There’s no building of any infrastructure with this. It’s just simply money coming in,” Narraway says.
Heartland, the long-running Canadian ranch drama, films in High River, Alberta, and across the southern part of the province. Over its first 10 seasons, the show created the equivalent of more than 4,500 jobs in Alberta, with a direct spend of close to $200 million. The series shows few signs of slowing down: season 12 will air this winter.
While the benefits of production Canadian towns and cities are obvious, what’s less obvious is how these towns and cities attract productions in the first place—and, once they’re there, how they ensure the happy coexistence of production crews and local citizens. It’s not an easy task, but local municipalities—from tiny villages to large urban centres—are clearly taking it in stride, innovating and seizing opportunities to cement Canada’s reputation as a fabulous place to film.
If you build it
Twilight. The Flash. Riverdale. Surrey, British Columbia’s second-largest city, has become a hotbed of filming activity for big-budget titles with fans around the world. The city even plays Hong Kong in this year’s action film Skyscraper. It’s not by accident that production crews are flocking here: Surrey’s film office is a well-oiled machine, sending production scouts location packs and offering them access to a digital database of over 60 locations (and growing by the month) with over 2,000 photographs, downloadable “in a matter of seconds,” according to James Monk, Surrey Film Liaison.
Surrey has also developed tracking software to make “clearing the locations” (investigating sites for filming purposes) that much easier for scouts and location managers: “A production may send us an email with up to 10 addresses on it. We can quickly populate those addresses into our system and it will tell us whether we’ve had filming there before. If we have, it will give us a location description and a little synopsis of when the last production took place, allowing us to make a quick assessment right there on the spot.” Monk adds, “We take a very proactive approach. We’re all about customer service.”
In 2010, the Surrey film office issued 47 permits to productions. In 2017, that number reached 189. The city’s superior customer service appears to be paying off.
Monk points out, “Last year, we had 5,053 residents working in the film industry. And when productions film in the city, they’re also using services like catering or buying lumber to build their sets, or other contractor services for renting gear and things like that. The economic spinoff can’t be underestimated.”
For a major filming centre like Toronto, protecting that economic spinoff is critical. According to Mayor John Tory, the industry employs 30,000 Torontonians, and “has helped to grow the local economy by $4.8 billion over the last three years”—not to mention the “vitality, vibrancy and excitement” it brings to Toronto’s streets. So when Showline Studios, a major studio complex in the city’s Port Lands, was sold to an anonymous buyer, there was concern about what it could mean for future production in Canada’s largest city. In response, council passed two emergency bylaws to protect the space from being used for non-film purposes. Then the city itself purchased the space, and expects to select a new operator for the studio soon.
Councillor Paula Fletcher, who chairs the Toronto Film, Television & Digital Media Board, spearheaded the intervention: “We knew we had to act. It was a do-or-die moment. If that space would have gone, it really would have signalled that, as a city, we’re not serious about film.”
In addition, Toronto has identified two other sites in the Port Lands to be rezoned for film use, ensuring that there is plenty of studio space for Toronto’s ever-growing industry. “The Port Lands Planning Framework that we passed last fall sets out great residential development and fantastic parks alongside a thriving film industry,” says Fletcher. “The city keeps a keen eye on this industry when we’re making changes.”
This enthusiasm for attracting production activity is certainly evident in large cities across the country. Calgary, for example, recently built and launched a 50,000-square-foot film centre with three sound stages, aiming to boost production activity in Alberta’s largest city. Smaller communities, however, are also getting into the production game. Windsor, Nova Scotia, with a population of 3,648, is a great case in point. Many productions have filmed here, from movies of the week to Pure, the Mennonite drug-trafficking drama now filming its second season for Hulu and Super Channel. While there’s no dedicated film office in Windsor, there is an energetic municipal employee named VanEssa Roberts, Director of Community Development, Tourism and Recreation. She says that when productions scout her town, it’s “one-stop shopping”: she brings the production team and the municipal team—public works, police, fire—to the table to work out the details on the spot.
“It’s fun and it’s exciting when a production comes to your community,” says Roberts. “And I measure our success by the fact that nobody complains when the crews are here. And when you go to a pub at the end of the workday and see the crews having a beer and talking with the locals. I think of them as 100 new customers that are on the doorsteps of my local businesses every single day that they’re here.”
