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Money pours into Maryland while the film cameras roll

Baltimore has come a long way since its supporting role in Barry Levinson's intimate 1982 film comedy Diner.

Three major productions pumped a record $125 million into Maryland's economy last year, nearly doubling the previous year's total, the state film office reported yesterday.

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During the year ending June 30, the Maryland Film Office was successful in bringing DreamWorks' Head of State, Touchstone Pictures' Ladder 49 and the HBO series The Wire to the state, along with a variety of independent films, commercials and documentaries.

"It's very exciting news, and it's exciting in terms of economic development in Maryland," said Rob Carter, assistant secretary for the Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts, part of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "What we want is, when Steven Spielberg or Ted Turner or the little independent wakes up and has his next great idea, he thinks of Maryland first."

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The bottom line is that the film industry means jobs for Maryland residents, Carter said.

"It's millions of dollars in lumber, in food, in rental cars and hotel rooms," he said. "When hotels are full, people are employed."

Even medium-size feature films typically produce $100,000 to $125,000 a day in economic impact, said Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office. And the companies spend 45 to 80 days shooting, he said.

Though production budgets are proprietary, films such as the firefighting epic Ladder 49 pump millions into the local economy.

Conservatively, Ladder 49 spent more than $10 million in Maryland, said the film's executive producer, Marty Ewing.

"It went very well," Ewing said yesterday. "The mayor and the Fire Department couldn't have made us feel more at home."

Philadelphia, Toronto, Boston and New York were among the cities competing for the production, which stars John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix. The film is scheduled for release early next year.

Ewing acknowledges that he wouldn't have thought of Baltimore had he not heard such positive comments from Jay Russell, director of the Walt Disney Pictures film Tuck Everlasting. The film was shot entirely in Maryland in 2001.

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During his stay here Ewing learned about Baltimore's rich history of two- and three-generation firefighting families and the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 - elements that made the city a logical place to shoot the film. For better or worse, Baltimore also had an abundance of buildings that could be burned for the cameras, he said.

Ladder 49 is the story of a veteran firefighter who reflects on his life, family and career while trapped in a burning building.

Filming ran from March through June. Locations around the city were used, including a closed Baltimore fire station on Gorsuch Avenue, the War Memorial and Vane Brothers waterfront granary warehouse.

Would Ewing recommend the state to others and come back if he had the chance?

"Absolutely," he said. "It was a great experience."

That is precisely the type of review that state officials are banking on.

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"The state is getting a great reputation as a film-friendly place," said Gerbes. "Our hope is that from three or four productions a year, we'll go to seven or eight productions, around the clock, around the year."

Early in fiscal 2003, Maryland played host to Head of State, which marked the directorial debut of actor-comedian Chris Rock. The film was shot around Maryland, including the landmark Belvedere Hotel, the War Memorial and the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore, in Sykesville in Carroll County, and on Wye Island on the Eastern Shore. In its opening weekend in March, the film topped the box office, taking in more than $13.5 million.

Baltimore also welcomed back HBO's critically acclaimed television series The Wire, which returned for its second season. The Baltimore-based crime drama airs on Sunday nights. David Simon, a Maryland native, has focused the second season on the city's waterfront and its unions, chronicling the steady decline of the working class in American cities.

Gerbes said the sluggish economy has hit the film industry. Runaway productions - the trend for companies to go outside the country where production costs are cheaper - have long been a problem.

"It's a smaller pie we're all sharing," he said. "Studios are producing fewer projects per year. But once we can get them, we can make them happy."


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