October 28, 2002
The economics of movie studios are, to borrow Paul Bronfman's wording, "skinny" - and constructing a $100-million complex to lure larger Hollywood productions north of the border is not a business for the impatient. "This is going to be a 10-year project in terms of recognizing economic return," says Bronfman, co-president and co-CEO of Great Lakes Studios, the space-to-be now under construction on Toronto's waterfront. "It's really for people in the industry that want to be in the industry for 10 years or longer. It's not for any quick-buck artist."
Great Lakes Studios is being built on 10.8 hectares near the Leslie Street Spit - land on lease from Ontario Power Generation and the former home of the R.L. Hearn Power House. Construction started two months ago, when workers began hauling away several tons of decades-old generators and turbines, and was marked on Oct. 8 with a ground-breaking ceremony. The 350,000-square-foot complex - 14 storeys high and three football fields long - will include 12 to 14 film stages, post-production services and its own railway spur. A nautical backlot, 12 acres of adjacent Lake Ontario waters, will also provide shipping access. It is a joint effort between The Comweb Group, of which Bronfman is president and CEO, and Studios of America, headed by Paul Vaughan. The companies finalized their partnership in September.
The quick start by Great Lakes casts some doubt on the future of Toronto's other mega-studio, the unnamed project backed by the U.K.'s Pinewood Shepperton Studios and hyped by Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman. Bronfman is careful not to knock his competitors - "I don't want to slam anybody...it's just not the way I operate" - but he doubts a second studio will be built.
"Is there room for two studios of this magnitude in Toronto? No," he says.
Completion is expected in 2004, but some space will be open for business by the close of 2003. But no productions have yet signed up and Bronfman doesn't expect to have any until midway through next year. "The shows just don't work that far in advance," he says.
It was in September, not long before the ground was broken at the Hearn plant, that Bronfman went public with his multiple sclerosis. He's been ill since 1988 but was initially misdiagnosed. "They thought it was cancer in my spine," he recalls, "then in '94 I started to have tingling toes and hands and was finally diagnosed in '95."
But everyone who needed to know - friends, bankers, investors - has known for a long time. The MS has not affected how he does business. "It affects my walking, that's all," he says.
On the phone from an Ottawa hospital where he is undergoing stem-cell treatment, the 45-year-old businessman, cousin to Vivendi Universal vice-chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr., is bullish about the project - unconcerned that the current production slump could hurt business. At present, there are only four Hollywood movies shooting in the Toronto area, none of which (Godsend, The Devil's Throat, et al) seems to even approach the sort of big-budget mega-productions for which Great Lakes is designed. On the West Coast, only the now-wrapping X-Men 2 stands out.
"Sure, there's a slump, but these things are cyclical," he says. "I don't think it's any more difficult now than any other time." A large studio, he offers, might turn things around. Build it, and they will come. "I think it will be a huge shot in the arm, it has to be. We're going to help bring in shows that haven't been able to shoot in Toronto. It's filling a void in the market."
And that, he adds, will be good news for smaller studios, contrary to what many have predicted. "It's not going to take [business] away from the local studio owners," he insists, "We saw that with North Shore Studios in Vancouver. When Steve Cannell and I opened it 14 years ago, smaller local operators were afraid they were going to lose all their business. And they all got busier from the spill-down....Vancouver's got about 40 stages now, so all it did was grow the market."
Press material for Great Lakes says it will bring 7,500 new jobs and an additional $500 million to the area.
If that's true, Great Lakes could add fuel to mounting protests in the U.S. about runaway productions - which Bronfman dismisses as politicized "noise" drummed up by Hollywood unions. "The issue of runaway productions has been a hot button every couple of years. It's hotter now than ever because Australia is now competing and Prague is now competing." He says Great Lakes will stay out of the "mudslinging" and "just go about our business, do the job and make people feel welcome."
That said, he pauses to take an out-of-the-blue swing at the Screen Actors Guild and its proposed Global Rule One, which seeks it impose American union regulations on other nations, calling it "probably the worst form of American imperialism."
He adds that "lack of political will" in part prevented a large-scale
studio from going up in Toronto earlier. All of Canada's other major
studios, he points out, were built with significant help from
governments and funding agencies. "When Vancouver Film Studios opened
three years ago they had a $20-million loan, in Quebec our competitors
have both federal and provincial help, and we got $4 million from
SODEC [for Cine Cite Montreal]. What makes this project different is
that we have no commitment of government support."
© Copyright 2002 Brunico Communications, Inc.