Spotlight on the District

By:
11/08/2007

On a quiet Georgetown morning last week, the block of 35th street between M and Prospect, usually packed with cars, was bare. Two men dismantled the street signs at the bottom of the cobble-stoned hill, apparently impervious to the possible consequences. On the other side of the street, three men huddled in front of the former Dixie Liquor, one relating a story that somehow involved Martin Sheen.

Then Hollywood arrived.

Trucks carrying thousands of dollars of camera, sound and lighting equipment rolled in. A crew of camera men, production assistants, electricians and numerous others swarmed the area. Several Metropolitan Police Department cars and officers stationed themselves at the top of the hill to seal off the block and control the crowd. Then, to the crowd’s delight, George Clooney appeared on the set, sweaty and bearded but instantly recognizable.

Burn After Reading: Due to come out in 2008, the newest Coen brothers movie starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and John Malcovich was filmed on the Key Bridge and 35th St.
SAM SWEENEY

The crew filmed Clooney as he jogged up 35th street, tailed by a black sedan driven by a man who looked like a CIA agent. In the movie, Burn After Reading, Clooney plays an assassin hired by the CIA to deal with a situation of sensitive information falling into the wrong hands.

The crew finished filming Clooney’s scenes and he left the set. A GUTS bus waited behind the production as they filmed the same black sedan driving along Prospect St. Then the movie packed up and left Georgetown. All that remained were signs reading “B.A.R.” plastered around the neighborhood and catering trucks parked along 34th street. The movie finished filming in D.C. by the end of the next day, just six days after having arrived. If it hadn’t rained that weekend, they would have been gone in four.

D.C. boasts an impressive filmography—movies like The Good Shepherd, Breach, Evan Almighty and Mission Impossible III, to name a few, all filmed scenes in D.C. in 2006 alone. But efforts to keep movies here for longer than a few days, meaning more money for the District, have been largely unsuccessful.

Burn After Reading’s brief visit to D.C. is typical of the feature films and TV shows that come to town, according to D.C. filmmakers. Murdoch Campbell, a 36-year veteran of the D.C. film industry, said that they come for “the monuments, the Capitol, the White House, the look of Georgetown, that’s pretty much it.”

Stills of films featuring D.C.

David Cuozzo, a production assistant in the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, said there have been “quite a few productions” which go beyond the monuments into D.C. and that they aggressively promote these locations to outside filmmakers.

The Office of Motion Picture and Television Development doesn’t keep records of where productions film in D.C., though, and many filmmakers in D.C. say that Hollywood largely ignores the rest of the District.

“The filmmakers come because [Washington] is in the story line,” Peggy Pridemore, the location manager for Burn After Reading, said. “They film here as little as possible [to]still get the story across.” Location managers scout locations, deal with residents and obtain permits to prepare locations for filming. Pridemore estimates that only one-fifth of feature films that come to D.C. have a scene without a monument in it.

Some location scouts try to direct filmmakers into D.C.’s neighborhoods, though location scout and manager Chan Claggett said they “already know generally what they need from Washington before they get here.”

Joe Martin, a location scout and manager who now works for Mayor Adrien Fenty, said that he took director Stephen Gaghan into Columbia Heights for a scene in Syriana. “What I did most consciously was take them into neighborhoods … they’ve never heard of,” Martin said.

Syriana ended up filming a scene on a hill at 13th and Clifton Street, with the Howard University clock tower in the background.

While using one city as a double for another has become common practice, D.C. filmmakers say the difficulty of recreating places like the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol keeps Hollywood coming back to D.C. Interior shots can be done in a studio in L.A., many exterior shots can be done in a different city, but films set in D.C. still have to come here for the requisite shot of a character walking with the Washington Monument or Georgetown’s townhouses in the background.

“Washington D.C. is a set that basically you can’t duplicate,” Campbell said. “If you need to see the Capitol, there’s only one place to go.”

Stills of films featuring D.C.

Location manager Jonathan Reich, who has worked on films like Minority Report and The Transformers and is currently working on State of Play, a film featuring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton which will shoot in D.C. within the next few months, agreed.

“They try to fake our city in New York and Baltimore and Toronto,” he said. “But if you really want to get the real feel of what it’s like … you can’t get it anywhere else.”

