Productions continue to cross the US border, attracted by Canada’s long-established incentives, impressive crew base and expanding facilities. John Hazelton reports
The flow of US and international production into Canada has been growing for nearly three decades, thanks initially to the country’s long-established incentive system and growing infrastructure and, more recently, to the global demand for streaming content.
In 2021-22, the country’s east coast production hub of British Columbia (BC), centred on Vancouver, gave its production services tax credit to 261 incoming productions spending $2.07bn (c$2.77bn), according to Creative BC, up from 231 spending $2.04bn (c$2.73bn) the previous year.
The growth was fuelled by TV series (up from 89 to 96) and SVoD series (from 30 to 42), with visiting productions including the second season of Showtime hit Yellowjackets; miniseries Shogun from the UK’s DNA Films for FX; and Netflix’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher.
Features that shot in BC include crime drama Lou and Jennifer Lopez thriller The Mother, both for Netflix.
The west coast hub of Ontario, centred on Toronto, saw 2022 spending by incoming projects increase to $1.45bn (c$1.95bn), according to Ontario Creates, up from $1.43bn (c$1.92bn) in 2021. Spending by TV projects stayed level, but 18 incoming features brought in $168.8m (c$226.4m), significantly up on $120.7m (c$161.8m) spent by 21 films the year before.
Among the features shooting in the province were Women Talking, Sarah Polley’s Oscar-winning drama for Universal; Fingernails, Apple Original Films’ upcoming sci-fi outing with Jessie Buckley starring and Cate Blanchett producing; and Dream Scenario, Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli’s horror comedy for A24.
Quebec, home of Canada’s French-language film industry, also saw an increase in international feature spending last year — from $350m to $392m (c$470m to c$526m), according to the Quebec Film and Television Council — and local officials have been working to assure US producers that a new law to protect the use of French in the province will not apply to incoming film projects.
Quebec’s feature intake has included A24’s Joaquin Phoenix horror-comedy Beau Is Afraid; Paramount franchise instalment Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts; and indie crime drama To Catch A Killer, set in Baltimore but shot in Montreal, Quebec’s most populous city.
To Catch A Killer producer Aaron Ryder suggests that sub-$20m projects like his fit Quebec better than the busier Canadian hubs. “There’s a great incentive,” says Ryder of the province, where he has shot two previous projects. “There’s a lot of stage availability and the post-production is exceptional.”
Whether the flow of production into Canada will continue to grow could depend on several factors, both external and internal.
Streaming correction has seen Netflix and other US platforms cutting jobs, and spending could, at some point, result in fewer streaming projects crossing the border from the US to shoot in BC, Ontario and Quebec. And a US writers’ strike, or the threat of one, might lead to a slowdown in incoming production during the second half of 2023.
In the longer term, Canada’s wide-ranging Bill C-11 legislation — still being debated at press time but expected to pass by mid-2023 — could change the dynamic that helped create the Canadian production boom. The legislation would require big tech players offering streaming services in Canada to contribute to Canadian production, and US officials have suggested it would discriminate against US companies
Canada’s crew base has grown massively in size and experience over the three decades since the country began to lure production work across the border from the US. Currently, film and TV technicians’ union IATSE represents about 25,000 workers in the country, most of them based around the three production hubs that also account for the bulk of the industry’s infrastructure.
On the Pacific coast, BC has around 2.8 million square feet of studio space, with purpose-built facilities including Canadian Motion Picture Park Studios, where Netflix has a long-term lease on seven stages; Vancouver Film Studios, with 13 soundstages; and North Shore Studios, with eight.
As facility operators try to keep pace with growing demand, Bridge Studios is planning to add 42 soundstages at various sites around Vancouver over the next four years and Martini Film Studios is building an expansion facility in the city with 16 stages.
BC is also the centre of Canada’s VFX, post-production and animation industry, with facilities including the Netflix-owned Vancouver branch of Scanline VFX, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ new Vancouver unit and a branch of Industrial Light & Magic.
In the east, Ontario already has 3.8 million square feet of stage space, and development plans call for the addition of another 2.4 million over the next few years.
Growing facilities around Toronto include Pinewood Toronto Studios — another Netflix base — which has started work on a multi-stage expansion; Studio City, where new amenities include the 36,000 square feet Jumbo Stage; and Stratagem Studios Eastside, where $15m (c$20m) is being invested in two new stages.
New facilities in the works for Toronto include Basin Media Studios, a $186m (c$250m) development to include 12 soundstages.
To the east of Ontario, Quebec has Mels Studios & Postproduction, which is currently building a fourth site for a total of 21 stages around Montreal. The province’s post-production infrastructure is also expanding, with British VFX operation Union recently launching its first international outpost in Montreal.
Growing Canadian production hub Alberta has Calgary Film Centre, with three soundstages, and William F White’s recently opened Fortress Studio. In Manitoba, Big Sky Studios has now opened its first two phases in Winnipeg.
Producers and companies working with international projects that need to steer through the Canadian system include Vancouver’s Brightlight Pictures and Ontario’s No Trace Camping, which has offices in Toronto and Los Angeles.
Taking in modern cities, plains, lakes, mountains and icy tundra, Canada is the world’s second-largest country, with an area of 3.9 million square miles, 40% of it situated north of the Arctic Circle. The main production hubs are on opposite sides of the country, with the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, and their cities of Montreal and Toronto in the east, and BC’s urban centre Vancouver more than 2,000 miles away in the west.
The Trans-Canada Highway links the main cities in Canada’s southern third, although travel to the northern regions — such as the independently governed territory of Nunavut — can be tricky.
The biggest international airports are Toronto Pearson International in Ontario, Vancouver International in BC, Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International in Quebec, and Calgary International in Alberta. Flight times from Vancouver to Toronto and Montreal range from four-and-a-half to five-and-a-half hours. Getting to Europe takes about 10 hours from Vancouver and seven from Toronto and Montreal.
First people to contact
Telefilm Canada: telefilm.ca/en/we-partner/filming-in-canada