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Toronto Incognito

Where is Toronto hiding under all those American film sets?

By Julia Strojnik

Toronto Film StudioEager extras wearing heavy coats stepped through fake snow as a New York streetcar blocked the road. It was the summer of 2004, and a downtown Toronto storefront had been transformed into Madison Square Garden. When the makers of Cinderella Man were finished, there was no trace of T.O.

It has been called “Hollywood North,” but not because it is a signature city for movie and television sets. Toronto is the go-to city where U.S. productions can enjoy low-cost facilities and staff. But often it’s filmed as a city in disguise.

The Toronto Film and Television Office (TFTO) aggressively targets the U.S. market with an attractive package, including tax incentives, a reasonable exchange rate, state of the art studios and streets that can be made to look like any major city. TFTO, along with Film Ontario and the Ontario government, also operate offices in Los Angeles.

“The city has a lot of diverse locations, so we can be a lot of things to a lot of people,” says Rhonda Silverstone, a representative for TFTO. “The total package is very attractive.”

In recent movies, the streets of Toronto were transformed into Illinois in Mean Girls and Chicago in Chicago. But few films made in Toronto are set in the city itself. “If you are going to shoot something like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and you are going to bring in Angelina Jolie and have her do whatever she does, there is no reason to lock her into Toronto,” says Evan Cameron, a York University film professor. “You make it look like it is taking place in some sort of U.S. police service.”

One critically acclaimed film which shows off the diverse Toronto scene is Deepa Mehta’s Bollywood/Hollywood, a story about an Indian-Canadian man who is pressured by his family to find a wife. It’s set in Toronto and features Toronto-born actress Lisa Ray.

“I live in Toronto and know it and its inhabitants well,” says Mehta in an e-mail interview. “Bollywood/Hollywood is a film that is very Toronto-centric.”

Mehta said working out of Toronto has neither advanced nor hindered her career, adding that she is most comfortable working out of the city she calls home. “Toronto is a unique city. It is truly multicultural and its neighbourhoods reflect its diversity,” she says. Though the movie was a critical success and grossed more than $1 million, it peaked at number 73 at the box office.

Mehta’s opinion, however, is not shared by many American screenwriters. Most are not interested in stories coming out of Toronto, despite the diversity and uniqueness marketed by the city. Toronto boasts more than 90 different ethnic groups, but that diversity doesn’t convert to the box office. “The notion of being a really good adaptor of stories into screenplays is not something on the horizon of people training themselves into screenwriters,” says Cameron. “They want to do Star Wars. Well, Star Wars isn’t in Toronto, but you can shoot it here.”

As a result of American culture dominating Canadian screens, both big and small, domestic films are falling off the radar. In the late 1990s, Canadian films acquired a measly three per cent of the national box office, whereas the remaining 97 per cent belonged to American films.

The problem arises because Toronto isn’t grabbing the attention of local screenwriters. Cameron says the closest screenwriters come to setting films locally is writing about the north woods of Ontario. “The thought of them growing up in Etobicoke [Ontario] and looking at what they saw in Etobicoke, and making a movie is beyond them.”

Another issue for Canadian filmmakers is money. Tax incentives to shoot in Toronto are appealing, but even with tax breaks, the rising costs for studios and editing suites in Toronto forces local talent to shoot elsewhere.

“If you are a Hollywood major production, you can pay a lot to have your film processed and done well,” says Cameron, adding that Toronto has been overtaken by the U.S. as the big filmmaking site and as a result, the laboratories are not accessible to low-budget projects. “The normal cost has gone up above the level at which someone trying to break in could reasonably do it.”

It may be too much to expect movies and television programs filmed in Toronto to be identified as such. The American film industry is big business in Toronto and U.S. producers are making profits by filming in cheap locations with low-cost staff which, ironically, is too expensive for local talent.