The demand for D.C.’s icons does lend a certain stability to the filmmaking industry in D.C.—it generated $63 million for D.C.’s economy last year, and one local filmmaker said he didn’t think the necessity of filming in D.C. was ever going to diminish.

But Washington’s monopoly on monuments can only go so far in attracting filmmakers, and in other respects—financial incentives in the form of tax credits, rebates or grants as a fraction of production costs—D.C. has struggled to be competitive with states with larger budgets.

Prior to last year, despite spending roughly $500,000 in annual spending on the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, D.C. didn’t have any financial incentives for filmmakers. Then, in a bid to make D.C. more financially attractive, the D.C. Council passed the Film D.C. Economic Incentive Temporary Act of 2006.

The act established a fund to be used to provide filmmakers who spent $500,000 and five days filming in D.C. with grants equivalent to either 10 percent of their production costs in the District or 100 percent of taxes on those expenses. It capped the amount to be allocated annually for the fund at $1.6 million.

The program, which began in July, hasn’t been operating long enough for its economic impact to be calculated, but the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development is confident in its success.

“Given the intense competition from neighboring states and cities, we feel this amount is very competitive and has been met with a favorable response from the industry,” Cuozzo wrote in an e-mail.

Thousands of lives are at stake: Kiefer Sutherland (second from right) stands between takes on the set of 24 at 33rd and N Sts.
SAM SWEENEY

Some filmmakers say they’ve seen small changes.

“We’re finding a lot of productions are coming and staying a little bit longer than they would have normally stayed,” Reich said, which he partially attributed to the incentives. “It’s better than it was, coming from having nothing to have the little packets [of incentives]that we have.”

The act was passed as economic incentives become more and more popular as a means for states and cities to attract business from the film industry. In 2006, Connecticut passed a tax credit equivalent to 30 percent of in-state production expenses. New Jersey offers a 20 percent tax credit, passed in 2006. Pennsylvania, which previously offered filmmakers a tax credit of 20 percent with a cap of $10 million on the entire program, increased their tax credit to 25 percent this year, with $75 million allocated.

Hollywood has been paying attention. Jane Saul, the director of the Pennsylvania Film Office, said the economic impact of filmmaking in Pa. nearly doubled in 2003 after they first instituted their incentives.

When Louisiana passed a tax credit equivalent to 25 percent of films’ base investment and 10 percent of the payroll of in-state crew, revenue from productions jumped from $10.5 million in 2002 to $241 million in 2003, an increase of over 2000 percent.

“Hollywood is now looking almost exclusively at the bottom line,” said Jane Love, the assistant executive director of the Washington-Baltimore branch of the Screen Actors Guild. “There is a sense of complacency that we’re not as vulnerable to all this financial concern on the part of Hollywood because we have things they need.”

Love, who testified before the D.C. Council last year in support of D.C.’s incentives, said she wouldn’t call the bill a success. “Even a place like D.C. … needs meaningful tax incentives … To be in the game, you have to be at a 25 percent level.”

But even some filmmakers acknowledge the constraints D.C. faces as a city. Larger incentives “would be great, but you have priorities,” location manager Patrick Burn said. “As a D.C. taxpayer, the way things are right now, I’d rather spend more money on more police than on attracting more film business.”

“Not many states, let alone a city,” can afford large incentives, Pridemore said. Though she sees large incentives as the only way to get filmmakers to go beyond the monuments, she noted that they might have some negative consequences. “Sure, if it was millions of dollars we would get more filming, but it might not be beneficial to the residents,” she said.

D.C.’s incentives are less than those offered in Maryland, which gives rebates up to 25 percent of production costs, with a cap of $4 million last year, causing some films to film a few days in D.C., then spend a few weeks shooting the rest of their D.C. scenes in Baltimore, as Live Free or Die Hard did this year.

However, D.C.’s program is better than Virginia’s, largely because the state maintains a balanced budget and therefore has had little success in passing funding through its legislature.

“We’re just kind of a mess down here in terms of incentives,” Mary Nelson, the communications director for the Virginia Film Office, said. “We have a very small pot of money.” She estimated that Virginia has allocated $2 million for economic incentives for filmmakers since 1998.

Love said the ideal situation would be uncapped incentives in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. so the three would be able to jointly attract films. “We could go like gangbusters,” she said.

At the same time the Film D.C. Economic Incentive Temporary Act of 2006 was being considered by the council, D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, the bill’s sponsor, proposed a resolution which stated, “Commercial filming should be permitted on the United States Capitol grounds,” hoping to “increase the likelihood that movies with a plot set in the District of Columbia will film a large portion of the scenes in the District.”

