Lights, Camera, No Action
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.
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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
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