Hollywood Way North: Luring filmmakers with a precious commodity: space
By Peter Kuitenbrouwer
Micheline Blais always wanted to work in the movie business when she was a little girl growing up in Sudbury, Ont., a mid-sized city about a five-hour drive north of Toronto. “My parents said, ‘You need to get a trade first,’” she recalls. “They didn’t understand that there are trades in the film industry.” Nevertheless, Blais followed her parents’ wishes, graduating with a nursing degree and becoming a psychiatric nurse. Her career in medicine took her to Victoria and then back home to Sudbury, where she won contracts with Laurentian University’s Northern Ontario School of Medicine.
But the film business buzz never left so when fellow Sudbury native David Anselmo leased the city’s decommissioned Barrydowne Arena five years ago and turned it into a film studio, Blais knocked on the door. He hired her, part time, as a casting director, and her film career abruptly caught fire. “I had to quit the medical school contracts because the business grew really fast,” Blais says.
If Toronto is Hollywood North, then perhaps Sudbury can lay claim to being Hollywood Way North. The Big Nickel, home to what remains of the world’s largest integrated mining site, seems on the surface an unlikely spot to shoot movies. But Sudbury these days is smoking hot, crawling with both Canadian and U.S. film and TV crews. The city says movie making has brought in $75 million in direct spending during the past five years.
“Who would have thought a local Sudbury boy would be making films with Ethan Hawke and Brooke Shields?” asks Anselmo, who is 41. He graduated from Laurentian University, but “there were no opportunities in film” then. He built a career in Italy and South Korea before Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. incentives lured him home. Ontario’s heritage fund provides a conditional grant of up to 50% of eligible costs up to $500,000, based on a production’s spending on hiring, for example, film crews who live in northern Ontario.
Since returning, Anselmo’s Northern Ontario Film Studios has provided services such as trailers and hair and makeup trucks for close to 100 movies in Sudbury as well as North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, which he calls the region’s “film belt.” His Hideaway Pictures makes all its films in the belt; last year, Hideaway signed a deal for close to $100 million to make movies for Hallmark Channel.
One of those Hallmark movies, Angel Falls, is being shot this fall in North Bay, whose main street has often stood in for small-town America. “I am very blessed to live in my home town and make movies in Northern Ontario,” Anselmo says. He estimates that more than 300 people in Northern Ontario now make a living full time in the film business.
Perhaps the most famous production in Sudbury, at least for Canadians, is the hit CraveTV comedy series Letterkenny — named for a fictional town in Northern Ontario, and now shooting its fourth season. In a sign of the spinoffs of success, the city’s Stack Brewing recently launched a real-life version of Puppers Premium Lager, “the official beer of Letterkenny.”
Sudbury often stands in for a lot of places, including California, but the city can pose challenges. For Born to Be Blue, a film featuring Ethan Hawke set in the 1950s, Blais had to recruit 500 extras. There is no shortage of people — the city has a population of 165,000 — but she had to find the right ones. “They wanted a New York population,” she says. “We have a small diverse population, but we’re not as diverse as Toronto.” Nonetheless, she found the needed extras.
Northern Ontario has also benefited from a problem Toronto has: a lack of available studios for film and television production. “Toronto doesn’t have enough space,” notes Paul Bronfman, the owner of William F. White International, an equipment supplier to the film business. “We at Whites and Pinewood (Studios) are running around the GTA trying to find warehouses that are available for short-term rentals.” Whites has now opened a facility in Anselmo’s studio in Sudbury, which Bronfman called a profitable investment.
Sudbury boasts plenty of space. The Northern Ontario Film Studios’ web site mentions another detail that is music to the ears of harried southern Canadian filmmakers: ample parking. “That’s the beauty of Northern Ontario,” says Anselmo, who keeps a boat on Lake Wanapitei on the northeastern edge of the city. “A lot more room to shoot, a lot more room to park, a lot more room to play.” And, for people like Micheline Blais, a lot more childhood dreams coming true. FPM