Getting behind the gates of Pinewood Toronto Studios is kind of exactly like securing a golden admission ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Except instead of chocolate waterfalls, everlasting gobstoppers, and jolly, ginger-skinned Oompa-Loompas, Pinewood has well-maintained offices, an impressive ventilation system, and a muddy old berm out back. And a whole lot of movie studio space. Like, huge expanses of it.
Granted, Pinewood Toronto’s 11-acre facility in the Port Lands (near Commissioners Street and the Don Roadway) may not appear to be suffused with “movie magic”—especially if your only frames of reference for what a movie studio is are the scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure when our bike-riding hero giddily baits a low-speed pursuit through the Warner Bros. lot and a bunch of Animaniacs cartoons. But though its facade may be a little plain, evoking little of the Hollywood “Dream Machine” or whatever, in the past three years alone, Pinewood has gained a reputation as a go-to destination for film and television productions in Toronto.
Since opening in 2008, the studios have provided space for plenty of Canadian film and TV productions (CBC’s Battle of the Blades, Atom Egoyan’s Chloe). They’ve also done something even more exceptional: attract big-time Hollywood bucks. Since 2008, larger-budgeted shoots like the forthcoming prequel/remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing (also called The Thing) and last summer’s hometown would-be blockbuster Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) setting up shop at Pinewood. And with Pinewood currently hosting the most expensive production to ever come to Toronto (we were asked not to name the film, even though it’s already been announced elsewhere), we finagled our way behind the scenes of the studio that’s reinvigorating Toronto’s film industry.
“Toronto has historically been a very successful film and television production centre, but it hasn’t had a facility like this,” notes Edith Myers, managing director of Pinewood Toronto Studios. “[Toronto] has very good facilities and a lot of people put a lot of money into the industry. But this facility is designed to attract a certain type of film that had come infrequently to Toronto. Our biggest selling tool is to show people what we’ve got here.” And what Pinewood’s got is impressive.
While touring the back lot, we saw an old Cutlass Sierra being rigged up for a shoot. They wouldn’t tell us which movie it was for, but we’ll assume it stars an old Cutlass Sierra.
With seven soundstages (and a converted warehouse where a Fefe Dobson video was recently shot) providing a combined 250,000 square feet of studio space, it’s one of the most comprehensive purpose-built film facilities in the world. It’s also home to the Mega Stage, a 46,000-square-foot soundproofed stage where they’re currently erecting sets for that movie we won’t tell you about. But we will tell you that the Mega Stage boasts an advanced ventilation system perfect for giving people air. “Nothing in North America is as big as the Mega Stage,” Pinewood’s tenant services manager-cum-tour guide Blake Steels told us. “There are larger converted warehouses, but no sound stage compares to this.”
Carrying an estimated $200-million price tag, the film-that-shall-not-be-named is a sterling example of the “certain type” of film that Myers hoped Pinewood Toronto would attract. “This is a facility that can house big blockbuster films,” she says. “And part of my little job here is to change paradigms. I want Toronto to be one of the first places people think of when they have a big film that they want to do. This year we have a few large-budget films here, and it’s really going to give the Toronto community an opportunity to show what they can do.”
Part of this plan to attract big business is maintaining an air of hush-hush professionalism around the studio. Myers rarely consents to interviews and grants tours of the studio even less infrequently. “This is a business operation,” Myers says, matter-of-factly. “We’re not Universal Theme Park. We’re designed to conduct business, not show off the intricacies of the film and television industry. And if I might be frank, there’s not a lot to see. A lot of people show up and have unrealistic expectations…clearly our clients don’t want other people traipsing around, shooting photos.” Fair enough, even if our inability to get on any live sets did limit our photos to mostly empty (though still hugely impressive) studio space.
The mock-up for Pinewood’s proposed multi-purpose development—coming soon to a waterfront near you. Courtesy Pinewood Toronto Studios.
Just as extraordinary as Pinewood Toronto’s sheer square-footage is its plan to build an inhabited movie set on the stretch of waterfront land on its property. As announced by the Star last November, Pinewood is planning to develop the parcel of land into waterfront condos, business complexes, a hotel, a shopping promenade, and a few square blocks designed to resemble a handful of cities from around the world, useful for shooting exterior scenes. All in an area now defined by its proximity to a bunch of cement plants and its access to the mostly deserted Lower Don Rec Trail.
If all goes according to plan, you could purchase a condo in fake-London, walk a few blocks to get a coffee in fake-Chicago, and then turn the corner into fake–New York, just for a little culture, and be home in time for cornflakes. Imagine going on a mini-globetrot, just by strolling around part of the Port Lands. It’s kind of like that sci-fi movie where the company can implant memories of fake vacations you never went on directly into your brain. What was that one called again?
The development is just another one of Pinewood’s multi-prong strategies to not just charm the chequebooks of major Hollywood studios, but to create jobs and stimulate the local economy. “Should a $180-million picture come to Toronto, it means about $100 million of that stays in the city,” says Myers. “Every project is different, but it’s an enormous number of jobs…People are seeing Ontario as a fantastic place to shoot. And I think we’re going to have a couple of very large feature films shooting here in Ontario, which we haven’t had in a very long time. It builds on itself. The more people we can get to come to Toronto, the more people appreciate what a wonderful city it is, and how fantastic it is to shoot here.”
Original photos by Ryan Walker/Torontoist.
: We have replaced the photo we originally had as item three of the gallery, at the request of the producers of the film currently using that stage at Pinewood.