Housing Complex

Lights, Camera, No Action

Lights, Camera, No Action: Why Film in D.C. Struggles

Two days before Christmas, President Barack Obama signed a bill to fund the government through October—keeping the U.S. in business along with the District, which would have ground to a halt if the feds had shut down.

A few days later, though, the Washington Post uncovered a nasty surprise for the city. In Division G Section 1202 (a) of H.R. 2055, the space west of the Capitol that contains Grant Statue and the Reflecting Pool, known as Union Square, had been quietly transferred from the National Park Service to the Architect of the Capitol—so quietly, in fact, that the Park Service didn’t even realize the change had happened.

The Capitol Police said the shift was made for security reasons. Civil rights activists cried foul; land controlled by the National Park Service has been historically seen as grounds for protest, and it’s much more difficult to get special event permits within the Capitol complex. But some commercial filmmakers were even more alarmed. With the rest of the Capitol off limits, the statue has long been the place to get an establishing shot of the dome, the one scene that said, unmistakably and irreplaceably, a movie takes place in Washington.

“You need to have some proximity, and that was as close as we could get,” says Jonathan Zurer, a local location manager who says he made a yearly visit to the site over his seven seasons working on The West Wing. “Virtually every single project, whether it’s a T.V. project or a movie, shoots at Grant Statue. 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.’”

The National Park Service, for all its bureaucratic inflexibility, does allow people to shoot around the memorials it manages. The Capitol Police, however, don’t issue commercial film permits at all: All those scenes of white rotundas and the floor of the Senate are shot in Richmond, Va., or other statehouses.

Being robbed of one shot wouldn’t be such a big deal in most cities. But in D.C., it’s another blow to a vestigial film industry that can’t really afford it. It’s already more expensive and more of a hassle to film in the District than in nearby cities like Charlottesville or Baltimore; with technology good enough to patch a Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial into a background, perhaps a real shot won’t be worth the trip. Even before the latest change, film after film and show after show “set in Washington” actually shot most scenes somewhere else

Mayor Vince Gray has tried to fix this, paying personal visits to studio executives in New York and Los Angeles touting the District’s other picturesque backdrops. It hasn’t wooed any more productions our way, because it can’t: The things that would really make a difference for film in the District require promises Gray just can’t make.

* * *

Even with access to Union Square, the District’s monumental core—which, according to location managers, is pretty much the only place where studios want to shoot anyway—is no filmmaker’s playground.

Each site has its own rules. The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials and Washington Monument all have restricted areas that cameras can’t enter. You can get permits for the grassy part of the Ellipse, but can’t put anything tall on it, like a camera on a crane. You can’t film on the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, since that’s reserved for rallies and protests, but you can film on the street, which is owned by the District. You can’t park film trucks by the memorials, and parking along streets controlled by the Capitol police is first-come-first-served—film studios can’t reserve it ahead of time.

To make matters worse, you’re not even dealing with the same government everywhere. Some locations fall under the jurisdiction of several police forces at once and require permits from multiple agencies, all of which have to be cleared again if your schedule changes. And filmmakers don’t have much help in navigating all that red tape: The feds have nobody detailed to facilitate the process.

Even outside the federal core, it’s still more expensive to film in the District than other cities. Hotels are pricey, especially if you need to put people up during high tourist season. The District doesn’t have any soundstages, which are necessary for special effects: One at 7th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW closed after the Discovery Channel’s move to Silver Spring in 2003. Now, BET has the only soundstage in the city, and they don’t rent it out.

On top of that, producers complain—as management is wont to do—that decades-old union contracts raise the cost of doing business in D.C. The 650-member local chapter of the Mid-Atlantic Studio Mechanics, which works sets on big productions, charges several dollars more per hour for shoots in D.C. than for shoots in Maryland and Virginia (the rule, which applies to nine other “production cities” in the states, was originally a way of prioritizing local hires over those brought in from further away).

