A lot of movies and TV shows are shot in Canada. This might be why you are currently reading a magazine called “Hollywood North.”
Not nearly as many productions shot in Canada are meant to take place in Canada. This is the first part of a series examining a possible bias against Canadian Content.
We will examine the causes. How does the world see Canadians? We’ll look at the history of the Canadian Film industry in terms of content. What is the role of government sponsorship? How does the economic reality of the film industry work in Canada? How do we gauge the cultural impact?
What are the experiences of those who make films and how do American viewers feel? By the end of the series, we should better understand why TV shows and movies are rarely set in Canada and what we can do to change that.
Canada is the second largest country in the world in terms of geographical area. Vancouver Island is a long way from Newfoundland. Most of us never get to experience the entire country. We have different accents, habits, environments, heritage, and cultures. An anglophone from Quebec, who moves to Alberta might constantly cause surprise when their new neighbours discover that their native tongue is not French. The opposite can be said about a Francophone that moves from their birthplace in New Brunswick. Despite these vast differences, people outside of Canada often have a general stereotypical view of Canadians as being friendly and polite folks that love hockey and poutine. One has to wonder why.
The film industry in Canada has a long history of trying to help make movies more Canadian. In the 1920s, US studios introduced a strategy called vertical integration. They would align their interests with Canadian theatre chains or buy them outright. This was a way to combine production with distribution. By the 1930’s the Canadian film industry was virtually a branch of Hollywood.
In the later 20’s the UK passed a law that 15% of films to be screened must have a Commonwealth origin. Hollywood took advantage of this by producing films in Canada that were made for lower budgets and tighter schedules. They became known as “quota quickies.”
In 1938 the National Film Board was established. During World War II it was one the largest studios in the world and produced many propaganda films to support the war effort. The NFB became a world leader in Documentaries and short-form animated films.
The federal government has even created programs to help create Canadian films. In 1967 the CFDC, The Canadian Film Development Corporation invested $10 million in Canadian Feature films. By 1976 it grew to $25 million and continued to grow from there. In 1984 it was renamed Telefilm Canada.
Why do so many US productions shoot in Canada, especially Toronto and Vancouver?
There are tax incentives that American studios and Networks take advantage of. Of course, they hire many Canadians so that is a wise government decision.
The Canadian dollar is worth seventy-five cents American. This gives a production of savings of twenty-five percent for hiring secondary cast, crew, and location expenses. When you’re spending millions of dollars, that savings turns out to be very significant.
It’s difficult to find any data about the cultural impact of not seeing your home on the small or big screen. That is felt in small increments that increase over time. It comes down to how much your conversations are dominated by topics that don’t hit home. What you choose to watch, read, and listen to, shapes your environment.
It’s hard to find movies set in Canada but even more rare are Hollywood films, made by Americans that are set here. We spoke with a producer that has that exact distinction.
Gary Foster is an American film producer. You might have seen some of his films such as The Flamingo Kid, Short Circuit, Sleepless in Seattle, or the TV show Community. In 2001, he made the Score. It was Marlon Brando’s last film and starred Robert Di Nero, Edward Norton, and Angela Bassett. Not only is the Score a very well-made and entertaining picture, but it’s also quite unique as it’s an American production filmed and set in Montreal. We asked Gary how the idea of setting the film in Canada came about.
GF: Once Robert DiNero came on board, the story idea expanded to include a Quebec reservation to be used for a smuggling operation. It was then decided that Montreal would be ideal to set the location. It made the most sense for the story, authenticity, specificity, and costs. Gary also said it was a very positive experience and everyone from the studio was on board.
Gary Foster also produced Elektra (shot in Vancouver), The American Panda Adventure (partially shot in Vancouver) Short Circuit 2 (shot in Toronto), and Sleepless in Seattle (not shot in Canada but filmed in Seattle and other US locations).
HNMAG: Does it usually make sense to shoot in Canada from a financial point of view?
GF: In some cases, the financial incentive of shooting in Canada makes sense and doesn’t compromise the story. In other cases, it would be a mistake.
His next film is Finestkind.
It’s filmed and set in New Bedford, Massachusetts. This is where the writer-director Brian Hegeland grew up. The location is a very essential part of the story. New Bedford informed Brian’s experience and is crucial to Finestkind. No amount of Hollywood Magic would do enough justice in faking that. It was suggested to film Finestkind in Halifax or Vancouver to save money but Gary and Brian responded by saying that the movie will be made in New Bedford or not at all.
HNMAG: Having a story set in Seattle is very common for a Vancouver, BC production. Sleepless in Seattle is one of the best romantic comedies of all time but was not shot in Canada. Was shooting up here ever discussed?
GF: We never thought about shooting anywhere except Seattle. 100% shooting in the city where the story was set made the movie better. Just as we discussed about Montreal, it gives authenticity and accuracy to the movie.
The idea is often put forth, that people don’t want to see something in Canada because we’re not special or enticing. There’s a belief that Americans just want to watch shows and movies about their country. We spoke to American viewers to find out if that’s true.
Joanne grew up in the Bay area.
She lived in Boston from 2010 to 2013, then in Wisconsin through to 2017.
Joanne moved to Seattle five years ago, where she currently resides.
HNMAG: Do you prefer if a film or TV is supposed to take place in the US?
Joanne: No, but it makes it fun when I see it set somewhere I lived. I like the familiarity.
HNMAG: Do you know which American productions are shot in Canada?
Joanne: I don’t pay attention to where anything is filmed.
HNMAG: What are a couple of TV shows you watch on a regular basis?
Joanne: I love Grey’s Anatomy which is supposed to take place in Seattle.
I also watch A Million Little Things which is Boston.
HNMAG: A Million Little Things is filmed in Vancouver. Would it matter to you if the show was set in Vancouver, where it’s shot?
Joanne: It wouldn’t matter if it was set there.
Melvin is from Jackson Tennessee. He now lives just outside of Atlanta, where he moved to right before the pandemic in 2020.
HNMAG: Have you ever been to Canada?
Melvin: No, I’ve never been to Canada, not yet, but I want to go.
HNMAG: Do you care if a movie or show is set in the US?
Melvin: I don’t.
HNMAG: What are a couple of your favourite movies?
Melvin: John Wick.
HNMAG: I’m not sure which city that was set in.
Melvin: I don’t know what place it is either.
HNMAG: Let’s say it was Toronto, I mean Keanu Reeves was raised there. Would that matter?
Melvin: No, actually I’d love to see more of that. Now that I started to travel, it would be more intriguing to see a movie in a place I haven’t been.
HNMAG: You also love the Hangover. The first one was in Vegas, the next in Bangkok, would you see a Hangover, PEI?
HNMAG: Are there any TV shows you really liked?
Melvin: Wayans Brothers
HNMAG: How about that show set in Montreal?
Melvin: Oh yeah
HNMAG: Some producers in Canada feel that viewers don’t want to see stories set in Canada. Do you get why?
Melvin: I can see how Canadians could feel that way because I just know Americans and Americans feel America is the best and everything should be about the US.
Canada is a large multicultural country that is much more diverse than our international image. Hollywood has taken advantage of the Canadian market from the start and our efforts to curb that have been unsuccessful. There are even government funding sources set up to promote Canadian films and TV shows. Many Hollywood productions are made in Canada for economic benefits. We spoke to a prominent Hollywood producer and US viewers about Canadian Content. It seems that authenticity, story, and characters have a lot more to do with a good movie than the location. Where something is set can help the product but it has to be real, not imposed. In our next part, we’ll take a further look into the history, funding, and opinions that will enlighten our view.