By Charlie Senack
For people who take in a movie as part of their holiday tradition, chances are they will soon spot a familiar location on the big screen.
That’s because Ottawa is becoming known as the Christmas movie capital of the world. A whopping 16 holiday films were shot in the city this year, a record the Ottawa Film Office expects will soon be broken.
“With all the content that’s being consumed now because of Covid …streamers have to keep up with that demand,” said Stephanie Davy, a manager with the film office.
“Going back to 2018 we had three shot in Ottawa — there might have been a few before that — but during the pandemic is when we saw it explode. In 2020 we had 10 Christmas movies filmed here and last year we had 12.”
While downtown Ottawa and nearby small towns like Almonte are favourites for their producers, several films have also been shot around Westboro and Hintonburg.
Wellington Vision Care was used as a backdrop in The Most Colorful Time of the Year (2022), a story about a colourblind elementary school teacher who falls in love with an optometrist who is also one of his students’ mothers.
Hallmark’s Boyfriends of Christmas Past (2021) filmed scenes at Stella Luna Gelato Cafe in Wellington West, and at the Churchill Seniors Recreation Centre in Westboro.
Down the street, Savoy Brasserie provided a cozy dining atmosphere in Christmas CEO (2021), a movie starring Marisol Nichols, known for her role as Hermione Lodge in the TV series Riverdale. The same restaurant also appeared in Christmas Unwrapped (2020), with executive producer comedian and actress Tiffany Haddish.
“The businesses in Kitchissippi have been very welcoming,” said the film office’s Davy. “They get compensated, there is increased exposure, and there is a sense of pride for seeing your business on screen.”
Local private homes have also been part of the action. Maxwell McGuire, a Hintonburg resident who has directed Christmas movies in Westboro and Wellington West, said Kitchissippi’s charm and character presents well on the screen.
“We filmed (Record Breaking Christmas) at a cute corner house on Byron Avenue that had bricks, pillars, and trees. You could picture that in the middle of a city or small town in America,” he said.
“The community has floral shops, restaurants, and coffee shops — all regular locations that we seek for these feel-good movies,” McGuire added. “Wellington West for example still has a Main Street feel which doubled as Chicago in one of my films.”
McGuire started out as an independent filmmaker 20 years ago while bartending on the side to pay his bills – a familiar backup in the freelance world. He now makes a living in the business, and has directed 25 of his 26 films in Ottawa.
The local director said he enjoys working in his own backyard since he can often walk or bike to the set. He said he often has family or friends stop by to be extras in his films.
The boom in Christmas movies being filmed in Canada’s capital largely follows changing viewership habits due to COVID-19 – people are watching more TV than ever, so production companies have to keep churning out new content.
This year alone, over 170 new Christmas movies will be released on streaming platforms and channels like Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix, OWN, and others. Twenty-eight feature length films, 12 other films, 14 television series, and multiple animation shows were filmed or created in Ottawa in 2022.
The increase in locally shot films has opened the door for young people looking to make their mark in the business. Producers work closely with Algonquin College which has expanded its film and media-production program. Students are often scouted to be interns on a movie set before being hired for the next project.
Sandrine Pechels de Saint Sardos, commissioner at the Ottawa Film Office, said Ottawa’s locations will continue drawing production companies to Canada’s capital. It is thinking ahead for how to meet that demand.
“We need a soundstage to retain and attract more talent and the crew,” she said. “We are very impressed by the results so far and we dream big.”
While it has become easier to make films in Ottawa, McGuire said it wasn’t always that way. But if trends keep heading in this direction, he plans to work from his home forever.
“I remind all my crew members in their young 20s that this didn’t exist when I was coming up,” he said. “When I started there was one company making a few movies a year. Now you have three or four companies going full board all year. Our crew has tripled in size over the last three or four years and some great jobs have opened up.”