Blake Steels has a vision for the future of film in the Port Lands

Pinewood Studios Expansion

Blake Steels tries out a virtual reality experience being developed by Sheridan College’s Screen Industries Research and Training Centre located at Pinewood Toronto Studios (photo by Chris Young).

Blake Steels is President of Pinewood Toronto Studios, one of the major tenants of the Toronto Port Lands Company. Pinewood Toronto Studios and TPLC recently signed an agreement to expand the studio’s capacity by constructing a new 135,000-square-foot support facility that will include four new workshop spaces, production offices, structured parking and ancillary retail space.

We recently sat down with Blake on Stage 10 of Pinewood Toronto Studios (which is also home to Sheridan College’s Screen Industries Research and Training Centre – SIRT) to talk about the film industry in Toronto.

Toronto Pinewood Studios opened in the Port Lands in 2008 and expanded in 2013 so that it now has 10 sound stages and two effects stages in the Port Lands. What is your vision for the recently announced expansion plans and even beyond that?

“This next development will provide support spaces for our production companies and eventually down the road that will evolve into a space that has commercial office space, so we can co-locate companies that are related to the film industry – think visual effects, post production, that type of thing – and some retail space, restaurants and shops. So you keep the waterfront consistent with the Corus environment. There’s a nice promenade for people to walk, to live, work, play.”

“We hope to be the anchor for that type of development in the area, as well as create and maintain a world-class film studio lot which is different than just having four-walled studios. So we want to build a true, L.A.-style film lot where there’s businesses related to film production thriving and conjoined to the four walls themselves.”

Toronto is a great place to shoot movies. What makes the city so attractive to film companies?

“We’ve got awesome crews – the people that do the work, the people who build sets, scenic painters, electricians, guys who know what they’re doing. They’re really strong crews. We have a city that can mimic many cities and a city that is very supportive of shooting film on its streets.”

“We have stable tax credits – which is very important for the business to thrive. And, we have facilities. We have purpose-built facilities (meaning the facilities were built specifically for film and TV production) like the ones we’re sitting in now and we also have converted warehouse (facilities). Each has a niche and each is important. What the purpose-built facilities offer – which are the type that Pinewood Toronto Studios is – is that we are the premium kind of offering. So we land the large films – Total Recall, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak – all of those types of shows and large television series like The Strain and The Expanse. That’s what we offer.”

How much is the rise and fall of the Canadian dollar a factor to the film industry in Toronto?

“The dollar now is a very positive impact. But we landed Pacific Rim and Pixels and Robo Cop when the dollar was at parity. So from our perspective, we were still dragging in large films even when the dollar was even. But having said that, yes, it makes it a lot easier for our sales guys when the dollar is below parity.”

“The stable tax credits are actually more important to the productions than the dollar. The dollar is unpredictable. The tax credits are bankable. So that’s important.”

Pinewood Toronto Studios is one of the anchor tenants in the Port Lands. What’s the future hold for this facility?

“Pinewood Toronto Studios is a facility that’s drawing world-class film producers and productions to the environment. They’re large and they’re big budget. We hope to grow that, not to stay the same. After we do this support space, we also want to add some additional stages. Our mission has always been to work to the point that we can do two very large films – like Total Recall and Pacific Rim in one site at the same time.”

“We’re always happy when we’re busy. It’s a cyclical business and we always want to grow rationally and sustainably, so it’s not just build it because there’s a good market. Build it so that even when there’s a bad market, it’s affordable.”

Mayor John Tory recently made a trip to Hollywood to promote Toronto’s film and television industry. How important is it to have a supportive municipal government?

“The City of Toronto is a great partner in general for film productions. That’s the feedback I get. As you know, we were down supporting the mayor’s trip, and he got very positive feedback for what Toronto does for film.”

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