Then there’s the Teamsters union, which in most other states will drive trucks any five days out of the week. But in D.C., in a now-unusual practice, they charge time and a half on Saturdays and double on Sundays—sometimes the only days when a production can get permits to shoot—and operate under a strict seniority system, meaning location managers have no choice in who they work with. (Local Teamsters chief Tommy Ratliff says they’re willing to negotiate on rates, but film studios haven’t asked.)

Until recently, studios might have put up with all the headaches of filming in the District to secure those few key shots. But these days, states around the country are locked in an incentives arms race, spending tens of millions to woo big productions in hopes that the exposure and the money spent by film crews while they’re in town will serve as an economic shot in the arm. Maryland got into the game last year with a program worth $7.5 million, and has since attracted three major TV series that the state—very optimistically—estimates will generate 3,000 jobs and $130 million for the local economy. When HBO shot five seasons of The Wire in Baltimore, state film director Jack Gerbes estimates, the work generated $200 million in economic impact, though such totals are more the product of art than science. Maryland, by the way, is after D.C.’s film shoots, Gerbes says: “Do we market Maryland as a double for D.C.? Absolutely.”

“It’s all about incentives now,” says location manager Joe Martin. “We go where there are incentives, and that’s that.”

Incentives, though, are just another level on which D.C., without the resources of a state government, simply can’t compete. The District is doing its job in making things easy for those who do want to use the city’s parks and neighborhoods—especially local filmmakers who don’t have their pick of cities. But Gray should resist the urge to court studio executives in the bright lights of the big city. They might like our monuments, but when it comes to the rest of the District, they’re just not that into us.

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6928.

  • Mike

    Most of this is right, but there's a couple points that deserve addressing.

    The Fincher/Netflix film is happening. Gray met with the producers of that project awhile back. It's hard to argue his efforts yielded nothing. Whether you like him or not, he done good.

    Across all professions, wages are higher in cities with higher costs of living than in cities with lower costs of living. That's the reality. DC's motion picture technician wages aren't high. They're average. While it's true that Baltimore's wages are lower because of union contracts, the reason there are any technicians in Baltimore to begin with is because the lower cost of living in Baltimore allows for the wages to be low. DC's cost of living wouldn't allow for wage decrease, even in the event of union contracts being negotiated lower. Lower DC wages, and everyone moves to Baltimore, Richmond, Atlanta, or Phili. Suddenly, DC has no technicians. If DC has no technicians, producers would have to fly people in and put them up, which will cost them an additional couple hundred dollars a day per person on average -- which is a deal breaker.

    In addition, you can't realistically expect a Baltimore technician to spend 3 - 4 hours per day commuting to and from DC, while spending 12 hours a day on his feet at work. One of two things has to happen: DC maintains its own roster of technicians at a living wage for DC, or Baltimore technicians are paid enough to stay in affordable hotels just outside of DC and net a living wage. This is what typically happens when Baltimore technicians are used to round out a DC crew.

    The points about teamsters are generally right. DC teamsters have a bad reputation. Their strict seniority program allows for some of the worst drivers I've seen to get jobs on movies. They need to get rid of the bad apples and drop the crazy demands that turn producers off.

    It true that BET is the only place in DC that can accommodate a medium sized sound stage. I'd like to see Gray reach out to them (maybe throw some incentives their way), because BET won't take the initiative on its own. The stage is tragically underutilized at the moment.

    The last thing I'll do is give a little bit more context. The arms race that took place during the credit bubble is mostly over. Now, the game is to pass reasonable and sustainable incentives. DC doesn't have to pass an incentive package greater than MD's to attract productions that want the real Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument. DC does have to promise to kick back X thousand for every million a production spends here.

  • Jonathan


    I agree with most of what you've said, with two exception. The Fincher/Netflix thing is happening. In Baltimore! They will come to DC for a few days to shoot some exteriors, but the vast majority of the work will happen in Baltimore, despite the show being set in DC. I don't see how anyone from the DC Government should get any credit for us getting a few crumbs.

