It’s quite likely that Ottawa will never be able to compete with Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and their big-budget movie productions. But a feature film, shot this year in the nation’s capital and surrounding area, could put the city on Hollywood’s radar as a viable, alternative movie-making site.
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, which premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, is a horror film directed by Osgood Perkins, the eldest son of the late actor Anthony Perkins (Psycho), and features a stellar cast that includes Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss and Bob Balaban. Following its release on Netflix in late October, the movie earned rave reviews from critics, and Ottawa’s tight-knit film community hopes that buzz will give the city a boost to attract more high-profile productions.
Much of the initiative to film movies in the capital has been locally driven, and has resulted over the past six years in such other recent horror-thriller fare as The Blackcoat’s Daughter (another Perkins film); The Monster featuring Canadian actor Scott Speedman; Penthouse North with Oscar nominee Michael Keaton; and House At The End of The Street, starring Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence.
All those movies were shot in and around Ottawa, and augment a steady production schedule in a city better known for movie-of-the-week fare (with such campy titles as Killing Mommy and the yet-to-be-released Killer Mom) for Lifetime TV.
Ben Hrkach, a regular crew member on film sets in Ottawa, says the average number of movies being simultaneously shot in the city has increased from one to three in recent years, partly as word has spread that the Ottawa area offers directors many easily accessible urban and rural locations from which to choose.
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Producers don’t need to fly in a crew since they can draw from a pool of Ottawa talent to serve as assistant directors or camera operators, in the sound and art departments, or to choose actors, which Ilona Smyth has done for most of the major films, TV series and commercials shot in the city over the past decade.
“When I was a kid, I read a lot of books and always thought about which actors reminded of the characters in the stories,” says 31-year-old Smyth. “But I didn’t realize that was any kind of job.”
The opportunity to turn those thoughts into reality and a career came while Smyth was enrolled in the film studies program at Ottawa’s Carleton University and got a gig casting background actors for Lifetime TV movies.
Sensing an opportunity to use more local talent, she established the Smyth Casting agency, and has since been the go-to Ottawa casting director for major movies, along with TV series such as the CBC sitcom Michael: Every Day, created by actor-director Don McKellar and comedian Bob Martin, and Discovery Channel’s first-scripted drama Frontier, starring Allan Hawco (Republic of Doyle) and also appearing on Netflix. “Ottawa is more than capable of accommodating major film production, and there is definitely more room for growth,” Smyth says.
The city sees that possibility, too. Two years ago, it hired Ottawa native Bruce Harvey, a former entertainment lawyer who ran a film and TV production company in Calgary, to serve as the city’s film commissioner and bring more film and TV shoots to the capital.
Harvey says the city currently generates about $100 million in annual production business, 55% of which comes from live-action projects and the rest from Ottawa’s longstanding animation community. “We also have the advantage of providing a 10% bonus on the Ontario Film and Television Tax Credit on Canadian-content production since we’re outside Toronto,” Harvey says.
Ottawa’s share is still a small slice of the overall industry. Foreign film and television production in Ontario rose 52% to $763 million last year, and Toronto will host almost 700 productions in 2016, the city says. Nationwide, the boom caused by the low dollar and well-regarded talent generates more than $5.5 billion in economic activity, according to the Canadian Media Producers Association.
A permanent production site in Ottawa to attract regular TV series work would help fuel further gains in the city, says Alphonse Ghossein, who runs Ottawa-based Go Insane Films and served as executive producer on Pretty Thing. He and other local filmmakers want the city to provide land and a 10-year freeze on property tax for a privately built sound stage. “We have a lot of producers, so if there was a studio, they would all come to it.”