According to numbers recently released by the Toronto Film and Television Office, 2005 saw a 6.6 percent increase in US production spending, which reached $425 million, but the city has yet to recover to its pre-SARS production levels, which peaked at $595 million in 2002.Overall, the increase was offset by a nine percent decline in domestic Canadian production, bringing the total value of major production spending in the city to $748 million between January and November (December figures were not available at press time).Another trend worth noting is that the feature film spending rose by 29.6 percent in 2005, while production of MOWs was up 22 percent.The city’s film commissioner, Rhonda Silverstone explained that the SARS outbreak had a hugely exaggerated impact, as US productions pulled out of the city in droves for fear of the disease. “So we’re still in rebuild mode, but it’s going up in terms of the US.”Before SARS, Toronto was producing some $862 million in MOWs, TV shows and feature films. The disease, which killed 30 people in Canada, accounted for a 42-percent decrease in US spending in 2003.Today, roughly 56 percent of Toronto’s production activity comes from the US. Americans go to Canada’s largest city to take advantage of exchange-rate differences, tax credits, plus a highly talented pool of artists and crews.Traditionally, the lower Canadian dollar was one key reason producers came to Toronto, but since 2000, the US dollar has been steadily falling against other world currencies, eroding some of the cost savings of shooting in Canada. But, as Silverstone explained, the tax credit system compensates for that and US producers still find Toronto a good deal.“It’s all about the budget and the savings. They tend to look at all the incentives offered in a particular jurisdiction as well as the exchange rate,” she said. “But they also want good crews and all of the infrastructure. It’s all here and there’s good government cooperation. We try to make it as easy as possible to shoot here. So we don’t charge permit fees here in the city; we just charge on a cost-recovery policy.”Silverstone estimated that city can easily support from 35 to 40 crews shooting simultaneously.Toronto has long had the goal of converting the underdeveloped portlands to the east of downtown into a huge, Hollywood-sized megastudio, and after years of false starts, as well as political and legal wrangling, construction of Toronto Film Studios’ Filmport is set to begin this summer. When complete, it is expected to have a dramatic impact on the city’s production industry, drawing an additional $600 million annually in production spending.The city has always been successful at attracting films and shows in the $2–10 million dollar range, but for anything bigger than that, producers found that Toronto just didn’t have the capacity to accommodate them. But Filmport is designed to go after blockbusters in the $100–150 million dollar range (see sidebar on page 16).With the CN Tower and Skydome dominating the harborfront, the city’s skyline is distinctive, and recognizable, but the downtown core itself could pass for any North American city, or with a bit of ingenuity, perhaps even a European city.Alumni of the University of Toronto frequently spot the Victorian architecture of their alma mater as the back drop for films, TV shows, commercials and MOWs.Plus, Toronto is probably the only city in North America with a full-fledged castle, Casa Loma. Built around the turn of the last century by Sir Henry Pellatt, a prominent Toronto financier, industrialist and military man, the castle is a romantic “house on the hill,” with secret passageways and extensive gardens. It has served as a location for such films as X-Men, Chicago, Tuxedo, The Pacifier and Maximum Risk.The Provincial film office—the Ontario Media Development Corporation—maintains an extensive searchable locations database with over 100,000 photos at its website (www.omdc.on.ca).The story of the American director who had to spread garbage around Yonge St. to give it an authentic American look (only to have his props promptly removed by city cleaning crews) has become something of an urban legend locally. But Toronto is often seen as one of the cleanest and safest big cities in North America.
Written by Scott Lehane