    Your point about the crew is incorrect. The majority if IATSE Local 487 crew may live in and around Baltimore, but they will still work in DC. I hire the exact same people whether I work in DC or in Baltimore, but I have to pay them 10-20% more (based on the scale minimum rate) if my production is based in the District. Please understand: for the exact same person, it is more expensive in DC. The crew will drive to wherever the location is: DC, MD, or VA. Is it a long commute? Often, but that doesn't stop anyone.

  • Political Observer

    How did Transformers shoot on the Lincoln Monument grounds & the Reflecting Pool?

  • Steve D

    Sort of unrelated, but I loved watching State of Play for this very reason. Probably the best collection of actual DC neighborhood scenes in a big movie since...um...maybe In the Line of Fire? We lived in Mt. Pleasant while they were filming the exteriors and interiors of the apartment above Heller's and it was a ton of fun to watch. That movie gets special credit for no sweeping helicopter shots of the Mall and other cliched monumental DC shots that you see in whatever crappy CSI show is set in DC that gets reused in other shows and movies. Ben's Chili Bowl, HUD, under the Whitehurst, 14th Street masonic temple, Mt. Pleasant — all made cool appearances in that movie. Lots of fun to watch.

  • Jonathan

    @Political Observer

    Transformers got a permit from the National Park Service to film there.

  • Jonathan

    PS The Lincoln Reflecting Pool and the Capitol Reflecting Pool are on opposite sides of the Mall (if that was your question)

  • TM

    This is always an obnoxious comment to make, particularly after you clearly put in some shoe-leather into this and wrote a very interesting piece, but here goes: why do we care exactly? So there will be fewer token DC shots, so what? Couldn't they just use stock footage for those anyway?

    Seems like the concern over the DC film industry is two fold:
    -To the extent there actually is an industry here, I guess this would hurt it. But is there really that much of an industry right here in DC? How large even is it? Has anyone done any cost-benefit analyses on the tax incentives? That vapid James Brooks movie would probably be a good test case.
    -What I think DC residents really feel about movies in DC is that they don't reflect any life in DC except pols and spies. It's not really an economic argument as much as a parochial pride (even a touch of vanity) issue, and maybe an issue with statehood (i.e., people will see average people in DC and realize that DC isn't just the Smithsonian). The loss of a few token-DC shots won't address this.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    The Park Service master plan for the National Mall had some cool concepts for Union Square - removing the non-historic reflecting pool, building a hardscaped plaza that could be flooded as a pool if needed (cool), used as a plaza (also cool) and even frozen as an outdoor ice rink in the winter (very cool).

    I get the sinking feeling that this transfer of jurisdiction would kill that concept before it ever got started.

  • Anonymous

    For well over 20 years these other "production cities" developed sophisticated personnel, programs, and apparatus to support film and television production within their jurisdictions. In the meantime our production support structure was maintained as a no work sinecure for the wife of a third rate politician with a penchant for swagger and swag bags. Finally, Adrian Fenty moved her aside and the office began to move into the 21st century. We started to see interest on the part of Hollywood in filming in the District again. Gone were the days when West Wing was compelled to use models to reproduce Washington.

    So what does Vinny due upon stumbling into the Mayor's office? He gives a hack with a 20 years record of dismal performance her job back! For me this single act marked the end of any benefit of the doubt I may have given Vince Gray. He will clearly hand dance for whoever was the last one to blow smoke up his arse!

    "...Gray has tried to fix this, paying personal visits to studio executives in New York and Los Angeles..." Unfortunately such junkets don't solve logistics issues, which all "production cities" even LA have. If they did we wouldn't have become a bad joke and pariah in production circles during Crystal Palmer's last turn around the midway. Such junkets and swag bag grifting were all she did for 20 years and the results are evident to anyone except this class of failed former politicos who are playing this as a redo as if the Control Board and Tony Williams never happened.

