Building Back Better: Newest Thriving Sectors
By Jeff Buckstein
Having just come off a record year for live action production in 2019, Ottawa’s film and television industry seemed poised for another boom year in 2020. The first month got off to a blazing start, but by the end of that quarter, the shock of the COVID-19 global pandemic had hit with full force. The industry, like much of Ottawa, went into lockdown.
Behind the scenes, however, much was happening. Animators developed a process whereby they could work remotely. “They quickly pivoted and were able to get back up running,” says film commissioner Bruce Harvey of the Ottawa Film Office.
Industry officials also worked diligently with the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development to develop guidelines about how to safely proceed. The entire structure of how the crew and equipment flowed on set was altered to protect against COVID-19. Personal protective equipment was obtained for use on set. Social distancing rules were put in place.
“Whole new departments were created to deal with safety on set, including full-time people using foggers to disinfect entire locations before the crew was allowed to go in because actors are unmasked when they’re on camera,” explains Harvey.
All of this resulted in a 10 to 25 per cent increase in budgeted production expenses. But the diligence – and extra expense – paid off.
“When production was able to resume again in July, even after having the shutdown, we came close to matching in 2020 what we did in 2019. As soon as we were able to get up and running, the appetite for streaming during COVID went through the roof. People were consuming product in a voracious way,” says Harvey.
In 2021, the local film industry has surged far past where it was pre-pandemic. Local spending for live action drama production so far this year has been $37.2 million with a total of 28 feature-length films, plus several TV series filmed between January and the end of October, compared to $28.5 million and 25 feature length films, plus several TV series in 2019.
Moreover, “we’ve had no outbreaks on sets in Ottawa. That has really helped us with the international community, as actors and producers know they’ll be safe when they come here,” Harvey notes.
Harvey is “very bullish” on the future of Ottawa’s film and television industry.
“The producers here are doing a great job. The crews are developing quickly. Both La Cité and Algonquin College have made modifications in their film and television programs to alter the type of training to meet the demand for the industry,” says Harvey.
Both academic institutions are also working hard to keep the local workforce up at a time when finding crew is the biggest restriction to allowing the industry to maintain its healthy growth, he adds.
Pandemic modifications have also improved workflow, and the enhanced sanitization measures will better protect the local film and television industry against viral outbreaks, which often set back local production in the past.
As a result, “I can go to a producer or a studio and say ‘bring your next production to Ottawa because we have the locations, the crew, the cast, and all of the infrastructure to fit your needs,” says Harvey.