The ever-smiling Alex Jansen, Kingston Film Commissioner

Kingston’s Bid for Hollywood North: An Interview with Film Commissioner Alex Jansen

Asking film professionals where “Hollywood North” is will likely net you multiple answers. Most in my neck of the woods would point to Vancouver, home of CW’s Arrowverse and the newly minted Sonic The Hedgehog film franchise. A query further east may highlight Toronto, arguably the centre of English Canadian production with its Quebec counterpart Montreal, representing the same in French. But smack between those last two film metropolises is a smaller city seeking a larger slice of the film pie: Kingston, Ontario.

Since inaugurating an official film office in 2018, the Limestone City has swiftly built a stellar reputation among American and Canadian film producers with its choice locations, appealing incentives and can-do attitude. COVID has barely slowed them down and the city’s film sets are busier than ever. In fact, film commissioner Alex Jansen was literally on a location scout when I called him up to chat about what Kingston has to offer the film industry, indie and blockbusters alike:

Can you hear me okay?

Sorry, just racing out of the the prison. We’re doing a (location) scout and prisons are not designed for reception. 

Okay, so let’s start with you, Alex. You are the film commissioner for Kingston. What does that job entail? 

The (Kingston) Film Office opened in 2018 and we’ve been developing the film sector within Kingston. It’s basically everything to attract and support film and TV production. So on one side, it’s been helping to develop the infrastructure for everything from cast, crew, cater, handling the permitting process, but then opening up a lot of more locations. So for us, the big thing was opening Kingston Penitentiary and increasing access to some of our locations like Springer Market Square and City Hall. 

Then the other thing is a lot of this labor force development, so trying to connect the local community to the productions that are coming in and then develop more of a crew base. In our case, we actually fall under tourism which is a little bit more unique for a film office, as opposed to say economic development. We handle permitting for the city as a whole.

What what triggered the opening of a film office? Was there much filming in Kingston before that?

There hadn’t been a lot. I’ve actually got long ties to the community. I have been teaching in the Queens film program there for the last ten years. But prior to that, I started the Kingston Canadian Film Festival. Around the time we started it (in) 1999/2001, there was a bit of a burst of production and then every so often sporadically some stuff would come through. 

But I think what really led to to there being an appetite was most likely on the heels of Crimson Peak, a Guillermo del Toro film that came into Kingston and just did extensive shooting in the old Springer Market Square behind City Hall and I think that’s what really showed that economic potential. (It) translated to all the sub-industries, you know with hotels, suppliers and the whole gamut.

I think that that’s probably what built the confidence within the market into it and then in my case, it was basically consulting and modelling and seeing how that could work and then making the pitch and then the city’s just been really receptive about it. 

Since the film office was established, would you say film production has increased in the city?

Yeah, we’ve seen a huge build. The first year was streamlining it, making sure we were ready for production, increasing the access, starting to inventory our locations, getting our locations up into the provincial database and just making sure that we were ready for it. We started to do stuff on a promotional side and all on a fairly modest budget. We started doing things like fan tourism, bringing in top scouts and then starting to announce to industry and getting more proactive about getting the word out. 

Then the big thing that was figuring out how we could actually get the Kingston Penitentiary open for filming, how we can increase access to some of those areas. The big game changer for us was (that) we were able to do a five month trial with Correction Services Canada on the penitentiary. In that period of time, that’s where we started to to really see it. 

So the first major production that we brought in was DC’s Titans Netflix show. Then we also brought in Murdoch Mysteries all in that five month trial. We brought in a Swiss feature film, we did a couple music videos and then we capped off with Star Trek: Discovery, so we were able to reply show that model.

Fortunately we proved (all) that pre-COVID because then it really proved that potential and then and then of course COVID hit and everything ground to a halt. But then this industry has just been so strong to rebound.

So on the heels of COVID, between the first and second lockdown, we were able to host season two of Locke & Key in the square in November of last year. Then of course everything went into a second lockdown and then we rebounded in February and we’re just right back to record levels of production.

So we started the year with the pilot for Amazon’s Reacher and then we had three big blocks of Mayor of Kingstown, the Paramount show. While that was going on, we had a two episode run of Murdoch Mysteries. We’ve had various smaller shows coming in for CBC and a couple docs, we have an end-trend feature all within the Frontenac region surrounding Kingston. Then just a couple weeks ago, we wrapped up the last episode of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.

We got a couple (more) on deck through now and through the end of the year so it’s been a huge year. We’re seeing a massive increase in major production. It’s the largest production (year) that the city’s ever had.

What we’re seeing a decrease in though, is in smaller local production and I think that’s just the restrictions and and the very necessary costs tied to shooting under COVID restrictions has definitely slowed things down on that side, although we’re starting to see it rebound as well. 

Kingston Penitentiary and its magnificent staircase

Can you tell us more about your star location, the Kingston Penitentiary?

We’ve got three main anchor locations and it’s by far the biggest. It’s about 200,000 square feet. It’s the largest, oldest maximum security prison in the country going back to 1845. It’s just a massive institution that decommissioned in 2013, so it’s still controlled by Correction Services Canada and it took a while to negotiate it through. I did the first production to go through it, Alias Grace and then we were able to open it up under that five month trial in 2019 and and that’s where we’re seeing probably half of all our production is really out the pen, so it’s been a fantastic location with a ton of different looks. 