    I am truly concerned as the likes of Gray, Lorraine Green, Palmer et al march our city backwards to assuage their egos and hurt feelings. It took a whole lot of work by a whole lot of people to straighten out the mess they made the first time.

  • BurnIn

    Yep I agree. In the same 20 year period DC went from a sleepy roadshow backwater to having more legitimate theater seats then any city in the world other then New York. Actors, playwrights, directors, musicians, scensters, dramaturgists, costumers, lighting people, etc., etc. all managing somehow to cope with life in our town. Add to that the fact that we are the center of the political media (news sector) which provides a deep bench of technical support on all levels and one wonders how it is possible we don't have a burgeoning production industry.

    It would seem Crystal Palmer has done the impossible. She has screwed up falling off a log. Really Mr. Gray you must undo this disastrous error.

  • Jane

    TM: I think part of the reason we may want to care is not simply because of how this discourages filmmakers and everyone involved with the movie/TV entertainment industry (as commenters above have pointed out quite nicely), but because it's just another example of how red tape stifles good opportunities here. It seems like people would be genuinely interested in shooting in DC if they could, which might in turn bring some money and publicity to the city, but now no one can even if they want to. I think we should care about how DC inadvertently makes it hard to do business for people who would like to be here.

  • Lydia DePillis


    Always a good question to ask. The easy answer is that we should care for the same reason Maryland cares: Large-scale film production pours money back into the local economy. Another answer is what Jane said: While some restrictions on federal properties makes sense, on a lot of issues, there's just no reason things have to be so difficult.

    I think it's important to point out, though, that the article isn't about why we should want more filming in D.C. It's taking note of the fact that the Gray administration seems to care very much, but that in light of D.C.'s comparative disadvantage in this arena that has not much to do with local government, he shouldn't pour too much into it.

  • Mike

    Jon, that's a shame that Netflix is doing more work in DC. What I had heard via word of mouth in late November was misleading.

    I'm not sure what specifically you disagree with. We may be looking at this issue from two very different perspectives.

    My point about wages isn't that they do not in fact create an incentive for productions to shoot in Baltimore. They do. My goal was to make the point that it's a reasonable pay differential, based on DC's cost of living. The union rule regarding production cities -- while seemingly archaic -- has survived because it is supported by the economic reality of the situation. Production cities are generally more expensive places to live. They also offer productions more value. You can't get the Lincoln Memorial in Baltimore.

    Gas + vehicle wear and tear cost a technician about $35 dollars a day (70 miles @ .55 per mile). $35, coincidently, is roughly the difference between what you pay someone in DC vs. Baltimore. If you weren't effectively subsidizing Baltimore technicians' travel expenses, there's a good chance they'd choose to rely on occasional commercial clients in DC and Baltimore, which (for the sake of those are who aren't aware) pay roughly 100% more than Baltimore wages. That or they'd move to Atlanta and make some real money. The peril that decreasing real net wages present is even greater attrition in our market (which you know is already a big problem). We've got make sure our crewbase is supported.

  • Jonathan


    I guess the thing that doesn't make sense to me is your point about the rate differential making sense due to a higher cost of living in DC. Since the crew doesn't live in DC, they aren't paying a higher cost of living. So why are their rates higher if the production is based in DC? Your point about commuting is interesting, and I'll have to ponder if any other industry sets higher rates because an employee chooses to drive 35 miles further to work everyday.

    I thought I would list the production cities to see if they are generally more expensive places to live. This is from the IA Low Budget Agreement for 2010-2013.

    The Production Cities are: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Orlando, San Francisco, St. Louis, NYC, and DC.

    DC, NY, & SF certainly belong on the list of expensive places to live, but I don't know that the rest would.

    I would also point out that while you are right that you can't get the Lincoln Memorial in Baltimore, Mr. Spielberg has shown that you can get the White House in Richmond. And he's not paying DC rates for his crew, although a good number came from DC and Baltimore to work on "Lincoln".

