Every summer, as Toronto construction crews systematically tear up the city, there are certain black-clad workers who are the exception.
They commandeer the sidewalk. They disrupt businesses. They spend a lot of time standing around. They give off hints of cool.
They are the various film crews shooting on location around Toronto, turning selected properties into highly desired film sites for a number of productions and helping to make the city the third-largest film production centre in North America.
For owners considering the pros and cons of letting their property serve as a backdrop for a film shoot, what do location scouts look for?
The new Bridgepoint Active Healthcare building and the adjacent renovated Don Jail, for instance, have been used most noticeably for the hit sci-fi television series Orphan Black, currently beginning its third season of unabashed shooting in and around the city. The series doesn’t identify the scenery as Toronto per se, but it doesn’t try to disguise it either (with the exception of some episodes, for example, in Season One in which Toronto was a stand-in for Minnesota).
“I think we try to do it in a different way, in that we show vistas and find iconic architecture like Bridgepoint,” said Claire Welland, one of the producers for the series created by Temple Street Productions Inc.
The rehab hospital, which opened in 2013 next to the Don River in Riverdale, is especially appealing for its clean, modernist look, juxtaposed with the ornate 150-year-old Don Jail, which is now used as administrative offices for the health centre. That kind of variety in one location is very attractive to filmmakers.
“We really incorporated that into the show and loved the old Don Jail as this Victorian element married with the new. So that was very inspiring in terms of our story lines,” she said.
In the last season, Orphan Black crews filmed throughout the health centre, inside and out, and on the rooftop. There’s even one unused floor in the building, Ms. Welland said, allowing crews extra space for shooting. With so many uses, a building such as Bridgepoint is particularly appealing to budget- and time-constrained crews.
“It has a lot of versatile looks, so we were able to do a number of things,” Ms. Welland said. “That was kind of an anchor location for us last year.”
While boosters such as Zaib Shaikh, Toronto’s new film commissioner and director of entertainment industries for the city, will talk of Toronto’s great diversity of neighbourhoods and shooting options, the city is nevertheless getting ever busier and more congested for crews. The ease of setting up a shoot is a key factor.
“I think Toronto is becoming harder to shoot in personally, between all the traffic and the condos going up and the lack of parking,” said Toronto-based location manager Jason Schwartz, “and just the fact that this [location shooting] is not new to Toronto. People are not that starstruck about the experience any more. It’s proven more challenging so there’s a lot of production going to Hamilton and Sudbury.”
The obvious appeal for property owners is that a day or two of shooting can pay anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on the kind of property and the budget of the film, obviously. A scene in a busy restaurant or large business can fetch much higher rates depending on how much a shoot or the cleanup may disrupt business, and property owners are increasingly savvy about this. “Yup, for sure, and if they know celebrities are involved,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Even in some neighbourhoods where they don’t care what we’re shooting, they are coming with their hands out looking for a pay offering for inconveniencing them, or their personnel. And it becomes a bit of a shakedown.
“That’s my joke: It’s usually the [local] barber who shows up first looking for money. I don’t know why that is, but from experience, they are always the ones who come out looking for handouts first,” he said.
In 2013, film and TV production in Toronto, from location shooting to post-production and effects work, reached nearly $1.2-billion, around the same as in 2012. Nearly two-thirds of that was in TV series production, according to the city’s film office, which describes itself as a one-stop shop for film producers working on location.
“Here’s how it happens,” Mr. Shaikh said. (With a career in acting and directing, Mr. Shaikh is best known publicly for his starring role in the CBC comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie.)
When location managers pick spots to film, they’ll typically already have relationships with local neighbourhood business organizations (aka BIAs, or business improvement areas), which work with the city and may be consulted on filming plans.
The location managers will then put together a package of shooting choices for the city, in order to obtain permits, Mr. Shaikh said. “Then we begin a conversation with internal stakeholders, whether it’s Parks and Recreation, whether it’s Transportation, whether it’s EMS [emergency services], whoever is going to be affected.”
Permits are granted “once those departments have been consulted, once everyone has agreed that this is a good time ..., depending on whatever else is happening in terms of construction work [in the neighbourhood]. It’s all a puzzle that we are trying to put together, because Toronto is a busy city,” he said.
Location managers say they expect the city’s film office to discourage crews from filming next July, when Toronto’s resources will be taxed by the Pan Am Games. However, Mr. Shaikh said that film production in general will remain a priority, despite all the other activities going on.
The fact that city and property owners, however, are becoming increasingly sophisticated in handling crews helps. Empty spaces can earn income. Hotels allowing shoots can benefit additionally by providing catering for the shoot. The options are myriad.
“There are locations in Toronto that are open to filming and see the economic value of it. …There are all sorts of ancillary benefits,” Ms. Welland said.
Hints of Toronto
BBC America, which helps to produce Orphan Black, didn’t want the show to be identified as taking place in Toronto. Still, the city’s Gardiner Expressway, Union Station and skyline have been featured prominently, along with some less obvious locations:
*One episode was shot at the docks where sailboats are stored for the winter, a site typically not seen with masts covered in snow.
*The 1930s mansion Valley Halla Estate, situated near the city zoo, stands in for an English-looking country home.
*Streetsville, the small Mississauga stretch of stores and coffee shops, has been used for the show extensively.
*The abandoned ballroom at the top of the King Eddie Hotel was also used in scenes requiring a dark, haunted, once-luxurious space.