Stepping up on the world stage: Ottawa starting to make a name with film producers

David Sali
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When the horror film February debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, few but the most dedicated cinephiles would have known about its close link to the National Capital Region.

Robert Menzies of Zed Filmworks says the movie business is on the rise.

Starring Emma Roberts and Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, February was filmed in Canada, but not in the production hotbeds of Toronto or Vancouver. It was shot in the dead of winter just south of Ottawa, mostly on the Ontario Agricultural College’s Kemptville campus.

Produced by local residents Robert Menzies of Zed Filmworks and Alphonse Ghossein of Go Insane Films, February was the first film ever financed and made in the Ottawa area to be officially selected for TIFF.

“That we can produce a film in this city that has a market value around the world, I take a lot of pride in that, and I think all of the crew and all of the local cast take pride in that,” says Mr. Menzies, who owns Zed Filmworks with partners Curtis Crawford and Don Osborne.

February was just one of several local film productions in the past few years to feature high-profile Hollywood actors, following others such as Penthouse North (2013), which starred two-time Oscar nominee Michael Keaton, and the 2011 film Sacrifice with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Christian Slater. Mr. Menzies was a producer on both projects.  

“The city has been a great place to film,” he says. “The industry to continues to get stronger and stronger every year in Ottawa.”

After spending years as a producer in Mexico, the United States and Europe, Mr. Menzies returned to his hometown because he wanted to raise his family here and because he felt the nation’s capital was a “very viable place” to make movies.

The city’s crews can match up with anyone’s, he says, adding Ottawa is an ideal location for movies with budgets of between $1 million and $10 million because filmmakers get more bang for their buck than in places like Toronto where labour and other production costs are higher.

“That is an area where Ottawa can really excel,” he says. “The better we are at that budget level, the busier Ottawa will be because the bigger centres like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have a harder time dealing with what they would consider a smaller budget. They’re set up for big budgets. We have a real niche, not to compete with Toronto or Montreal, but to really increase the pie for all of us.”

Mr. Osborne agrees, adding the region’s diversity of architecture, natural surroundings and, yes, even weather Ottawa’s frigid winter was one of the stars of February, for example makes it a convincing stand-in for many locations.

“Ottawa is still kind of considered undiscovered,” he says. “If you stand in the centre of Ottawa, you could drive 30 minutes one direction and you’re in a complete rural setting and drive 15, 20 minutes in the next and you’re in a mountainous region in Gatineau and you’ve got all kinds of parks and hills. Except for maybe Los Angeles, I think we could pass for just about any city anywhere.”

Overall, they say, the film business is one of the capital’s most overlooked industries, directly employing hundreds of people and generating millions of dollars in economic spinoffs for sectors such as hospitality and tourism.

Bruce Harvey, head of the Ottawa Film Office, says the number of shooting days in the capital region has been steadily rising over the past few years and he expects that trend to continue.

He says the falling loonie has helped offset most of the impact of last year’s cut in the Ontario Production Services Tax Credit to 21.5 per cent of qualifying expenditures from 25 per cent. Under provincial rules, producers that shoot in the Ottawa region and use Ontario crew members can also benefit from higher tax credits than in Toronto, giving filmmakers another incentive to set up their cameras here.

Those benefits, combined with the city’s growing expertise in film and television production, are putting Ottawa’s industry on the map, Mr. Harvey says.

“We’re seeing growth already this year that seems to be indicating a very strong year,” he says. “In the drama side, some of the key companies are really maturing right now. They’re at a nice stage.”

Still, some prominent industry figures say that growth is being stunted by jurisdictional red tape.

Governments on both sides of the Ottawa River need to eliminate barriers that are impeding efforts to market the region and promote Ottawa-Gatineau as a film production centre, says Michael Dobbin of local studio Quiet Revolution Pictures.

Mr. Dobbin says he often partners with European producers who can’t understand why they have to deal with film commissioners from two different cities, Ottawa and Gatineau, as well as various levels of government to get projects approved.

“There has traditionally been a dysfunctional lack of leadership in this region,” he says. “(The film industry) is a huge employer and a huge economic engine. I think the two provinces and the two cities should be much more willing to work together proactively.”

Mr. Dobbin also says the futile effort to build a sound stage in Ottawa is an example of local governments failing the industry. The city chose a Toronto studio, Cinespace, to construct a facility in 2012 after issuing a request for proposals, but the company ultimately backed out of the deal.

Plans to negotiate with other potential private-sector partners went nowhere, meaning Ottawa still lacks one of the key components of a major film production hub.

“I do believe we have to have a (sound stage) here if we really want to be a competitor,” says Ken Stewart, an executive producer at Ottawa-based GAPC Entertainment. “We have to have some infrastructure here in a serious way.”

Mr. Harvey, who works out of an office at Invest Ottawa with one other full-time employee, agrees Ottawa needs to become more “film-friendly,” adding local officials can play a big role.

He notes that the city is looking at creating a new film bylaw that could include measures such as lifting on-street parking bans for production crews, for example, or relaxing noise restrictions during shooting. Such changes, he says, are long overdue.

“Here, there’s such a bureaucracy around everything,” Mr. Harvey says. “There’s so many things that the city can help with.”

A lack of qualified labour also limits the region’s growth potential, observers say. Right now, Ottawa has between 200 and 250 crew workers, about the same number of people that typically staff a single big-budget Hollywood production.

Mr. Harvey says he hopes a recent spike in the number of independent producers in the city will provide a training ground for new talent. He also believes it’s vital for Ottawa to lure a television series that shoots in the city day in and day out as another way for local crew members to gain valuable experience, especially for positions such as assistant directors and production managers.

“It’s hard to get a TV series here until you have a lot of crew, but once a TV series comes, it develops lots of crew,” Mr. Harvey says, noting Vancouver’s industry really took off when hitmaker Stephen J. Cannell started shooting episodes of the NBC series Stingray there in the late 1980s. “When Stephen Cannell went to Vancouver, it changed the whole environment. There was no film industry there back in the early ’80s. Everything changed once he arrived.”

Despite some obvious hurdles, the industry’s future in Ottawa looks bright, insiders say.

“The good thing is there’s growth, there’s opportunity, but the challenge is going to be how to sustain that,” Mr. Stewart says. “If we don’t, it will be a flash in the pan. It always takes time, but there’s a lot of things right now that are looking very positive. If there is a time for us here in Ottawa to really push an agenda forward and work at it to grow the industry … now is the time. We’ve all got to be on the bandwagon.”





Permits issued (filming and parking): 340

Filming days: 990

Production spending in Ottawa: $21.5 million



Permits issued (filming and parking): 227

Filming days: 771

Production spending in Ottawa: $13.3 million



Permits issued (filming and parking): 262

Filming days: 1,121

Production spending in Ottawa: $16.3 million


2016 (YTD)

Permits issued (filming and parking): 36

Filming days: 168

Production spending in Ottawa: $7.9 million



Figures do not include animation projects, corporate, sports, broadcaster in-house productions or any independent film that does not shoot on public property.

Source: Ottawa Film Office





Organizations: Ontario Agricultural College, Go Insane Films, United States and Europe Ottawa Film Office Ontario Production Services Tax Credit GAPC Entertainment NBC

Geographic location: Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver Hollywood Canada Gatineau Montreal Mexico Los Angeles Ontario Ottawa River

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Recent comments

  • Don Masters
    March 23, 2016 - 17:15

    The Film Office does a great job. Very responsive and efficient.