Reel deal: Ottawa Film Office, T.O. firm launch plan for $40M sound stage

Sound stage
(Stock image, for illustrative purposes only)

After decades of false starts, failed proposals and plenty of plot twists, the push to build a facility where major movies and TV shows could be filmed in Ottawa moved a step closer to reality this week.

The Ottawa Film Office announced Monday it is proposing a $40-million sound stage and “creative hub” on the site of the former Greenbelt Research Farm on Woodroffe Avenue across from the Nepean Sportsplex.

“It’s what we’ve all been working towards for a long time,” said Ottawa film commissioner Bruce Harvey.

Toronto-based TriBro Studios, which operates five sound stages in the GTA, is funding the project. TriBro would lease the 9.86-hectare parcel of land from the National Capital Commission, which owns the property and must sign off on the proposal.  

“The NCC’s decision is (based) on public support,” said Harvey. “If that support is there, it will happen. I don’t know what the negatives would be.”

He said a sound stage would create between 500 and 1,000 new jobs for crew members and other cultural sector workers, adding the lack of such a facility has long stunted the industry’s growth in Ottawa.

Film and television producers currently pump about $100 million a year into Ottawa’s economy, the film office says – a figure that pales in comparison to the more than $1 billion the industry generates annually in Toronto.

Harvey said if the new sound stage were to entice just a couple of dramatic TV series to shoot there, it could boost that figure by an additional $40 million to $80 million a year. Recent research from Film Ontario said the province loses up to $260 million in sound stage work each year because of a lack of capacity, he added.

“Just getting a little piece of that is more than enough to pay for what we’re doing,” Harvey said. “It doesn’t take too many TV series a year to be doubling our total production. So much of our crew has left to go to Toronto or Montreal because there isn’t that steady, dramatic series type of production here that allows you to make those commitments.”

TriBro Studios president Peter Apostolopoulos could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In a statement issued Monday, he said the region’s “rich film and television production history” made the decision to build a sound stage in Ottawa a “no-brainer.”

“These new purpose-built sound stages are part of our significant expansion plans, and we are very excited about this new chapter in TriBro’s history,” he said.

Harvey said most dramatic series require at least three separate sound stages, but wouldn’t go into further details about the proposal. Specifics of the film office’s plan won’t be revealed until the NCC hosts a public consultation next week.

‘We have been here before’

The local film and TV industry has long advocated for a full-fledged sound stage in Ottawa.

Gusto TV founder Chris Knight chaired an Invest Ottawa working group that tried to round up money and support for a stage several years ago. In 2012, Invest Ottawa selected a Toronto-based firm, Cinescape, to construct it, but negotiations fell apart several months later. City councillors removed funding for the project the following year.

Chris Knight
Gusto TV founder Chris Knight (OBJ file photo by Mark Holleron)

Knight, who eventually spent $1 million of his own money to build a studio for his TV production company, said Tuesday a sound stage would have significant economic spinoffs for everything from hotels to restaurants.

“My position has always been that a sound stage is not just good for the film and television industry, but good for the community at large,” said Knight, who was not involved in the new proposal. “Assuming that it’s a good deal, it’s going to be great for the economy, I think.”

Other local industry players are also taking a wait-and-see approach.

“It could be quite a positive step, but we have been here before,” said Michael Dobbin, a producer at Ottawa’s Quiet Revolution Pictures. “So I would reserve my opinion until I see what the actual offering is going to be.”

Michael Baker, a producer at Bunk 11 studios, said the project could attract more TV and film talent to the capital. But a sound stage is only one piece of the puzzle, he added.

“It’s a very complicated industry,” he said. “There’s always a million moving pieces and things changing constantly. But you need a component like a studio to do that. Without it, it won’t happen, but there still needs to be producers who want to come here, there needs to be product that’s going to be shot, there needs to be financing to do it. This is one of many legs of the table that needs to be there.”

Dobbin, who was part of previous efforts to bring a sound stage to Ottawa, said the hub’s proposed location away from the downtown core could be a turnoff for some producers.

“I’m not as convinced that reclaiming a facility on the outskirts of the city is really the 21st-century model.”

“I’m not as convinced that reclaiming a facility on the outskirts of the city is really the 21st-century model,” he said. “But I think it would be better to have that than nothing.”

Harvey argues the former research farm site is a winner because it’s close to Algonquin College, just a few blocks from two of the city’s biggest animation studios and not far from the Transitway, the airport and the Fallowfield train station. Local studios have coveted the site for years, he said.

“It was kind of a natural fit for us,” he said. “It was kind of this dream (location) for everyone, and it’s nice that it’s come together.”

Built by Agriculture Canada in the 1960s, the Greenbelt Research Farm was bought by the NCC in 2000, according to the city. Many of its buildings are now vacant.

Harvey said if all goes according to plan, construction on the facility could start next spring, with a projected opening date some time in mid-2020.

The public consultation will take place Sept. 5 at the proposed site at 1740 Woodroffe Ave., beginning at 5 p.m.