Dan Rodricks: Vanished faces of a West Virginia boom town

MTV's Skins: Teen series won't be set in Baltimore

It is surely not as hard a slap in the face to Baltimore's sense of media identity as the makers of John Waters' "Hairspray" filming the movie version in Toronto. But now comes official word from the producers of MTV's "Skins" that this American version of the Brit teen hit won't be filmed in Baltimore — nor will it even be set here.

It will be filmed in Toronto instead — and set in a "general eastern seaboard" city, according to Bryan Elsley, the co-creator and executive producer of both the BBC series and its American spinoff, which debuts early next year.

And all of this after MTV told The Baltimore Sun last year that the much-anticipated series would be fictionally located in Baltimore with at least some filming likely to be done here.

Beyond the desperately needed production dollars that any filming would have added to the local economy, just being the fictional home for a show that generates this kind of passion among young viewers would have been very nice. We could use a little glam-grit-edgy-sexy-youth-hit imagery in Baltimore these days. But it won't be coming from MTV with this show.

(Photo courtesy of MTV)

"I've been pursuing this project for two years, and we're planning to set our show in Baltimore," Liz Gateley, senior vice president of series development for MTV, told The Sun last year. "The creators already have done focus groups in Baltimore. They've met with kids there and found out what they're experiencing, where they go to school, and where they hang out. They wanted to set the show someplace that is a good cross-section of the country. I think they chose Baltimore because it has diverse ethnic groups and socioeconomic levels and urban and suburban areas."

That was August 2009. So, how did Baltimore get totally scrubbed out of the final product both behind and in front of the cameras?

"Although we initially considered shooting 'Skins' in Baltimore, we have always preferred that the series should have a non specific setting so we are going for a general eastern seaboard environment," Elsley said in an e-mail. "This allows us more freedom to tell stories about whatever we think relevant and funny to young people."

After numerous e-mails and calls over several weeks, that is all MTV and the producers were willing to offer by way of explanation.

What makes this more maddening is that MTV did send the first 25 minutes of the pilot, and it is outstanding. It has an edge, texture and sense of authenticity that you will not find in any other teen drama on TV. The sex, drugs, wild partying and talk of suicide by some characters will trouble some adults, but it is the same formula that has made the series a huge success in the UK among young viewers — as well as a launching pad for new talent such as Dev Patel, who went from the UK version of "Skins" to starring in "Slumdog Millionaire," the independent film that won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture.

And the look of the pilot is so Baltimore. Call it Rust Belt Chic. The imagery is uber-urban with lots of bridges and underpasses made of aged concrete with huge bolts bleeding rust down the sides of ancient stones. Weedy lots, crisscrossing train tracks, bare-branch winter trees and lots of concrete. Think of the area around the train station -- or the stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway between Falls Road and the Guilford exit downtown.

The neighborhood in which several members of the teen tribe at the center of this drama live is a dead ringer for the one I call home in Hamilton — except with warehouses. But we have those, too, in other parts of the city. The only thing missing in the Toronto setting are the rows upon rows of rowhouses, but otherwise, it could have been us.

"I think they were looking for something not so glamorous, a Pittsburgh kind of a look," says Charley Armstrong, a location manager for "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire."

Armstrong knows more than anyone else about the backstage story of how the producers of "Skins" came to visit Baltimore and then abandon it, according to Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office. Armstrong is the person in Baltimore whom the UK producers contacted about filming here.

Producers from one of the firms involved in making "Skins" became interested in Baltimore as a possible setting for the American version of "Skins" while working on the HBO miniseries "Generation Kill" in Africa with producers and crew members from David Simon's Blown Deadline Productions company, Armstrong says. Simon and Nina K. Noble were two of the executive producers on the HBO film about the war in Iraq.

"The people who worked on 'The Wire' talked up Baltimore as the all-American town of whatever, and the British producers came here last summer as a result of that, I think, mainly looking to do research," Armstrong says. "I think they were looking for a more generic East Coast town and thought that Baltimore would be better than a more iconic one like Boston or New York."

Simon confirmed that he and Noble did encourage their British colleagues from Company Pictures to make "Skins" in Baltimore.

Armstrong put the visitors from the British outfit in touch with someone who handled focus groups, and they did one with teens in Baltimore the week of Aug. 10, 2009. Meanwhile, Armstrong showed them what they would find on the other end of their camera lens if they set up shop here.

"So, we went around looking at Baltimore for a couple of days, and then, they went off to Canada to compare," he says with a finality suggesting we both know how that story ends.

"I mean, it happens all the time, and not just Baltimore," Armstrong says. "They may go to any town in the U.S., and then go up to Canada to try and match. I mean, that just happens. That's the way the industry is. … And then, the Canadian government gives all kinds of incentives at all kinds of levels — they give it nationally and they give it locally as well. When you get down to these kinds of shows, it's really all about money. That's really what it comes down to."

Incentives to film and TV producers who come to Maryland is a contested issue with political overtones in the governor's race this fall. While Maryland has a weak incentive program compared to nearby states, Gov. Martin O'Malley says it is all the state can responsibly afford in these tough economic times. Republican challenger Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., says the state can afford more, and that if elected, he would boost the incentive fund by $7 million.

So, it matters in that sense at least to ask those involved what role a lack of competitive incentives played — or didn't play — in the case of "Skins."

Looking back, Armstrong says, "I don't think they ever had any intention of filming in Baltimore — unless it would have been a super financial deal that would have made it so affordable to do it here. Maybe then, they would have done it. But I think they always had intentions to film it in Canada, basically for cost reasons."

Gerbes came to much the same conclusion about Canada having an inside track and then some.

"We contacted MTV and the production company when we heard about the project," Gerbes says. "We were told it probably wouldn't shoot anywhere in the United States because of some existing Canadian ties and the likelihood of it being a Canadian co-production. The discussion never reached questions about incentives."

One of the companies involved in co-producing "Skins" does have an office in Toronto — and not Baltimore.

And so it ends — the short, unhappy love affair between Baltimore and MTV's "Skins."

But in hearing about Simon and Noble out in Africa acting as ambassadors for Baltimore, I couldn't help thinking about those who complained while "Homicide" and "The Wire" were on the air that the series presented a negative image of Baltimore to the nation and the world — even as the two series pumped tens of millions of dollars into the local economy.

I never agreed with the bad-for-Baltimore's-image school of thought. In fact, I argued against it.

I wonder how those folks feel now that Baltimore has become all but invisible on American TV screens in prime time.

 

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