Canada can thank Hollywood’s streaming war for an escalating studio construction boom in the province of Ontario.
Even before the pandemic hit in early 2020, Canada’s biggest media entities already were seeing intense competition for available soundstages as demand outstripped supply. But since the local production sector learned to live with COVID-era safety and social distancing protocols, Ontario has survived and thrived as major studios and broadcasters embrace streaming, while Netflix, Amazon, Apple and the other SVOD giants have created a local space race for the production of originals.
Today, Hollywood is rushing to lock down space in Ontario, even if it means warehouses converted into soundstages. “We’re recouping the growth trends we were on and we’re busier than ever,” Karen ThorneStone, president and CEO of Ontario Creates, which markets the province to Hollywood as a foreign location destination, tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Ontario has myriad industry-friendly conditions that are both facilitating and fueling the Hollywood production boom: A 21.5 percent tax rebate and additional animation and visual effects tax credits, varied locations and world-class crews, a bustling postproduction and visual effects sector, and a fast-growing pool of talent in front of and behind the camera.
Increasingly, the U.S. streaming giants are taking out long-term leases on existing and emerging Ontario soundstages to produce their originals, which has led major local developers to reassess how film studios fit into their overall asset property portfolio. So far, their stance has become only more bullish and confident.
Scott Dorsey, managing director of investment bank Marckenz Group Capital Partners, points to residential property developer Tridel unveiling plans for Studio Bottega, a 455,000-square-foot film studio to be built in Mississauga, in west Toronto, as demand from U.S.-based online giants for movie lots explodes. “The Netflixes of this world know they have 50 shows to produce in North America, and I don’t know which ones I will send to Toronto, but I know I’m going to have enough to fill this space, so I’m happy to take it on a long-term lease,” Dorsey says.
The property developers, in turn, are moving fast to capitalize that demand. Mississauga, near Toronto’s Pearson Airport, already has CBS Television Studios operating a 260,000-square-foot studio, and Canadian film and TV production equipment rental giant William F. White International running three separate film studios.
Now, Hackman Capital Partners, which has placed big bets on Los Angeles studio space amid the streaming boom, is close to announcing its own entry into Ontario’s studio space race. Hackman Capital’s MBS Group had no direct comment on its Ontario plans, but is considered the frontrunner to turn 8.9 acres of land on Toronto’s waterfront into a 500,000-square-foot film production facility after winning a formal bidding process for the privilege.
Paul Bronfman, chairman and CEO of Comweb Corp. and chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, argues the scrap for studio space driven by Hollywood’s streaming wars has turned Ontario into a production powerhouse where brand new soundstages are filled with film and TV shoots as soon as they come online. “Instead of having studios full for part of the year, now you can count on studios being full from two to five years due to long-term leases. That has fundamentally changed the market,” Bronfman says.
U.S. and other international developers also see a potential gold mine in building and owning film studios to host major studios and streamers in the rest of Ontario, well beyond Toronto.
Case in point: Tammy Frick, executive director of the Cinéfest Sudbury Film Festival, is part of a consortium looking to build Freshwater Production Studios, a purpose-built 116,000-square-foot film studio in Sudbury, an hour’s flight from Toronto. Frick says the proposed northern Ontario studio with three soundstages totaling 58,000 square feet already has outside investment and will shortly announce an operating partner as Sudbury looks to build on a growing Hollywood production surge. “We’re viewing our screens 24/7 these days. This screen industry isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Because of that, there are a lot of people that have taken interest,” Frick adds.
As Sudbury’s first purpose-built studio looks to get off the ground, efforts are being made to ensure that a strong workforce and ancillary offerings — like camera and production equipment rentals, post and visual effects houses, and other vendors — grow up around it. “It’s all about building that infrastructure and making it stable,” says Rob Riselli, film programs and reporting supervisor at Cultural Industries Ontario North, which has worked with local high schools and colleges to help train new film industry crews and talent.
The use of local internships and mentorships is also being used to find career niches in film and TV production for marginalized groups like Indigenous Canadians and people of color. “Production companies are realizing that enough is enough, and they’re giving an opportunity to those who have the talent and motivation from BIPOC or LGBTQ communities,” Riselli added.
Industry shifts also have Ontario looking to remove barriers to entry and advancement for women in the local postproduction industry. Netflix has partnered with the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television on mentorship and training for women in postproduction looking to raise their technical, creative and leadership skills. “Just bringing women into the industry doesn’t change anything. But where you can see change is where those women have the power to make decisions,” explains Beth Janson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television.
Director Sergio Navarretta, whose Louis Gossett Jr.-starring drama The Cuban was shot in Ontario and Cuba and will be shopped by Minerva Pictures at the Cannes market, says Netflix and Amazon Studios setting up satellite offices in Toronto holds great promise for local filmmakers like himself. “As artists and content creators, now we have a shot. We don’t have to go to Los Angeles. We can pitch projects here,” he tells THR.
Elsewhere in Ontario, a film studio boom is unfolding along a corridor that’s an hour from Toronto and the U.S.-Canadian border. In March, Aeon Studio Group opened the doors on an 80,000-square-foot studio in Hamilton with a 27,000-square-foot soundstage and a second stage planned. “The city has exploded with location shooting, but Hamilton hasn’t had a proper studio of any scale until now,” Aeon partner Mike Bruce says of the city that routinely doubles as Boston, New York City and Chicago in series like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Netflix’s Umbrella Academy.
In Pickering, Ontario, William F. White International is set to lease and run the country’s biggest backlot, which currently is being used to shoot Reacher, a drama based on Lee Child’s best-selling series of novels from Amazon Studios, Skydance Television and Paramount Television Studios (the same trio behind Jack Ryan). The streaming series shoot created a small U.S. Midwestern town streetscape built from the ground up in the middle of a Pickering farm field. It has around 30 stores and restaurants with interiors, a town square, a police station and a gas station.
“You’ve got a backlot built from scratch in a corn field for a high-budget production to build an entire modern American town. There’s nothing like this in Canada, even in North America,” explains Rick Perotto, vp business development at William F. White. Ontario also has seen innovation elsewhere.
Ontario Film Commissioner Justin Cutler points to Game of Thrones visual effects house Pixomondo constructing virtual production studios in Toronto and nearby Brampton that use Mandalorian virtual production techniques for real-time visual effects production. Cutler says Ontario visual effects companies now are often taking 3D scans of locations during production, “so that they can very easily and fluidly transition those locations into their workflow when they’re doing visual effects in post. “That’s increased our capacity and ability to take on more complicated projects,” he adds.