Toronto's film industry grows, but at what cost?

Paula Fletcher and Jonathan Ahee at Toronto Film Board meeting on April 23. Photo: Rosemary Frei

Toronto is becoming the epicentre of Hollywood North during John Tory’s tenure as mayor.

The Shape of Water and The Handmaid’s Tale are among the high-profile films and TV series that have been shot in Toronto

The business is undoubtedly glamorous and can be quite lucrative.

But a question that’s not often asked is whether taxpayers are getting good value for the billions of public dollars being plowed into the flashy industry’s expansion in Toronto.

The recently launched flood-proofing of the Port Lands and surrounding area, together with renaturalization of the mouth of the Don River, are a big part of the expansion plans: the footprint of film studios in the Port Lands is poised to increase significantlyas a result.

The municipal, federal and provincial governments are splitting the estimated $1.25-billion bill for this mega-project. However, when this funding arrangement was announced in June 2017, the price tag was already 29 per cent higher than the $975 million estimatefrom just nine months earlier.

On top of that, some of the money for the mega-project is from the joint federal-Ontario Clean Water and Wastewater Fund, and half of this fund comesfrom the feds via the Canada Infrastructure Bank(CIB). Rabble.cahas documented the likely huge financing-cost increases for projects funded by the CIB, due to most of the CIB’s money coming from high-interest loans from private investors.

Toronto’s $416.7-million share of the current $1.25-billion budget will be paid for with a combination of tools such as borrowing, development charges, taxes and digging into reserves. Unfortunately, at least another $1.1 billion will have to be foundfor as-yet-unfunded additional items primarily related to the Port Lands redevelopment, such as public transit.

And even more unbudgeted-for, mega-expenses undoubtedly will crop up during the mega-project -- in fact some already have -- and it’s a good bet the public also will be on the hook for a sizable chunk of these.

The likely extra expenses range from the potential cost overrunsfrom cleaning up the highly contaminated industrial land and from encountering different conditions than expected on the soggy Port Lands, to the planned designing, building and financing with public funds of temporary and then likely permanent film studios on city landthat will be leased for 40 years or longer by domestic and foreign film companies.

Additional details about the redevelopment of the Port Lands emerged at the April 23 Toronto film board meeting. In addition, attendees spent a significant portion of the meeting discussing how to expand the industry elsewhere in Toronto.

For example, they discussed the idea of creating a film district within the new Unilever Precinct. This largely First Gulf-owned employment-lands area on the northeast corner of where the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway intersect is on the vergeof a major redevelopment thanks in part to the flood-proofing initiative.

Film-board members also endorsed exploring the possible creation of yet another film-industry cluster in Etobicoke -- all as part of a push toward a plan for “healthy growth” of the industry in Toronto over the next 10 to 15 years.

Other activities reported on included film-industry proponents meeting with city councillors to "give them a sense of how the industry impacts their wards and beyond.” Yet another initiative is a big-budget campaign with ads on public bus shelters and on digital screens across the city.

All of this activity has Tory’s very enthusiastic support. For example, last week he made his third trip as mayor with film-industry reps to Los Angeles to sell Toronto to studio and production executives, including from Amazon and Netflix. And he led city council this week in a vote to keep moving forward fast with the Port Lands plan.

Things were different just a short time ago. A redevelopment proposal for the Port Lands -- the Port Lands Acceleration Initiative-- was published in 2012 that also showed some of the many earlier iterations of what to do with the area. The authors’ newest vision was that “the Port Lands will become a new mixed-use area, with diverse precincts combining residential, retail and port-related uses at an intensity appropriate to its central city location.” It would also provide “premium waterfront locations for cultural, institutional and corporate needs” while encompassing thousands of housing units together with considerable public and park spaces along all the waterfront areas. This would be made viable through the use of “a mix of land revenues, development charges and other funding sources that will minimize if not eliminate required public funding.”

Then everything changed last summer with the publication of anew studyrecommending a radically different vision for the redevelopment of the Port Lands and the district lying just north of the Port Lands between Eastern Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard East. In the place of the 2012 plan for a mixed-use area including only a few film studios was the push for “a potential hub of world-class film studio infrastructure” focused largely on expanding the industry’s footprint in the area.

There was no discussion of how much public funding would be at play, whether this was good value for those public funds, or whether other industries could provide as much or more economic return to the city for the large cash outlays involved.

Instead, the report authors extolled the revenues generated by the film industry and emphasized the lack of sufficient studio space in the Port Lands.

It’s also noteworthy that the assertion that clustering is essential to the film industry, while absent in the 2012 report, was a key part of the 2017 study.

One example is this sub-head: “Clustering Uses Around Studio Infrastructure Creates a Strategic Advantage for a Local Industry.” Another example is this sentence: “...other land uses are also being considered within the Study Areas that might constrain the realization of a significantly larger on-screen studio cluster at this location.” Unfortunately, few of these assertions were backed up by solid, objective evidence. 

However, the new report’s recommendations are being implemented at break-neck speed. Paula Fletcher -- the long-time councillor of the ward that includes the Port Lands and also the chair of the Toronto film board -- has helped move things along quickly. So have other major players such as John Tory, Jonathan Ahee, the film-board co-chair and president of NABET 700-M Unifor, which represents film, TV and digital-media technicians in Ontario, Mike Williams, Toronto’s general manager of Economic Development and Culture; and Antoinette Tummillo, transition lead for Toronto’s new umbrella real-estate agency CreateTO.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Fletcher, Williams and Tory are among the many high-level city and provincial politicians and staff who -- according to searches of lobbyist-registry records by Rabble.ca -- were lobbied repeatedly (either directly or via others in their offices) by Toronto-based film-industry heavyweights Cinespace and Pinewood. This lobbying began in early 2015, and much of it focused on expanding the film-industry footprint on the Port Lands and elsewhere in Toronto.
Today, the first Request for Proposal for a film-studio lease that’s part of the Port Lands redevelopment plan is being issued, even though the ownership of the land covered by the Request for Proposal has not yet been transferred to the city.

Fletcher told Rabble.cain an in-person interview after the film-board meeting that WaterfronToronto -- the agency mandated to deliver a revitalized waterfront in the city-- is “on board, they're funding relocation [of the film studios], they're happy with all these plans, we continue to work together for a great [film] industry and a great Port Lands, which is my goal."

Rabble.ca asked Mira Shenker, WaterfronToronto’s projects communications manager, to confirm whether funds are being made available by the agency for studio relocation. Shenker responded in a telephone interview that, “right now relocation efforts are being done by the city’s Economic Development and Culture Division and CreateTO, with WaterfronToronto’s collaboration. There really aren’t any other details confirmed. [But] we’re being supportive of those efforts for sure.”

Will the remaining differences among the major players in the film-industry expansion on the Port Lands and elsewhere in Toronto continue to be smoothed over -- and will the public stay largely oblivious to the rapidly multiplying costs of these plans? Stay tuned.

Photo: Rosemary Frei

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