Is the Green Goliath too big for Toronto?

The City of Toronto and Ontario Media Development Corporation recently trumpeted the arrival of The Incredible Hulk, the Marvel Studios blockbuster shooting for four months in Ontario starting this summer.

The City of Toronto and Ontario Media Development Corporation recently trumpeted the arrival of The Incredible Hulk, the Marvel Studios blockbuster shooting for four months in Ontario starting this summer.

A super-sized FX-heavy Hollywood production is a rare score for the city, and while it’s good news for the 400 industry workers Hulk will employ, the shoot once again exposes Toronto’s shortage of prime soundstages.

Recall the ’99/’00 Toronto shoot of X-Men – also featuring Marvel super-heroes – which was frustrated by too few soundstages spread over too many locales.

DOP Newton Thomas Sigel spoke publicly about studio limitations hampering certain FX sequences, and the franchise moved to Vancouver to shoot a pair of sequels.

It turns out The Incredible Hulk, sequel to 2003′s Hulk, is coming to Toronto because Vancouver is booked, with B.C.’s Mammoth Studios, for one, firmed up for the year by 20th Century Fox for unspecified projects.

Toronto, on the other hand, has vacancies post-ACTRA strike. But finding the right stages is a challenge for Hulk given that Cinespace Film Studios recently closed its Marine Terminal 28 location and the Filmport megastudio is not scheduled to open until at least March 2008.

‘It’s a big chunk,’ says Rick Perotto, business representative with IATSE 667, of The Incredible Hulk’s soundstage requirements, after having met with the movie’s producers.

At the same time, Perotto estimates Hulk’s shoot may not exceed the scale of sci-fi flick Jumper, starring Samuel L. Jackson, which shot in town last year at Cinespace and Toronto Film Studios.

‘Right now, there are an adequate number of stages,’ argues Peter Lukas, president of Showline studios, which was the main host of X-Men. He adds that Hulk producers put holds on his soundstages back in February while scouting during the ACTRA strike. As of this writing, he didn’t know whether they were going to commit.

The production will likely not take over every inch of available space in town. As was the case with Jumper, Hollywood producers often put holds on all the city’s prime soundstages. Once the movie’s creatives, especially its art directors, decide how many stages will be required for set building, the producers make their bookings and lift holds on what’s left over.

While TFS president Ken Ferguson – who is also heading up Filmport – won’t confirm anything, sources indicate Hulk has booked four of TFS’ largest soundstages for permanent sets.

The film’s three cameras and accompanying crews will do much location shooting in and around Toronto, and require additional office space.

The likes of Showline and Cinespace should soon know if the production will fill any of their locations, or whether the studios can book other shoots already lining up behind Hulk.

‘There’s a whole bunch of projects looking at moving into Toronto, but not Hulk size – decent shows that don’t need big soundstages,’ Ferguson says of the city’s current production climate on the heels of a tentative resolution to the ACTRA strike.

Medium-size stages and location shooting will work for those projects, he adds. But while most Toronto studios can accommodate small- to medium-sized movie shoots, the city is largely ill-prepared for movie shoots requiring cavernous blue screen soundstages capable of housing extravagant interior sets with tons of props. At least until Filmport opens its doors.

‘There’s no question we’re anxious to have the seven new [Filmport] stages available to people that are scouting,’ says Toronto film commissioner Karen Thorne-Stone, echoing other city officials. 

At least for another year, then, Toronto will compete with Vancouver and Montreal on price point, not prime studios.

In a recent promotion, Toronto touts that it will waive all site-rental fees on city-owned facilities and properties, discount the Canadian dollar to $0.78 for all municipal charges, and arrange discounted hotel and service packages for productions scouting or filming locally.

How did Toronto get to this sorry pass? It’s an old story: Vancouver and Montreal worked with investors building megastudios during the go-go 1990s, even offering grants. Toronto, by contrast, dithered, then finally greenlit Filmport in Toronto’s Portlands. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart Canada has made a bid to open a big-box store at 629 Eastern Avenue, on prime industrial land now used by TFS, and possibly up for grabs after Filmport comes on stream.

Toronto Economic Development Corporation president and CEO Jeff Steiner, who oversees Toronto’s Portlands on behalf of the city, dismisses persistent complaints from rival studio operators that TEDCO and TFS have conspired to monopolize available studio space in the Portlands to give Filmport its best chances to woo marquee shoots.

‘[Filmport's] been in the works for several years,’ he says. ‘It’s under construction now and it’s what Toronto needs.’

The TEDCO chief adds that Cinespace – which has been especially critical – knew for some time that its MT28 studio would have to close as part of the city’s waterfront revitalization project.

For his part, Jim Mirkopoulos, VP at Cinespace, tells Playback in an e-mail that ‘Now that the chapter of MT28 is closed, we are looking at many different options. We remain positive, willing and proven builders in this industry.’

But the bottom line is that just when Toronto most needs to woo FX-heavy Hollywood shoots after the ACTRA strike, it finds itself with even less studio space.

Of Filmport, which promises to finally give the city the capacity to host more than one film of the scope of Hulk at a time, Steiner says, ‘We’re doing our part to create new space. That’s the best we can do.’

-With files from Mark Dillon