  • Mike


    Lincoln provided a hotel stipend that actually covered the full cost of a modest hotel, 7 days a week. That's why there were people from Baltimore working on it. If producers hadn't provided travel expense reimbursement in the form of a stipend, no one from Baltimore would have worked on it. This is one of my points: cover a crew's travel expense and, yes, they will travel.

    It doesn't matter if the employer specifically provides a travel stipend, or if there is a de facto stipend provided as the result of old union rules that takes the form of a higher wage. The reason why Baltimore crew members are willing to work in DC is the higher rate -- it covers their travel expenses. Each individual crew person does the math (wages - travel) before signing onto a project.

    Look at Lincoln. Lincoln had lots of trouble crewing up. Much of the crew had to be flown in. This was because it was by far the lowest paying gig in the region. People didn't want to work on it. When you add the additional expense an LA crew member incurs (three star hotels, per diem, plane tickets), I'm not sure the producers saved any money by negotiating lower wages. Plus, it was a missed opportunity for VA to maximize revenue capture.

    I'm not saying wages are too low now, necessarily. If they were to drop, however, one of the consequences would be crew exodus to cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago -- I could easily list a dozen places a technician could move that pay the MD wage or better, but have more union work.

    What I said about DC still stands: the cost of living is higher here, therefore a higher wage is reasonable. Crew who live in DC need more money because they live in DC; crew in Baltimore need more money to work in DC because of their travel expenses. Let me define how I'm using "need" here: I'm using it in the sense of "making it worth their while".

    It's not like these guys turn down a movie and then have no other income. A single Baltimore technician can probably get by on 5 days of commercial work a month. To lure these guys out of the commercial market to come play on movies, one has to pay for it.

    Honestly, I'd be more happy if it was DC proper getting the upcoming shows. But I'm still happy for MD.

  • Filmer

    TM: Your question about why an average person in DC should care about losing a precious filming location is legitimate - or so it seems.
    The scenes filmed in DC are often coupled with scenes filmed in Baltimore and/Virginia, therefore bringing money to the entire region. So even though the film community is relatively small in the actual District limits, the film industry is quite large in the region.
    Some movies bring an enormous amount of money also. Even though James Brooks' story line wasn't up your creek he keeps coming back to DC. In 1987, he spent 43 million dollars in the District making Broadcast News. This time around he based his production outside of the city to save money. Perhaps with more access to areas and more incentives he would have spent millions this time around also.
    As an industry professional for 25 years I can absolutely tell you that movies and TV shows feed on trends and the more projects that include DC the more new ones are written that and eventually you get one that includes the real DC, like Harrison Ford in Random Hearts playing a DC cop.
    The DC Film industry is bigger than its individual crew members also. More than any other city, DC represents the country as a whole. Stories set here cover subjects that the entire country can identify with, and often those stories include some level of deeper humanity. Even if you don't like the content of the story, it is still better to have something out there other than what the Feds did wrong or how many murders were committed. Keeping areas open will increase and maintain different levels of thought and exposure to historical events. The more films that are filmed here the more different types will be filmed in the future.

    Also, losing a prime NATIONAL filming location is news whether it was the Golden Gate Bridge or the famous overlook of L.A. If Union Square becomes off limits then that will be a huge added negative to the already beleaguered main industry in this town: national politics. The film industry already knows that it is difficult to shoot in DC and that stops some of them from coming here - we can't afford to add to this already long list.
    The transfer of Union Square to the Capitol is also important because it is now closed to not only filmmakers but to special events such as, the numerous church groups that hold services there and the millions of school groups that have their pictures taken there.

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  • Lisa

    Movie State of play - how can I find out an official record that on March 17, 2008 the movie was being filmed at the dept of housing and urban dev on 7th street? I was on a bus at 5:00 am and trying to prove that the movie had a filming on that date at that time. thank you

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