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How transforming an old arena kickstarted an entire new industry

Northern Ontario Film Studios turned the Barrydowne Arena into an economic engine
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An undertaking that started roughly seven years ago to transform the former Barrydowne Arena has had wide-reaching impact on the city of Greater Sudbury and Northern Ontario as a whole.

The building itself is now the home of Northern Ontario Film Studios (NOFS), and from that transformation has sprouted one of the fastest-growing industries in the northern part of the province, as film and television production in Northern Ontario is a multi-million dollar business.

Last year, Northern Ontario Film Studios and its sister company Hideaway Pictures created 977 full-time equivalency jobs in Northern Ontario, and Hideaway Pictures had $53 million in gross production.

"Northern Ontario as a whole is the fastest-growing new film centre in Canada," said NOFS CEO David Anselmo. 

"A lot of that has to do with the current government we have and the support they give us because it has incentivized the region to allow productions to come to an area that doesn't have the infrastructure that other centres do, like Toronto or Vancouver, and that incentive allows for locals such as myself and other locals in Northern Ontario to build on infrastructure and create services that make it more cost-effective to shoot in the region."

Northern Ontario Film Studios serviced more than 15 movies last year in equipment, starwagon and studio rental in Northern Ontario, and has serviced more than 75 films since its inception in 2012. Northern Ontario as a whole has become a very popular filming location, according to Anselmo. 

In addition to drawing the attention of filmmakers from around Canada and south of the boarder, Northern Ontario has become a strong draw for those in the film and television industry who had to leave home years ago in pursuit of their careers.

Anselmo is one of those such stories, having moved back home to Sudbury in 2010 after cutting his teeth overseas.

"I wanted to live the Northern Ontario lifestyle and live at home and to work in an industry that I love that was non-existent when I was in high school and university so I had to leave," said Anselmo. "When I came back there was maybe one movie being shot a year to now having 10 to 15 television series and movies shot a year, where people who were part-time in the industry now have full-time jobs going from one show to another."

Having a permanent basecamp was essential to growing the industry and establishing a sense of permanency has allowed Northern Ontario to grow and retain its talent within the film and television industry. Anslemo has poured around $500,000 into overhauling the old Barrydowne Arena and turning it into a hub for the industry, right here in Sudbury.

NOFS features a 16,000 sq. ft. single span main stage floor, on and off-site production offices, a hair and makeup room, a prop shop, a craft kitchen, laundry facilities and ample parking.  There is 2,000 sq. ft. of auxiliary space and fibre optic wi-fi service provided by Agilis Networks throughout the building.

"It was vitally important to me, as a producer, to establish a permanent base so that filmmakers can come in and work out of a space that was ready to go," said Anselmo. "When looking for a space, we sat down with the city, who had vision at the time to realize the importance and potential of this new industry. The Barrydowne Arena was an old, dilapidated arena that wasn't being used very much or for anything other than storage."

The building was once covered in graffiti and the surrounding area wasn't seen in the best of lights. Anselmo compared it to the broken window theory out of New York City, where if you see one broken window the assumption is made that it's a bad area.

As the arena began its transformation, Anselmo says that he saw and heard of the changes to the neighbourhood, including neighbours telling him that their sheds were no longer being broken into, and at least 10 companies have moved into the area and now house their businesses there.

"I don't know if it was ever a dangerous neighbourhood, I just think that there's not so much vandalism going on as there used to be," said Anselmo. "I know there were stories done back in 2007 about the vandalism at the Barrydowne Arena and how some St. Charles students had painted it, and there was another story from 2008 about some of the citizens complaining about the problem as well."

The overarching theme of growth and development touches many facets of the film and tv industry in Northern Ontario, from job creation, to the ever-increasing number of productions that are choosing Ontario's north as their destination of choice.

In addition to the number of productions, the size and scope of productions has changed and evolved as well. 

"The transition we're seeing is from mostly small indie films, which are still being shot here, to bigger television series, in our studio last year we had V-Wars, which was a big Netflix tv show that's coming to Netflix in 2019," said Anselmo.

"The Toronto Star mentioned the Netflix hub that's opening in Toronto and all the Netflix shows that are being shot in Ontario and they mentioned V-Wars was shot out of our studio in Sudbury, and it wouldn't have been able to shoot up here if it didn't have the services of the studio and the home base it needed to pull something of this magnitude off."

As the industry continues to grow, so too does the feeder system and colleges like Canadore in North Bay, which Anselmo says has one of the best programs out there for students looking to get into the film and television industry.

"We're seeing more and more great crews coming out of Northern Ontario, and there's many stories of people moving back home to this area to work," said Anselmo. "Canadore is churning out fabulous students that I employ on my film sets all the time no matter where I'm shooting."

NOFS opened a second studio in North Bay two years ago.

"That's why I talk about the film industry as a whole, as a regional industry, rather than city-centric," said Anselmo. "We're all benefitting, there are movies being shot in Sault Ste. Marie, there are movies being shot in North Bay and there are movies being shot in Sudbury, and that's all contributing to our industry."

According to numbers from the film workers' unions that Anselmo has looked at, Northern Ontario is currently the fifth-largest Canadian film industry, behind only Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Alberta.

When it comes to the impacts of this ever-growing industry, they are felt beyond just those who work on film and TV sets.

"The spin-off economy that happens because of our industry is a lot bigger than we think it is," said Anselmo. "Our direct dollars are recycled back into our economy for groceries and property taxes and spending money at other local businesses. Two Decembers ago, (city of Greater Sudbury economic development officer) Meredith Armstrong and I walked into a coffee shop on Elm Street and one of the barristas asked when we were coming back and said every time there's a film in town their sales go up 35 per cent."

Overhauling a graffiti-covered arena has certainly made a major impact on Sudbury and Northern Ontario.




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Matt Durnan

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