5 things to know about 'House of Cards,' Md. legislators and moving out of state

In almost four decades of covering TV production, I have never seen such spin as that recently generated over "House of Cards."

And now that Maryland legislators have capped film incentives to all productions at $3.5 million less than the makers of the series want for Season 3, there is more need than ever for some straight talk and clarity on the matter.


The Annapolis lobbyist for Media Rights Capital, the global firm that makes "House of Cards," says the firm is undecided as to whether it will stay or leave Maryland for Season 3. But will it really leave over $3.5 million? And will local TV and film production disappear if it does, as some in the Maryland production community say they fear?

Here are five things you should know if you want to understand the situation and production of "Cards," which shoots throughout the area, including renting space at The Baltimore Sun.

1. There is no way leaving Maryland for $3.5 million makes economic sense for MRC.

I first walked the soundstages MRC built in Joppa in March 2012 when production started. What they have out there is essentially a small studio lot worth tens of millions of dollars.

The townhouse where Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood live itself would have to cost over half a million dollars in labor and supplies to tear down, move and rebuild. You can see the front of such a townhouse on the set in the picture accompanying this post  -- and that's just the outside.

The woodworking and plaster work inside the Underwood townhouse is fabulous. Think back to those scenes with the two of them in the window smoking -- or Frank downstairs in his lair. You can't section that up, stick it on a truck and move it to Georgia or wherever it might be conceivable to get a few more dollars in incentives.

An intriguing piece of speculation was that they would move to the District of Columbia. Imagine: The first time they try to change a location at the last minute and have to deal with D.C.'s crazed and dysfunctional bureaucracy for permits might prompt them to come crawling back to Maryland and kneel outside the State House like Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in the snow asking Pope Gregory VII for forgiveness in 1077.

But, seriously, the Underwood home isn't even the costliest thing out in Harford County. They've got parts of the West Wing of the White House built. They have Capitol hallways and vaulting domes.

And making a TV series gets cheaper the longer it is in production. The first season -- when you have to buy all the lumber, paint and mortar and build all those sets and train the crews -- is the costliest. That's the big outlay.

Yet, MRC got $13 million in rebates in Season 1 and was fine with that. Ditto for Season 2. Now, it wants at least $15 million for Season 3. Why more now when Season 3 should cost much less to make?

2. MRC is probably going to get the extra $3.5 it wants anyway despite the action taken in Annapolis this week.

As Tim Wheeler and I were reporting the aftermath of the end of the legislative session on Tuesday, Nina Smith, Gov. Martin O'Malley's press secretary, told me, "We will keep working with them ['House of Cards'] to try to reach an agreement. The state continues to support creating film industry jobs through both large and small productions."

As our report also said, "Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller defended the film tax credit and expressed confidence that O'Malley would negotiate a deal to keep the productions here."

"We're going to keep them," Miller told the audience at a bill-signing ceremony Tuesday.

The governor is now openly involved, and that makes all the difference in the world, some analysts say. You think he can't find $3.5 million for MRC if he wants to?

My big question from Day One this year was: Why was O'Malley so silent on the incentives after two years of being highly visible as their advocate? And why did his administration only put $4 million in the budget initially for the "House of Cards" rebates?


One explanation: He didn't want Republicans claiming he was throwing money around on rich Hollywood visitors when state residents were facing higher taxes and fewer services.

Maybe. But here is why he is probably going to come through with the extra $3.5 million: Because no Democrat can make a serious run for President of the United States without Hollywood money.

Hollywood moneymen, like the gang that runs MRC, are the Koch Brothers of the Democrats.

O'Malley rides in and saves the day in Maryland for MRC, and they owe him at least one fund-raising event in Beverly Hills should he be a candidate for president.

This scenario says O'Malley was only waiting for the final act when the smaller players had left the stage and the spotlight would be all his. And that moment has arrived.

If they don't get the extra $3.5 million now it is only because O'Malley doesn't want to give it to them.

3. MRC gets its big money from Netflix, which distributes the series, and Netflix has created an expectation among its subscribers that there will be episodes in the dark winter days and nights of February.

The marketing and distribution by Netflix, which paid MRC $100 million for the first two seasons, is the truly brilliant thing about "House of Cards" -- not the writing.

MRC went into production last year on Season 2 at the start of May and ended in November for the February premiere. If MRC has to tear down, move and rebuild somewhere else in coming weeks and months, there is no way it is going to be able to deliver episodes in February to Netflix.

And good luck finding as skilled a crew as you have here in Virginia or Georgia. And more good luck training them to the point where your Baltimore crews are now in terms of efficiency.

Maybe Netflix will give MRC a pass on February, but Netflix knows it created a new rhythm of consumption on "House," and messing with that for $3.5 million seems crazy to me.

And there is no one else in this galaxy or any other that would spend the kind of money that Netflix did for this series.

4. TV and film production in Maryland is not going to end if "House" leaves.

I have been walking sets and soundtages here since the days and nights of "Homicide," and I can tell you life will go on in big-time TV production with or without MRC and "House."

Wheeler and I contacted HBO this week about its plans for "Veep," the political satire that films here and stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

"HBO has had a long history of shooting long form projects in Baltimore dating back to 'The Corner,'" said Cecile Cross-Plummer, a spokeswoman for the show.

"It's a fantastic place to realize 'Veep,'" she added, "and we know the producers look forward to returning to Baltimore."


While the series has not yet been renewed for Season 4, I cannot believe it won't be. And it sure sounds like HBO has no plans to abandon Maryland for Georgia, Virginia or D.C.

And think of that: HBO – which loves working series out of Baltimore -- has been here since "The Corner." Then it did "The Wire," also with Baltimore's David Simon here. Then "Game Change." Now "Veep."

5. MRC hasn't shown Underwood-style political deftness.

Instead, it can be painted as a greedy outfit that has no respect for the community that welcomed it the last two years.

First, there's the contradiction of Kevin Spacey telling me in New York in February that "House" was coming back to Maryland for Season 3 followed by a leaked letter from an executive at MRC saying they might leave.

Media Campaigning 101: Get all your people on the same page.

Some legislators said they opposed giving MRC the last $3.5 million simply because the letter saying the production might move insulted them. (It was refreshing to see that a few weren't swayed by the privilege of having a free glass of wine with Spacey.)

Del. C. William Frick, a Montgomery County Democrat, held the line against that last $3.5 million Monday night in Annapolis. I hear some of the media types here in Baltimore characterizing him as a rube. But Frick didn't confuse the make-believe politics of writer Beau Willimon's scripts with the real duties of someone who is elected to serve the people of the state.