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Maryland pulls plug on Calif. film office

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Film Office is closing its Los Angeles office after seven years as part of cost-cutting measures, a state economic development spokesman confirmed last night.

The Los Angeles office had just one employee: Ken Haber, a location manager who has worked in the industry for more than a quarter-century.

"He kept Maryland on the lips of producers and site selectors and folks like that," said David Tillman, director of communications for the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

Ending the part-time, $80,000 contract with Haber is one of several measures taking place across the department, such as reductions to equipment and the vehicle fleet, he said.

State budget officials predict a revenue shortfall of as much as $1.5 billion, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has ordered his Cabinet secretaries to find $200 million in cuts.

Although Virginia and Florida had offices in Los Angeles in 2000 when Maryland opened its Southern California location, Maryland was the only one that had retained such ties, Tillman said.

"If it made sense to keep that contract open, we would have done that," he said. "It just didn't make sense at this time."

Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office, could not be reached for comment last night.

It was not clear last night when the closure would take effect. The spokesman said the film office could re-establish its connection with Haber on a retainer or short-term basis.

Maryland has been competing with other states such as Louisiana to attract film and television production here.

A $150 million adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" will be shot in New Orleans because Louisiana places no cap on its tax credits -- though the short story was set in Baltimore.

"It may not be about what is the best location for a film," Tillman said. "We always think we're right up there in that regard. In many cases, it comes down to what is the most financially feasible for a film."

The Maryland Film Office received $6.8 million in state money during the fiscal year that ends June 30.

The funding has been reduced to $4 million, starting next month.

The film office's Web site describes incentives such as a 5 percent state sales tax rebate for producers and directors.

In 2004, the state also created a wage-rebate program to reimburse productions for part of the salaries paid, up to $2 million per film.

Local casting director Pat Moran said that she wasn't sure how much good the Los Angeles branch did.

Instead, she said, the state's best ambassadors were Maryland's "great hire base," including unions such as the Teamsters and the Screen Arts Guild. Producers and directors had great experiences here and would want to come back, she said.

But now other states are offering tax incentives that rival what Maryland puts on the table, she said.

"Here we are with the state facing revenue issues," said Jed Dietz director of the Maryland Film Festival. Film production "is one of the great revenue generators in front of us, if we can do the right thing to make it work.

"I can tell you now, we're not spending enough," he said.

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