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A tentative restart to Northern Ontario's film, TV production industry

Despite pandemic uncertainty, insurance woes around production, entrepreneurs and companies still committed to the region

Peter Mihaichuk acknowledges it must seem like strange timing to open a new film and photography studio in the midst of a global pandemic.

Much like the rest of the Canadian economy, filming and television production across Northern Ontario came to a standstill in March when the novel coronavirus hit, stalling a robust industry that’s become a significant job creator and pumps millions of spinoff dollars into the region.

But returning to his hometown of Sudbury to build on the region’s burgeoning film sector was already on the veteran production designer’s mind when he spotted the real estate listing for a former community hall in the east end enclave of Coniston last fall.

“Basically, I was looking to slow down a little bit,” said Mihaichuk, who’s served on multiple projects over his 15-year film career with credits that include art director on the popular Canadian TV series “Letterkenny” and production design for the 2018 film “The Predator.”

“Coming back to Sudbury is sort of that breath of fresh air that I needed. If anything, now I can be more selective about the projects that I work on as a production designer.”

The idea started as a bit of a joke, he said, but as the search for a new home intensified, so did his vision for a small, boutique studio of his own.

The former Club Allegri – which served as a gathering place for the community’s Italian population for more than six decades – had sat vacant for a couple of years before Mihaichuk snapped it up.

In early August, he cut the ribbon on the first phase of Black Rectangle Brand (BRB) Studio, a 10,000-square-foot multi-purpose production facility available for film, television and photography projects.

It’s now transformed into a production-ready space featuring modern commercial offices and a show-ready studio floor. The space includes a cyclorama (or cyc) wall – a seamless backdrop that blurs the lines between wall and ceiling – for shooting special projects. 

The cyc wall is useful as a neutral setting in photography, a green screen in filming, or even in motion-capture work.

“So we can introduce all these techniques that normally nobody would be able to do in the North,” said Mihaichuk.

Sudbury is already home to Northern Ontario Film Studios, launched by David Anselmo in 2012 and occupying a 20,000-square-foot former hockey arena.

But that kind of expansive space is often more room than what’s needed – and certainly not in the budget – for more modest productions.

“There’s a market for these smaller, boutique studios," said Mihaichuk, who's already booked his first client for this fall.

Film activity slowly resuming

BRB Studio's launch is leading the positive film-related news that's flowing to the North once again.

On Manitoulin Island, the province announced earlier this month it would provide $84,000 for Weengushk Film Institute to support the expansion plans for that facility.

Founded in 2002 by acclaimed filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo, Weengushk is currently housed in a 4,000-square-foot facility on the M’Chigeeng First Nation where Indigenous youth and those from diverse backgrounds are trained in the art of filmmaking.

With interest growing, and education agreements in place with Laurentian and Brock universities, Weengushk is now looking at the construction of a brand-new facility.

A request for proposals has already been issued for a feasibility study, and Weengushk is currently advertising for a project manager to oversee the planning and design phases.

In Sault Ste. Marie, Toronto-based post-production company Rolling Pictures revealed this month it was setting up a permanent presence in that city, opening a local office where Robert Peace will take on the role of director of community relations.

“Our clients have been thriving on making quality films and television series in this region, and we want to encourage and support that growth,” Mike Forsey, the company's CEO and partner, said in a news release.

Rolling Pictures’ stable of successful projects includes the North Bay-shot TV series “Cardinal” and “Sweetness in the Belly,” a 2019 film featuring Dakota Fanning and Kunal Nayyar.

Among his duties, Peace will cultivate relationships with local businesses, organize events, attend community meetings, and participate in programs with community outreach.

“We are not just a Toronto company that opened a satellite office up north,” said Forsey.

“We are committed to being a resource to Northern Ontario, to learn from local talent, and utilize them to grow business for everyone as a community.”

Producers won’t gamble with crew's health

Jennifer Mathewson, the City of Sault Ste. Marie's film, television and digital media coordinator, said it’s great news for the community, which has seen a handful of projects postponed due to the pandemic.

