Toronto

Here's what Toronto's $2B-a-year film industry could look like once it reopens

As movie sets sit idle due to COVID-19, unions, guilds and city officials are exploring safe ways to revive Toronto's film industry, which has brought in nearly $2 billion annually for the city's economy in past years.

Production could have fewer crowd scenes, make actors appear closer than they are

Filming of The Handmaid's Tale was set to continue in Toronto this year. The show is one of about 100 productions on hold as city officials as well as film unions and guilds scramble to come up with safe ways restart the city's film and television production industry. (Hulu)

Although many Toronto businesses have been given the green light to start reopening, film, television and digital productions set to shoot in the city this year are still shut down — with no plans in place to resume in the near future. 

So, as sets sit idle due to COVID-19, unions, guilds and city officials are exploring safe ways to kick-start Toronto's film industry, which has brought in nearly $2 billion annually for the city's economy in past years. 

"We're very much focused on finding ways to reopen, finding ways to make production happen again," Marguerite Pigott, the city's film commissioner, told CBC Toronto. 

But to do that, she says, casts and crews will have to get creative. 

Ideas being considered to cut the risk of infection include rewriting large crowd scenes and action sequences, and finding ways during filming or post-production to make actors appear closer to each other than they actually are. 

Toronto's film and television industry has been shut down due to COVID-19. As a result, production hubs such as Revival Film Studios have been closed since March. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"This is an industry that sleight-of-hand is not a new thing to any of us, so this is just a new level," Pigott said. 

"Do you need all these crowd scenes? Does the action scene need to unfold in that particular way? Are there ways scenes that are not yet in final draft ... can they be re-written and reconsidered so that they're more shootable in these COVID times?"  

Industry employs 30,000 people in Toronto 

The Australian soap opera Neighbours resumed filming with strict rules of its own, which include no hand-holding or kissing allowed during the filming of scenes. 

Manitoba, meanwhile, is poised to allow film and TV production to start  as of June 1 if physical distancing and travel restrictions are followed, making it a potential movie hotspot over the summer as one of the first jurisdictions in Canada to reopen its shuttered studio doors. 

But with cast and crew in close proximity during shoots — and both crowd sequences and intimate scenes posing health concerns — Pigott says it's impossible to say when reopening would become a reality for actors and filmmakers in Toronto. 

"That's a really devastating shock so for many people; it is very, very challenging times," she said. 

Marguerite Pigott, the city's film commissioner, says the way movies and TV shows are filmed will likely change once production resumes in Toronto. (CBC)

Despite the uncertainty, industry officials are now scrambling to draft new on-set safety rules to get productions back up and running as soon as possible.

Alistair Hepburn, the director of broadcast production for ACTRA — a union representing thousands of performers in the film, radio, television and new media industries — says there were over 100 Toronto productions on the go before the industry was forced to shut down in March. 

And with 30,000 people employed by the industry in Toronto alone, Hepburn says unions and guilds are working together to draft protocols that will protect the health and safety of all industry members. Those protocols will be submitted to the provincial Ministry of Labour on June 1 for consideration.

"It's really going to be about a community effort to keep the space safe," he said. 

But Hepburn says there is a risk to starting up too early. 

"It's all fine and good for industries elsewhere in the world to start up, but it only takes one on-set infection for that industry to go sideways in a hurry," he said. 

"An overreaction is better than an under-reaction." 

Mayor John Tory has previously said the film industry is a 'key economic driver' for the city, where academy award-winning films such as Suicide Squad have been shot. (Clay Enos/DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

'Self tapes' will likely likely be integral part of auditions 

One of those thousands of industry professionals is Richard Okolo, a Toronto actor who has two short films on hold that were supposed to shoot this spring. 

He's been on multiple webinars this week for actors, all of which have emphasized the future importance of "self tapes" — an audition method that requires actors to film scenes on their own and then send them to casting directors. 

"Self tapes are going to be really big," Okolo told CBC Toronto Friday. 

As a result, online professional systems for actors such as Casting Workbook have begun hosting workshops to help performers perfect their home auditions. 

But that's easier said than done, Okolo said. 

"Getting the right lighting, shooting them right, having a reader to be able to do those self tapes properly ... that's really the key of what's happening." 

Okolo said the industry will likely also change in other ways, including a push to enforce physical distancing measures and the use of personal protective equipment on sets. 

"We're just trying to figure out how these things are changing," he said. 

And those changes, Okolo said, will likely be the new normal, even after the threat of COVID-19 has dissipated. 

As for job security, he says cast and crew will be in an even more precarious situation than before the pandemic.

"These are kind of the things going through our minds right now in the industry."  

Push to bring L.A. productions to Toronto won't stop

Meanwhile, the city says it won't stop its bid to bring Los Angeles productions to Toronto, something Mayor John Tory has been pushing for since 2016.  

And despite COVID-19 restrictions, city spokesperson Lawvin Hadisi says Tory and other leading players in the city's recovery strategy continue to push for the return of productions.

"During consultations with the industry since the inception of the pandemic, film industry players were, without exception, very positive about the resumption of production activities as soon as circumstances permit," Hadisi told CBC Toronto in an email on Friday. 

"The mayor wants the film and television productions around the world to know that despite the impacts of COVID-19, Toronto will be ready for a return of the industry and that we continue to be a film- and TV-friendly city."

With files from Ali Chiasson

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