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Biggest filming hubs of the US and Canada

Star Trek 2017 TV seriesKFTV looks at how North American cities are satisfying the demand for locations and sustaining their production appeal.

Increased demand for filmed content, combined with widespread film and TV tax incentives, has created a number of dynamic production hubs across the US and Canada. 

In Canada, the cities of Vancouver and Toronto are booming. In the US, New York State, Georgia and Louisiana have all become attractive alternative bases to the established film capital of California.

Canada’s exchange rate has made it even more attractive to US producers looking to maximise the value of their budget. Toronto is the main production hub as a result of the volume of Hollywood movies and TV shows coming north. With CBS’ new Star Trek TV series booked into Pinewood Toronto Studios and rival studio Cinespace Film Studios Toronto also running at near-capacity, there is a shortage of quality sound stages in the city. Efforts to build new studios are hampered by the fact that potential sites are being snapped up by commercial and residential property developers.

The city’s mayor John Tory is keen, however, that a positive story is not recast as a problem. Having seen the city host a record-breaking C$1.5bn of production last year he told local press that there is “capacity to do more” in a media event at Cinespace in May. With $800m of LA-originated business already booked in for 2016, he says: 

“We are going to start by identifying possible city-owned assets in terms of buildings and land that might be contributed to this cause in one way or another. We are then going to try to deal with the parking issue because that is a challenge.”

Central TorontoTory’s comments reflect a four-point plan that Toronto drew up after a recent trade mission to LA. The city needs to find more space for productions and this is backed up by a commitment to create more crewing jobs by working with union guilds and educational institutions to raise the level of expertise in Toronto’s workforce. 

The city also plans to reduce red tape and to launch a community engagement campaign that fosters goodwill among residents for productions operating in their neighbourhoods.

Another Ontario initiative involves incentivising shoots to film throughout the province. In the words of the Ontario Film Commission, “productions that are shot in Ontario entirely outside of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), or that have at least five location days in Ontario (or in the case of a television series, the number of location days is at least equal to the number of episodes), and at least 85% of the location days in Ontario are outside the GTA, receive a 10% bonus on all Ontario labour expenditures incurred.”

This doesn’t necessarily go down well with the Toronto community, which sees it as a threat to their own business base. But it is a logical way of helping Ontario keep its film and TV production industry on a province-wide growth curve. One beneficiary of this is North Bay in Northern Ontario, which is able to offer non-urban locations while also tapping into Toronto’s talent pool just three hours away.

Vancouver in British Colombia faces a similar challenge, after production rose by a massive 40% in 2015. The most high-profile project to come to the city was Deadpool, though nearly 30 feature films were shot around the city last year. This year is also shaping up well – despite the provincial government’s decision to reduce its film and TV tax credit in response to the falling value of the Canadian dollar.

Vancouver has responded to the surge in demand for studio space by opening up as much available space as possible to production, including warehouses and un-used industrial spaces. Speaking to CTV News recently, Vancouver Film Studios head Pete Mitchel said his company has tripled its filming activity since 2006, now offering 60,000 sq ft over 12 stages. Earlier this year, it was joined by Ironwood Studios, which immediately picked up the TV adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Also coming is a new 75,000 sq ft animation studio from DHX Media.

Empire State BuildingEchoing the situation in Ontario, there is also an increased incentive (an extra 6%) for productions that base themselves outside Metro Vancouver. This is good news for British Columbia’s capital Victoria, which is in the midst of its own production boom. The only downside is that the city does not have a large crew base, although this is something Film Victoria is trying to address.

Also benefiting from the production overspill outside Metro Vancouver is Maple Ridge east of the city, where film producer John Wittmayer took over an old bingo hall and re-tooled it as Ridge Studios in late 2015. That was an inspired decision, with numerous films flocking to his site. So confident is he of continued work into 2017 that he is planning on more than doubling his studio space over the next 18 months. All told, Maple Ridge had 22 films shoot locally in the first quarter of 2016.

In the US, New York has also seen a big boom in production on the back of filming incentives. At last count, the production industry employed 100,000 people and generated around $8.7bn in annual revenues. More studios have sprung up in response. There has also been a concerted attempt not to overuse locations in the neighbourhoods near to studios. Not only is this irritating for residents, but it also has the effect of making the end result look too familiar for TV audiences.

Echoing the approach in Canada, New York also incentivises productions to shoot in upstate areas beyond the iconic architecture of Manhattan.

New York has always offered a deep and hardworking crew pool. But one way in which the state was far-sighted was the introduction of various grants and initiatives designed to strengthen the workforce. The ‘Made in NY’ Production Assistant Training Programme has delivered over 400 productions assistants who are now working throughout the city. 

Pinewood Atlanta StudiosMore recently, the city made a $6.7m investment in Brooklyn College’s Graduate School of Cinema, located on the lot of Brooklyn-based recently-constructed Steiner Studios.

Crewing has also been an issue for Georgia, which is experiencing a production boom as the result of its own incentive programme. According to a 2015 report from the Wall Street Journal, about 50% of producers were unable to hire all the workers they needed to crew their productions locally. Reports suggest that major TV projects have struggled to find construction crews, grip and electric teams, special effects technicians, specialty costumers and stunt team members.

A short-term solution has been to fly people in from California, which is where a lot of work has been poached from in recent years. The problem with this, however, is that the advantages of the incentive can be wiped out if a production has to bring in too many people.

In response, Georgia State University is building a new media production centre in downtown Atlanta that should eventually help ease the pressure. Other institutions are launching similar training drives.

The risk is that states over-invest in film and TV infrastructure and end up with spare capacity. California has recently improved its own incentive programme, with the result that some work is coming back to the Golden State. There is also the feeling that the US TV industry is producing too much drama and may have to scale back. Further, there is the constant possibility that the US/Canada exchange rate may change again. North America’s dynamic new production hubs will need to tread carefully in the years ahead.

Star Trek image: CBS. Pinewood image: Pinewood Atlanta Studios.


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