Hollywood production may have ground to a halt in Ontario and its A-listers may be mostly absent from red carpets at the Toronto Film Festival this week due to the ongoing writers and actors strikes in Los Angeles.
But that’s not stopping the Ontario production sector from looking to an eventual resolution of the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America labor actions and resuming its role as a premium production hub for Hollywood film and TV shoots.
And the job of getting the Americans back and in big numbers and onto local soundstages and locations is held in large part by Ontario Creates, which markets the province to the major studios and streamers.
“There’s lots of work going on in the background right now to make sure that we’re ready to welcome all of those productions when they come back,” Karen Thorne Stone, president and CEO of Ontario Creates, tells The Hollywood Reporter.
With Hollywood as a key future growth driver, Ontario Creates saw record production activity across the province before the latest industry shutdown caused by the dual strikes, and Ontario has been busy building out its infrastructure with more new studios coming on stream, a larger and more skilled workforce trained and ready for high-end film and TV production, and more environmentally-sustainability measures to ensure a quick and effective return to foreign production locally post-strikes.
And as major studios and tech players of late talk of tightening their belts on content spending to cut streaming losses and focus on profitability, The Hollywood Reporter talked to Ontario Creates’ Thorne-Stone and Justin Cutler, Ontario’s Film Commissioner, ahead of the Toronto Film Festival.
Thorne-Stone and Cutler talked about ensuring American production re-accelerates post-strikes during the industry’s most important inflection point in decades, as Hollywood looks at Ontario’s currency savings and film tax credits, a key focus for U.S. producers.
Assuming the Hollywood strikes are resolved, the Americans will get on flights to Toronto and resume film and TV production in Ontario. What preparations have been made for that return?
Thorne-Stone: Justin and his team continue to do their work to promote Ontario as a high-end quality film jurisdiction. The studio development continues. The workforce development efforts continue. So there’s lots of work going on in the background right now to make sure that we’re ready to welcome all of those productions when they come back.
You’re already getting calls ahead of that resumption?
Thorne-Stone: Scouting levels at the moment are suggesting business will be back and it will be back strong.
Cutler: Scouting levels have been high, so we do think there’s going to be considerable interest when folks can get back to work in Ontario. And we haven’t been spending this time idle. We’ve been working very hard to improve the jurisdiction, so that when folks do return with their productions, we are stronger and better than where we left off. So we’ve been improving and expanding our infrastructure. We’ve been focusing on sustainability to ensure that productions can meet their environmental targets, and other workforce development training can really help us return in a stronger way.
We’ve heard a lot about major studios and streamers in Hollywood tightening their belts when it comes to their original content spending. Does that mean the Americans will spend less when they return to Ontario, or could return in bigger numbers to exploit available tax credits and other cost savings?
Justin: We’re not privy to budget conversations among the studios. But we think we have a very good and solid value proposition for producers. Because of the ease of doing business in Ontario, we’ve got the talent, the crews, the competitive tax incentives, and some of these new features that will help productions meet their environmental sustainability targets. That will all create a very compelling cost argument to be here, as opposed to having to import pieces of infrastructure and talent to other jurisdictions. So we do think that that’s going to create a more cost-competitive environment in Ontario.
Thorne-Stone: We’ve always been a very competitive jurisdiction in terms of budgets. I think that everyone is monitoring their budgets closely these days. But because we’ve got such depth in terms of both infrastructure and talent capacity, that certainly helps to keep costs down. And many of the environmental initiatives that we’ve been working hard on will help productions save money, as opposed to spend more money.
Cutler: One more thing. We’ve done a lot of work in Ontario to develop the municipal film offices and they’ve really come a long way to be able to support productions in a better way, which means partnering with suppliers and vendors to make it easier to do business in those communities, which in turn makes difficult locations very easy to access. And I think that that’s going to be another cost competitive advantage.
Is the current absence of American production in Ontario allowing you downtime and space to do the infrastructure improvements you’ve spelt out?
Cutler: We are quite mindful of the strikes, but there are still opportunities to make employment opportunities available to younger students who are considering a future in entertainment. We want to make sure that those people can be future thinking and take the right training courses to prepare for that future. And others are this time as a professional development opportunity to sharpen skills and make the existing workforce even better for when the production returns.
Thorne-Stone: I would add at the Toronto Film Festival, the business aspect of the industry is continuing as strong as ever. Interest in our International Financing Forum and our new IP Market Day and our UK-Ontario Day is as strong as ever. That says something about the talent and the stories and the productions that are emanating from here. The executives are still interested in being here and participating. In a way, that gives us an opportunity to really focus on the business aspects. And yes, perhaps at the expense of glitz and glamor, but from our perspective, at the moment, we can really focus on those development initiatives.
On workforce development, Ontario has been working to ensure Americans that take up new studios and soundstages coming on stream have local talent and crews to service their production shoots. What progress are you making there?
