Reel believer: Incoming film commissioner Saint Sardos says Ottawa is a ‘jewel’ for producers

Sandrine Pechels de Saint Sardos
Sandrine Pechels de Saint Sardos

It’s a line that could have come straight from the script of one of the Hallmark Christmas movies Ottawa’s film industry is becoming famous for, but the capital’s new film commissioner says there’s nothing make-believe about the sentiment.

“Ottawa is in my heart,” says Sandrine Pechels de Saint Sardos, who officially assumes her new role at the end of this month. “I love Ottawa. I think it has so much potential.”

Saint Sardos takes over as head of the not-for-profit Ottawa Film Office from Bruce Harvey, a former entertainment lawyer and film producer who launched the organization in 2017 and helped push the local industry to new heights that saw live-action film and TV productions generate a record $41 million in direct spending in 2021 despite dealing with the effects of the pandemic.

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Harvey left the film office in mid-January to become head of production at a Vancouver media company. His successor owns an eclectic résumé that includes sales, distribution and production roles at studios and broadcasters in Paris, New York, Toronto and Montreal.

Saint Sardos says job one will be ensuring Ottawa’s much-ballyhooed sound-stage project, a longtime dream of many local producers, becomes reality.

Toronto-based TriBro Studios originally floated a plan in 2018 to construct four state-of-the-art sound stages on Woodroffe Avenue at the former site of the National Capital Commission’s Greenbelt Research Farm. 

‘Creative hub’

The proposal also included a “creative hub” that would feature 25,000 square feet of workshop space and 50,000 square feet of production facilities and co-working space for film, television and animation studios.

In 2020, Ottawa council approved a $40-million loan to get the ball rolling. TriBro later said it didn’t need the money, but the project is now stuck in limbo – partly due to the unexpected death last year of Andreas Apostolopoulos, the billionaire president of TriBro’s parent entity, Triple Group of Companies.

According to the Ottawa Film Office, TriBro is no longer involved in the project. The film office says the organizations mutually agreed to abandon the partnership “after examining each of the parties’ timelines, refocused business direction, and COVID-related challenges such as supply chain issues.”

“It has to be done, and it’s going to be one of my priorities as soon as I start on April 27.”

The film office says it’s still committed to building a sound stage in the capital. It says the organization’s board of directors is in talks with “various business entities that will offer a new structure to the development and management” of the project.

Saint Sardos says a new sound stage is a must for Ottawa if it wants to compete with film and TV production heavyweights like Toronto and Montreal.

“It has to be done, and it’s going to be one of my priorities as soon as I start on April 27,” she says.

The native of Paris is also bullish on the capital’s renowned animation sector. 

Saint Sardos spent nearly a decade as head of sales and acquisitions at Bejuba! Entertainment, a producer and distributor of children’s programming with offices around the world. 

In that role she served as a juror at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, and she quickly came to appreciate the depth of talent in the local industry. She thinks the city’s animation sector still has plenty of untapped potential even as studios such as Big Jump, Mercury Filmworks and new kid on the block Atomic Cartoons churn out award-winning series for the likes of NBCUniversal and Netflix.

‘Streamers are key’

“The streamers are the key at the moment,” Saint Sardos says. “There’s where Ottawa can have its place.”

On the live-action side of things, the city is gaining a growing reputation as the ideal stand-in for U.S. cities from Atlanta to New York – particularly when it comes to Christmas-themed productions that take full advantage of Ottawa’s snowy winter landscapes.

Saint Sardos says the capital’s mix of historic and modern buildings, picturesque waterways and nearby villages as well as its proximity to rural settings all play in its favour. In addition, Ottawa offers a cheaper and easier-to-navigate – both geographically and bureaucratically – alternative to the traditional film production mecca of Toronto, she adds.

But she says the city still tends to fly under the radar with international producers. Saint Sardos plans to put her extensive sales experience to work raising Ottawa’s profile on the world stage.

“I’m a salesperson,” she says. “It’s in my DNA. I really want Ottawa to be known internationally as a great place to film live-action (productions), as a great place to have your animated (projects) to be done as well. That’s going to be my goal. Ottawa is a little jewel in the province and in Canada to produce content.”

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