According to a COVID-19 impact survey of producers, conducted by Cultural Industries Ontario North in April, one project slated to shoot in the Sault this year would have brought in an estimated $5.3 million to the area, booking 4,000 hotel nights, providing work for 218 people and training positions for 37.  

Collectively, respondents to the survey – who had productions scheduled for Thunder Bay, North Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, and Parry Sound – said they planned to spend $56 million through the region.

“That’s no small chunk of change,” Mathewson said. “That’s a big impact.”

At least three of the projects planned for the Sault have been postponed until 2021, Mathewson said, with the leading cause behind many of the delays being insurance.

Film and television productions are required to have general liability coverage during a shoot.

In the context of the pandemic, the production itself will be covered if a second wave of COVID-19 hits, Mathewson said, but if a director or actor is diagnosed with COVID, they’re out of luck.

Startup guidelines and social distancing requirements are in place – viewing video on separate monitors, or out-of-country crew members quarantining for 14 days, for example – but not every producer is willing to chance it.

“If they have to shut down an entire production as a result of somebody catching COVID, then they’re going to lose out on all that money,” Mathewson explained.

“Some producers are willing to take that risk, but the ones I’ve talked to, it’s too much of a risk to take, so they’ve been delayed in getting started back up.”

Even with the cancellations, Mathewson said she’s had one of her busier years since taking on her current role in 2018, fielding requests from producers starting to prep for future film projects.

Sault Ste. Marie and other northern communities are attractive for their low COVID-19 infection rates, which makes filming easier and safer than in more populous areas, she noted.

Producers are also impressed with the low cost of living and Northern Ontario’s versatility in shooting locations: a crew can find a gritty downtown scene, a residential area, and a lush, country landscape all within 20 minutes of each other, she added.

All that, combined with the government subsidies offered by the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp., has proved an irresistible combination for production crews looking to get the industry back on track.

And, with more people staying at home, the public appetite for viewing material is only increasing.

“I think we’re going to see not only a boom in production volume just because of the backlog from COVID, but we’re also seeing that more people are watching TV,” she said.

“They’re streaming things on Netflix in greater capacity than what they were previously, so now there’s a greater demand for content.”

Training programs filling up

To keep the momentum going, the industry needs a pipeline of trained workers, and that’s where Canadore College comes in.

The North Bay school offers several programs tailored to TV and film production, and not only are they all going ahead this year, but demand has increased so much that capacity is expanding, said Yura Monestime, Canadore’s director of academic operations and business development in arts and design.

In 2019, Canadore boosted its first-year intake for the film program from 34 to 54, and this year, the program has grown again.

“In all three years, we went from 75 to 90 and now we’re close to 100, and we just hired a fifth professor in the program; she’s starting this fall,” Monestime said. 

“So we are expanding. In three years, we’ll double the size of the program to about 130, 140 students.”

Roughly 30 per cent of those students are from outside North Bay, and more Northern Ontario students are choosing to stay close to home for their education.

“People are realizing the quality of the film program and what’s in their backyard,” Monestime said. “They don’t have to go to Toronto or Montréal or Vancouver to get this experience or get this education.”

Headlining the student experience is access to Canadore’s $2-million state-of-the-art post-production studio, which opened in 2018.

It features a Dolby Atmos mix stage, a colour correction room, dialogue replacement technology, and specialized computer and software equipment. After filming is wrapped, production crews can complete post-production work without ever leaving the North.

That technology has appeal as the cost of film productions rises. 

Just five years ago, film productions in the North averaged a cost of $15 million to $20 million. That’s now jumped to between $85 million and $100 million, Monestime said. 

“It just shows you where the program is going and where the industry is going."

Mathewson is equally optimistic and believes, as the industry recovers post-COVID-19, this could be a turning point for film and TV in Northern Ontario.

“Film is going to be the saving grace, I think, of COVID,” she said.

“They’re going to fill the restaurants, they’re going to fill the hotels and utilize all the equipment suppliers, and we need to see that, because they’ve been impacted by COVID.

“We’re excited to see this industry reboot.”




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