MR. STYER GOES TO HOLLYWOOD Can a mild-mannered state bureaucrat lure an Eastwood thriller to Maryland?


VENICE, CALIF. - A small, dark Chevy swings into a parking space a block or so off Muscle Beach, and Michael B. Styer unfolds himself from the front passenger seat and into the Pacific breeze.

He pulls on his blue blazer, straightens his patterned tie and from the trunk gathers up two photo albums depicting scenes from Baltimore and Maryland. Then, edging past a couple of tawny in-line skaters, he makes his way across a narrow street to a squat, two-story townhouse. Waiting inside is the possibility of 10 or 11 weeks of film production in Maryland and millions of dollars.

"This," says Mr. Styer, director of the Maryland Film Office, "is a real hot prospect."

If he sounds as if he is in sales, that is precisely how Mr. Styer sees himself. Not entertainment. Not government work. Sales.

His product is the state of Maryland, his potential customers are Hollywood movie and television executives, and his aim is to put the likes of Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in front of cameras in Baltimore, Bethesda or Bowie.

He wants to make us Fantasy Land's fantasy land.

Today, he's making sales calls.

He and his staff are doing the rounds of some of the hundreds of production houses that in Los Angeles are nearly as plentiful as convenience stores. And, he's trying to stay ahead of the competition.

A couple of days from now, Mr. Styer's counterparts from all over the globe will gather downtown at the civic center for their annual trade show, where they will try to sell their settings to Hollywood.

It's no wonder why they are here. Few industries can offer so many benefits and so few drawbacks. Movie making is both free-spending and environmentally clean. It does not require continuing government services such as schools or libraries. It is boon to tourism, and it can add luster to a region's national reputation.

Undoubtedly, the critically admired television series "Homicide" has given a touch of glamour to Baltimore, not to mention distinction. It is one of the few shows shot outside Los Angeles. Thanks to its success, a second show, a family drama called "Falls Road" is now shooting a pilot in the city. If NBC picks it up for the fall, Baltimore could be the location for a second hour-long dramatic series.

All this is in addition to a steady flow of feature-film production here, including, most recently, Jodie Foster's "Home for the Holidays" and "12 Monkeys," starring Bruce Willis. Maryland has attracted between $40 million and $60 million a year worth of TV and motion picture production.

Still, Mr. Styer is not satisfied. "There's so much more potential out there," he says. "I think we could do five-fold what we do now, if we could pull out all the stops."

Which is why he is standing outside this townhouse. For him and his crew, it's show time. Rules of the game

Rule No. 1 for getting films made in your town: Forget the script.

Baltimore has played itself in plenty of television shows and movies, from "Diner" to "The Accidental Tourist" to "Homicide." But it has doubled for other places as well. It was Cleveland in "Major League 2" and New York City in "Her Alibi." It was the nation's capital in "Dave" and "Meteor Man." In "Violets are Blue," starring Sissy Spacek, Baltimore even did a turn as Dublin, Ireland.

And earlier this month, a producer and director visited the city to look at possible sites for "Washington Square," a Disney adaptation of a Henry James novel that takes place in the New York and Paris of the 1850s.

Of course, reversal is fair game. Several years ago, Pittsburgh played Baltimore in a television movie. Its title: "Incident in Baltimore."

Rule No. 2 for getting films made in your town: Don't forget the script.

Getting the script is often the key to getting the movie. Most of "12 Monkeys" was to be filmed in Philadelphia until Mr. Styer's people saw the script and were able to match director Terry Gilliam's dark vision for the film with images of the Power Plant, the Engineering Society and the Cloisters Museum.

Similarly, Jodie Foster was considering Boston for "Home for the Holidays" until the Maryland Film Office blanketed her with photographs of Baltimore's Hamilton neighborhood, which fit the settled, working-class setting she envisioned for her movie. It didn't hurt that the office also showed that Baltimore gets less snow than Boston in February, the month the film had to be shot.

Rule No. 3 for getting films made in your town: Forget the script or not; it doesn't matter.

A year or so ago, Virginia seemed to have the inside track as a location site for a new Steven Seagal thriller. But then Maryland got hold of the script and began the hard sell. It appeared to pay off. The producers decided to dump the Old Dominion in favor of the Free State.

Then, six weeks before shooting was to begin, Warner Bros. dumped the movie altogether. Stop one: Hot prospect

Climbing the winding staircase leading to Barnstorm Films, Mr. Styer passes posters that the production company's principal, Tony Bill, has been associated with as either director or producer: "Taxi Driver," "Untamed Heart" and "The Sting," for which Mr. Bill received an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Barnstorm's offices are airy and informal. A black Labrador lopes from one room to the next, followed finally by Helen Bartlett, a friendly, slight woman who is Mr. Bill's wife and partner in Barnstorm. She beckons Mr. Styer and his staff into her sunny office while telling them that she knows their state well, having grown up in Washington.

