Toronto may bill itself as Hollywood North, but with a strong Canadian dollar, leaner American budgets and limited facilities, the city is finding itself scrambling to keep our important film business from defecting elsewhere. Though more than $700 million was dumped into Toronto’s film industry last year, that was a nauseating 22% drop from the year before. The big money is in blockbusters like the Spider-Man and Mummy franchises, but Toronto often gets bypassed due to a lack of any mega-soundstage facilities.
Beginning next spring, that problem will begin to resolve with the completion of Phase 1 of Toronto’s first megastudio project in the city portlands.
Called Filmport, the facility would eventually be able to accommodate up to five mid-budget feature films or two huge blockbuster productions on a 20-hectare landscape. The first phase, which is currently under construction off Commissioners Street, is the project’s most significant building: a 4,000 square metre (45,500 square foot) vaulted studio stage, which would be the largest purpose-built soundstage in the world, rising to a column-free height of 18 metres (60 feet). This phase also includes the construction of six more smaller soundstages, and the overall development will eventually become the largest production cluster outside of Los Angeles.
The foundations were poured at the end of last year and the steel construction has just begun, with pre-cast wall sections to be installed by September and the soundstage being available for business in April.
As part of the City’s waterfront development plans, the Phase 1 development is estimated to reach a cost of at least $275 million and eventually cover 280,000 square metres (3 million square feet) on 20 hectares of land (the initial stage will be 150,000 square metres over 12 hectares). It is expected to take seven to ten years to complete the entire project at a total cost of more than $700 million.
Filmport is being built on land previously owned by Imperial Oil, whom actually paid the City to take the incredibly polluted plot off their hands. The City is chipping-in to the cost of the extensive soil cleanup, the soundstage foundations and the extension of the Don Roadway.
How the Filmport development arrived at the land deal was subject to criticism, particularly by competing studio Cinespace. The portlands are owned by the Toronto Economic Development Corporation (TEDCO), who granted the Filmport developers a 99-year lease which included a “no compete” clause—effectively locking out any competing studio from using the TEDCO lands. The TEDCO deals were also done entirely in secret, which miffed both Cinespace and citizens concerned about the waterfront plans, but also confirmed the suspicions of some that TEDCO—like the Toronto Port Authority—was an arms-length rogue agency.
The land was allocated after a 2004 bidding war, which saw England’s famous Pinewood Studios losing-out to a bid by The Rose Corporation, which operates Toronto Film Studios (TFS), and a company held by TFS President Ken Ferguson. Toronto Film Studios is currently handling the second Incredible Hulk movie, which will be the most expensive film ever shot in Toronto.
Pinewood, which is part owned by director brothers Tony and Sir Ridley Scott, now has development plans for a five-studio complex in the west end. Once TFS relocates to Filmport, their existing Eastern Avenue site is slated for a Wal-Mart superstore.
Sadly, the big loser has been Cinespace, who were just booted out of their landmark Jarvis and Queens Quay facility by TEDCO to make way for office and retail space (also part of the Waterfront Revitalization Project). The 13,000 square metre (140,000 square foot) Cinespace Marine 28 waterfront complex was home to the production of more than 500 flicks, including X-Men and Chicago. TEDCO says that Cinespace knew for more than a year that they would have to close up shop, and that they offered studio land in Etobicoke that was rebuffed.
With all obstacles now cleared with the Ontario Municipal Board, the investors of the Filmport project received a major capital investment this month by businessman Paul Bronfman, who is the cousin of entertainment mogul Edgar Bronfman, Jr. Paul Bronfman’s company, Comweb Corporation, is the second largest voting shareholder of Montreal’s Astral Media, which owns The Movie Network, Teletoon, and 29 radio stations, among other assets.
The investors of Filmport say they want not only to create a blockbuster-grade studio lot, but also a film and media district with watefront cafés and retail amenities—what Filmport calls a “convergence district.” An proposed ancillary business park across the street might house set builders, broadcasters, equipment suppliers and costume houses. Much of the design work will be helmed by Quadrangle Architects (the CHUM building; the BMW flagship showroom), and the entrance structure (pictured below) will be designed by British architect and Toronto darling Will Alsop (OCAD building).
Despite the controversy, the monster complex should help stem the exodus of film productions to Vancouver, Montreal and Winnipeg. Last year, 29% of the feature films shot in Toronto were American, but that number was at 49% in 2005, and U.S.-based MOW (Movie of the Week) production has dropped by 29% over the last five years.
We may complain that Toronto too often masquerades as Chicago or New York, but the presence of major American blockbusters not only injects cash into the City’s coffers but keeps our highly-skilled crews working. The City of Toronto also offers some serious incentives to visiting film shoots, like tax credits, fee waivers, discounted hotel and service packages, and even a dedicated production concierge service. Filmport estimates that it will pay $30 million to the City annually in property taxes and will employ in excess of 2,000 film production workers.
However, with the Cinespace harbourfront stages shuttered, Pinewood’s plans in flux and Filmport not opening their first phase until April, Toronto is left devoid of even more production space in the interim. Whether more films defect to other cities remains to be seen, but it will take some flashy enticements to re-stimulate our city’s reputation as a major film centre. We’ve been talking about something like Filmport for a long time—promises are being made, and they’re gonna have to deliver.
Renderings courtesy Filmport/Quadrangle Architects Limited.