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Liyou Abere, left, as Jamie and Jackson Robert Scott as Bode Locke in Locke and Key.AMANDA MATLOVICH/Netflix

How tough was it for TV series and films to rent production studios in Toronto last summer? It was a full-on space race. Fifty-one projects were under way concurrently in Ontario – the most the province had ever hosted at one time – and the majority of those were in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA).

Forget about finding an established, purpose-built sound stage – those were booked up by the likes of Netflix, HBO and Apple, for series including The Umbrella Academy, Station Eleven and See. Instead, many productions were renting raw warehouse spaces – even on airport flightpaths – and spending extra money retrofitting offices and sound walls. (Hearing a plane roar overhead ruins a movie take.)

The aptly named Disney+ series The Hot Zone and other productions rented space in convention centres in Etobicoke and Mississauga, even though those centres were also COVID testing and vaccination sites. One shoot rented a building literally at Pearson Airport (though they weren’t recording audio). The CBS series Good Sam retrofitted a warehouse in Oakville, Ont., which is outside the GTHA zone for film unions, and then negotiated with the unions to make an exception. But the craziest space used as a stage was a warehouse in Brampton, Ont., with a glass roof – not exactly conducive to the hyper-controlled filming environment.

Welcome to today’s Toronto, studio city extraordinaire. Five years ago, Ontario had 2.1 million square feet of stage space (sq. ft. is the industry standard measurement), and any production that wanted to shoot here could find a venue. Today the province has 3.7 million sq. ft., and everyone has a tale about a production that was squeezed out and had to decamp to Atlanta, New Orleans, Los Angeles or New York – the North American production hubs most frequently compared to Toronto.

Cinespace Toronto's studio space in Toronto.Handout

Yet, Toronto is far from finished growing – it’s racing to add more space. Pinewood Toronto Studios already boasts 250,000 sq. ft. just southeast of downtown, including North America’s largest purpose-built sound stage; this year it will add another 225,000 sq. ft. In 2023, TriBro Studios will add 270,000 sq. ft. in Pickering, Ont., and Studio Bottega will add half a million sq. ft. in Mississauga. Even Sudbury, Ont., is hot: In 2023 the Freshwater Production Studios will open 116,000 sq. ft., for productions seeking a northern feel.

This past November, the City of Toronto partnered with Hackman Capital (a Los Angeles-based real estate investor) on the Basin Media Hub, a $250-million, 8.9-acre complex in the Port Lands district with half a million sq. ft. of studio space and offices; and the Downsview Park Studios, which will be a whopping million sq. ft. Both are scheduled to open in 2024. Add everything up and you get 2.6 million new sq. ft., a 70-per-cent increase over today.

Also in November, the U.S. company TPG Real Estate Partners bought Cinespace – which has 23 production stages spread across Toronto and 33 more in Chicago – for a reported US$1.1-billion; it plans to expand in both cities. Cinespace is the granddaddy of Toronto’s studio scene. In 1988, the late Nick Mirkopoulos converted an old steel mill on Eastern Avenue into the then-largest studio in Canada. The Canadian dollar was worth 68 U.S. cents, and productions flocked north.

That created a flywheel effect: Productions needed local crews, so people got on-the-job training; as their skills grew, more productions sought them out. Local suppliers continually upgraded their equipment, and directors such as Guillermo del Toro and Peter Berg came to play with the new toys – the techno-cranes, the Russian arms, the highest high-end cameras.

“Now every department is strong in Toronto,” Eoin Egan, Cinespace’s co-managing partner and COO, said in an interview. “Special effects, carpentry, hair, makeup. Our set designers, unbelievable. A few years ago you wouldn’t see Toronto crews being recognized at the Emmys and the Oscars. Now we have The Handmaid’s Tale and The Shape of Water. Del Toro is from Mexico, he lives in L.A., but he shoots in Toronto every year. For Nightmare Alley, all the departments will do Oscar campaigns. You know what you’re getting when you come to Toronto.”

Cinespace’s Kipling Studio Campus in Etobicoke, on the set of The Umbrella Academy.Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix

“Five, six years ago, productions would hire local crews, but they’d bring their department heads – the lead costumer, the director of photography – in from the U.S.,” Toronto producer Chris Hatcher says. “Now a director will say, ‘My colleague just worked with,’ and name a local department head. ‘Are they available?’ Same with actors – a production might bring in 10 actors, but the rest of the cast is filled out locally.”

Then the streaming services arrived, with viewers who demand constant content because they inhale entire series in three-day bursts, and that took Toronto from booming to beyond. In 2019, the Ontario film and TV industry hosted 340 projects, poured a record‐breaking $2.16-billion into the province’s economy, and created 44,540 jobs, many of them union and blue-collar. (Even in the pandemic-hushed 2020, the industry brought in $1.5-billion. The 2021 figures are still being tallied.) Atlanta rakes in about US$4-billion annually, and Ontario is on track to catch up. Productions also spread around money like it’s butter – Uber drivers, florists, restaurants, stores, hotels and home rentals all benefit.