Cutler: The industry and government have taken a laser approach to this and really looking at where the gaps are in the industry. We’ve seen new training programs come out of that analysis. An example would be a partnership between York University and Cinespace Studios to develop a production accountants program. Around 25 participants just went through that program and are now production-ready. And partners like the Directors Guild of Canada and their accountants helped design that program. Outside of that, we have been partnering with Real Opportunities, which is a Real Canada initiative, to attract younger students to the industry and really make it known which employment opportunities are available. We’ve also seen regional workforce development in places like northern Ontario and Durham region and many others, where there have been job fairs initiated by those communities to both attract and partially train potential workers for production. That means productions can migrate across the province and access trained individuals in those communities. And that’s in addition to the over 70 academic and professional development training courses that we have in Ontario, both for the film and television industry.
How are you ensuring young people attracted to the glitz and glamor of the film industry also recognize long-term careers are available to them, with training?
The first step is growing the wide range of employment opportunities in the film industry, so that folks can tap into their passions, whether that be creative or administrative or business oriented. And then beyond that, I think we do talk a lot about the stability of the industry in Ontario. Even though this is largely a gig economy, there are jobs that are available year-round, with extensive supports from our union partners in Ontario. The other factor we discuss both with the students and their parents are these are highly paid jobs. And they can actually create a future for individual professionals.
And Americans returning post-strikes to Ontario can be confident they’ll be enough local talent and crews to service their productions?
Cutler: Even in our busiest times, we were keeping up with demand. What we’re trying to do is future-proof the industry for greater demand. We’re also ensuring we’ve got that studio space just in case the activity grows in Ontario. And a lot of the new space will be clear span and have higher ceiling heights.
Thorne-Stone: The same is true for talent, that we haven’t run out. We haven’t yet had to turn away production. We believe we have the capacity, but we’re trying to get ahead of that growth curve so that we’re ready for it.
And it’s not just the number of talent and crews Ontario can offer post-strikes, but that they have skills required by high-end productions?
Cutler: It’s partly about skills, but also about building awareness. There are a lot of students who think they can be a director, an editor or a performer, but they don’t think about all the other jobs available. And we want to make sure that they’re aware in high school, so that they can train for those jobs. That will build the broader base for the Ontario industry.
Ontario has also been at work on a Green Screen initiative, which includes a province-wide electrical grid tie-in map to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offer access to clean grid power across the province. Tell us about progress there.
Cutler: Our goal is really to reduce our productions carbon footprint, and also to develop a more circular economy for the film industry. That means reusing materials and rescuing materials from sets for reuse. So in our new plan, we have created Project Green, which is a company in Ontario that will rescue materials from sets and provide that to agencies in need. That might be unused lumber or materials taken directly from set and ensure that goes back into a circular economy, as opposed to a landfill. In our first pilot program, over two productions we were able to save 9.8 metric tons of material with a total value of $33,000. We have initiated a grid tie-in that helps productions tie into the electrical grid, as opposed to using diesel generators. We now have 40 locations at very popular filming destinations in Ontario where productions can tap into that electrical grid. We’ve also worked with Second Harvest to rescue food from sets since 2019. We have saved 39,000 meals valued at over $146,000 and all of those meals go to local agencies like shelters and other community organizations free of charge and provide meals to people that are in need.
Are there green screen initiatives unique to Ontario and not yet stateside?
Cutler: The grid tie-in map, I’ve only heard about that existing in British Columbia and Ontario. It may exist in other jurisdictions, but we’ve heard from studios this is something they’re really excited about because fuel reduction is a number one target for reaching environmental sustainability. Across Ontario, we just want to ensure we’re putting our best foot forward and the industry has acknowledged that responsibility and are doing a great job.
Away from film sets, Ontario has a strong animation and visual effects sector. What gains have been made there in building out the province’s infrastructure?
Thorne-Stone: That’s another real selling point for Ontario. Whatever work you’re doing, you can do it here and you can do it with the best in the world. And you can do everything from your pre visualization right through to the final edits in post here. And we’ve got all sorts of co-productions and co-ventures happening because companies really want to work with our animation companies and our visual effects companies.
Virtual production is another strength in Ontario. Where is the province in that space?
Cutler: We have two virtual production stages in Ontario and are regularly used by commercial productions, not just film and television. And some smaller companies are offering the same technology to independent productions and smaller productions that might not need large scale environments. And we have some mobile units that can move between studios as needed.
Lastly, Ontario has become among the top five production hubs across North America, alongside British Columbia, Los Angeles, Georgia and New York City. How important is it that returning Americans recognize Ontario as a production hot spot still in growth mode?
Thorne-Stone: It’s incredibly important. We’re trying to stay at the front of the line. I realize I missed one important change that happened in our tax credits, literally in the last two weeks. The government has passed the regulatory change to allow online-only productions to be eligible for the Ontario Production Services Tax Credit and the Ontario Film and Television Tax Credit. That is really broadening the kinds of content and the kinds of platforms that are eligible for support through our tax credit programs and that will certainly open up new business opportunities. And that’s I guess that’s evidence of our determination to remain competitive and remain leaders in the field.