Roberts recently received Screen Nova Scotia’s Community Recognition Award. Laura Mackenzie, Executive Director of Screen Nova Scotia, says that Roberts’ contribution to the screen industry has been “vast”: “She works tirelessly to ensure that Windsor is a welcoming community for film and TV production. Nova Scotia’s film-friendly municipalities are instrumental in making great things happen for our industry.” The same could be said for municipalities across the country.
Of course, the federal and provincial governments also play a critical role in creating a film-friendly environment in the first place. Says Fletcher, “The tax credits are so important in attracting film, television and digital into our cities. Without the tax credits, you wouldn’t really need any production studios”—or location databases, or film offices—“in the first place.”
One big happy community
Road closures. Parking issues. Crews taking over the spaces where people work and live. As exciting as it can be to have a production filming next door or down the street, over time, the novelty can wear thin. Municipal governments and film offices know this as well as anybody, and have seemingly endless tricks up their sleeve to balance the needs of their citizens and the needs of productions.
Surrey’s proactive approach to attracting productions is mirrored in its proactive approach to community relations. In addition to communicating production plans to residents well in advance and enforcing cool-off periods to ensure that no one neighbourhood is overused by film crews, Surrey also “tries to give back to the community,” says Monk. “We’ve done things like barbecues for the neighbourhood. We just had a big, big production film for about 48 hours on a residential street, and we provided the residents with movie tickets. We don’t want them to feel that filming activity happens at their expense.”
With the ever-increasing number of films and series being shot on its turf, Vancouver has come up with creative ways to keep its citizens smiling—even in the face of an on-and-off two-week closure of the Georgia Viaduct for the filming of Deadpool in 2015. Sandi Swanigan, then the city’s Senior Branch Manager for Film and Special Events, says the production approached her to ask about closing the viaduct, saying, “‘We know you’re going to say no, and we’re just going to ask anyway.’ I said, ‘I don’t know why I’d say no.’ They were stunned that I was even willing to consider it.” Swanigan insisted on “a very rigorous integrated communication campaign. I told them I would like the key messaging to come from them.” And that’s how Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool’s producer and star, came to do a number of voice public service announcements for the city, thanking Vancouver and its businesses for putting up with the interruptions.
While all city costs were repaid, Swanigan says the money the city made from the permits is “almost nothing”—rather, her goal was to elevate Vancouver’s reputation: “If we really want to be a film centre, we had to do this. I’ve been to London when filming is happening, and I’ve seen all of Trafalgar Square closed, the road leading up to Buckingham Palace closed. If we can’t do that, we can’t compete.” She adds, “While impacts were definitely notable, the closing of the viaduct registered literally three formal complaints. It was a record.”
Prior to her time in Vancouver, Swanigan also made hay in Richmond, British Columbia, where her title was Manager of Major Events and Film. The fairy-tale-meets-modern-life series Once Upon a Time filmed in Steveston (which is in Richmond) from 2011 to 2017, transforming the small fishing village to Storybrooke, Maine. Says Swanigan, “When we were approached by Once Upon a Time, I assessed the impact and asked, ‘What are you going to do for us?’” In response, the show held a premiere of its pilot in the town, which generated goodwill with the local community and led to the creation of a segment called “The Real Storybrooke” on the DVD of the first season, boosting tourism. Steveston’s museum became licensed by Disney to sell Once Upon a Time merchandise. The town also left up the set dressing and building signs between seasons, which naturally “became the backdrop for most of the pictures taken by visiting tourists,” says Swanigan.
“Once Upon a Time had an incredible economic impact, both provincially and locally,” says Wendy Noss, President of the Motion Picture Association – Canada. “It is a fantastic example of how a television production can benefit hundreds of businesses and vendors and thousands of local cast and crew, and partner with local communities to create unique tourism opportunities.”
Maximizing mutual benefit seems a fruitful path forward. In Port Hope, Ontario, before film crews descended once again to shoot the sequel to It, Third Act Productions hosted a job fair in the town’s old Canadian Tire store, hoping to fill roles for extras, security and support personnel. Hundreds came out, some travelling for hours, hoping to nab a small part or get close to the action in some way.
“Productions like Warner Brothers’ It create thousands of jobs and support local businesses,” says Noss. “The considerable benefits from this production, and others just like it, demonstrate the important role film and television production continues to play in communities large and small across Ontario and across Canada.”
Municipal governments are happy to play the role of silent partner to Canada’s thriving screen industry. They may be the unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes of this particular success story, but that’s okay: they’re going to keep reaping the rewards anyway.