For all its obsession with health, Hollywood so far appears largely unfazed by the SARS outbreak in Toronto, one of its favorite low-cost production centers.
Toronto and Ontario film location promoters as of Friday said no current or planned movie or TV shoots were relocating from the Canadian city. And only one production has publicly cited severe acute respiratory syndrome as a reason, among several, for avoiding Toronto: The producers of a remake of Neil Simon's "The Goodbye Girl" on AOL Time Warner Inc.-owned cable channel TNT opted this week for Vancouver, Canada, which had been in contention for the shoot.
Although downplaying SARS concerns, Toronto officials are launching a preemptive campaign to reassure entertainment executives and talent that the city remains safe. The initiative includes trade ads and the distribution of a joint statement from Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman and top city health official Dr. Sheela Barur downplaying the public risks. Ontario film officials visiting Los Angeles next week on a long-scheduled trip are preparing to address any SARS issues that come up.
"We are getting a lot of questions," said Rhonda Silverstone, manager of the Toronto Film and Television Office. "We are telling people the general population is not at risk."
Toronto film executives are acting in the wake of a controversial World Health Organization travel warning this week. Officials in the city denounced the move as politically motivated, citing a lack of similar alarm by officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Toronto is one of North America's most active locations for U.S. productions, which shoot there largely to save money because of Canada's weaker dollar and government incentives. Production spending by U.S. companies there has grown at an annual clip of 21% during the last decade. Overall, Toronto last year attracted about $750 million in productions by U.S. and Canadian companies, with 18 to 40 productions shooting there on any given day, according to city film officials.
Recent films shot in Toronto include the Oscar-winning "Chicago" and the TV movie "Eloise at the Plaza," which airs Sunday on Walt Disney Co. unit ABC. To attract even more productions, officials want to build a mega Toronto Film/Media Complex, although the project has encountered problems getting off the ground.
The Toronto Film and Television Office lists 16 projects as in production or preparing to shoot. They include the "Soul Food" series on Viacom Inc.'s Showtime and the planned feature film "Dawn of the Dead." The hip-hop drama "Platinum" on Viacom's UPN, which just wrapped production, continued to shoot after SARS appeared. Its executive producers include director Sofia Coppola.
Producers of "The Goodbye Girl" remake starring Jeff Daniels and Patricia Heaton did say SARS was a reason for shooting elsewhere.
But TNT spokeswoman Karen Cassell said it wasn't the only reason. The availability of a specific film crew in Vancouver also was important, as was the convenience of Vancouver, which is closer to and in the same time zone as L.A.
Toronto film official Silverstone criticized TNT's move, saying the SARS fears were unwarranted.
Producers with projects in Toronto say they are being cautious, but believe that the city remains safe.
Dan Paulson, who is producing the Disney Channel movie "Lamont's MacCabees," scheduled to start shooting in May, said he planned to take extra health precautions with the catering services and would employ a special nurse on the set. He said that SARS fears prompted one of his executives to stay in Los Angeles recently rather than go to Toronto, but that he had no qualms about going.
"I think it's overblown. I didn't feel being up there was a threat to me," he said.
That sentiment was echoed by veteran producer Rob Fried, now overseeing the Rod Lurie-directed "Heart of a Soldier" for Vivendi Universal unit Universal Pictures and scheduled to arrive for shooting in Toronto in July.
"With the events this week, people are more alarmed, but in general I think the whole thing is an overreaction," Fried said. "We're not knocked off course by it, but we'll monitor things."
Lionel Chetwynd, who is producing and writing "D.C. 911" for Showtime, which is about the Bush administration's reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said he believes that much of the concern is "politically correct Kabuki."
He said he felt reassured that Toronto officials had a grip on the disease's origins in the city, and had faith that they would contain it. If he didn't feel that way, he said, you wouldn't find him anywhere near Canada, let alone Toronto.
"If there's a case and they don't know how it happened," Chetwynd said, "I won't go near Buffalo."
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A sampling of movie and TV productions shooting or set to begin soon in Toronto, with selected credits.
Shooting dates: 4/5-5/14
Produced by Robert Halmi Sr. and Lionel Chetwynd for Showtime.
'Dawn of the Dead'
Shooting dates: 6/2-8/18
Produced by Marc Abraham and others for Universal and other distributors.
'Heart of a Soldier'
Shooting dates: 6/20-8/26
Produced by Rob Fried and Jonathan Filley for Universal.
Shooting dates: 5/26-6/27
Produced by Dan Paulson and Jackie George for Disney Channel.
Shooting dates: 3/17-8/18
Produced by Cathy Mickel Gibson and others for Showtime.
Sources: Toronto Film and Television Office, industry sources