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TV shows leave Hollywood for Canada

Canada has become the U.S.'s ultimate stand-in when it comes to Hollywood films and TV shows.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A remarkable thing happened in Los Angeles this summer: A TV movie was shot there.

Fancy that!

Sure, Southern California, land of swimming pools and movie stars, is virtually synonymous with film production. But increasingly, filmmakers have bolted from the Film Capital of the World — and not just when a better location beckoned, but also when a better financial deal was to be had.

So why was the movie — “Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman” starring Christine Lahti and scheduled to air on CBS next season — shot in L.A.? All the pieces of the project fell into place there, explain the producers, though offering no specifics.

But whatever kept it at home, this film stands as an exception to a moviemaking trend termed runaway production that has cost Hollywood billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

Where are the productions running to? As far as possible sometimes: The new “Superman” film will be shot in Australia.

L.A. is also kissing TV shows goodbye. Among prime-time series this fall, the WB’s “One Tree Hill” is shot in North Carolina. Fox’s “North Shore” and the upcoming “Lost” (ABC) and “Hawaii” (NBC) are filmed in the Aloha State. NBC’s “Law & Order” trio are among those shot in the New York City area (where filmmaking is a $5.1 billion industry).

These series may have strayed from Tinseltown, but at least they’re still within the United States. Others, however, have headed north.

Great White NorthCanada, a pioneer in wooing U.S. film production with tax breaks, lower labor costs and a variety of locations, will play host to five hours of episodic television on the major broadcast networks: ABC’s “Life as We Know It” (setting: suburban Seattle), the WB’s “Smallville” (rural Kansas) and “The Mountain” (a Utah ski resort) and Fox’s “Tru Calling” (New York City), all filmed in Vancouver, as well as UPN’s “Kevin Hill” (New York City), shot in Toronto. That’s about 12 percent of all the dramas on the schedule.

U.S. moviemakers going AWOL has Hollywood film technicians, among others, up in arms. And it has been denounced by CNN anchorman Lou Dobbs, who calls his campaign against U.S. companies that ship jobs outside the country “Exporting America.” A few months ago, he reported that all but five of the year’s 88 made-for-TV films were shot outside the United States.

Filmmakers who take their productions elsewhere typically justify their decision in stark terms: If they don’t go where costs are lower, the project won’t get done.

For example, a TV film budgeted at $3 million to $4 million within range of the Hollywood sign may enjoy costs trimmed by a crucial $500,000 in Canada, says Todd Leavitt, now president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and formerly chairman of the Canadian-based Alliance Television Group.

Establishing a model for some 30 U.S. states and a growing number of countries (including Romania and Czech Republic), Canada stepped forward a few years ago with its incentives to court U.S. production.

Meanwhile, it had three distinctive locales to pitch, as Leavitt explains: “Toronto, which was your ‘cheat’ for any big urban city. Montreal, which was your ‘cheat’ for any European-set story. And Vancouver, with trees, snow, mountains, and vast outdoors.”

Standing in for the U.S.Moviemaking is an exercise in make-believe and deception. But is there something wrong (according to some hard-to-pin-down blend of the patriotic and artistic) when another country routinely masquerades as your homeland?

Certainly USA network’s 2003 film, “Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story,” struck some viewers as heretical for using Montreal as the stand-in for New York.

What about the “L.A. Law” reunion movie NBC aired two years ago? It jilted L.A. in favor of Vancouver, British Columbia, inspiring one cast member to dub it “B.C. Law.”

Last year, ABC’s “The Music Man” found Matthew Broderick in Toronto for that musical’s setting: circa 1912 River City, Iowa.

And the recent Showtime film, “Coast to Coast,” starred Richard Dreyfuss and Judy Davis as a married couple who drive from their Connecticut home across the country to Los Angeles. It was shot around Toronto.

Thus has Canada served filmmakers as a store-brand version of the United States, with plausible-looking locales that satisfy a viewer’s preconceived notions of the real thing. But with more and more films being shot there, the locations have begun to seem less like what they’re supposed to be, and more like what they are: something recognizable as something else. It’s sort of like encountering a person you mistake for someone you know, then realizing it isn’t him.

Recently one TV series made an inside joke about this kind of mistaken identity. The episode of Showtime’s “Queer As Folk,” which is set in Pittsburgh but filmed in Toronto, called for several of the characters to travel to Toronto for a charity event.

“You’re probably going to think I’m crazy,” said one of the guys, looking around him, “but you know what this street reminds me of?”

Gee, it looks like Pittsburgh, his friends chorused back.

Enough like Pittsburgh to get by, anyway.