How did Toronto lose the X-Men?

Does anyone else remember when Toronto was "Hollywood North?" No, me neither, but my memory's short - it only goes back about five years, and the local film industry has pretty much been in the toilet for at least that long.

A lot of people blame the potent 2003 cocktail of SARS and Schwarzenegger (that's the Governator to you) for the precipitous drop in Toronto's production contracts, but I'd say the issue goes a bit further back than that. In the '90s, Toronto's status as Hollywood's go-to production environment for its lower-rent facilities and staff was steadily increasing year by year - we were really making a name for ourselves as a viable alternative for bigger and bigger motion picture productions.

Then the X-Men showed up.

In 1999, Bryan Singer brought his rowdy gang of mutant superheroes to Toronto to film the first installment of the new X-Men movie franchise. Now, bear in mind, this was a heady time for comic book movies. The genre had lain dead for most of the 1990s, and Marvel titles had barely stepped into the ring at all - Spidey was a couple of years away from shooting his goo, Hulk was still a pissed-off Aussie actor with nowhere to go but up, and Fantastic Fourlet Jessica Alba was still in braces. X-Men 1 was going to serve as a proof-of-concept flick for the entire comic book movie sub-genre... and although we didn't know it at the time, it was also going to be a proof-of-concept for Toronto's production potential.

For all intents and purposes, we failed. We didn't fail on X1 - the film was gorgeously produced using a bounty of Toronto-area locations to great effect (is there anything better than the gigantic X-frames that hold up Roy Thompson Hall being used as a jokey backdrop for a conversation between Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen?). Also, as we all know by now, the film went on to kick off the modern "Golden Age" for comic book movies by making a spank-load of money and guaranteeing that every other Marvel superhero from Spider-Man down would eventually grace (or disgrace) the silver screen.

For Toronto, though, the real failure came two years later, when we lost the production of the sequel, X2, to Vancouver. X3, the third film in the franchise, has just finished filming there as well, and one can expect X4 through 55, along with whatever spinoffs, to continue to rely on the established Vancouver bulwark.

Where Toronto failed was in stepping up to the plate and delivering a state-of-the-art production facility that could match those offered by Vancouver, Los Angeles, Baja, and any of the other hotspots in North America. For close to a decade, Toronto's city planners have been promising the creation of a world-class soundstage... and have consistently failed to deliver on their promise. Remember when Downsview was going to be developed into a filmmaking compound? What's it used for now - to throw fundraisers to recoup income for the city, once our baseline industries have failed?

What have been Toronto's larger contributions to filmdom of late? The Richard Donner-directed Bruce Willis actioner (still unreleased) 16 Blocks? Or how about our lovely Waterworks serving as the "demented villain lair" in the Eddie Griffin blaxploitation spoof Undercover Brother?

We're besotted with cheap movie-of-the-weeks and Z-grade American television programs (Sue Thomas F.B.Eye anyone?) while prestige pictures still seek out Vancouver, Prague, or even Austin. The Toronto Film Critics' Society fell all over itself to call Toronto-made A History of Violence the best film of the year... but in (once again) standing in for the United States, did Toronto make a name for itself? Would the average Hollywood exec even know that Violence was filmed here?

At long last, development seems to be moving ahead with the creation of a production facility (called FILMPORT) in Toronto's Port Lands. I for one will believe it when I see it - I've heard these promises before. Assuming it happens, though, here's hoping it's not five years too late - we may not be able to lure back the X-Men, but maybe FILMPORT will be enough to bag us Silver Surfer, Iron Man, or (shudder) Daredevil 2, before Toronto's potential as a versatile filmmaking community is all but forgotten.

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