Two empty director’s chairs sit under the gothic archway buttressing Knox College’s foyer. Around them whirls a production crew. It’s Friday night and the producer of Veritas, an ABC prime-time drama series slated for debut in 2003, gives the word that things will be running late. A sandwich-board sign propped up against the wall reads “Knox College Welcomes You.”
Rick Morris, the assistant director, is waiting like an expectant father-to-be outside the lounge where the Touchstone-produced series is being shot. “It’s Nova Scotia, in a small room above a pub,” he says. It’s his third time here in the past couple of years. They come for the friendliness, the accessibility, and the Ivy League architecture. Watching a student come into residence without giving the barrage of equipment a second look, he adds, “That’s great, too—the students seem to accept us as part of the scenery.”
Being on the set of any production is like sitting in the front pew of a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Up close, there’s a grittiness to the glamour and a sense that one shouldn’t look behind the curtain. At U of T, the productions are similarly to the point and big-business.
According to the Toronto Film and Television Office, production on campus was part of the $1.2 billion the industry injected into Ontario’s economy last year. In 2001, the office issued 31 location permits for U of T’s campus, including a Molson beer commercial shot at Convocation Hall and a MOW (movie of the week) called A Killing Spring at Victoria College.
Five of the permits were for the star location on campus, Knox College. Though affiliated with U of T, the Presbyterian theological college retains a high degree of autonomy and negotiates its filming contracts—like Wycliffe, Victoria, St. Mike’s, and the Newman Centre—separately from its bigger brother. Trinity College used to do the same, but quit showbiz altogether a couple of years ago after complaints it was becoming more of a film set than a college (an exception was made last year to shoot Atom Egoyan’s film Ararat).
But this year the federated family of U of T is questioning its wedding to film and television. These days, production companies seem to be just picking at the cake. So far only 12 permits have been handed out for campus locations since January. The slim guestlist is blamed on a number of things: Hollywood union strikes, globalization, and, yes, Sept. 11. Every college is anxious for its shrinking share of the action. Some say U of T is being left at the altar like Richard Gere in Runaway Bride.
“We were just smoking until July 2001, when the Actors Guild strike took effect,” says Andy Allen, external liaison for the Office of Space Management. He co-ordinates filming on much of campus. To shoot on his turf costs $3,000 per day of filming and $1,500 per day of set-up. Over the past five years he estimates 150-200 productions have been made in his zone alone. “We mainly do it for the public service and not the money,” he says.
That may be revealing of who has the control in U of T’s relationship with the camera. A few years ago, when Paramount Studios released the blockbuster flick Varsity Blues, U of T was outraged. The movie not only stole the trademark name of the university’s sports teams but also tarnished their image with a harsh depiction of a hell-bent-to-win football coach abusing his team. So claimed the lawsuit, at least, which was expected to win millions of dollars for U of T. Instead, an out-of-court settlement netted the Blues eight new athletic awards funded in perpetuity by Paramount. Both parties and even the Ontario government seemed pleased in the end, and no damage was done to Toronto’s camera-ready smile or to a powerful studio that helps underpin the province’s billion-dollar production industry.
As for the money from the campus productions he oversees, Andy Allen says much of it goes towards the location. For Good Will Hunting, it went to the McLennan Laboratories and Whitney Hall, where the movie was shot. He mentions the cappuccino makers in UC’s dining hall are also a gift from a film crew. The rest of the money goes to refurbishing classrooms. It’s the students who come first—U of T strictly forbids any shooting while class is in session. But there are exceptions.
The presence of Veritas tonight at Knox College is one of them, whispers Russ Smith after “Quiet on set!” has been called. Usually, shooting is only allowed on weekends, but sometimes needs are last-minute. Smith is the former facilities manager who was brought out of retirement to handle movies and television at Knox again. He has the look of a well-weathered roadie and hangs around on set to oversee the crew. He also wants to make sure nobody damages anything, like the Canadian crews tend to do. He doesn’t want to see another ninja incident to happen.
“The last Canadian crew we had over the summer wrecked the lawn. They were filming a ninja fight on it and had a crew of a hundred people tramping around. We had to pay for its repair.”
The Knox College student society gets a cut of the money—10 percent. But their biggest payoff was a 50-inch television given to them by a film crew a couple of years ago after complaints were made about the noise from the set. They used to be consulted when approving a script, but nowadays it’s Smith, the current facilities manager and the principal, who reads it. “We check to see if it’s suitable for a Christian college’s tastes. If not, we won’t allow it.” For example, beer commercials are out of the question, though an exception was made for one that would air only in the U.S. And what does he charge? He leans in and smiles—“What do the others charge?”
One of those others is Dora Lee Bowald, secretary to the business manager at Wycliffe College. How often does she get film crews these days? “Not as often as we would like,” she says. “It’s been going down for awhile. I don’t know why.”
Wycliffe has only had four productions since January, though tentatively they’ll get Universal Studio’s direct-to-video film, The Skulls 3, before the year is out. She charges the same fees advised by Andy Allen, who e-mails the federated colleges his production schedule. He asks not to book their own productions on certain days.
One time, planning went awry and the college’s convocation happened the same day cameras were rolling, confusing some parents about what was going on.
There have also been complaints about CanWest’s television series Relic Hunter. “They were shooting upstairs in residence. Things went overtime and, besides being loud and rude, their heat lamps set off the fire alarms. They were not co-operative at all,” says Boward. The location manager sincerely apologized and sent them a fruit basket. The money? It all goes back into the big pot of the college’s administration. “But what is everyone else charging?” she asks. “Are we in the middle?”
Sharon Wilson says “U of T is a gem” as a location. She’s the communications officer for Ontario Media Development, the provincial government’s promoter of the television and film industry here. Besides their office in Toronto, they also have one in L.A. Ontario has a lot going for it, filmwise.
“You got to have the right location, then after that it’s the [weak] dollar and the tax breaks,” she says. “Plus we have a huge base of production facilities and expertise in Toronto, which we make them aware of.”
But why aren’t filmmakers coming as much as they used to? She acknowledges that Toronto is losing its competitive edge. “I think it’s not so much other Canadian cities, but global competition. I know Bulgaria and Australia are doing pretty well these days.”
It’s near midnight on the set of Veritas and things are still humming. Matthew Dunn, a Ph.D. student at Knox, is on duty at the porter’s desk. He’s reading quietly amongst the activity. He agrees that most students here don’t give film crews a second glance. It’s because of the chapel, he thinks. They hold weddings here every week or so.
“Sometimes it can be inconvenient—the chaos of the set, everyone running around, the off-limit areas, the ‘quiet on the set’ times. But not in a negative way.”