She apologizes for Mr. Bill's absence. He is in the valley shooting a car-chase scene for a new Steven Spielberg television show. She introduces her production manager, a burly, gray-bearded man in a checkered shirt named Edward Atkins but who is known simply as "Itsi." It was Itsi, himself a product of St. Mary's County, who first contacted Mr. Styer's office about this prospective film.

The movie will depict the life of Julie Krone, the renowned woman jockey. Naturally, the story needs to be shot in and around a racetrack. Is Maryland the right place? Ms. Bartlett and Itsi begin a friendly but intense questioning:

Would Laurel be available? Would they be able to shoot at the Preakness? There may be a scene at a state fair; does Maryland have one this summer? Is there countryside near Laurel that could substitute for backwoods Kentucky? Is there hotel space nearby for the crew? Is the commute bad from Baltimore to Laurel? Might there be a nice house in the area for Mr. Bill and Ms. Bartlett to rent during the shoot?

As fast as the questions come, Mr. Styer and his staff, deputy director Jack Gerbes and locations manager Catherine Councill, provide reassuring answers. Yes, Laurel would be happy to cooperate. Shooting the Preakness should be no problem. The Maryland State Fair would be perfect for the film. There's wonderfully rural scenery near Laurel. We'll look into hotel rates for you. The commute is a snap. Sure, there are great houses nearby. You'd love Annapolis in the summer.

Ms. Bartlett asks if Maryland has enough resident film personnel to handle a major film at the same time shooting resumes on "Homicide."

"That's no problem," Mr. Styer replies. "We are three crews deep." Ms. Bartlett writes down the name of a Baltimore casting agent Mr. Styer recommends.

Itsi asks about child-labor laws because there will be some night shooting. Mr. Styer says he will fax the information.

Ms. Bartlett describes the film's story with evident feeling. "It's about a young girl entering into this very male world. Julie Krone worked her way up in that world. She was like a terrier, the kind of person that gets in fistfights. It's a moving story about 'N courage and finding something you're good at and going after it."

Ms. Bartlett seems pleased with everything she has heard, and says more than once, "We really like Maryland." But she acknowledges she is considering other locations. (Ms. Councill has heard New York is the stiffest competition. Although Kentucky is also trying to get the film, it has almost no resident crew.)

Ms. Bartlett also says a critical stumbling block still lies ahead. MGM has yet to approve the project. "We don't have a 'go' yet," she says, "but it looks good."

The meeting ends with chit-chat. Ms. Bartlett recalls her visit to Obrycki's last summer and her yearning for crabs. Learning that Mr. Gerbes helped Jodie Foster scout locations for "Home for the Holidays," Ms. Bartlett says she and her husband are close friends of Ms. Foster, who appeared in Mr. Bill's "Taxi Driver."

"Jodie's the most decisive person I ever met," Mr. Gerbes says. "She makes decisions like that." He snaps his fingers.

With promises all around to be in touch, the session comes to an end, but not before Ms. Bartlett hands over a copy of the script.

"That," Mr. Styer says as he descends the stairs, "was a very good meeting." A digression

A sandy-haired man of 54, Mr. Styer has a square jaw and an erect, military bearing that is quickly softened by an easy warmth and hearty laugh. The Lancaster, Pa., native, has spent most of his career in television, 20 years in production and management at Maryland Public Television. Two years ago, he joined the film office as its director.

From the first, Mr. Styer recognized that he was now in sales, which happened to be his father's occupation. "He always said you could be a salesman if you believed in your product."

Though he likes movies, Mr. Styer isn't a film buff. Both Mr. Gerbes, 42, and Ms. Councill, 29, are. Between them, there is hardly a movie they haven't seen, and they can chatter at length about which location manager handled which motion picture and where virtually every recent film was shot. If the opportunity ever presented itself, they could see themselves working in Hollywood.

Together, the three make up three-fourths of the Maryland Film Office. (A secretary is back in Baltimore.) Compared to other states, it is a fairly modest operation. Maryland spends $260,000 a year to attract television and film production, placing it about 30th in spending nationally. California, by comparison, devotes $2.1 million to promoting itself in films, and Texas spends $1.5 million.

After salaries, Mr. Styer has only $30,000 left for marketing, which is largely spent during the eight or so weeklong sales calls he makes to Los Angeles each year. Although he can occasionally favor prospective filmmakers with gifts a package of crabs is a favorite Mr. Styer is forced to be quite sparing. "I may be able to take one or two people out to lunch during a week," he says. "Dinner is out of the question."

