Films add record amount to Md. economy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's chameleon-like qualities, its home-grown film-production expertise and a fledgling wage-rebate program helped pump a record $158 million into Maryland's economy last year. And that success is helping state economic development officials realize their goal of keeping local film crews busy and attracting more middle-budget films to be shot here.

"This was a great year for the Maryland Film Office and for feature filming in Maryland," said Dennis Castleman, the state's assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts. "We had a record-breaking year, with regard to economic impact, and everything is in place to keep Maryland very competitive in the filmmaking world."

The news of last year's numbers comes as the state is receiving mixed messages from Hollywood: Just last month, the filmmakers behind the musical version of John Waters' Hairspray decided against filming in the city where the movie is set. But in September, film crews will begin shooting a substantial portion of the fourth film in the Die Hard franchise, Live Free or Die Harder, in and around Baltimore.

"It was a great year," Castleman said. "But just because we had one year like that does not mean we are going to have a record year every year."

Movies made in Maryland last year included The Visiting and Failure to Launch, both $50-million major-studio productions that poured money into local businesses and gave employment to scores of local artists and craftspeople, from key grips to extras.

Last year's slate also included three projects that benefited from a new wage-rebate plan proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and passed in April 2005 by the General Assembly. The plan offered up to $2 million in economic incentives to filmmakers willing to shoot in the state - and to hire local craftspeople. Step Up, which opened last weekend to $20.7 million in business, benefited from the program, as did the fourth season of HBO's The Wire, which premieres next month, and the as-yet-unreleased HBO film Rocket Science.

That steady stream of projects has supported Baltimore's ability, rare for a city of its size, to support what Castleman calls a "Two-plus" crew base - enough talent to handle a couple of major productions and whatever commercials and small jobs come along.

Besides the economic incentives and experienced work crews, there's also Baltimore's proximity to, and ability to double for, Washington. Those factors have combined to make Baltimore a promising destination for American film companies.

"There are only a few cities where an L.A.-based production can feel comfortable coming into another town and hiring mostly local crew and talent," says Jacqueline West, the Oscar-nominated costume designer of the Nicole Kidman-Daniel Craig sci-fi epic, The Visiting, which filmed here last fall. "New Orleans is one of them; Baltimore is another."

State officials are looking to expand the wage-rebate program, with an eye toward ensuring that good crews stay here and Maryland remains competitive with other states.

Those who framed the program initially asked for $6 million and got $4 million; for the fiscal year that began July 1, the number climbed to $6.875 million. Castleman would like to see that number increased next year to $8 million to $10 million.

But with similar programs emerging nationwide and producers shopping state to state, Castleman may be asking for as much as $20 million to $30 million in the near future.

Hannah Byron, director of the Baltimore City Film Office, says she'd like to ask for that right now.

A key to success may be Baltimore's ability to attract a fuller slate of mid-level productions such as Ladder 49 and The Visiting. Removing the $2-million cap on how much each production may receive might help, says Castleman. Already, the Maryland Film Office has a permanent representative in Los Angeles and a presence at the Cannes Film Festival to market the state. And the annual Maryland Film Festival brings hundreds of movie people through Baltimore every year.

A constant flow of such projects could generate the soundstages and other facilities that would make Baltimore a moviemaking magnet. The lack of giant soundstages was one of the factors given when the makers of Hairspray decided to film exclusively in Toronto.

Nina Noble, executive producer of The Wire, says that mega-budget productions such as Live Free or Die Hard (with a budget that could double the $90 million cost of 1995's Die Hard With a Vengeance) tend to blow into town for a week or 10 days and bring their own teams with them. The Visiting, a more modest project, on the other hand, settled in for the entire fall and used many of the crew from The Wire.

The $1.6 million state rebate was a factor in HBO's decision to renew The Wire, Noble says. The money also made it easier for series creator David Simon to argue for a 13th, "extra" episode for that fourth season. And the rebate allowed the production to increase its health and benefit contributions for union employees, offer health insurance to non-union employees, and participate financially in community services and charities.

"It's important to have shows like The Wire employ people and utilize local film services on a long-term basis," says Noble. "A film may be here only a month or two, but a show like The Wire can help sustain a film community." The producers of The Wire will use the wage-rebate program as a point when arguing to keep the show going for a fifth season.

Producers of The Visiting liked Baltimore so much they stayed in town longer than scheduled. "Baltimore became one of the stars of the movie," West says.

"We ended up shooting Baltimore for Baltimore, rather than shoot it for New York, which is what we initially planned. ... The director liked the look of the city, this great mish-mash of things, old brick Victorian stuff, unusual brownstones - American-European Gothic. It's a mood city. And it was so much easier to shoot here than in D.C. Here we could shoot in a subway all night long. We found that Baltimore is, for movie people, a very user-friendly city."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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