Congress’s refusal to allow commercial films on Capitol grounds reflects another limitation the District faces in trying to attract more film business—much of what filmmakers want is under the control of the federal government, leaving the city government and the Office of Motion Picture and Television nearly powerless to help.

“The logistics are much easier in other places because the mayor is actually in charge of the city,” Campbell said. “The police force, while they’re supposed to be in charge of the streets, can be pushed out of the way by a federal authority, either the Secret Service or the Park Police or the five block cops, [the U.S. Capitol Police].”

All of the D.C. filmmakers interviewed for this article praised the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. The Office reported that 99 percent of filmmakers rated their experience in the District as satisfactory or better.

However, the D.C. filmmakers were just as quick to point out the limitations faced by the Office.

“They do amazing things with amazingly limited resources,” said Patrick Burn, who has worked as a location manager on films including Shooter and National Treasure.

“There’s a bit of frustration because of the amount of stuff they can and can’t control,” Reich said.

Some places in D.C., much like the Capitol Grounds, are entirely off limits. To film the monuments, filmmakers have to apply for permits to film through the National Park Service, which is bound by federal laws regarding where movies can and cannot film.

“When you say you want a permit to film tomorrow at the Lincoln Memorial, it’s not going to happen,” Burn said. “It drives Hollywood insane.”

Park Service spokesperson Bill Line said the Park Service has a balancing act to perform, keeping the monuments available to the public and maintaining them, while trying to accommodate filmmakers, which can be difficult when productions want to bring in “large Hollywood stars, a whole production staff of 300 people, a ton of gear, generators and lighting,” he said.

“We absolutely try to work with everyone in a fair, equitable and professional manner,” Line said. “If someone comes away from that not receiving everything they’ve asked for, that’s kind of the way business is done in America … Whether they’re happy or pleased or not I think is quite frankly irrelevant.”

Pridemore said that the end result of filmmakers’ interactions with the Park Service has largely been positive. “They always get really good, beautiful footage,” she said, though she added, “The process of getting through the regulations is pretty difficult.”

Other restrictions apply in different parts of D.C., like Metro’s policy not to allow any filming of activities that are banned in Metro stations, like eating, drinking or smoking.

“We just don’t want them filming anything that we don’t want passengers to do,” Taryn McNeil, Public Affairs Coordinator for Metro, said. She said Metro didn’t want passengers saying, “Oh, you let Tom Cruise smoke in the station. You don’t let us smoke in the station.”

“If it’s illegal, it’s illegal across the board.”

There is no sign that any of the restrictions filmmakers face in D.C. are going to change, and when asked whether D.C. had to increase its incentive package, Cuozzo wrote in an e-mail that D.C. will allocate the same $1.6 million in incentives for 2008.

Still, feature films and TV shows keep coming to D.C., if only for a few days, bringing benefits for the local economy and for D.C. residents eager to catch a glimpse of a celebrity, like the large crowd that formed to watch 24 film in Georgetown last Saturday.

The crew of 24, with the help of MPD, sealed off the 3300 block of N Street, while 50-100 people on the two corners of 33rd and N Streets craned their necks to see the set.

A crew member wearing a blue Georgetown cap came to chat with the bystanders during a break, informing the crowd that Keifer Sutherland, who plays series protagonist Jack Bauer, would be on the set that day. Shortly thereafter, a white van pulled up 33rd Street and Sutherland, in a tan trench coat and light blue button-down shirt, stepped out. The crowd let out a burst of applause. “Keifer!” yelled one bystander. Sutherland ignored the crowd and kept walking into the set.

An actor dressed in black with a goatee called out to the crowd, “Don’t forget to cheer for the bad guys, too.”

Sutherland disappeared from view, leaving crowd members to compare pictures they had snapped and call their friends. “I should have flashed my boobs,” one girl said.

The crowd gradually dispersed as the day went on, but 24 kept filming. Georgetown grew dark and they brought out huge lights to shine on the entrance of the brick townhouse being used in the shot. They finished shooting in Georgetown that day. Today is 24’s sixth day of filming in the District. It’s also their last; having filmed the monuments, Georgetown, and other classic D.C. sights, 24 will pack up and leave following in the footsteps of countless productions before them.

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