Housing Complex

Union Square Annexation Another Blow to D.C. Film

It's been a District complaint for years now: When a movie is "set in Washington," in all likelihood most of the scenes are actually shot somewhere else, like Toronto, or Charlotte, or Baltimore. There are lots of reasons for that. A big one is the fact that D.C. just doesn't compete in the subsidy game; surrounding jurisdictions just have more cash to throw at producers, and no amount of Hollywood junketing will help. The other one is the fact that many of the areas filmmakers most want to shoot—iconic vistas like the Washington Monument and the White House—are the most closely policed (and replicated easily enough in a studio somewhere far away).

Up until last month, even though the Capitol steps were off limits to filmmakers along with the rest of the public, it was still possible to get a shot of the dome from the Grant Memorial, just west of it. And indeed, most movies did the shot, given that it was the easiest way to get that straight-out-of-Washington feeling.

"Virtually every single project, whether it's a TV project or a movie, shoots at Grant statue," says Jonathan Zurer, a local producer who made an annual trip to the site when working on The West Wing in the early 2000s. "If you come to D.C. from L.A., you're coming to D.C. because you want to say 'hey we shot in D.C., and here's the proof."

Now, Zurer and other D.C. location managers are worried that one key scene will be off limits forever, because of a security-related jurisdictional shift: A new omnibus spending bill working its way through Congress transfers Union Square, an 11-acre chunk of the Mall's eastern end, from National Park Service oversight to the Architect of the Capitol. Goodness knows the Park Service has its issues. But historically, along with protections for expression of free speech, Park Service oversight has also allowed filmmakers access to key sites. The Architect of the Capitol, on the other hand, doesn't grant permits for commercial filming other than news cameras, period.

"At a certain point, we stopped asking, because they made it very clear that they don't want it," Zurer says. That could be the last straw for any number of productions that find nothing else in Washington to be particularly indispensable—Baltimore's got pretty much everything else we do, after all, and it's cheaper.

When he read about the shift, Zurer and friends reached out to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and D.C. Film Office director Crystal Palmer, who promised to see what could be done. I've asked the Architect of the Capitol's people whether they'll be willing to make an exception to their anti-filming rules for Union Square, and will update if they say anything of note.

Meanwhile, I'm planning to write more about how factors beyond local government control—including union contracts!—get in the way of a real film industry in D.C. If you've got knowledge, do share.

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  • Mike

    Lydia, two things keep film productions from coming to DC:

    1) Lack of access to national sites

    2) Lack of tax incentives

    If conditions for 1) or 2) aren't improved, there are no 3rd or 4th things worth mentioning.

    Over the last few years, filming in the DMV area experienced a sharp decline. Currently, we're experiencing a minor rebirth in MD and VA, but only after most of the area motion picture technicians have either emigrated or moved on to a client base comprised almost entirely of non-union work (which tends to pay better). What changed recently that has started turning things around? Tax incentives in VA and MD.

    Union contracts are not going to change to attract more filmmakers. DC has historically been a highly bifurcated market, but as of 2012, the existing motion picture work force in DC derives most of its income from non-union work. There's no will to drop DC wages, which I should mention, currently save producers maybe about $200 per work day off the cost of an LA technician in per diem and hotel expenses alone. For there to even be a local crew base that an out-of-town producer can exploit, wages have to be above a certain threshold. If wages are too low, the producers will end up having to fly out all their technicians. This is cost prohibitive for most productions. Without a ready workforce, producers will not shoot here.

    For a more concrete example: If the upcoming Netflix movie pays a third the hourly wage that working on a non-union basis for companies like Discovery does, why would someone consider working for Netflix? The cost of living in this area is high and rising. Baltimore workers might be willing to work in DC for a wage that reflects their cost of living, but only at times when there is no work in Baltimore. Given that most years, Baltimore has a series running (Homicide, Wire, Veep), there isn't reliable a surplus of labor that can sustain lower wages in DC. If anything, wages have to stay slightly higher to compensate traveling workers' travel expenses. This "gas money", if you will, gives the area more flexibility in offering producers cost-saving local crew: if everyone in DC is booked, a few additional workers can be got from Baltimore or Richmond.

    However, this is all moot, because productions that want to pay prevailing wages and throw money at the District (like Transformers) aren't able to get the access they need to shoot here for more than brief stints. We need to recognize the Park Service and other entities who work against the best interests of the District as the villains in this situation.

  • Read Scott Martin

    It's not just security and access, it's also bureaucracy. Too many jurisdictions of law enforcement and local and federal agencies that may require individual permitting as you move a shoot throughout town has also been a factor.