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Production for “Counter Act” inside The Ridge Studios. Photo by Eric Jorgensen

Studio space in a pinch

As Vancouver's film productions run out of space, they're setting up studios in unconventional locations such as warehouses, an abondoned post office – even a bingo hall. Ian Bailey reports

On the outside, the Ridge Studios is just one slot amid the hair salon, thrift store and other businesses in a strip mall in this quiet city east of Vancouver. It really doesn't look like much, but it has a flexibility that makes it distinct from its neighbours. The insides of the former bingo hall can be pretty much anything.

Since John Wittmayer opened the studio about a year ago, the 25,000-square-foot space has been whatever television and film producers need it to be. The slices of fantasy come and go. A CSI lab. A high-school corridor. A diner. FBI offices. Pieces are piled in one area to build a courtroom set. A production can have it in two days. On a recent visit, there was a hospital bed awaiting its moment on camera.

"The funniest [set] we had was God's office, which is cute. They had fluffy clouds floating up and stuff," says Mr. Wittmayer, a veteran locations scout whose studio was recently the setting for shooting the feature film Kindergarten Cop 2 – a sequel to the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger hit – starring Dolph Lundgren.

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The studio is now hosting the teen series Project Mc2, currently booked as a tenant until the summer.

"We have been numerous different things to different people."

In British Columbia's booming film and TV production sector, the studio reflects an ever-more-necessary trend. Despite about one million square feet of space in eight Vancouver-region studios, conventional sound stage complexes in British Columbia are full – booked now and into the near future, industry observers say.

That has led to the creation of what some call pop-up studios as producers move into warehouses, the former Canada Post processing plant in downtown Vancouver and many other odd locations in the Lower Mainland to help accommodate about 45 productions now being shot.

John Wittmayer, CEO and General Manager of The Ridge Studios.

John Wittmayer, CEO and General Manager of The Ridge Studios.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Canada Post building has been used for veteran TV writer and producer Chris Haddock's television series The Romeo Section, about a university professor moonlighting as a spy in Vancouver. One Fox series was shot in a former Safeway supermarket warehouse, where the design that made it good for storing dairy treats also made it soundproof.

As production surges, in part because of the low Canadian dollar, producers can't get enough of such makeshift studios for their TV series, feature films and movies of the week.

The spaces must be refitted, with accommodation for power. Sometimes there are challenges, such as as landlords who prefer longer-term tenants than the production sector, which generally comes and goes by project.

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Pete Mitchell, president and chief operating officer of Vancouver Film Studios – one of the most venerable complexes in the region and the location for recent production on the feature film Star Trek Beyond – says he welcomes the influx of pop-up studios.

"The difference is we're in it for the long haul and are not going anywhere, where some of these other solutions are come and go," Mr. Mitchell says. "That's not to say they are not providing a home for people who are making movies and television and employing people. It's good."

Low dollar, high production

Key facts on the B.C. TV and film-production sector:

■ The industry has developed over the past 30 year and now employs about 20,000 people.

■ British Columbia has eight major studios with a total of more than one million square feet of studio space.

■ Foreign film and TV productions, most developed for Hollywood, represent about 80 per cent of total production spending in the province. The rest are domestic productions.

■ The province supplies labour-based tax credits, which means the credits apply to a production’s labour costs. The cost of credits for the sector have risen from $255-million annually in 2010-11 to an estimated $493-million in 2015-16, prompting the provincial government to reconsider the tax break.

■ 353 productions filmed in Vancouver for a total 1,518 days in 2015 – up from 23 productions in 2014. They generated $710,000 in permit revenue for the city.

■ Feature films shot in Vancouver in 2015 included the box-office hit Deadpool, whose producers spent $40-million over 58 days of filming in Metro Vancouver. They hired more than 2,000 local people for the cast and crew at a cost of $19-million in wages.

■ Warner Bros. is Vancouver’s biggest TV client, with seven series shot in the city. The studio spent more than $70-million in Vancouver, employing more than 2,400 local people for the cast and crew. The seven series are: Arrow, The Flash, Supernatural, iZombie, Lucifer, The 100 and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.

