Oh, Canada! Our shows we film in you.
We love your land and shows you produce too!
Over the last couple of decades, our friends in the great white north have become host to some of our favorite television series, especially in the Sci-Fi arena. In the 1990s, there were only a relative handful of US shows filmed in Canada. But since then, Canada has developed a competitive entertainment stream of its own, offering some strong contenders to US audiences against more well-known US-produced series. How did “Hollywood North” become so central to our insatiable appetite for TV entertainment?
Canadian locations are actually nothing new to US productions. The Canadian Plains have stood in many times for the wheat- and cornfields of many US states, the Canadian Rockies have doubled for plenty of remote locales (i.e Brokeback Mountain) and Toronto has long been the go-to stand-in for New York City. When it comes to US television series, the trend to shoot above the 49th parallel began primarily as a cost-saving measure. In those last couple of decades before the turn of the century, the value of the Canadian dollar dipped to sometimes as low as 70 percent of the value of the US dollar. This gave a significant and immediate discount to the budgets of those productions choosing to make that move, and when you’re putting on a weekly series, every penny counts. Perhaps most notably, The X-Files was based for the bulk of its run in Vancouver, BC (before moving to Los Angeles), and more or less put that region on the map as an alternative to crisscrossing the continent as Mulder and Scully do on the show. In short, Canada has been a less expensive place to shoot, while still being able to provide knowledgeable, English-speaking crew.
Over the years the Canadian and US dollars have become virtually interchangeable in terms of corresponding value. However, there are other economic rewards of sending a production northward that keep Canada welcoming the budget impaired with open economic arms. For example, though there are Canadian labor unions, their agreements with production companies are not nearly as restrictive as those in the real Hollywood. Here in the US, there are union regulations that productions have to adhere to or face steep fines; even most non-union shows still abide by union rules. Many of these regs concern compensation or staffing requirements that can be cost prohibitive for smaller production companies. Canada also offers a lot of tax incentives and regional subsidies for foreign companies crossing its borders to film, especially if the production uses Canadian actors and crew.
Apart from money, Canadian locations provide enough familiarity for US viewers to accept them while remaining removed enough to seem vaguely imaginary. Futuristic or unspecified contemporary story settings benefit the most from the chameleonic Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal.
The last decade or so has also seen Canada’s own entertainment industry begin to make its mark on US television. The Syfy Channel especially has been a leading importer of shows filmed in Canada. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica was of course shot in Vancouver, as was Caprica, Eureka, and the Stargate franchise. Toronto is the base of operations for Warehouse 13 as well as the popular Defiance, and A&E’s The Bates Motel is shot in the little coastal town of Aldergrove, BC.
Now Syfy has begun to include several shows produced by homegrown Canadian companies in its prime-time lineup. Lost Girl, Being Human and Continuum are all locally developed and produced by Canadian companies that have enjoyed a strong and loyal US following. Degrassi boasts at least two generations of fans, while Bomb Girls did very well with cable audiences and continues to do so thanks to subscription streaming.
While it’s great to have well-known actors as regulars in TV series, what audiences truly care about is a good story with well-developed characters. Canadian productions are primed to deliver, every night of the week.
Quick Quiz: Which of the following US shows are (or were) filmed in Canada, or produced by Canadian companies?
- Burn Notice
- It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia
- Orphan Black
- Modern Family
- Once Upon a Time