After the autumn release of its first bona fide blockbuster, Ottawa’s burgeoning film industry now stands on steadier feet – a statement that is becoming increasingly untrue for studios on the west coast.
House at the End of the Street (or H.A.T.E.S., as the film’s marketing insists we use as a shorthand) was released last September to abysmal reviews, but excellent box office returns. According to the Internet Movie Database, the film cost $6.5 million to produce, but grossed $40 million – at least some of which went to local production studio Zed Filmworks, which worked with American studios to bring the production to Ottawa.
And although H.A.T.E.S. has grossed substantially more money than the company’s other projects, the film is by no means Zed’s only success. Zed has also had its fair share of cult hits and festival award winners – including Smash Cut, a 1970s horror-schlock homage starring adult film actress Sasha Grey; as well as the wrestling documentary Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero, which won a prize for best editing at the Monterrey Film Festival.
With all of these experiences and accolades under its proverbial belt, Zed Filmworks has emerged as the preeminent production company in the city; something especially noteworthy considering that it was only established in 2007.
Founder and president Robert Menzies had extensive production experience outside the country, producing narrative and documentary films in places like Jamaica and Mexico. His decision to relocate to Ottawa was originally motivated by a desire to “go somewhere with less guns and violence… a nice, quiet, safe place.” Of course, the relative safety of the capital region wasn’t its only draw.
Menzies outlined the major assets afforded to studios that choose to film in Ottawa. First, Ottawa is the largest city situated between Montreal and Toronto, the current nuclei of the Canadian film industry, giving it the best access to both regions. But this, he said, was the least of Ottawa’s assets.
More important, Menzies said, is Ottawa’s enthusiastic film community, from which he was able to cull a dedicated crew for his projects, along with talented actors and extras. Lastly, Ottawa hosts a number of unique, photogenic locations that haven’t been committed to film before.
In recent years, Invest Ottawa, a subsidiary of the municipal government that promotes economic development, has been focusing its resources toward advancing the local film industry.
According to Stephanie Davy, coordinator of the film office at Invest Ottawa, “The film and television industry in Ottawa generates on average $50 million [each year;] this is money directly spent on local crew, talent, restaurants, hotel accommodations and other support services.”
Ottawa attracts interest by offering a 45 per cent tax break to production companies, ten per cent more savings than Toronto offers.
As Davy explained, this massive incentive is necessary because “not many American or European producers are familiar with the city (much less that it’s Canada’s capital,) and it’s our job that they know about Ottawa and the many benefits of filming there.”
WHERE IS OTTAWA?
Foreign producers are much more familiar with other Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal, or even Calgary and Halifax.
In the past, Vancouver was also a prominent centre for film and television production, largely due to its proximity and shared time zone with Los Angeles. It even earned itself the nickname “Hollywood of the North.”
But recent economic downturns in the province have made the traditional tax credits unserviceable. Premier Christy Clark is more worried about balancing the provincial budget than she is in competing with other cities in a race to the bottom for the interest of Hollywood producers.
Compounding the problem is the high value of the Canadian dollar, which has hovered around parity with the American dollar since mid-2007. On April 1, British Columbia will reinstate its provincial sales tax, burdening productions with an additional seven per cent cost that will not be returned as a rebate.
Many employed in the Vancouver film industry are already finding work to be scarce, prompting an online petition to save the industry that has, at the time of this writing, nearly met its goal of 30,000 signatures.
Unfortunately, as the film industry in our own city flourishes, it seems it can only do so by cannibalizing the industry in Vancouver.