Baltimore loses role as itself in movie


Say it ain't so, hon!

Charm City won't even have a cameo role in the movie-musical version of Hairspray, John Waters' fable about racial desegregation and dance-floor equality set in early-1960s Baltimore. Instead, the film will be shot entirely in Toronto, one of the film's producers confirmed yesterday.

No offense to Baltimore is intended, insisted producer Craig Zadan. Though financial incentives also swayed the filmmakers, the key factor in the Canadian city's selection was that the Baltimore area lacks large soundstages - buildings with spaces wide and tall enough to meet the demands of shooting a big-budget musical.

"We approached this movie from Day 1 as wanting to go to Baltimore and planning to go to Baltimore," Zadan said. "I was sort of not prepared for the fact that the [state] film commission would say to us, 'We don't have those soundstages.'"

Originally a 1988 film created by Baltimore native Waters, Hairspray was transformed in 2002 into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. It is being remade into a musical film scheduled to be released in December 2007 by New Line Cinemas. The new film's cast includes John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Amanda Bynes and Zac Efron. Michelle Pfeiffer is in negotiations to play former beauty queen Velma von Tussel.

Filming is set to begin Sept. 5 in Toronto.

Hairspray's producers initially planned to film in Baltimore what's called "second-unit photography," or background shots that add local flavor. But doing so would have added "a couple million dollars" to the film's budget, Zadan said. Instead, parts of the city will be re-created on Canadian soundstages, and still photographs taken here will be inserted into the film via computer. The result will look like Baltimore, Zadan promised, thanks to "the magic of the movies." But it won't be Baltimore.

"It's a shame," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "You have a movie that is about Baltimore, about all the quirks and the history that is Baltimore, and it's not being filmed here. But we understand it's a financial, bottom-line decision."

Dennis Castleman, the assistant secretary in charge of film with the Maryland Department of Economic and Business Development, also expressed chagrin. "It's disappointing on two fronts: the economic impact, and the bragging rights of being able to say, 'This film was made right here in Baltimore.'"

State officials estimate film and TV work brings $70 million annually to the state. The movie Ladder 49, when it was shot in Baltimore over 71 days in 2003, brought in between $45 million and $50 million. The Visiting, a yet-to-be-released thriller starring Nicole Kidman that was shot partly in Baltimore last fall, had an estimated economic impact of $23 million, said Hannah Byron, head of the Division of Film, Television & Video for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

Castleman, who said his office had been in negotiations with the filmmakers for months, said he was told "unofficially" that Maryland would have to come up with $9 million in economic incentives (mainly tax breaks) to make shooting in Baltimore feasible. That figure represents considerably more than the $6.875 million in film-production tax breaks approved by the state legislature for the current year.

In 2005, Maryland began offering rebates on taxes paid by film companies shooting in the state under a program begun by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Last year, $4 million in rebates was spread among three projects, including the HBO series The Wire and the Touchstone film Step Up, which is set to be released next month.

"The fact is, there was money available from the [tax] rebate program," said Byron. "We were hoping that would lure them here, but unfortunately that wasn't enough, especially in conjunction with the lack of a soundstage."

Toronto has long been a preferred location for Hollywood film shoots, far more so than Baltimore, or - for that matter - any other North American city outside, perhaps, Los Angeles and New York. The Internet Movie Database lists a total of 2,189 films as having been shot in Toronto, compared with 219 in Baltimore.

For years, Toronto benefited from an exchange rate that valued the Canadian dollar at roughly 68 cents compared to its American counterpart. But now, with the rate hovering around 90 cents, economics plays a smaller role in attracting film companies, said Peter Finestone, director of investment marketing for Toronto. "We're a little bit less expensive," he said, "but people are coming here because of a range of variables."

Toronto can offer soundstages of up to 54,000 square feet, with ceilings as high as 45 feet. Available soundstages in Baltimore, by contrast, top out at about 30,000 square feet. And with so many films being shot in and around Toronto, finding locations and hiring crews is rarely a problem.

Maryland state and city officials are hoping that disappointment over Hairspray will catalyze change. "We are in the process of trying to find and work on putting together a soundstage large enough that we could put on some of these large production numbers," said Castleman, adding that, when it came to enticing the Hairspray filmmakers to shoot their film where it was set, "we gave it our best efforts."

For some Baltimoreans, the loss stings.

"I think Toronto should live so long to be Baltimore," said Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum. "From the point of view of extras, those Canadians look too darn wholesome. They're going to have to import extras. I don't know what they're thinking."

Denise Whiting, owner of Hampden's Cafe Hon, said, "I guess John Waters had nothing to do with it. I'm wondering what he would say, being a Baltimore boy."

Here's what John Waters, who will act as a consultant on the film, said: "Do I wish the film was shot in Baltimore? Yes. But I'm not going to go against the film because of that." Alluding to one of the musical's more memorable numbers, he added, "They certainly didn't change the name of the song to 'Good Morning, Toronto.'"

Sun reporter Lindsay Kishter contributed to this article.

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