The pleasures and pains of being a Canadian movie producer

Canadians love it when other nations pay attention to us, so of course every news outlet was touting the 13 Academy Award nominations showered on The Shape Of Water, which Guillermo del Toro made right here in Toronto. 

The film is an American production financed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, and its Oscar-nominated stars are British (Sally Hawkins) and American (Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer). But the bulk of the cast and crew is Canadian, so: good job, us.

Back-patting aside, there’s a more interesting story.

Over the last decade or so, Toronto has become a proper centre for American productions. In addition to del Toro projects like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, the city has hosted such massive studio undertakings as David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. The massive requirements of Star Trek: Discovery have led Pinewood Toronto Studios to announce plans to double its operating space.

“I really see it as the maturation process of an industry,” says J. Miles Dale, a veteran Toronto producer who shares The Shape Of Water’s best picture nomination with del Toro.

“It started in the early to mid-80s, when TV movies and series started to come here to shoot Toronto as New York City. We started having to build infrastructure for that, and our crews were getting exposed to those kinds of productions, which got bigger and bigger. All those big DPs, production designers and costume designers came through town, showed our people how to do it, and now here we are.”

Describing The Shape Of Water as “a NAFTA movie made by Mexicans and Canadians for export to the United States and beyond,” Dale lists the other Canadians who are now Oscar nominees: “[production designer] Paul Austerberry and his team, [costume designer] Luis Sequeira and his team, all the sound guys – it’s crazy. I really feel like it’s sort of a transcendent moment for Canadian film to be recognized like this. It’s a testament to the level of our homegrown talent. And that’s wonderful.”

The Shape Of Water’s international trappings have also helped it avoid the stigma of being seen as a Canadian film – which is still, apparently, a turn-off for Canadian audiences.

Toronto producer and distributor Avi Federgreen struggles against that stigma on a weekly basis. He speaks of one downtown megaplex that dedicates a couple of screens to Chinese, Korean and Hindi films.

“Those films do really, really well,” he says. “They fill the joint. But why not help local talent by programming [Canadian] films? And their answer is, ‘Because they don’t make money.’ Well, how do you expect them to make money if you don’t program them?”

Federgreen’s Indiecan Entertainment just released its 100th film: Monolith, an American-Italian co-production starring Katrina Bowden. He founded the company in 2011 to put Sean Cisterna’s oddball road comedy Moon Point in theatres when no one else would – and seven years later, he’s still running into the same roadblocks.

“I take as many good Canadian independent films as I can,” he says. “And we go to the chains trying to get a screen, and we don’t. So it’s the Carlton or nothing. And thank God for the Carlton, and the Mayfair in Ottawa and other theatres like that, because if it weren’t for them Canadian films would get on no screens.”

It’s a bizarre paradox. Canadian audiences will go to see movies made in Canada, but they won’t go see movies they perceive to be Canadian. Federgreen has worked on Canadian movies with international stars, including Still Mine (James Cromwell) and Born To Be Blue (Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo), but even those struggled to find U.S. distribution.

Meanwhile, Toronto production is booming. And Dale expects to be bringing American projects here for a long time.

“Not everything is like Scott Pilgrim, where Edgar Wright said, ‘The books are set in Toronto, we have to shoot it in Toronto,’” he says. “But I will often listen to people talk about where they want to shoot their movie, and gently coax them back here whether it’s for financial or creative reasons. 

“And where before it might have been a harder sell,” he continues, “now everybody’s been here. All the actors have been here for the festival. They know some people, they know the restaurants, they know they want to stay in the Windsor Arms or wherever. It’s become a nice, safe place to be. So people are saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to go to Baton Rouge. I don’t want to go to Wilmington.’ And it’s made my job of being an ambassador a lot easier.” | @normwilner

Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content