Sources: B.C. Government budget and fiscal plan, 2016-17 to 2018-19; City of Vancouver

Alex Godfrey, co-founder of Ironwood Studios, agrees. Ironwood is housed in a former steel-manufacturing warehouse in south Vancouver, offering 177,000 square feet of space.

"Without them, we would be losing business for a lot of our work force, a lot of the infrastructure and the amount of money that gets put into the industry from one single show," says Mr. Godfrey, a lighting technician in the production sector who partnered with fellow technician Kyle Hou to develop Ironwood.

The pair balk at their operation being labelled a pop-up, because they say they are as fixed a facility as Vancouver Film Studios or the other such studios in British Columbia

No one seems to have a firm number of the pop-ups. Neither Creative BC, the provincial agency that assists TV and film production, nor the City of Vancouver have such data. Veteran producer Shawn Williamson, whose Brightlight Pictures operation tracks pop-up studios, says there are about 15 to 20 in the Vancouver region right now.

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Prem Gill, chief executive officer of Creative BC, says Vancouver Island and the Okanagan have seen their share of production and she expects the absence of massive studios has prompted producers into more informal studio spaces.

Mr. Williamson, who has been working in the production sector since the 1980s and served as a producer on such feature films as 50/50 and The Interview, says pop-ups were once more the norm in British Columbia until they were replaced by traditional studios. "Depending how busy we were, everybody could survive with the traditional, existing studios," he says.

However, the situation has changed. "When we're as busy as we are now, any large space that is relatively soundproof can be used as a sound stage now. So you're seeing a huge proliferation of them now."

Mr. Williamson has been working at a former nut-processing factory in the Lower Mainland on the second season of the Fox series Wayward Pines. Last year, the same facility hosted production on Fear the Walking Dead. Inside the vast chamber in the former plant, crews built a full-sized house, including a backyard and garage, with food in the kitchen.

"Shooting in the 'peanut factory,' as we call it, is unique because we have to post all kinds of warning signs about peanut residue – not that there has ever been an issue," Mr. Williamson says.

In downtown Vancouver, the former Canada Post processing plant covers an entire city block and offers 350,000 square feet of studio space with an additional 300,000 square feet of parking. It has been available to the production sector since August, 2015, two years after the federal government sold it for $130-million to the B.C. Investment Management Corp.

Production for The Romeo Section.

Production for The Romeo Section.

Cate Cameron/CBC

Aside from Mr. Haddock's The Romeo Section, the building has so far accommodated five productions and is booked until August of this year, according to Bentall Kennedy, which is acting for the investment management corporation

Mr. Haddock, who is also the mastermind of the critically acclaimed CBC series DaVinci's Inquest, says his entire production history in Vancouver spanning about 20 years has hinged on pop-up studios.

He shot Inquest, about a crusading Vancouver coroner, in an empty timber warehouse downtown, nor far from the Canada Post building. When his location manager suggested the building for The Romeo Section, he didn't hesitate. "We pulled the trigger as quickly as we could, because we saw what its value was being in the centre of the city and having access to nearby locations."

The Section team built about a dozen sets in the complex, including the apartment and university office of its protagonist. They also had production offices there.

Mr. Haddock says the show could not have been made so easily if he had to find studio space outside downtown Vancouver because that would have increased the expensive travel time for crews and equipment.

However, the end credits are about to roll on the former postal plant as a production-sector option. Massive redevelopment plans involving condos, rental apartments and retail were announced for the block earlier this month. Tony Astles, a real estate executive with Bentall Kennedy, says the building will be available to the production sector only for another year and a half at the most.

Mr. Haddock is mindful of the looming end. He says it speaks to the pressures that development may place on these valuable spaces for the industry. "Space by space, places fall," he says. "People are just knocking everything down."

Back in Maple Ridge, Mr. Wittmayer is developing a new 21,000-square-foot studio in a former labelling plant elsewhere in the city.

He says the demand continues for pop-ups though it's a challenging business. "It's not for the faint of heart. You've got to keep the space filled," he says, laughing as he explains that it's a constant effort to track production and sell producers on the space. "If you get one show per month, that's not going to cut it. It's a campaign to keep the business full."

Still, producers can be receptive these days. "[Producers] are looking at horse stables and barns – anything that will accommodate the … equipment and set building," Mr. Wittmayer says.

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