Selamta Magazine

The in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

Style + Culture

Hollywood of the North

Toronto's thriving film industry.

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Anyone who watches Good Will Hunting is rooting for working-class hero Matt Damon when he flaunts Minnie Driver’s phone number to a group of Harvard students, challenging them with the now-famous line, “How do you like them apples?”

What most people watching the movie do not realize is that they are looking at the Upfront Bar & Grill in downtown Toronto, not a campus pub in Boston. Avid movie watchers might be surprised how often — over the years, across all genres — they have been led to believe they were watching scenes shot in an American city, when they were actually seeing pieces of this Canadian metropolis.

In many cases, Toronto’s signature characteristics are what enable it to morph into a different place altogether. In the 2007 production of Hairspray, the city’s iconic electric streetcars made it a perfect stand-in for 1960s Baltimore. In X-Men, Toronto’s 1914 citadel, Casa Loma, became Professor X’s school for the gifted.

The 2000 satirical horror American Psycho stands as another example. Toronto native Mary Harron chose to film the New York City–based drama in her hometown because of the visual similarities between Toronto’s TD Centre and New York’s Seagram Building (both designed by Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe). The TD Centre, at the heart of the Canadian financial system, seamlessly transformed into Wall Street.

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Canada’s largest city, with its iconic CN Tower, plays host to the Toronto International Film Festival.

At its core, Toronto is a patchwork of neighborhoods and cultures that are integrated into the broader metropolis, creating a truly multicultural fabric. Indeed, half of the city’s population hails from other countries. So it’s easy to see why director Joel Zwick chose a house in Toronto’s Greek area as the location for the Portokalos home in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a story that was actually set in Chicago.

Film lovers who visit Canada’s largest city will recognize other local landmarks that have been featured in movies ranging from art-house films to Hollywood blockbusters.

In fact, the city’s popularity as a filming location is what originally earned it the moniker “Hollywood of the North” (despite Vancouver also claiming the title) — a reputation that is underscored by the surprising depth of its film landscape.

Film, stars and press

Every September, the Toronto International Film Festival further bolsters Toronto’s reputation as a satellite of Los Angeles — rivaling the famous Cannes Film Festival in terms of press attention and stars. Yet TIFF’s distinction comes less from the red carpets and more from its position in the festival line-up as a place to strike distribution deals and launch Academy Award contenders.

The atmosphere throughout the city during the festival is nothing short of electric. Everyone is talking about movies and celebrity sightings. In 2012, Ryan Gosling, Kristen Stewart, James Franco, Penelope Cruz and Christopher Walken were among the stars who made an appearance.

From the cocktail waitress who volunteers at the fall festival on her days off, to people at the coffee shop fueling up for a Midnight Madness screening, film is on everyone’s mind. Bars stay open after hours and line-ups of hundreds of people snake through the city.

Daniel Madore, an aspiring filmmaker from Los Angeles, travels to Toronto every year for the festival and buys a 20-pack of tickets. In 2012, he attended lectures by two of his icons: Brian De Palma, director of Scarface, and Rian Johnson, who made Looper, the sci-fi picture with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt that kicked off the festival.

“I feel like a little boy when I come to TIFF,” says Madore, who compares his two-week sojourn in Canada to his own version of film school. “I’ve loved movies all my life, and it reminds me why.”

On the last day of the festival, there is a free screening of the film that won the People’s Choice Award, which in the past has been a bellwether for the Oscars. Back in 2008, the festival was initially considered just a pit stop on the way to DVD for Slumdog Millionaire; but after winning the People’s Choice Award, the film grossed more than $140 million at North American box offices and swept up eight Academy Awards.

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Eager moviegoers patiently wait in line at the Bell Lightbox in hopes of securing tickets to one of hundreds of film screenings at last September’s film festival.

In 2012, David O. Russell’s comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook, starring Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, took the crowd-pleaser accolade.

In recognition of Toronto’s status as a movie mecca, the city built the TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2010 to house the festival and provide a year-round anchor for the film industry. The building combines elements of a multiplex theater with architectural aspects of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

The open, airy space embodies the aesthetic of an industrial loft, featuring high ceilings and contemporary building materials. The three-story atrium is encircled by a fluid loop of ramps and stairs leading up to a stepped roof, inspired by the Villa Malaparte in Capri, as featured in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mépris.

In addition to its five theaters, the Lightbox houses galleries, student centers, a library and an upscale market-bistro. During TIFF, it plays host to directors’ talks, gala presentations and press conferences.

Historic cinemas

Aside from the TIFF, dozens of smaller film festivals have arisen to reflect Toronto’s multicultural richness, including:

  • Hot Docs (North America’s largest documentary festival)
  • Rendezvous with Madness (sponsored by Toronto’s world-renowned Centre for Addiction and Mental Health)
  • Toronto Jewish Festival
  • Reel Asian International Film Festival
  • Cinefranco (a celebration of francophone films from around the world)
  • ImagineNATIVE (the world’s largest festival showcasing indigenous media)

This broad range of festivals exists because of the handful of historic cinemas that host them, including the Revue in the Roncesvalles area. The 100-year-old cinema continues to show the silent films it screened during its heyday. The surrounding neighborhood rallied to raise $130,000 to purchase and preserve the Revue when it was threatened with closure in 2006.

The Bloor is likewise celebrating its 100th year as a cinema in 2013, after reopening in March 2012 under new management. And the Royal, in the heart of Little Italy, where much of Toronto’s local film talent lives, has survived by converting into a post-production facility by day.

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Toronto’s historic theaters support a wide range of festivals in addition to the mega TIFF, with more than one theater celebrating a century of entertainment.

The neighborhood surrounding the Royal is also a popular film location because of its old-fashioned gelaterias, colorful fruit markets, maple-lined boulevards and Victorian heritage homes. On a fall evening, nearby Clinton Street was shut down and filled with bright lights and costumed crime-fighters milling about while shooting an upcoming flick. And a romantic comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) shot scenes inside the Royal two weeks prior to TIFF.

In that movie, Toronto plays itself — a tough role for a city so used to pretending to be someone else. Like a character actor, the city has built its reputation on being able to transform into whatever a film demands. But whether it is posing as New York, Chicago, Baltimore or an alternate universe, a little bit of Toronto’s uniqueness always shines through.

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