Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay group working to boost film production in city

Thunder Bay filmmakers are taking the future of the city's film production industry into their own hands.

Producers from places such as Toronto and LA are starting to notice Thunder Bay, says local filmmaker

Cast and crew set up for a shot during filming of Poor Agnes in Thunder Bay. (Submitted)

Thunder Bay filmmakers are taking the future of the city's film production industry into their own hands.

Five local companies with ties to, and experience in, film production have banded together to form the Thunder Bay Film and Television Development Corporation, with the goal of promoting Thunder Bay as a viable filming location.

And so far, it's paying off, said Milosz Skowronski, producer with Thunder Bay's Imaginarium Studio, one of the corporation's member companies.

"We're definitely seeing a significant increase, definitely over the last two to three years," Skowronski said. "Producers are actually reaching out to people here ... I'm getting more scripts now from producers who are either in Toronto or LA than I ever have before."

"So there's interest," he said. "There are projects that are in the works for next year. I do expect that in 2017 ... the industry in Thunder Bay is going to cross that million-dollar threshold, and there should be two or three million dollars' worth of production in Thunder Bay next year. That's my prediction."

That would be a combination of both local and external productions, Skowronski said.

"If you go back a year or two, we were in the few-hundred-thousand-dollars-a-year in terms of film production budgets in Thunder Bay," he said.

He added that the 2017 projects aren't confirmed yet.

Skowronski said the increased interest in shooting in the region boils down to a simple awareness of northern Ontario as a viable filming location.

"A lot of that has to do with what's happening in Sudbury, and North Bay, and Sault Ste. Marie," he said. "From a local perspective, I think there have been people here who've been working pretty hard to try and develop, whether it's infrastructure, or their skills, or work to show to people."

"It's starting to get to the point now where people are looking, from the outside, at some of the work that's been done here, and they're going 'there's some really good skill here, there are some resources here.'"

A still shot from the film Sleeping Giant, which was filmed in Thunder Bay, Ont. and screened at both TIFF and Cannes.

In addition, high-profile releases like Sleeping Giant are helping shine a light on the city's potential for film production.

A practical example of what the development corporation is doing is the Toronto-based film Poor Agnes (log line: "A serial killer and her next victim form an unexpected relationship"), which shot in Thunder Bay in October.

Promoting Thunder Bay

The development corporation has been working with the Thunder Bay CEDC, the city's economic development arm, on a number of film-related initiatives; one of those saw Skowronski and fellow local filmmaker Curtis Jensen sent to the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to promote Thunder Bay as a filming location.

During his trip, Jensen met with Poor Agnes producer Ryan Keller (who's originally from Thunder Bay), director Navin Ramaswaran, and other members of the production team.

"I talked to them a bit about filming up here," Jensen said. "Over the course of a few different meetings throughout the week ... it enticed them more and more to move production up here."

"I talked to them about the equipment, and resources, and locations that are readily available," he said. "It just kind of evolved from there."

Jensen was then brought on as an associate producer, and did a lot of the legwork in Thunder Bay, coordinating locations and crew and cast and equipment, during the last few weeks of pre-production.

There was concern among the Poor Agnes production team members about finding everything they'd need in Thunder Bay, Ramaswaran said.

"Initially, it was, for myself personally, a little daunting," he said. "I didn't know what to expect."

However, any concerns proved to be unfounded.

City was 'amazing'

"Thunder Bay was amazing," Ramaswaran said. "We had a lot of support from the local businesses, local people. They completely opened their hearts to us, and that was very, very nice for us."

But in the end, Jensen pointed out that by moving production to the city, the filmmakers had access to locations, cast, crew and equipment at a fraction of the cost they'd have paid in Toronto.

"Some of the locations we got here in town, you would pay infinitely more money in Toronto to get access," Jensen said. "There's still enough excitement around film in Thunder Bay that people are just really engaged to be a part of it, whereas in Toronto there's a lot of red tape."

"It's an annoyance, whereas here it's still really fresh," he said. "Ultimately, it's just trying to get everything to a critical mass here, where we can get a bit of an industry here. Not necessarily something where we're getting these $50-million films here, but if we're getting a variety of $1-million films, or less ... then we're able to sustain the growth, and we're able to keep crew here, and talent here, so people aren't having to move to Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, to work in the film industry."

A behind-the-scenes shot of filming the feature film Poor Agnes in Thunder Bay in October. (Submitted)

There are still things to be done if the local film industry is to grow, however.

Skowronski said equipment availability should be a focus.

"Right now, in Thunder Bay, there's enough equipment to be able to produce a really strong independent film," he said. "In this industry, there are different levels of production, and when you start getting into the level where it's a few million dollars, at that point, those resources in terms of equipment — and even space, to some extent — is not quite established yet. So that's an opportunity for us moving forward."

Equipment availability was a concern for the Poor Agnes crew, as well.

"Coming from Toronto, if something goes wrong on-set, if any equipment goes down or if additional equipment is required, for an example, it gets replaced within the hour," Ramaswaran said. "Having that sort of safety net, it kind of puts your mind at ease."

"But when we had issues in Thunder Bay, we had to ship stuff over from Toronto, so we had that delay, that additional cost."

Keller also said there was some uncertainty with regards to locations, services, and available talent in the city, as well as protocols for things like closing streets.

He said a one-stop-shop for film production information would be helpful.

"One of the things, as a producer, you're doing, is you're weighing other locations," he said. "We considered shooting this on the Niagara peninsula, we considered Hamilton, we considered London, Ontario, and in those cases, it was very easy for us to identify all of the logistics we'd be up against."

"For this, even though it worked out very well, it just took a lot more legwork up front, even being from the city and knowing people, just to sort out what was available."

Still, Keller says he'd shoot in the city again.

"I have another project I'm excited to bring here," he said. "I'd love to be shooting again in 2017."

"It was a great experience, and I'd be happy to come back."

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