Award-winning indie film is helping to spread the word about Pembroke, says the mayor
When she saw the sand-filled road in Kingston, Ontario, Cameron Montgomery says something changed inside her.
Along with props modeled after an early 20th-century street market, the sands had been brought by director Guillermo del Toro, who was making his 2014 gothic horror film Crimson Peak in Springer Market Square in Kingston.
As an artist, Montgomery says witnessing the behind-the-scenes staging and costume design “infected” the film.
The current owner of arts and culture center Studio Dreamshare in Pembroke, Ontario, Montgomery hopes the filmmaking boom that has since hit eastern Ontario means others will share the experience.
“It helps people get the bug when they see projects happening all the time,” she said.
Award-winning indie film Painted sharks is the latest project that has helped Montgomery attract Pembroke and the Ottawa Valley.
Set in the late 1970s, the film portrays a mother and her children enduring domestic violence in a small town. He recently won several cast and crew awards, including at the Los Angeles Film Awards and the New York International Film Awards.
“It was therapy for me,” said the film’s director, Brian Lutes, who grew up in the Ottawa area and drew on personal experience to write the screenplay.
But for the region, it’s kind of a departure from the type of movies — mostly romantic vacation movies — that have largely defined its industry and helped generate a record amount of economic activity over the past year.
Pembroke Mayor Ron Gervais said he welcomed this new type of presence for the burgeoning industry.
“Whenever you have a film that gets to that kind of status, where it wins awards and whatnot, I think that puts us on the map even better,” he said.
Record year for the Ottawa film
Including live-action and animation, Ottawa’s film industry generated over $130 million for the local economy in 2022, according to the Ottawa Film Office.
That total “is a lot,” said Emilia King, professor of digital media studies at Ontario Tech University. “That’s a pretty significant change from previous years.”
That money was linked to the production of 30 feature films and 15 television series, according to the Ottawa Film Office, a nonprofit industry funder.
“Ottawa wants to hit his weight well,” King said. “I think they probably see themselves as an underdog who might have been a bit overlooked in the past, and now that’s really, really showing.”
The region is traditionally known for TV movies and “service production,” King said, meaning local crews often fill deals for major American broadcasters like Lifetime or bigger media companies like Netflix and Amazon.
The “streaming wars” have been a major boon for the local industry, she added, as streaming giants seek lucrative original content that addresses top-selling topics. Often that means Christmas. Of the 30 feature films produced last year, 16 revolved around the holiday.
Although king said Painted sharks unlikely to be “a game changer” for the industry as a whole, she wonders if it could signal a new breed of film for the region: the return of expat filmmakers pursuing passionate projects close to their roots.
The reception was “pretty overwhelming,” says the director
Montgomery founded Studio Dreamshare in 2018 after winning a City of Pembroke competition offering six months free rent on a two-year lease in a downtown studio.
“Rural Ontario has a lot of really great opportunities to be creative on a budget,” Montgomery said.
This affordability means the US dollar has come a long way, an attractive prospect for American filmmakers. Montgomery also said the wide variety of settings in the area adds to its appeal.
Painted sharks Executive producer Robynne Eaton said local viewers might recognize the Douglas Tavern outside of Eganville, Ontario, Sandy’s Deli in Renfrew, Ontario, Barefax Gentleman’s Club at Ottawa’s ByWard Market and residential streets in Pembroke.
Gervais said a fire in about 1900 destroyed the city’s downtown area and prompted massive rebuilding. As a result, many buildings in the area, including the iconic courthouse and the Gray Gables building, are suitable for certain period films.
Gervais said the city hopes to attract more films like Painted sharks through the creation of a tourism committee that will work specifically to promote the industry.
Montgomery and Lutes are currently working together on another project in the region.
“Ultimately, a film takes on a life of its own,” said Lutes. “And if someone sits there and says, ‘You know what? That really speaks to me’, it’s quite overwhelming.”