When Guillermo del Toro was a child in Mexico, he made a pact with the monsters that crowded into his room at night: If they let him go to the washroom, he’d be their friend for life. The deal worked. The monsters disappeared, and the now-acclaimed filmmaker has devoted his career to bringing those beasts back to life for everyone else.
“To this day, monsters are the thing I love most,” del Toro says on a bright, hot morning in June. Del Toro, who lately calls Toronto home, has arrived at our meeting dressed all in black—black hoodie with blood-red lining, black T-shirt, black pants—and leaning on a black cane. He’s a large man, but despite being physically hobbled, he moves quickly, throwing himself toward the sofa in a way that is somehow both brisk and lumbering. Our conversation is stolen from a packed schedule, as happens in the film business. But beyond the standard rush and hustle of the industry, something in del Toro’s pale blue eyes and alert demeanour attests to the well of creative energy that allows him to maintain multiple movies or TV shows in active production, as well as dozens of projects in development. His prodigious output also extends well beyond filmed entertainment, including novels, comic books, video games, lecture series and, of course, designing monsters. “It’s the part of my job I like best,” he says.
It’s also part of his job at which he excels, but certainly not the only part. The broad appeal of del Toro’s filmmaking has elevated him into the highest echelon of box office success, along with the likes of James Cameron and Michael Bay. The total box office gross of all the movies he’s directed, produced or written to date is well over $3-billion.
And here’s the twist in the plot of this success story. Del Toro is a key part—a driver—of the Canadian film industry, single-handedly keeping thousands of people in work. “They shouldn’t give him the keys to the city–they should give him a piece of the city,” says producer J. Miles Dale.
If films like Pacific Rim are a long way from the sort of art-house flick that epitomizes most people’s idea of Canadian film, the two styles have nevertheless become entwined—by design. Leaving behind the era of tax write-offs that produced little in lasting benefits, the federal government, as well as most of the provinces, has aggressively sought to entice Hollywood “tent-pole” films—so named for their ability to support the whole system and create a shelter for other less-profitable movies—through generous incentives and other measures. But while del Toro’s passion for making films in Ontario signifies the success of all that effort, many other countries have caught the buzz and started offering highly competitive subsidies to Hollywood. Now Canadian film workers are looking pensively forward to the third act, and wondering whether Canada can maintain its advantage.
Hollywood’s tent-pole films live and die by their success in reaching an international mass audience of adolescents and those content to regress along with them for two hours. This has put del Toro, a wunderkind who started making horror home movies as a youngster, in the sweet spot. Having scaled the ladder of cult classics, critical picks, audience favourites and franchise home runs, the relentlessly inventive filmmaker now commands the kind of budget it takes to mount an international blockbuster.
For a film industry like Canada’s, toiling forever in the shadow of the behemoth to the south, the blockbuster is a beast that’s easy to love. In what is now a highly globalized industry, the blockbuster occupies a huge variety of high-paying talent wherever it roams, and raises the profile of production centres like Toronto—the third-largest in North America, after L.A. and New York—as readily as it razes buildings on screen. In 2011, the film and television sector generated $9.7-billion in direct GDP in Canada; workers earned $6.4-billion in income, and produced nearly $5.5-billion in tax revenue. Del Toro’s latest contribution to the genre, Pacific Rim, cost $190-million to make, most of which was spent in Toronto.
It’s no surprise that these movies are so sought after. In 2012-’13, Canadian film and television production generated $2.3-billion in export value, of which three-quarters ($1.7-billion) was for Hollywood and other foreign production. Del Toro’s productions alone have spent hundreds of millions in Ontario in the last three years, much of that on labour. This past year, the industry supported 127,700 direct and spinoff full-time equivalent jobs.