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Now D.C. wants to horn in on Baltimore's 'House of Cards' action

A Washington mayoral candidate says he wants the Netflix show to film there

By Chris Kaltenbach

The Baltimore Sun

4:44 PM EDT, March 18, 2014

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Should state legislators fail to offer enough tax incentives to keep Frank Underwood and his "House of Cards" gang filming happily in Maryland, D.C. mayoral candidate Vincent Orange has a helpful suggestion.

How about filming in Washington? Seeing as how the Netflix series is based there and all, maybe the nation's capital should serve as home to the series, rather than a neighboring city just pretending to be D.C. when the cameras are rolling?

"We're not stepping on any toes, I believe we're just reclaiming what is ours," said Orange, a D.C. councilman for most of the past 15 years who believes — perhaps not unreasonably — that a show set in Washington should be filmed in Washington, a city that could certainly use the tax revenue. "We've looked at both Maryland and Virginia, where you've had significant financial impact. We'd like to have those jobs in the nation's capital, and have that financial impact as well."

During a mayoral debate hosted by Washington's City Paper on Sunday, Orange, an at-large member of the D.C. city council since 2011 (he also served on the council from 1999-2007), floated the idea. For the show's third season, which should start filming within the next few months, he admits it might be tough getting the whole production to move to D.C. But since they already do limited shooting there -- mostly backgrounds and set-ups -- perhaps the number of days actually shot in Washington could be upped by a few?

"What we are looking at is perhaps getting 10-to-20 production days, just to show that we're pretty serious," he says. Adding to that just-take-us-seriously approach: D.C.'s government has already increased the money allocated to attract film and television production companies, from $15,000 to $4.3 million, for the current season. Orange says he'd like to see that figure climb to $25 million.

Orange also says he's in "discussions" with developers to build a soundstage in the district.

"House of Cards" stars Kevin Spacey as Underwood, a particularly ruthless pol apparently willing to rule nothing out, including murder, in his pursuit of power. Spoiler alert: He's already made it to the office of president of the United States, so that ruthlessness seems to be working just fine for him. 

Back in the real world, state officials hope he can keep doing what he does so cold-bloodedly right here in Maryland, where HOC's first two seasons were filmed at studio facilities in Harford County and several sites in Baltimore (full disclosure: The Baltimore Sun is paid for use of its Calvert Street building for filming). Although Spacey, who also serves as executive producer, assured The Sun in February that "House of Cards" would be returning to the state for a third season, the show's producers don't appear as committed.

The potential sticking point involves tax credits given to film companies; most states, including Maryland, offer such incentives as a way of bringing in film and TV projects. In return for using Maryland goods, labor and locations, "House of Cards" (and many other projects, including HBO's "Veep") receives a rebate on the taxes they pay -- as much as 27 percent, in "HOC's" case. For its first two seasons, the series received some $25 million in rebates.

State legislators, however, are still wrangling over the size of the tax-credit program to be offered for the coming fiscal year. And officials of Media Rights Capital, the California-based company that produces "House of Cards," have decided to postpone filming of the third season until they are sure the program will be large enough to provide the same level of tax incentives given the show its first two seasons.

"We're working hard to ensure that it stays in Baltimore," said Debbie Donaldson Dorsey, director of the Baltimore Film Office and a board member of the Maryland Film Industry Coalition. "We hope they stay here."

Both the Maryland House and Senate have held hearings on the tax incentive program. The administration bill, put forward by Gov. Martin O'Malley, seeks $12 million, which some fear would not be enough to keep "House of Cards" here. A Senate version, passed overwhelmingly on Monday, sets the bar at $18.5 million, which should enable the series to receive a tax rebate in line with what it has been getting the past two seasons.

The next move is up to the state legislators. Who perhaps should keep this in mind: if they don't make Frank Underwood and his pals happy, there would appear to be people elsewhere -- like Vincent Orange -- who would be happy to pick up the slack.

What's more, Orange won't be stopping with "House of Cards." He also mentioned two other set-in-Washington-but-filmed-elsewhere TV series that are in his sights: HBO's "Veep," also filmed in Maryland, and Showtime's "Homeland," shot in North Carolina.

"There will always be storylines written that set in the nation's capital," he says, envisioning a potentially constant stream of revenue.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com