In a way, Mr. Styer and his cohorts are like paupers traipsing through Tiffany's. Compared to the frugality of state government, Hollywood's lavish spending seems particularly wanton. In the car after leaving the Barnstorm office, they reminisce about their experience on the Steven Seagal movie that wasn't. "They spent half a million dollars to get to the point to not make that movie," Mr. Styer marvels.

Shortly after, Ms. Councill pulls into a grocery store parking lot. The three Marylanders hop out to buy soft drinks and snacks to carry back to their hotel. It's a trick they learned to avoid the high cost of the mini-bars in their rooms. Stop two: The cold call

The address in Santa Monica brings Mr. Styer and crew to a modern low-rise that is chock-full of production companies and casting offices. They apparently come and go so often that some of the names of the companies are hand-printed: "Lolita," "Tarzan" and "L.A. Farm." The one Mr. Styer is searching for says "Chesapeake Entertainment."

Leafing through the trades in his Baltimore office a few weeks ago, Mr. Styer saw an item about a development deal between Disney and Chesapeake Entertainment. He'd never heard of it, but surmised it had a Maryland connection. A bit of research proved him right. Chesapeake was the new production company created by Daniel Stern, the actor ("Diner" and "Home Alone"), who grew up in Bethesda. Mr. Styer got on the phone and finagled an appointment with Laura Moskowitz, Chesapeake's president.

The Maryland group arrives shortly before the scheduled 2: 30 p.m. meeting. A receptionist says Ms. Moskowitz is not yet back from lunch in the cafeteria downstairs. Ten minutes pass and still no Ms. Moskowitz, but a young man named Josh arrives. In plaid shirt and jeans, he looks like a film student, which, it turns out, he was until recently. Now, he's developing projects for Mr. Stern.

Embarrassed about Ms. Moskowitz's continued absence, the receptionist asks Josh if he will fill in for her. He is amenable and leads the Marylanders into an adjacent office, but he seems unsure what is expected of him. "So how are things going back there in Maryland?" he asks.

That is all the opening Mr. Styer needs. He launches into his pitch, rattling off all the recent productions filmed in Maryland, boasting about its three-crew depth. Unless you're making a Western, Mr. Styer says in an oft-repeated refrain, Maryland has the right look for your film.

Josh nods politely but seems to be only half listening. "Well, it all sounds exciting," he says. "Thanks for coming." Just then Ms. Moskowitz breezes into the office. She's all smiles and shakes everyone's hand, but she never stops her movement toward an interior office, where, once inside, she closes the door.

"Well," Mr. Styer says on the way out with Willy Lomanesque optimism, "we planted a seed." Stop three: It can't hurt

The last appointment of the day also has a Maryland ring Pikesville Productions. The company makes infomercials and is probably best known for promoting singer Dionne Warwick's psychic services. It is owned by Baltimorean Michael Lasky and run by his 28-year old son, Marc.

Eager to break into feature films, Marc contacted Mr. Styer during the winter. He has written a script loosely based on the Colts' departure for Indianapolis. In the story, a group of rabid Colts fans, including a couple from the Colts Marching Band, kidnap the star player and hold him until the team is returned to Baltimore.

"With the Browns coming to Baltimore now, I think this story would be really hot," Marc is saying now. "It's not just Baltimore's story anymore."

Marc says the picture's budget has gone up to $3 million from half a million, and he has all but signed a well-known producer. He wants to film at Memorial Stadium this summer. He also wants to shoot a large part of the story in a Baltimore bar.

If Marc's dreamy-eyed synopsis of the story sounds at all loopy, the Marylanders do not let on. Mr. Gerbes suggests a couple of bars that might work. Mr. Styer assures Marc that the crew base is there, that the unions are flexible, and that Baltimore has plenty of hotel space. He mentions that Artie Donovan's daughter is involved in the Tremont Hotel and caters to the film industry.

The mention of Artie Donovan obviously tickles Marc, whose eyes become glassy. "I'd love to have Artie Donovan involved."

After the meeting, Mr. Styer expresses doubts that the film could ever reach production by summer. Still, he says, "This could be a really good relationship for us." The show

At the "Locations '96" expo two days later, Mr. Styer seems a Lilliputian amid superpowers.

His booth is in a remote corner of the hall. Pennsylvania's exhibit next door is three times larger, and across the way is Florida's enormous display, a long bar underneath a kitschy neon "Florida" sign and an enormous video wall. ("We're not pushing subtlety," one Florida representative allows.) Florida's exhibit cost $60,000.

Maryland paid less than $2,000 for its no-frills exhibit, which consists of a single booth with posters from "Home for the Holidays," "Homicide" and "12 Monkeys." Mr. Styer decided to go light on Barry Levinson and ignore John Waters films altogether. To emphasize those Baltimore natives, he says, might suggest that Maryland is just suitable for the home-boys.

