I recently had the chance to chat with Stephanie Davy from the Ottawa Film Office. The office works to attract and coordinate filming in Canada’s capital city.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Stephanie. Ottawa has often lived in the shadows of Toronto and Montreal, which have traditionally had a much bigger film industry. What sort of efforts are being made to bring more business to Ottawa?
The Ottawa Film Office’s main focus over the past few years has been on the development of purpose-built soundstages, and while it’s been a long road, we’re pleased to say we’re getting closer to starting construction. Unlike other production centres in Canada, there are no soundstages in Ottawa or even Eastern Ontario, and this has hindered our city’s ability to attract certain types of projects here, such as dramatic televisions series and larger feature films. In addition to the soundstage development, our office also regularly meets with Canadian and American producers to discuss filming in Ottawa, although these discussions are now mostly taking place virtually due to the pandemic. To help attract productions to the area, we read scripts and create ‘look books’, matching real-world locations with what the writer or director has in mind; we also organize dedicated scouts so the production team can further see what our region can offer. There is a lot of interest from producers and studios in bringing their projects to Ottawa, especially once the soundstage campus is open.
Do you get the cooperation of the local government in supporting the industry?
The municipal government is a great supporter of our industry. The Mayor and his office, Councillors, and City staff understand the importance of the industry, especially as it relates to job creation and economic development. We also have two representatives from the City on our Board of Directors, Councillor Jean Cloutier and Don Herweyer, Director of Economic Development and Long Range Planning, which further illustrates the City’s commitment to the industry and its growth.
What were some of the first productions to film in the Ottawa area?
I don’t know if it’s the first, but ‘Captain of the Clouds’, which filmed here in 1942, must be one of the oldest – it’s billed as the first Hollywood movie to shoot entirely in Canada. The Academy Award-nominated film was produced by Warner Brothers in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada and the Royal Canadian Air Force. It starred James Cagney and Dennis Morgan, with a cameo from Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop, and was directed by ‘Casablanca’ director Michael Curtiz. The film shot at the former CFB Uplands, Parliament Hill, Chateau Laurier and National War Memorial, as well as in other Canadian cities including North Bay and Trenton.
Recently, Ottawa’s film industry has been booming. Hallmark Christmas movies in particular have been using Ottawa frequently in the last few years. What do you think attracted them to the city, and what has been the benefit to the city?
Our reputation as a filming destination for Christmas TV movies has definitely grown in the past few years, and we have amazing local producers and skilled crew to thank for that. Local producers have great partnerships with companies like MarVista Entertainment, Muse Entertainment, and Reel One Entertainment, which means these companies regularly return to Ottawa to film their holiday films (as well as other productions). Ottawa also boasts diverse filming locations and experienced talent, and Ontario’s competitive tax incentives certainly don’t hurt. We also sometimes think this SNL skit which jokes that all Hallmark Christmas movies are filmed over one month in Ottawa may have helped, but that’s probably just coincidental.
The city benefits from these types of productions in a variety of ways. The first would be economically – the film, television, and animation industry contributes about $100 million to Ottawa’s economy each year. Productions employ hundreds of locals in crew and cast positions, use local hotels and accommodations, hire support companies like equipment suppliers and caterers, and purchase supplies from local stores. Additional benefits include the pride locals feel when they see their neighbourhood, house, or business on screen, and the free publicity and increased tourism that could result in having your city featured in a film.
We’ve seen the town of Almonte host a number of productions lately. What do you think appeals to filmmakers about this area?
Since Almonte is less than 45 minutes away from downtown Ottawa, local cast and crew can travel back and forth without too much difficulty or time. The town has some picturesque streets and historic buildings that fit perfectly in Hallmark Christmas movies, and the Municipality of Mississippi Mills has film-friendly residents and businesses that are keen to be involved.
Besides Almonte, what other areas of the city do you think could be ideal for filming? What sort of environment are productions usually looking for?
Most Christmas TV movies feature a big city and a small town, and luckily, Ottawa and the region can double for both. Almonte is a popular location for that small town look, but other areas within Ottawa like Manotick, the Glebe, and Wellingon West also portray that quite well. We also have charming rural locations, quaint shops, and several romantic gazebos – a Hallmark staple! Whether it’s holiday-themed or not, productions are generally looking for locations that best represent the script and director’s vision; ample space to accommodate the crew, actors, and equipment; nearby parking for trailers and tech trucks; and backdrops that are visually interesting without being distracting to the viewers.
When productions need to shut down roads, parks, etc, what is involved in this? How do they get special permits from the city?
Until recently, productions would obtain all their permits for filming on public property from our office; however, the City of Ottawa recently implemented a new Film By-Law which gives this responsibility to the City’s Event Central department. Productions seeking permits apply directly to Event Central by submitting the required forms and information found on the City’s website, and the Event Central team works internally to coordinate all of the approvals needed. If productions are seeking to film on property managed by the National Capital Commission, such as in beautiful urban parks, they would contact them directly. Our office is here to help productions navigate the different jurisdictions involved in the National Capital Region.
