Lights, camera, action: Capital's film and TV industry set to resume – slowly

Chris Knight
Gusto Worldwide Media founder Chris Knight says his company is ready to get back to work on its next production. File photo

Nearly three months after his TV production studio was forced to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris Knight is fired up and ready to get cooking on his latest series.  

After patiently waiting for the green light to resume shooting, the founder of Ottawa-based Gusto Worldwide Media got the news he was hoping for Monday when Premier Doug Ford said the capital’s film and TV industry would be allowed to restart operations on Friday as part of the next phase of reopening the local economy.   

“It’s very exciting,” Knight told OBJ on Tuesday from his recently constructed production facility on Thurston Drive. “We’re ready to hit the ground running.”

The food and lifestyle programmer’s next project, called CombiNATION Plates, will start shooting next week. Gusto’s team of two dozen writers, editors and other pre-production staff have been laying the groundwork for the past nine weeks, and Knight can’t wait to get back to the set.

But when the studio reopens, it will have a slightly different look ​– and a distinctly slower pace ​– in an effort to keep the lid on COVID-19. 

While a show like CombiNATION Plates would normally feature a 14-person production crew, that number is being pared back to about 10 to allow for more physical distancing and, just as importantly, to encourage frenetic employees to dial back a bit, Knight explained.

The production process will take longer with fewer crew members, he said, and that’s by design. Knight wants his employees to slow things down a notch and take an extra second to put on a mask or wash their hands when necessary.

“People are hyper-focused on their part in the production, and sometimes you forget,” he said. “It’s a significant cost to us (to extend the filming timeline), but our investment is in our people and their health and safety.”

$100M local industry

Knight, like pretty much everyone in the film and TV business, has been busy trying to figure out how to safely restart an industry that typically requires dozens of people to gather in close quarters on production sets.

“Everyone still has a lot of work to do to determine how we're going to get up and start running,” said Ottawa film commissioner Bruce Harvey. “Everyone’s still struggling to see how we can maintain any sort of social distancing with actors.”

Film and TV production is a $100-million-a-year industry in the nation’s capital, and some observers suggest it could grab an even bigger slice of the production pie with studios in Toronto’s mighty billion-dollar sector still shuttered. 

“This is where we can start to compete, and this is where we can start to rebuild,” Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod told reporters on Monday, referring to Ottawa’s film and TV industry.

But Harvey said he can’t imagine many big-time Toronto producers will be beating a path down the 401 toward the capital just yet. 

Star Trek’s not going to leave Toronto and come and film in Ottawa,” he said flatly.

Many studios are still wary about resuming live productions until they sort out proper safety protocols to guard against an outbreak of the coronavirus, he noted. Insurance is unlikely to cover the expense of replacing cast or crew members who get sick, Harvey said, while the extra cost of measures to contain the virus – such as prepackaged meals and daily testing – could also make many companies think twice about getting back to business immediately.

And although a major sound stage is now in the planning stages for the capital, Ottawa still lacks a large, modern indoor facility for shooting films and TV series. Instead, crews generally have to set up in private homes and businesses, an intrusion that almost certainly won’t be welcomed with open arms in the COVID-19 era.

“Trying to get into someone’s house to film, it’s going to be difficult,” Harvey said. “How many people are going to be comfortable having strangers walking around your house?”

He also noted the city faces another major hurdle to attracting U.S.-based talent and crew.

“People still can’t get across the border,” he said. “There’s a lot of issues like that that are still out there. We’re all cautiously optimistic that (the industry) will come back, but we don’t see it fully coming back for a little while.”

Still, some productions that don’t require a huge crew are already preparing to resume. At Ottawa’s GAPC Entertainment, executive producer Ken Stewart said he’s got a small studio space lined up to start shooting a children’s series for TFO, Ontario’s French-language educational network.

It will likely be about a month before filming can begin, but Stewart said he’s just happy his crew of about two dozen workers will soon be drawing paycheques again. 

“I think it’s really important to get people back to work,” he said.

Back at Gusto, Knight conceded 2020 won’t be the “gaga year” for his business that he’d been anticipating before the pandemic hit. But he noted he’s got plenty of new distribution deals in the pipeline, adding demand for his product won’t be slowing down any time soon. 

“The two things people are doing more of now than ever before are watching TV and cooking,” he said. “We’re in the sweet spot, for sure.”