Local film industry looks to new sound stage to take activity in Ottawa to the next level

Chris Roussakis, co-founder and creative director of Phantom Productions, on set. (Supplied)

With Ottawa’s film industry growing, local filmmakers such as Chris Roussakis are planning to stick around to keep building it up. 

Roussakis is chief creative director of Phantom Productions, a local media company that provides filmography and animation services. Last year, he released a documentary, “Nagano Till Now,” about Olympic snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, who won gold in 1998, but had his medal stripped then reinstated over alleged cannabis use.

Prior to the success of the documentary, Roussakis said, his company focused on commercials and advertising, but has since made the leap into film. For him, there are unique opportunities in Ottawa for filmmakers that other cities just don’t have. 

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“We’re a big city but with a mindset of a bit more openness,” Roussakis told OBJ. “Every time we go to Toronto, I’m reminded of how easy it is to operate in a city like Ottawa. Even the permits with the city, when you need to shoot on a commercial or residential road, can be a three-day process here. In New York or Toronto, that could take weeks.”

In 2022, the city set records as filmmakers returned from the pandemic slump. According to the Ottawa Film Office, live-action production in the city generated $57 million in local economic activity in 2022, beating out the previous recording-breaking year 2021 by 37 per cent. 

That amount included money spent directly in the community on labour, talent, hotels, equipment and vehicle rentals, restaurants, catering, and with other small businesses.

“Every year, the amount of money that’s getting spent in Ottawa for production is increasing,” said Roussakis. “Between 2021 and 2022, it increased, like, 40 per cent. If you think about coming out of the pandemic, if you think about the idea of adding a sound stage to Ottawa, the industry is going to be growing at a rapid pace.”

Feel-good Christmas flicks tend to be at the centre of Ottawa’s filmmaking success, with the quaint heritage buildings and abundance of rural settings cementing the city’s reputation as an idyllic winter wonderland for the screen. 

“I think we’re known right now as the Hallmark capital of Canada,” said Roussakis. “They typically allocate $2 million to those productions and we had nine of those shot in Ottawa last year. That’s roughly $20 million in production being done, just by Hallmark.”

When it comes to the industry’s growth, there are already incentives in place, including a number of tax credit programs that reimburse production companies for costs incurred while working in Ottawa. 

On its website, the Ottawa Film Office said the province has “some of the most competitive tax programs in Canada, positioning Ottawa and the province to better attract foreign productions while marketing the region as ‘film-friendly.’”

But Roussakis said more can be done to continue the growth of the industry in the nation’s capital going forward. 

One thing he’d like to see is a direct flight between Ottawa and Los Angeles, to make the city more accessible to top production companies in the United States. 

“We need to get a flight so that (the city) becomes more advantageous for larger scale productions,” he said. “If Ottawa opens its doors, I think the landscape of the film industry in Ottawa is going to dramatically shift.”

Roussakis would also like to see a sound stage built in the city, something that many on the local film scene have been advocating for years. He is currently in talks with a group of investors to move the project forward. 

The potential for a sound stage campus has been a topic of discussion for the Ottawa Film Office for decades, but the organization made a firm push in 2018 with a $40-million proposal to build a facility on the site of the former Greenbelt Research Farm on Woodroffe Avenue across from the Nepean Sportsplex. The future of the project remains up in the air. 

“Everything that you need when you’re in production can be at that one facility,” said Roussakis. “In a perfect world where we do have a sound stage — be it through me or through another company — the amount of work that will be generated in the city would probably be in excess of $500 million a year.”

Film commissioner hoping to diversify offerings

Sandrine Pechels de Saint Sardos, film commissioner at the Ottawa Film Office, said she’s dreaming big for Ottawa’s future. 

“I want to make sure everyone in the world knows about Ottawa,” she said. “Amplification, discoverability, to me is essential for the growing industry.”

It was a slower year for film and television as a whole in 2023, as producers and streamers cut costs and two industry strikes delayed productions and promotions. Despite a modest dip locally, Pechels de Saint Sardos said Ottawa is set to get back on track in 2024. 

While Hallmark movies and rom-coms are an essential part of the local film ecosystem, de Saint Sardos sees potential to attract bigger productions outside of those genres. 

“We’re known for Christmas movies and we don’t want to get away from that, but we would love to bring in more TV series, more movies,” she said. 

In addition to a potential sound stage, Pechels de Saint Sardos said the film office is working to improve the city’s capacity by increasing the number of trained professionals ready to crew productions. That includes putting on training workshops for underrepresented communities and finding other ways to develop the local workforce.

“Whenever I pitch Ottawa, I say Ottawa is the world in one place. It’s so versatile and it has so much potential,” she said. “You can have it all and you don’t have to go that far.”

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