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Local film office markets Kingston Penitentiary for Hollywood productions

Kingston Pen is poised to host more than just public tours in 2020. The local film office is trying to market the former prison as an ideal location for film and television productions.
Kingston Pen is poised to host more than just public tours in 2020. The local film office is trying to market the former prison as an ideal location for film and television productions. CKWS TV

Kingston is planning to host another season of public tours at the Kingston Penitentiary, the city’s notorious former prison, in 2020.

But it’s not just curious sightseers who are eager to get a glimpse of life in the former maximum-security prison on the shores of Lake Ontario — Hollywood is keen, too.

“We’re keeping pretty busy,” said Alex Jansen, film commissioner with the Kingston Film Office.

More than 300 cast and crew used Kingston Penitentiary to film scenes for the Netflix series ‘Titans’ over 10 days in August.
More than 300 cast and crew used Kingston Penitentiary to film scenes for the Netflix series ‘Titans’ over 10 days in August. CKWS TV

Jansen says 2019 was a test run for filming within the limestone walls of the federally owned former prison as Kingston tries to carve out a slice of domestic and Hollywood-style productions.

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“It is a truly unique location,” Jansen said. “There’s nothing comparable in Canada.”

READ MORE: B.C. leads Canada in film and TV productions

The current year is already being hailed as a big economic boom for the city with a host of international productions — ranging from a music video shoot and Swiss feature film to the Netflix production of Titans — all filmed on the prison grounds.

Titans is based on the DC comic book series. It was probably the largest production since (the movie) Crimson Peak,” Jansen explained.

Crimson Peak scenes were filmed in Kingston’s historic downtown area in spring 2014.

Kingston’s Market Square was transformed into a movie set to shoot scenes for the feature film ‘Crimson Peak’ in 2014.
Kingston’s Market Square was transformed into a movie set to shoot scenes for the feature film ‘Crimson Peak’ in 2014. CKWS TV

For Titans, more than 300 cast and crew, plus 160 extras, took over portions of the prison for 10 days in August to film scenes for the show’s upcoming season.

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“We were able to open up areas of the prison that were mothballed for years to accommodate the production,” Jansen said.

He estimates the closed-set production generated more than $250,000 in direct spending to the local economy through restaurants and filled more than 1,000 hotel rooms.

“It’s a great sign of the potential to come.”

Beyond the penitentiary’s walls, Jansen says the film office is working on other television and movie shoots this fall, including scenes for the long-running Canadian TV series Murdoch Mysteries, which will be filmed in Springer Market Square from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, and the potential for a still-unspecified feature film.

READ MORE: Toronto International Film Festival 2019 movies

Jansen says using parts of the old prison and its collection of 19th-century buildings for filming is a logistical challenge, especially while the site is still open for daily public tours, but he is actively marketing the city — and the prison — to production companies. Jansen said he met with producers and film companies during the recent Toronto International Film Festival to try to bolster Kingston’s film industry.

“Interest is great,” he said. “Word is getting out that the prison is available for limited filming.”

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As the local film office tries to line up more productions for next year, Jansen says he is also working on standard production fees to charge and aims to use the once-foreboding prison in a respectful way that won’t impede public tours.

City council recently agreed to renew a yearly agreement with Correctional Service Canada (CSC) to keep Kingston Penitentiary open as a tourist and filming destination next year.

The agreement would make Kingston Penitentiary available for filming throughout the year, not just during the six-month window when public visits are allowed.

The city will pay CSC a token licensing fee of $1 to access the prison’s historic 19th-century cell blocks and grounds, and then turn over the keys to the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, a provincial agency that currently manages Fort Henry and Upper Canada Village, to continue selling tickets and running the May to October tours.

More than 250,000 visitors have passed through the city’s prison since tours were launched in 2016.

More than 250,000 visitors have gone inside Kingston Penitentiary since public tours were launched in 2016.
More than 250,000 visitors have gone inside Kingston Penitentiary since public tours were launched in 2016. CKWS TV

Through a profit-sharing formula, the millions of dollars that have been generated from Kingston Penitentiary tours will continue to be split 50-50 between the Kingston-area United Way and destination marketing initiatives.

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In 2016, the first year of operation, prison tours attracted 60,000 visitors with a profit of $640,000. The next year, public tours brought in 105,000 visitors and a net profit of $2.4 million.

Last year, Kingston Penitentiary saw 67,500 visitors and brought in $1.4 million.

READ MORE: How Kingston Pen tours help local economy

Results from the current season will be available later this fall, but officials are optimistic that the prison remains one of the city’s top attractions.

“It is anticipated that the 2019 Kingston Pen Tours will attract more visitors and generate higher revenues than numbers in 2018,” according to a city staff report.

Tourism officials also hope to broaden Kingston Penitentiary’s appeal beyond the curious sightseers who are looking for a glimpse of life inside the former maximum-security prison.

Giant green screens are installed in downtown Kingston during the production of the ‘Crimson Peak’ movie.
Giant green screens are installed in downtown Kingston during the production of the ‘Crimson Peak’ movie. CKWS TV

Kingston city officials are actively courting the television and film industry to use the prison interior as a backdrop for more productions.

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In July 2017, city council approved a vision concept plan for the future development of the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour and Kingston Penitentiary properties.

“Although the vision has been endorsed, it has been acknowledged that the implementation process, including any change in ownership, will be a long term endeavour. In the interim CSC has agreed to continue public tours and filming,” according to a staff report.