Special effects laden Hollywood blockbusters could be coming to a $100 million studio complex planned for a vacant industrial land in Markham that proponents say is already attracting interest from filmmakers looking to get in early on increasingly sought after production space.
“The response has been tremendous,” said Frank Sicoli, who along with partner Dominic Sciullo recently founded First Studio City to pursue the Markham Movieland project and others down the road amid demand for facilities and workers in the sector that is outstripping supply.
He said expensive franchises like the Marvel Avengers superhero series need a lot of space and production houses are intrigued by the sheer size of the venture. The plans feature what’s being called the largest film, television and digital soundstage of its kind in North America at 70,000 sq. ft. That compares to the 45,900-square-foot “Mega Stage” at Pinewood Toronto Studios, home to the CBS series Star Trek: Discovery.
Hamilton-born Sicoli said producers are excited about the Markham Super Stage that will accommodate one blockbuster production or two major feature films or seven mid-sized feature films simultaneously. First Studio City Markham Movieland will also house more than 20 sound stages of different sizes to accommodate varying production budgets.
The studio will offer experiential learning educational programs along with ancillary production and post-production services to an industry growing in size and importance. The project is to be built by the Remington Group Inc. and designed by Quadrangle Architects.
Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said he expects 80 per cent of the studio will be booked by opening day, with producers drawn by tax credits, the low dollar and Markham’s diversity of talent and culture, as well as “the lowest industrial and commercial taxes in the GTA.”
Scarpitti said the municipality is willing to “move mountains” to assure the project receives final approvals, adding that several groups have contacted him to explore options for studios in Markham and elsewhere where land is more readily available than in Toronto.
Sicoli said First Studio City has secured $100 million in private investment for Markham Movieland, a more-than-400,000 sq. ft. studio to occupy up to 14 acres near 14th Ave. and McDowell Gate, with construction expected to begin in the spring, with an opening projected for the end of 2020.
“We’re confident in the business model and believe it has what it needs to be successful in attracting and retaining film production by bringing together first-class companies and people to build a haven of culture and technology,” said Sicoli, whose background includes producing, promoting and marketing within the broadcast entertainment and music industry.
He also called the distance between Markham and amenities of downtown Toronto popular with the movie and TV crowd “irrelevant.”
Unveiled during the Toronto International Film Festival, the development will provide the scale required for blockbuster productions, according to Sicoli, while boosting space for all local and international films at a time when production activity is booming in Canada.
Fueled in part by a surge in demand for content for video streaming services along with tax incentives and the low loonie versus the greenback, the production boom isn’t expected to peak any time soon, according to a 2017 report on the global movie, TV and video production industry by market research firm IBIS.
In Canada, the sector is poised for growth over the next five years, although the trajectory depends on continued domestic tax incentives that account for the majority of industry financing, the report says.
Ontario’s Conservative government is reviewing public spending in the province. And while everything is on the table, Scarpitti said he has told government officials that taxpayer-funded rebates produce economic spinoffs and assure film studios are brimming with activity.
The Ontario Media Development Corp., the government agency responsible for attracting domestic and foreign producers to the province, offered $570 million in tax credits during the latest fiscal year, ended in March, said in a statement.
It said Hollywood studios such as Sony and Universal Pictures typically get a 21.5 per cent rebate on all expenditures made in Ontario.
The Canadian Media Producers Association points out that the growth of the film and video production industry is linked to changing consumer behaviour internationally, where a rising middle class is helping drive demand for content on emerging mobile platforms.
The association says the 2016-2017 fiscal year was strong for Canada overall, with production volume in the country reaching an all-time high of $8.38 billion. Film and TV production volume in B.C. last year hit $2.99 billion, just ahead of Ontario’s $2.97 billion. Quebec, with its French-language industry, placed third with $1.75 billion.
The movie, TV and digital production sector topped $2 billion in economic activity in Toronto in 2016 according to Mayor John Tory, up from $1.5 billion in 2015 and compared to just $499 million in 2008 when Pinewood first opened.
The growth spurred Pinewood Toronto to announce plans to eventually double the size of its 330,000 sq. ft. production lot in Toronto’s Port Lands, which currently includes the Mega Stage and 11 other purpose-built stages.
In the meantime, a space crunch remains. Toronto officials said production was turned away last year as the sector strains at full capacity.
“They gobble up a lot of space so we need to expand,” Alfredo Romano, a partner and investor in Pinewood Toronto Studios, told Hollywood Reporter referring to the CBS Star Trek: Discovery franchise.