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As COVID-19 lockdowns close movie theaters, Los Angeles producers safely shoot tentpoles and TV episodes on Canadian soundstages sealed off from the outside world.
As the second coronavirus wave closes down Canadian movie theaters, again, Hollywood production hubs in Vancouver and Toronto have returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity.
Cinemas in Manitoba and British Columbia have shuttered, while multiplexes in and around Toronto and Montreal, the country’s main theater-going markets, have also been ordered to close down by health authorities as the number COVID-19 cases surges on both sides of the border.
And the timing, coming just before Christmas, could not be worse for domestic theater chains.
“There’s a diminishing number of tickets to sell for Wonder Woman (1984), unfortunately,” Bill Walker, CEO of Landmark Cinemas, tells THR ahead of the Warner Bros. tentpole debuting in Canadian theaters, and not on streaming platforms, on Dec. 25.
Walker, seeing much of his circuit shuttered amid the second pandemic wave, is looking ahead to 2021 and the promise of a vaccine and a return to the local multiplex by movie-goers. “We have complete confidence that people will want to come back” to theaters, he adds.
But what has already returned, and strongly, is the Canadian film and TV production sector, despite second wave spikes across Canada.
Garin Josey, executive vp and COO of William F. White International, a major Canadian production equipment supplier to local and foreign producers, credits the North American industry, unions and guilds, provincial governments and health authorities with sticking to on-set safety protocols — including testing, social distancing and pared down crews — agreed on last spring to reopen local film sets big and small without major flare ups.
“The unions negotiated their requirements for productions to ramp up and in each of our markets we kept up with those demands,” Josey said. He adds issues around rapid COVID-19 testing capacity that had U.S.-based TV series location shoots in British Columbia briefly pausing in October have been resolved, as testing capacity and turnaround times countrywide now the industry’s needs.
So if the goal was to allow Canada’s production sector to reopen this summer after Hollywood’s vanishing act in March 2020, then Toronto and Vancouver already surpassing pre-pandemic production levels in terms of the number of projects before cameras in those cities is seen as success for local players. Paul Bronfman, chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, points to a V-shaped industry rebound.
“The recovery for production in Canada has been much quicker than we ever forecast. We went from 100 miles to zero. And we’re basically at 110 miles per hour right now, in a very short time period,” Bronfman tells THR. Also driving Hollywood’s return to Canada is American production originally slated for U.S. hot spots that came north for safe and less expensive shoots thanks to local tax credits and currency savings.
Examples are Sony’s The Man From Toronto production, starring Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson, moving from Atlanta to Toronto, and ABC’s David E. Kelley procedural The Big Sky shifting production from New Mexico and Nevada to Vancouver.
In oil-rich Alberta, where the pandemic has caused both gas demand and prices to collapse, Chris Bazant, a veteran health and safety advisor for the province’s oil exploration sector recalls segueing to local film and TV production this summer as film and TV production ramped up in and around Calgary this summer.
An early assignment for his company, PMO Global Services, was Syfy’s fan favorite Wynonna Earp,which shot an initial six episodes before the March 2020 industry shutdown, and then returned in early July to shoot another six for the fourth season.
Bazant says protocols to contain virus transmission on set were tailored to take account of Alberta this past summer having far lower per-capita infection rates than rival locales like London or Georgia. “As far as testing, we didn’t look at it as a diagnostic tool. We looked at testing as a verification of the controls that we applied to confirm that we were operating safely,” he explains.
Currently, infection levels countrywide amid the second wave of COVID-19 have surpassed first wave peaks last spring, leading provincial government to impose new lockdown restrictions to flatten the pandemic curve. But so far, the Canadian provinces have allowed local film and TV production, including by Hollywood producers, to continue as-is, at least for now.
“We’re feeling fortunate. We don’t take it for granted,” Pinewood Toronto Studios’ Bronfman adds.
Elsewhere during the pandemic, Canadian indie producers not yet in production have been busy knocking scripts into shape for shooting in early 2021.
Bill Lundy, senior vp of Pier 21 Films, has a busy development slate that includes the new comedy Fort Puleyne, written and created by Silicon Valley star Thomas Middleditch and Humphrey Ker.
With the promise of a vaccine at hand, Lundy said scripts are being developed in part for pandemic-era production, including fewer crowd scenes.
But the coronavirus isn’t figuring in any storylines for Pier 21 projects as Lundy targets broadcast or streaming platform debuts post-pandemic. “You do wonder if you’re shooting in 2021, and to air in 2022, what the world will like then. So we’re not writing COVID into the scripts,” he said.
Away from local soundstages, veteran voice over actor Lili Wexu (Assassin’s Creed) sees the pandemic only accelerating the demand for voice talent, as fellow actors are urged to build audio studios in their own homes, not least to do audition tapes.
“The fact that the world has closed down is no longer a factor and things are moving along just fine in the voice sector. I tell actors who are not able to go on set because productions are not as busy, there’s still a ton of work out there,” Wexu explains.
She adds Canadian actors can work remotely from virtually anywhere in an increasingly digitally-connected industry. “In animation and video games, you might want to be in a big center like Vancouver and Montreal. But outside of that, you can work anywhere,” Wexu says.