There was a time when Hollywood studios shot films in Toronto because it was cheap.
Why else would the makers of the Tom Cruise flick Cocktail conclude the best place to film a trendy New York bar was the Don Jail? Or film a Boston college hangout in Good Will Hunting on Front Street? Wicked strange, but it happened.
No, Toronto was just simply less expensive with its often weak dollar, tax incentives and eager young crews.
These days though, the film, TV and digital industry in Toronto is big business — a $2-billion-a-year business in 2016, with $800 million of that coming from Hollywood.
Saving money can’t still be the only reason the city is so popular with Lalaland.
“To an extent, it’s still true,” says Richard Crouse, host of CTV’s Pop Life.
“The weak dollar and tax breaks are a factor. But what’s happened in the last 30 years is Toronto built these great soundstages and got a reputation for some of the best crews and craftspeople in the world.”
Toronto also has versatility.
Say you need a Depression-era Madison Square Garden like in Cinderella Man? Why not The Bay downtown and Maple Leaf Gardens?
A 1950s LA premiere à la Hollywoodland? The Bloor Cinema works just fine.
Need a Boston newspaper office for Spotlight? The old Globe and Mail requires little set-dressing.
Sixties Baltimore in Hairspray? You can dance your heart out at The Junction of Dundas and Roncesvalles.
It’s usually not a big deal passing off T.O. as another city. As Crouse points out, if you add a few yellow cabs and some American mailboxes to a street, does it really look all that different from, say, downtown Manhattan (TV’s Suits (and Meghan Markle), we’re looking at you)? Okay, maybe if you squint a little, but still.
“There’s just a wide variety of locations in Toronto with diverse architecture and locations. We can be Chicago, New York, and Washington very easily,” says Crouse.
Speaking of, the Oscar-winning movie musical Chicago was shot here, utilizing locations like the Elgin Theatre and Osgood Hall. American Psycho? Check his passport, because that sure looks like he’s working at the TD Centre and comparing business cards at the King Edward Hotel.
To be fair, when it’s a location like Dundas’ retro Lakeview Restaurant — which has been the setting for everything from Cocktail and The Boondock Saints to the recent The Shape of Water — it’s unlikely anyone but regulars would recognize the location as distinctly Toronto.
A cool diner is a cool diner in any city.
As well, a lot of Toronto’s starring roles have come in science fiction films.
In Suicide Squad, Robocop, and the Resident Evil films, Toronto is basically a generic, often futuristic city. In the zombie-fied Resident Evil series, Toronto served as Raccoon City, which hardly seems a stretch. Still, watching Nathan Philips Square nuked in Resident Evil: Apocalypse could prove unsettling for local audiences.
Look at 2006’s The Incredible Hulk, in which Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre shares a block with the Zanzibar and Sam The Record Man. And it is among Crouse’s favourite Toronto-shot flicks. He says he was on Yonge one day when he saw a commotion.
“I looked down the street and there was a bus on its side that burst into flames. I realized suddenly I was on a movie set. It was pretty cool.”
Crouse did note that one Toronto landmark has repeatedly proven problematic for Hollywood film-makers seeking to pass off Toronto as somewhere else.
“The CN Tower has probably been digitally-erased in more movies than you can count.”