Arts & Culture

Ready for its close-up: New festival boosts city’s film industry

Sunday prayer at a Catholic church. An Ottawa Senators game. Working out at the gym. Ottawa is playing its own version of Where’s Waldo with all the sightings of a heavily-bearded Mel Gibson, here to shoot his latest film, Fatman. The action-comedy will see the former Braveheart-throb play Kris Kringle in a bit of casting that takes the ‘bad Santa’ thing to a whole new level. 

Bigger stars with better reputations have shot in Ottawa (Paul Newman for example in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge). But regardless how you feel about him, Gibson has the all-important name recognition the industry loves and he brings it here just as the film community is trying to develop the very same thing. The city has a plan in place and if it works, Ottawa’s role in Canadian film and television production just might become more than that of a supporting actor.

“We want to make Ottawa an even more creative city than it is,” explains Tom McSorley of the Ottawa-based Canadian Film Institute (CFI). 

Canadian Film Institute head Tom McSorley announces the International Film Festival of Ottawa. Photo by Danny Globerman

The International Film Festival of Ottawa is a new festival organized by the CFI for March 25-29, setting out to be a showcase for the best current feature films, documentaries, shorts, and animation from other festivals. With about a third of its 20 films slated to be Canadian, the festival has already secured Toronto’s Atom Egoyan and his latest movie, Guest of Honour, as part of the lineup.

“The city deserves a film festival like this,” says McSorley. “We’re really optimistic about how this will change the game for us.”

Ottawa Film Commissioner Bruce Harvey foresees a boom in local production. Photo by Danny Globerman

Chasing a bigger piece of the pie
Right now, Ottawa’s share of that game is but a sliver. Across Canada, yearly film and television production totals about $9 billion. For Ottawa, even after 2019 clocked in as its best year ever with more than $100 million dollars in production, that still amounts to only about 1 percent of the Canadian market.

A new festival on its own, however, won’t win a bigger piece of the pie, especially with the 800-pound TIFF gorilla just down the highway in Toronto. For years, McSorley has known that. For the longest time he’s wanted to roll out the red carpet for a live-action film festival but didn’t see the point.

“Without a critical mass of production community, it’s difficult to get that other dimension. Who’s going to come to Ottawa from Toronto or Montreal to do some rinky-dink thing.”

Two recent developments are changing things.

First, city councillors gave zoning approval to a $40 million filmmaking complex in the city’s west end. Proposed by Toronto’s TriBro Studios, the complex would include four sound stages and office space for production, animation, and training, creating at least 400 permanent jobs.

Then, Algonquin College announced it would introduce a new Film and Media Production program this September to compliment its programs in animation and television.

Add in the film festival and the trio of initiatives are like the three legs of a stool. Algonquin’s program provides the crews, the sound stage provides the steady work, and the festival is an industry hothouse where locals and outsiders can schmooze and make deals.

“Having a major festival where you attract the best from around the world is critical if we’re going to be developing our own films,” says the head of the Ottawa Film Office Bruce Harvey. “We must have the ability for our filmmakers in Ottawa to partner up with other people, to gestate ideas together, and to develop their craft. Part of that is meeting the people who are going to be coming and part of that is the training sessions they’re going to be putting on.”

Organizers of the International Film Festival of Ottawa flank Ontario Minister of Culture and Ottawa MPP Lisa MacLeod (centre) at the launch event. Photo by Danny Globerman

Funding green light
With the film complex and Algonquin program in the works, McSorley and the CFI decided the time was right to do more than simply talk about a film festival. They applied for funding from the Ontario provincial government and (to their surprise), received nearly $70,000 in support, enough to green light the festival.

“When you have a critical mass of people working in the film production industry in Ottawa, then you can show stuff that is made here,” says McSorley. “You can show work that is actually produced out of the sound stages in the west end. And have parties in those sound stages. People love that stuff. Have a special screening out there on set. It’s what TIFF does. Then you get support from the production companies. You get sponsorships. You just build it that way.”

McSorley and Harvey like to remind people that there was a time when Ottawa was the epicentre of Canadian filmmaking. In 1945, the Ottawa HQ of the National Film Board was one of the largest film studios in the world. Mix in the output of defunct powerhouse Crawley Films and it was Ottawa, not Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver that held the spotlight in Canadian film production circles.

A scene from Norman McLaren’s Oscar-winning film Neighbours. Produced in 1952 by the National Film Board, it marked the heyday of Ottawa film production. Photo courtesy National Film Board

Ottawa’s film and television production community doesn’t expect to reclaim that crown. But given the growing demand for content, it does hope the years ahead will be a renaissance of film. Movies have always carried a little magic with them. Now that we know what Ottawa’s film community has up its sleeve, a lot of people will be watching to see whether it’s a trick they can pull off.