“We’re Definitely In a Moment”  

Hollywood may have ground to a halt thanks to the writers strike, but the Ontario industry is already confidently looking beyond screenwriters on picket lines to its long-term positioning as a premium global hub for film and TV shoots.

Having built resilience and perseverance into an industry that has already bounced back strongly from the pandemic with record Hollywood film and TV production on stages in and around Toronto, Ontario players expect the Americans to eventually return in big numbers once the labor dispute is resolved. 

“Things will be back to normal in the fall, without the pending cloud of what the strike will do, with the next wave, a big wave,” predicts Anna Popio, client services director at William F. White International, the production equipment rental supplier for local and Hollywood producers.

Adds Mark Bishop, co-founder Toronto-based producer Marblemedia, which makes Blown Away and Drink Masters for Netflix, “This happened before the strike, where U.S. production companies and networks were looking seriously at Canada, and you start with the American dollar [savings], great tax credits, great talent, great locations and are then asking, ‘Why aren’t we making more shows in Canada?’ ” 

The Ontario industry has already faced trials aplenty to ride the explosive wave of Hollywood film and TV shoots across the province, so soundstage and equipment suppliers pride themselves on an industry that keeps on ticking with a stable trajectory for production levels.

A province that has Hollywood as a key future growth driver has seen record production activity since 2019, just before pandemic-era shutdowns, even as major studios and tech players have of late tightened their belts on content spending to cut streaming losses and focus on profitability.

“Long-term, we’re very confident that volume will continue to be robust,” says Eoin Egan, COO and managing partner at Cinespace Studios, as established Toronto-based shoots like Umbrella Academy and Chucky for Netflix are expected to quickly return to his stages, even if newly greenlit shows may be slower to get up and running once labor peace returns.

A Hollywood writers strike could also turn the tables for local Ontario content creators to drive more U.S. sales for their films and TV series as physical production slows to a crawl in Los Angeles — much as the 2007 WGA strike produced a Canadian invasion of TV series like Flashpoint and The Listener on U.S. network schedules.

Indie producer Folklaur Chevrier, who has an unscripted true-crime series about the infamous 1984 Christine Jessop murder case in the works, says she’s fielding sudden interest from potential American partners. “A strike could potentially change everything for unscripted series and boost demand for more international content,” she says.

What’s more, Toronto soundstages that are empty thanks to American producers steering clear of WGA picket lines have made local crewmembers, above-the-line talent and support staff that worked on shuttered U.S. projects suddenly available as the cameras keep rolling on homegrown movie and TV shoots.

“If you’ve got something to shoot, you should probably shoot it this summer,” says Toronto-based actor, writer and director Aisha Evelyna, as she gets set to launch her latest series, The Drop, and has a period drama in early development at Warner Bros. in Canada, about Queen Victoria’s rebellious Black goddaughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

If the 2007 WGA labor action is a precedent, a prolonged writers strike will likely produce an even larger appetite for content written and produced in Canada.

Charlie David, president and producer of Border2Border Entertainment, who sold his romantic comedy digital series Womb Envy to OutTV in Canada and Amazon Prime Video, recalls working as an actor and TV writer in Los Angeles during the last WGA strike, before returning to Toronto to launch his own company.

“At the end of the day, this is a business and there are going to be new opportunities for a period as other politics and labor negotiations play out,” David says.

He adds that local funding and other financial incentives will continue to drive homegrown production: “The funding opportunities that exist here for us, to make a show like Womb Envy, is a big sandbox that we can play in.”

The extent to which foreign production will eventually re-accelerate during the industry’s most important inflection point in decades will equally hinge on the continuing appeal of Ontario’s currency savings and film tax credits, a key focus for American producers. 

“The tax incentives we have are strong and stable,” Karen Thorne-Stone, president and CEO of Ontario Creates (which markets the province to Hollywood), tells THR, pointing to recent announcements about online-only production and leasing property for on-location filming now qualifying for tax credit rebates. 

Thorne-Stone is also hoping for a very short strike by Hollywood scribes to limit any disruption and get American players back to work across the province.

“We hope it resolves itself sooner rather than later, and we’re ready and we’re looking forward to welcoming production into Ontario,” she adds. “The phone is continuing to ring here, and we’re excited of course that we’ve got such a strong domestic industry.” 

Another tailwind for the province is having on the drawing board another 2.6 million square feet of soundstages and other production space set to open over the next four years.

“That’s spread across six facilities, and not just in Toronto, but across Greater Toronto and also Northern Ontario, in Sudbury and North Bay,” Ontario film commissioner Justin Cutler says, as the province builds out its infrastructure for local and foreign producers.

At the same time, just as gnawing concerns over the availability of precious studio space for Hollywood producers — once the strike is over — lingers, another challenge needs tackling, namely finding enough qualified workers for film production crews with the skills required to use fast-evolving technologies.

Ontario insiders are acutely aware Los Angeles producers need quality production crews on local film and TV shoots, including in newly launched studios.

“We’re bringing school groups through our facilities all the time. It’s no longer a cottage industry. People can earn a real living,” says Paul Bronfman, chairman and CEO of studio operator Comweb Corp. and chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, which has launched three new stages.

It’s all hands on deck to forge ahead with workforce development, adds Magali Simard, director of industry and community relations at studio operator Cinespace, who notes that the reputation of the Ontario industry depends on the results.

“When people wanted [studio] space, you couldn’t fake that. So we built new studios. Same with workforce. If you show up and suddenly realize there’s a shortage and you have to fly up a bunch of Americans to fill roles that should be local, it would be a huge issue,” she argues.

Cinespace and partners have launched Cinecares, a production crew training program with IATSE and a separate accounting micro-credential program, launched with York University to create and support a sustainable and inclusive labor pool for the future.

Andrew Barnsley, an Emmy-winning executive producer on the CBC comedy Schitt’s Creek and also president of the Toronto Film School for two years, points to the availability at TFS of higher-end courses in film production, writing, acting and video game production, also for potentially long-term careers as part of an industry on the move, yet facing headwinds. 

Says Barnsley: “We’re definitely in a moment where the grandness and the greatness of what we’re doing as an industry is revealing itself to the world, and hopefully that will be recognized as opportunities for talent and students and future crews. It’s an exciting time, but I’m also being patient.” 

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