To Hollywood producer Danielle von Zerneck, Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood, south of the downtown core and not far from the Parliament Buildings, is a kind of swiss-army-knife location for movie-making.
The lively area with its shops, eateries and bars was one of the selling points for shooting films in the city, Ms. von Zerneck said in an interview – describing areas of the Glebe as flexible enough to allow crews to fake streets in the New York borough of Brooklyn.
“People say you can turn it into a Manhattan street. You can’t, but you can turn it into a decent Brooklyn street, maybe Greenwich Village,” said Ms. von Zerneck, who has shot three Lifetime TV Christmas movies since 2018 in the Ottawa region – most recently Under The Christmas Tree.
There’s a lot about Ottawa that the former actor – she played Ritchie Valens’s girlfriend Donna in the acclaimed 1987 film La Bamba – adores.
“If I have a script that’s set on the east coast, I’d much rather do it in Ottawa where I can get more money on the screen with less stress,” she said. “It ticks a lot of boxes for me.”
Despite the buzz around shooting in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city has so far been a modest player in the production of feature films, TV movies and animation compared to production centres in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
Shane Boucher, an Ottawa-based producer with 1Department Entertainment Services, which provides production services for filmmaking projects, said when his team leaves flyers at homes that might work as sets for TV movies, he gets quizzical calls from the public.
“There are people that call thinking it’s a scam,” said Mr. Boucher, whose company did 12 TV-movie projects in 2021 – a mix of thrillers, romance stories and Christmas movies. “They don’t believe it.”
Still, it seems Ottawa is starting to put itself on the map as a film destination. Spending on live-action production increased from $14-million in 2018 to $41.4-million in 2021, according to statistics provided by the Ottawa Film Office. There are no equivalent figures for animation, although animation generally represents at least half of the more than $100-million in economic activity generated by the industry each year.
Mr. Boucher said that Ottawa’s flexibility is a selling point, noting the city has stood in for Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and sections of Manhattan as well as parts of upstate New York. Downtown ByWard Market, which dates back to the early 19th century, has courtyards that can convey a European feel and areas that have mimicked New Orleans and Atlanta, Mr. Boucher said. Last year, Mr. Boucher’s team made a ski-oriented film using three hills in the region to create what looked like one resort.
“The real pitch for Ottawa is the amount of looks you can get within a very minimal drive time comparative to a lot of other cites,” Mr. Boucher said.
For example, just 40 minutes outside Ottawa there’s the former mill town of Almonte, first settled in 1818. It’s a popular location for making Christmas movies. “It just looks so good. The storefronts are incredible,” said Ms. von Zerneck, who likes the absence of chain stores. “Everything looks so beautiful.”
Parts of the 2002 Ben Affleck film The Sum of All Fears were shot at the “Diefenbunker” facility opened in 1961 as a shelter for officials in the event of a nuclear war. Jennifer Lawrence of Hunger Games fame appeared in the 2012 Ottawa-made horror film House at the End of the Street. Long before he directed the trilogy of Spider-Man films that includes the current blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home, director Jon Watts made his first feature, Clown, in Ottawa in 2014.
More recently 11 Christmas movies, produced for the likes of Lifetime and Hallmark, have been filmed in the Ottawa region, up from three in 2018. The city has been popular with the Oprah Winfrey Network, with four upcoming made-for-TV movies scheduled. Animation projects include Hilda for Netflix, and Trailer Park Boys: The Animation Series, and Curious George: Go West Go Wild. There is word in industry circles about production on a major feature set to proceed in Ottawa next year.
Indicative of the expanding local industry, the Algonquin College of Applied Arts and Technology in Ottawa launched a film-production program last year for the first time since the 1980s. Program co-ordinator Jeremy Atherton says the effort – one of a kind in the city – is aimed at preparing graduates to enter the local film industry. Out of 34 graduates from the renewed program, most have found industry jobs, he said.
Mr. Atherton said the program responds to a public interest for such courses. “But the real driver was the industry. The local industry needs and continues to need trained employees to work on the growing film market,” he said.
The 2022 story of the live-action side of the business revolves around the necessity of a soundstage complex. Industry leaders say Ottawa’s step up to bigger leagues hinges on opening a building with spaces that could house sets and production for TV series or feature films. It could provide a base for a major series, which could bring sustained spending to the city. Right now, if a producer needs an office setting for a project, they have to find an office. A soundstage complex could allow the construction of that office set and around-the-clock production for a project.
Justin Cutler, the Ontario film commissioner, responsible for promoting the province as a venue for production, is bullish on Ottawa, but says the development of studio space will unlock the possibility of bigger projects for the city. “They really do need that additional infrastructure.”
The Ottawa Film Office has been working with a company called TriBro Studios on Ottawa’s first soundstage complex, focused on land secured from the National Capital Commission, the Crown corporation responsible for managing land and more than 1,600 properties – including Rideau Hall and the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Dr. – in the capital region.
Bruce Harvey, a former entertainment lawyer and producer who serves as the Ottawa film commissioner, is tightlipped on details. “We’re working on it right now. That’s coming along. We expect to have shovels in the ground next year, and have it running within a year after that.” He declined to elaborate.
“Once you get a soundstage, we’ll go exponentially from there,” he said. “I saw Vancouver before it had anything. In one lifetime, Vancouver went from nothing to what it is today.”
Mr. Boucher says that the studio will attract such projects as series, with others following as a momentum builds that could see another complex developed.
Asked who is responsible for this turn, Mr. Boucher said it is incumbent on the existing industry to take the lead and begin facilitating the development of such projects. “I do think it’s a responsibility of the industry here to push that forward.”
Ironically, Ms. von Zerneck said her budgets would not allow for access to such a studio. She declined to provide specific numbers. However, she said such a project would be good for Ottawa – a city she hopes to return to as a producer. “It still feels like a place that hasn’t been sucked dry of its charm.”