The architecture within it has got some incredible detail work. It has various different looks. Originally at one point they were four levels, but it’s a two level at two tiered ranges, there’s got three different styles of cell ranges within them just a massive yard.

But the interesting thing is that it’s not necessarily just being shot as a prison. Like Star Trek: Discovery, it was the beautiful stone staircase and that’s why they came to shoot and The Lost Symbol is also not shooting it as as prison, so it’s getting shot as quite a few different things as well. It took until about 2019 to get it open up to the filming. It operates mainly as tours at this point. 

 Springer Market Square dressed for Crimson Peak (2015)

You mentioned three anchor locations. Tell us about the other two? 

We find we get a lot of our stuff at City Hall and Springer Market Square. They are being shot as Moscow, shot as Buffalo in the case of Crimson Peak and shot as Bath, England in the case of Locke & Key, Murdoch was in shooting fairly recently, it’s been shot as New Orleans as well for an HBO show. Then we’ve got a few locations depending on the production like Fort Henry is a completely unique location but it’s very specific. 

So for the right production, we see quite a bit of interest for Queens University just has an incredible campus that can really pass for the American Ivy League. 

We see a lot of the big productions coming in for those anchor locations, but that what we try to do is support someone on staying and shooting within the surrounding regions more. So the province is broken into different tourism offices and Regional Tourism Office No. 9 basically goes from Dunnville to the west to Cornwall to the east and includes Frontenac to the north and a lot of really beautiful locations within it like Prince Edward County and Quinte West.

So we did an extensive expansion and support study for the broader region where we showed locations that are all starting to go up under the provincial locations library, and we’re starting to see it materializing into quite a bit, like the Brockville Railway Tunnel is incredible and we’ve got a feature looking at potentially coming to shoot at St. Raphael’s ruin, we had a Disney+ show come and scout, so we’re starting to see more stuff as it spills out of the Greater Toronto Area to the east. 

Does Kingston presently have any kind of studio/soundstage space? 

Not a formal studio space. That’s actually something there’s been quite a bit of interest into. One of the things we’re kind of working on is we’re trying to build up like more of the incentive base and also the the crew base because the large stuff that we’re seeing right now a lot of it’s coming for those main locations, but they’re not looking to studio there, they’re more likely to come, to shoot, to head back. A lot of those productions that come in on a unionized level (where) there’s only certain areas we can get the community into non-union roles like location support personnel or background. 

But what’s been a big growth area for us is we’re starting to really target some of that end-to-end production including non-union production and developing incentives towards hiring from it. I think all of that stuff starting to build more of an appetite for those things. There’s certainly a lot of interest within the area, you just want to make sure that you have the mechanisms in place so you don’t have a studio space that just sits there. There’s a lot of readily usable spaces but not a formal space.

What are the economic incentives to film in Kingston as well as the rest of Ontario?

For Ontario, you’ve got your two different tax credits. You’ve got your Production Tax Credit for your domestic or official co-productions and then you’ve got your Services Tax Credit which is what we’re largely seeing within the US. There’s a regional bonus once you’re outside of the greater Toronto area, but that doesn’t apply to the service productions. 

Within Kingston, we’ve been able to do a few interesting things because we’re sitting under tourism. We’ve been able to leverage our municipal accommodations tax towards helping with with one of the bigger barriers which is really the travel in the accommodation piece. So we’ve been able to to develop some incentives through it and we’re looking at trying to do some broader incentives that we’re hoping to be able to announce in Q1 of next year. 

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect filming in Kingston and how did you adjust?

So this is the flip side of the fact that because we sit under tourism which was the hardest-hit sector. Tourism had just been really hit and I mean everybody has, but the flip side is that within the tourism sector, some of the other pillars around meetings and conventions and sporting and what-not and a lot of those areas really were a bit slower to rebound. 

So I think the film and media production industry was faster to rebound and it’s been incredibly expensive of course to proceed and necessarily so with the testing involved and what-not. So we’ve started to see is that the industry has been able to rebound faster so we were actually one of the first ones.

So in this case, Locke & Key for example was filling the hotels at a time where where, everyone’s really hurting and then you see that a lot, even with Paramount’s Mayor of Kingstown, we’re still finalizing it, but the estimates with the hotels, we’re looking at in the realm of around $2 million in hotel rooms alone.

     Mayor of Kingstown cast and crew along with Alex (bottom left) and Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson (centre)

Anything else I missed?

I think the only thing I didn’t flag on is the the big benefit that we see and anything which is really turned to the city is just the number of not immediately apparent industries that get engaged with these (productions). 

So everything from washrooms to construction and electrical and water tanks to just the amount of spillover business that we see into it and then some of those other big benefits are like what the productions are doing for for a decommissioned building and in the case of bringing a lot of those areas that had been completely mothballed and decommissioned, getting them back to operations and the improvements to the building and I think on the Paramount show will probably blow over $100,000 in inside improvements and we’ve seen that with a lot of it.

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