Driving along Eastern Avenue where Hollywood North has thrown up studios, it's easy to get a buzz off movieland. But you shouldn't get too attached to the idea of T.O. as a cinematic haven. The biz here has taken an unprecedented dive. Production has been chopped in half, and over 10,000 people directly or indirectly employed in the industry are out of work. Data from the Toronto Film and Television Office show that as of July 2003, only 20 films were shot in Toronto, half as many as in 2002. Only 46 television programs were produced, excluding TV specials and music videos, down from 111 the previous year.
"This has been the worst year we've had in a long time," says Stan Ford, production manager of Deluxe, the post-production laboratory that worked on the multi-million-dollar Miramax movie Chicago in 2001.
Why? The story starts not with Arnold Schwarzenegger protectionism, but with SARS. When W.H.O. travel advisories turned Toronto into a forbidden city last year, at least 20 film and television productions pulled out. The best known was the musical Shall We Dance?, starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, which was re-routed to Winnipeg.
But this was just a temporary dip. The longer-range problem has to do with the strong Canadian dollar - and the cheap reality shows now flooding the market. Who'd have thought Canadian television production would be beached by the success of The Bachelor and Survivor?
"Reality shows are very cheap to produce and do very well with audiences. That's why there's been a slowdown in U.S. productions in Canada," says Ontario Media Development Corporation production manager Marc Dassas.
Dassas says production has been draining out of Canada and heading to South Africa and New Zealand, where labour and administrative costs are lower. (The loonie grew from 65 cents U.S. to almost 80 cents U.S. last year.)
"The value of the Canadian dollar has an impact on these productions, regardless of what stakeholders and politicians intend to do," says Pierre Pointbriand, Canadian Association of Broadcasters vice-president of communications.
As a way out off the economic decline, FilmOntario, ACTRA Toronto and other stakeholders are requesting higher provincial tax credits and asking the city administration for more film-friendly location rules, including longer permit office hours and a return to centralized permit approvals.
The federal government's move to cut $25 million from its Canadian Television Fund last February didn't help domestic production. But companies were relieved in November when new incentives were introduced in the form of a tax credit hike from 48 to 60 per cent for Canadian content production. At this point it's still early to evaluate how these changes will affect the industry. In December, Alliance Atlantis Communications made deep cuts, forcing industry companies and organizations across the country to face the possibility that the downturn could be chronic.
AAC vice-president Judson Martin says 60 to 70 of the 150 jobs in its entertainment department would be cut following the discouraging findings of a production review. The company will also close Salter Street Films and offices in Vancouver, Edmonton and London, and eventually - with few exceptions - it plans to throw in the towel on entertainment production altogether.
While companies and former employees scramble to move on, stakeholders are using any means available to give the industry a boost. "We're doing everything in our power to get the industry out of this situation," says Sarah Ker-Hornell, managing director of FilmOntario, a recently formed consortium of private companies, unions and guilds in the film and television industry.
"We have talked with officials at all three levels of government to obtain support for domestic and international productions," says Ker-Hornell. "What we need is a comprehensive action plan."