Almost every American state, most big cities, all the Canadian provinces and more than a dozen other foreign countries are at this year's show. Israel is here, and New Zealand and Tahiti.

So, too, for the first time is Kenya. The country was so incensed that Michael Douglas went to South Africa to shoot a film about the construction of the Kenyan railroad that it has sent an eight-man delegation to this year's expo, complete with a Masai tribesman in fiery red loincloth.

Canada, which sucks up a disproportionate share of Hollywood's business because of the favorable exchange rate, occupies the whole center aisle, where visitors are greeted by a woman dressed as a Mountie.

Great Britain and Australia have elaborate exhibits, too, but no one comes close to California, which has no fewer than 33 separate booths representing locations up and down the West Coast. Even the Los Angeles airport has its own exhibit.

Although opinion is divided over how much business is landed at these shows, few dare not to be here. At a show last year, !B Maryland first learned of the Steven Seagal movie. And it is clear that the film commissions are seen as valuable resources in Hollywood.

Dan Kolsrud, producer of a string of hits that include "Grumpy Old Men" and "Seven," says film commissions "I always selfishly feel are like a part of my crew, and I don't have to pay them."

Few of those passing by the Maryland booth have either Mr. Kolsrud's track record or his promise. Still, the booth offers a vantage point into the dreams Hollywood inspires and the earnestness with which they are held.

One young woman in jeans and a T-shirt says she plans to film a ghost story about a murder in a paper mill. Two men in their early 30s want to make a medical thriller at the National Institutes of Health. A guy in a baseball cap has a Civil War story, and another has one set in Colonial America. Other scripts call for hospitals, forests, cemeteries.

The Maryland Film Office is eager to please. None too subtlely, Mr. Gerbes tries to tempt the young men with the medical script away from Washington. "Just so you know," he confides, "D.C. isn't the easiest place to shoot. On one street corner you could have five different federal agencies involved." Learning that their script calls for a subway scene, Mr. Gerbes tells them that Baltimore's Metro is a dead ringer for Washington's, and its schedule is much more conducive to filming.

Washington is in no position to defend itself. It is one of the few spots in the United States unrepresented at the show.

The Marylanders devise a ranking system to measure those who stop by their booth. They range from "Hot Prospects," who are to be sent additional materials and receive follow-up calls, to "Real Losers," those unlikely to even see a film let alone make one. Mr. Styer tries to be generous; today's unheralded filmmaker may be tomorrow's Academy Award winner. The genuine article

Most of the traffic seems to fall somewhere between the high and low end; a few are the genuine article. One of those is a stocky, black-bearded man named Rick Blumenthal, who produces television movies for CBS. Mr. Blumenthal says he's sick of filming in Canada, even if he can get another 30 cents on the dollar.

"I have a show now, it's supposed to be Miami, and we're in Vancouver, and it's snowing," he says. "We may have to do some rewriting on that."

He has a new project about a dying young girl who gets to meet the president, and he wants to film in the Washington suburbs. He says he's going to come to Maryland soon to scout locations.

Mr. Styer also receives feelers from "The Tonight Show" and "Murphy Brown."

Meanwhile, word has come from the Baltimore office of a promising call from a Sony-related company. It has plans for a picture, "Desperate Measures," that was to be filmed in Los Angeles. But now a decision has been made to shoot it in an urban hospital and a penitentiary. The company has asked Maryland for photos.

The topper, though, comes without warning on Saturday, the final afternoon of the expo. A slender, casually dressed young man walks purposefully up to the Maryland booth and asks for Mr. Styer. He introduces himself as Bill Bannerman, an assistant director of a Washington thriller now in the works. Called "Absolute Power" and based on a current best seller, the film is about the killing of the president's mistress. Its star and director will be none other than Clint Eastwood.

Several weeks ago, Mr. Styer read about the film, and he fired off a letter to Mr. Eastwood's production company, Malpaso. He never got a reply, but now, here is Mr. Bannerman saying the movie is a go, with filming to begin by early summer. A determination needs to be made whether Baltimore can substitute for Washington. As soon as possible he needs photos of federal buildings in Baltimore, of neighborhoods that could double for Georgetown, of a possible mansion where the killing will occur in the movie. He promises to get a script to Mr. Styer post-haste and to call about arranging a scouting trip.

While the young man is speaking, Mr. Styer is aware he is feeling the salesman's rush.

What a week. His office is suddenly flooded with the prospect of cameras rolling all over Maryland this spring and summer. There's the racetrack film, the hospital picture, the Henry James story and now a potential Clint Eastwood blockbuster.

For the moment, Steven Seagal is the farthest thing from his mind.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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