More lights, camera, action in Md.

Sun Movie Critic

Actress Sarah Jessica Parker spotted in Annapolis. Actor Rutger Hauer lying in a coffin on Liberty Road. A street in North Baltimore transformed in mid-August into a colorful autumn landscape.

After a six-month lull, during which camera crews seemed as scarce as snow on the Fourth of July, Maryland's $75 million-a-year filmmaking industry is bustling again.

Three movies, including Failure to Launch, a romantic comedy starring Parker and Matthew McConaughey that was being shot last week in Annapolis, have been filming recently in and around Charm City.

Next month, three other movies, including Nicole Kidman's Invasion, and a TV show (the fourth season of HBO's The Wire) are scheduled to shoot in the area. Local craftspeople - grips, costume designers, hairstylists and others who depend on film work for a substantial part of their income - have gone from famine to feast.

Six months ago, "there was not one production, it was dead," says Sam Steward, a member of the wardrobe crew for Rocket Science, a comedy about a stuttering teenager who tries out for his high school speech team. It is filming around Homeland this month. "Now it's too much. It's like it's got a supercharger in its heart and six arms."

A combination of factors has helped the state's film industry, from recruiting in Hollywood by the Maryland Film Commission to good word-of-mouth from productions that have worked in the state previously.

But the lion's share of credit for the current revival goes to a limited tax-rebate program, proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and passed by the General Assembly earlier this year.

The legislation came as other states were offering lucrative incentives to film companies. Louisiana, for example, was offering rebates of up to 25 percent of production costs; Pennsylvania was offering a 20 percent tax credit on all expenditures.

"Everybody was going to Louisiana because of the incentive programs down there," says Rosemarie Levy, business agent for Local 487 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents about 500 technicians and craftspeople in the Baltimore area. (An additional 200 IATSE members belong to other locals.)

"For about six months, my phone was not ringing at all. That's when I got scared. That's when I got on the steps of the Annapolis legislators. And may I say, they did listen."

'Annapolis' to Pa.

The program, proposed after a Disney film titled Annapolis moved production to Pennsylvania because of financial incentives there, offered up to $2 million in tax rebates to companies filming in Maryland. Legislators set aside $4 million for this year, and that was spread among three projects: Rocket Science, The Wire and Music High, a movie about a juvenile delinquent forced to perform community service at a Baltimore arts school, scheduled to begin filming next month.

The rebate "was a huge, huge factor," says Effie Brown, producer of Rocket Science. Her $6 million film, she says, received a $400,000 rebate through the program.

For years, Maryland - which ranks in the top 10 of state film industries, according to Pat S. Kaufman, president of the Association of Film Commissioners International - was able to draw on experience in luring film crews to the state.

Over the past 30 years, such films as The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), Violets Are Blue (1986), Home for the Holidays (1995) and For Richer or Poorer (1997) were shot in Maryland without the benefit of any rebates.

The benefits of having films made in Maryland go beyond pride and prestige. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2003, filmmaking had an economic impact on the state equal to $126 million. The next year, the total fell to $75 million, according to figures from the Maryland Film Commission.

Totals from the fiscal year just ended should remain level or drop slightly, said commission head Jack Gerbes, but that will not include all the activity in July and August of this year.

The amount a movie contributes to the economy varies according to its budget and the length of time it shoots here. The Wedding Crashers and Syriana, a spy thriller starring George Clooney scheduled to open next month, each contributed about $10 million to the local economy. Both films split their shoots between Maryland and Hollywood.

Ladder 49, a firefighting drama shot almost entirely in the Baltimore area over 71 days in 2003, contributed between $45 million and $50 million.

Maryland has long benefited from having a ready crew base - a legacy of the filmmaking efforts of John Waters and Barry Levinson, who began making movies in and around Baltimore in the 1970s. Many craftspeople working on films in Maryland today cut their teeth on the Levinson-produced Homicide: Life on the Street TV series, which aired on NBC and filmed in Baltimore from 1993 to 1999.

Having that base means film companies need to bring in fewer workers when they come here, substantially cutting down the cost of production. That wasn't enough, however, when other states began offering strong economic incentives.

When Maryland followed suit, productions started to return.

"It's great," says Dennis Castleman, the assistant secretary in charge of film with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "Typically, summer's been slower for us."

While praising the rebate program for priming the pump, Castleman says other factors played into the resurgence - such as the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland's ability to stand in for Washington as security restrictions have made it more difficult to film there. Parts of Failure to Launch, for instance, were shot on Eastern Shore waterways, while Maryland has doubled for D.C. in both The Wedding Crashers and XXX: State of the Union.

Beyond those concerns, film crews enjoy working alongside an appreciative audience, which they get in Baltimore.

"People in Baltimore still are excited by the process" of filmmaking, says William Whitehurst, a Cockeysville native who wrote the script for Mentor, in which Hauer (The Hitcher, Ladyhawke) plays a famous professor who abuses the power he has over his students. Along with two associates, Whitehurst is trying to launch a production company designed to bring smaller-budget films to the state. "We just found the people to be very hospitable and helpful."

Glad to be busy

With multiple films being shot at once, Baltimore's filmmaking resources are being stretched to their limit. But few seem to be complaining.

"I'd say I'm 100 percent employed," says the IATSE's Levy. "In certain departments, yes, there's going to be a bit of a strain there. But I'm not frightened by it, I'm not concerned by it. We are handling it. Actually, it's a pleasure."

On the set of Mentor yesterday, Alexandra Brandenburg, 26, was enjoying the hectic pace. She has been working as a production designer on this film for the past several weeks, and tomorrow, she'll be moving over to Rocket Science and put in a few days there.

"This summer has been very busy," she says. "Right after I accepted Mentor, the next week, I got five phone calls for various movies that I had to turn down. Which has never happened before."

Staff writer Kim Hart contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad