Back in 2021, when the executives at Skydance Television were looking for a place to shoot their Amazon Prime series “Reacher,” based on Lee Childs’ series of novels, Georgia would’ve seemed like the logical choice. After all, the show’s first season is set primarily in a small town in the Peach State, which offers a tax credit of up to 30% and an ever-expanding production infrastructure.
Instead, they picked the Canadian province of Ontario.
In Ontario, “Reacher” gets a favorable exchange rate, along with generous tax credits. It’s also able to take advantage of a variety of locations, from gritty urban settings to vast swaths of farmland and forests — a topographical diversity that proved vital as the show moved into Season 2, which has scenes that take place everywhere from Washington, D.C., and Boston to Arkansas.
On top of that, the Canadian people also have a reputation for being friendly and abiding, which might explain how “Reacher” was able to take over a section of Hamilton International Airport, have a Super Puma transport helicopter fly in and out with cast members and stunt performers climbing aboard, then stage the season finale’s climactic gunfight in one of its giant hangars.
“In most jurisdictions, that’s a very difficult thing to do,” says “Reacher” line producer Lisa Kussner.Ontario is best known as the home of Toronto, Canada’s largest city. And in film and TV circles, Toronto has long been known as good, lower-cost stand-in for New York City. Starting in the late 1980s, it became standard industry practice to shoot the bulk of Big Apple-set projects in Toronto, then do a day or two of pickup shots in Manhattan.
Although the dynamic changed somewhat after New York established its Empire State Film Tax Credit in 2004, Toronto is still frequently employed as a stand-in for the Big Apple and other eastern metropolises on projects such as Netflix’s “The Boys.”
“The best way to explain what Toronto looks like is if you took New York City and put it in Los Angeles, plunked down the downtown core and then spread out the rest of it,” says John Rakich, Toronto-based president of the Location Managers Guild Intl. “We’re a large city geographically.”
Increasingly, however, producers are taking advantage of the full scope of what Ontario has to offer. For instance, Canada’s capital city of Ottawa has become a hotbed for Christmas movies, hosting nine that aired on Hallmark, Lifetime and OWN during the 2023 holiday season alone, including “A Royal Christmas Crush” and “Catch Me If You Claus.”
A good example of Ontario’s versatility is the upcoming Apple TV+ miniseries “The Big Cigar,” which used the province to portray a variety of West Coast locations, from producer Bert Schneider’s (Alessandro Nivola) Beverly Hills residence (a well-preserved mid-century modern home in Toronto’s tony Bridle Path neighborhood) and the legendary Chasen’s restaurant in West Hollywood (an old carpet store in Hamilton) to a Tijuana airport used by Black Panther leader Huey Newton (André Holland) in his escape to Cuba (now-closed Buttonville Municipal Airport in Markham). Hamilton also served as the primary stand-in for the Oakland birthplace of the Black Panther Party.
“It’s a blue-collar town built on the steel industry,” says “The Big Cigar” location manager Mark Logan of Hamilton. “It’s sort of like a small Pittsburgh or Detroit, with a lot of factories and houses near factories, and also phenomenal mansions.”
One of Hamilton’s biggest fans is director Guillermo del Toro, who has shot a number of projects in the city, including best picture Oscar-winner “The Shape of Water,” “Nightmare Alley” and his Netflix series “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” Recently, the city hosted high-profile projects including Max’s “It” prequel miniseries “Welcome to Derry,” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Trap.” But its bread and butter is cable progr -
amming, including made-for TV movies that, like in Ottawa, tend to be holiday-centric, such as “A Not So Royal Christmas” and “Royally Yours, This Christmas.”
“It’s kind of constant, and it’s how a lot of people get experience,” says Kim Adrovez, senior project manager for Hamilton’s film office, of the cable programming. “Then we have the deep crew base and the infrastructure so that when a big studio production or a series comes, all this talent has grown up and is available for it.”
Ontario’s crew base is also being built out by several organizations dedicated to preparing up-and-coming talent for careers in the film and TV industry and promoting diversity within its ranks, including POV Film, a 17-year-old nonprofit targeting economically disadvantaged people 18-30 that, according to its website, “intentionally prioritizes BIPOC, 2SLGBTQIA+, newcomer and refugee communities.” Its programs provide creative support, instruction in both technical and soft skills, like set etiquette, and mentorship from established industry pros, which gives them social capital they can harness, as well as job placement.
“By recognizing some of these barriers, like social capital and economic resources, and then addressing them directly through training, we can actually open up those opportunities and diversity will naturally thrive as a result of that,” says POV Film executive director Biju Pappachan.
POV Film is one of the recruitment partners (along with BIPOC TV & FILM and the Indigenous Screen Office) for CineCares Workforce Training Program, which placed paid trainees on the set of “Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent” last fall. Launched in March 2023 by Chicago-based Cinespace Studios, which has three soundstage complexes in the Toronto area, the program gave participants 12 weeks of hands-on experience in the sound, script and lighting departments of the police procedural, along with opportunities to pursue union membership with IATSE Local 874 and NABET 700-M UNIFOR. Last year, Cinespace also teamed with York University to create a six-week production accounting micro-credential program to help address the growing need for production accountants.
“We thought we were going to do 12 students and we ended up having to double the size of the class,” says Magali Simard, director of industry and community relations for Cinespace Studios Toronto. “And to see who signed up was really kind of an eye opener, because some wanted to be actual production accountants, but others were producers.”
At the end of the day, none of this would be sustainable without Ontario’s production incentive. The province offers a 35% refundable tax credit on labor expenditures to Ontario-based Canadian corporations, with a 10% regional bonus for productions with 85% of their location days outside of the greater Toronto area. It’s complemented by a federal credit of 25% on eligible Canadian labor costs.
Foreign productions get a 21.5% refundable tax credit from Ontario for both labor and production spend, along with a 16%, tax credit from the federal government on Canadian labor. There’s also an 18% refundable tax credit for labor spend on computer animation and special effects.
If producers have questions about the intricacies of the tax credit or any other aspect of production in the province, its film and TV office Ontario Creates is eager to help.
“We will provide an image package of over 9,000 friendly locations, and if a producer is interested in those locations, then we will actually organize a full site tour in the province with a location management professional,” says Ontario Creates’ Justin Cutler, the province’s film commissioner. “We’re really trying to open up people’s eyes to what’s available here.”
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