Let’s chat a bit more about the plans to build a film studio in Ottawa. Do you expect this to bring more business to the region?
The Soundstage Campus and Creative Hub, which is being developed at the former Greenbelt Research Farm, will help attract a significant amount of productions, especially dramatic television series which have seen exponential growth internationally. As TV series can last for several seasons, this will help keep our local crew consistently employed while also attracting crew members from outside the region to Ottawa. We anticipate the project will create over 400 new jobs and inject an additional $40 million into the local economy each year.
How many soundstages will the facility have? Will there be any sort of backlot area?
The facility will have four 20,000 sq. ft. soundstages. We’ve been discussing a backlot with our partner, TriBro Studios, and we have an idea on the type of façades we’d like to include, but nothing is confirmed just yet. We’re also looking at incorporating some exciting, cutting-edge technology, like volumetric LED screens (the same technology Disney used for ‘The Mandolorian’ to create virtual, 3D surroundings).
A film studio doesn’t just have soundstages and backlots, but also requires a lot of other facilities, from make-up to props, and catering to office space. What sort of facilities are planned for the studio? What will it be able to offer clients?
In addition to the stages, the complex will offer short- and long-term production offices, carpentry shops and lock-ups, and space for a variety of tenants like an animation studio, Algonquin College, an equipment supplier, a VFX company, and others.
The creative hub portion will include co-working space for local filmmakers and artists as well as a café which can potentially become the on-site caterer. Productions will still be able to order from their preferred catering company should they wish to do so.
Do you anticipate any public tours of the studio to be offered? Will school field trips be offered to educate children about the film industry?
Per our agreement with the National Capital Commission, which owns the land, the soundstage campus must remain a secure site; therefore, public access will be limited. We hope to open the space publicly for a day during Doors Open Ottawa and for other events, but that will depend on discussions we have with the NCC, our partner, and tenants.
We are not currently planning on offering school fields trips; however, we’re proud of the work we’re already doing to engage with local school boards and others to promote the film and television industry as a viable career choice. We also hope to participate in more educational outreach activities, such as speaking to elementary and high school classes, once the pandemic is no longer a cause for concern.
Ottawa is also at the forefront of the animation industry. What do you think lead to having world-class animation companies in the city?
I think having the National Film Board headquartered in Ottawa when it was first created in 1939 had a big impact on our city becoming the world-leading animation centre it is today. By 1945 the NFB had become one of the biggest film studios in the world and had established its own in-house animation unit, led by Norman McLaren who mentored many of the animators. Crawley Films, which had found success in the live-action sector, created an animation studio in the late 1950s; the company, led by Budge Crawley and his wife Judith, produced the first animated series for television in Canada, The Tales of the Wizard of Oz as well as the country’s second animated feature, Return to Oz. I think the NFB and Crawley Films helped train and influence future generations of animators.
More recently, when Mercury Filmworks relocated from Vancouver to Ottawa in 2004, it seemed to have reinvigorated the local animation industry; several companies, like Jam Filled and Big Jump Entertainment, were founded here shortly after, and the Kratt Brothers relocated here in 2007 from New Jersey. A couple of years ago, Atomic Cartoons expanded to Ottawa, citing our soundstage announcement as one of the reasons. Ottawa’s lifestyle, post-secondary institutions, talent, and lower cost of living attracts a variety of companies, including animation studios.
Between filming and animation, do the local colleges and universities in Ottawa help support these fields? Do you think Ottawa will attract more potential students who want to get into the film industry?
Ottawa is home to four excellent post-secondary institutions, with two of them – Algonquin College and La Cité – providing hands-on training in the fields of animation and television broadcasting. To help meet the current and future needs of the industry, Algonquin College is launching a new film production program which will be housed at the soundstage campus. Carleton University offers a film studies program which provides a theoretical and historical background of the industry.
I think with the increase and consistency of productions and the upcoming soundstage campus, we will start seeing more students choosing to study in Ottawa, and staying here post-graduation.
What are your hopes for the future of the film industry in Ottawa?
I hope Ottawa’s film, television, and animation industry sees continued growth while providing interesting career options for locals who want to remain here; seeing one (or ideally more) large budget dramatic series filmed in Ottawa would help provide stable employment for hundreds of local cast and crew members. I would also love to see more local and diverse stories being told, shown, and exported, and these projects receiving the recognition, support, and funding needed to succeed.
Thanks to Stephanie for taking the time to answer some questions about the Ottawa Film Office. For more details, you can visit them at www.ottawa.film.
Please can check out my article about being an extra in the Ottawa-filmed movie Undercover Angel.