“We love shooting in Toronto,” Amy Reinhard, vice-president of studio operations for Netflix, says. “We just opened an office there. Our talent wants to go there. You can shoot a wide range of budgets, with expert creatives at every level. You have robust urban and rural locations. There are animation services, post-production services, an incredible amount of talent and creativity.”

And don’t forget: Canadian networks still shoot here, too. According to Justin Cutler, the Ontario Film Commissioner, 50 per cent of production in the province remains domestic, what he calls “Ontario-owned IP,” intellectual property.

“Filmed entertainment is an ecosystem,” Jacob Muller, managing director at TPG Real Estate, says. “You can’t just pick a place and make a TV show. You need 700 to 1,000 trained people. You need crew bases that take years to build up. You need drivers, accountants, caterers. Plus, TV series shoot for five months at a time, year after year, so you need a city where actors want to live long-term. There aren’t a lot of those ecosystems in the world, and very few are as established as Toronto.”

The lower (compared to the U.S.) Canadian dollar doesn’t hurt. Nor do Ontario’s tax incentives. Non-Canadian productions get a 21.5-per-cent break provincially and 12.5 per cent federally on eligible labour and spend. That gives Toronto an edge over other Canadian cities, and helps explain why its production surpassed Vancouver’s in the past seven years.

“Montreal has that European feel,” Egan says. “But Toronto can double for anywhere. Slumberland [Netflix] shot here; that was meant to be P.E.I. Combat Hospital [ABC/Global] shot here, standing in for Kandahar.”

Sensing the Toronto boom – if not outright creating it – Netflix struck a deal early to rent eight stages at Pinewood and Cinespace on an ongoing basis. That’s not the norm – most productions can’t afford to rent space they’re not actively using, just to reserve it. But Netflix filled those stages and more with one production after another, as many as nine at a time: Sex/Life, Ginny & Georgia, Locke & Key, Cabinet of Curiosities. “We knew competition was coming and we wanted to make sure we had resources available,” Reinhard says.

Similarly, CBS struck a long-term rental agreement with a studio in Mississauga. And in 2015, when he was looking for space to shoot the ABC Family series Shadowhunters, Hatcher partnered with the owners of a former wood pallet factory on Dixie Road, and converted its 250,000 sq. ft. into Dixie Studios.

“Once I helped the owners understand the film industry – that it’s a series of short-term projects that add up to long-term use – it was such a benefit to always have the space,” Hatcher says. “I’ve been able to roll one project into the next,” from Kiefer Sutherland’s Designated Survivor to the upcoming Netflix series Painkillers. “In six years, I haven’t had one month of downtime.”

Toronto real estate agent Alan Potts, who specializes in finding warehouse spaces for productions – his clients have included The Boys, Good Witch, Clarice and Nurses – wishes more warehouse owners understood that. “In the industrial market, a short-term lease, even a continuous series of short-term leases, reads on their balance sheets like unrented space,” he says. He works regularly with four warehouse owners who are willing to chance it, and he’s always on the hunt for more.

Five years ago, a decent converted warehouse rented for about $9.50 per sq. ft. a month, plus utilities. “Now it’s $20 per sq. ft.,” Potts says. “Rates have doubled.” Purpose-built stages can rent as high as $46 a sq. ft.

That’s why companies such as William F. White are pivoting to studio ownership. For 50 years, White rented film equipment to productions across Canada. In 2018, their main competitor, Sim, started leasing warehouses in Vancouver and upgrading them to studios – and stipulating that if you used their space, you had to use their equipment. So when a U.S. company, Sunbelt Rentals, bought White in 2019, the company’s goal became, “take on as much converted space as possible,” Alex Godfrey, vice-president of studios for White, says. In just two years – during a pandemic – they jumped from 177,000 sq. ft. to 1.4 million, with more than half in Toronto. (They continue to provide services and equipment, and two of their stages feature state-of-the-art wraparound LED screens, for special effects.)

So is there a downside to all this production? Can Toronto overbuild? A strike could stop the industry in its tracks. The governments could change their tax credit policies. The dollar could go through the roof. Continued lockdowns could impede cross-border travel. Might we end up with wind whistling through kilometres of empty stages?

Nah, says everyone. “We have a long way to go before supply will meet demand, for studio space, equipment or labour,” Hatcher says. “Toronto needs more of all of it.” Perhaps some of the converted spaces, the ones with lower ceilings situated on flight paths, won’t always be full, but spaces with great sound and 30-foot ceilings will be fine.

“TPG invested in Cinespace because they aren’t tied to GDP or economic cycles,” Avi Banyasz, partner and co-head of TPG Real Estate, says. “People are going to watch content regardless of GDP.”

Already, Toronto 2022 is heating up. “Right now, we do have space available for spring and summer,” Cutler says. “But it’s low.”

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