Housing Complex

Infant Industries, Critical Mass, and Hollywood in D.C.

Video from the D.C. Film Office, which still seems to be mostly marketing the hard-to-get monuments.

Yesterday, I trucked up to WAMU to chat about making movies in D.C. with guest host Marc Fisher, producer Jonathan Zurer, and D.C. Film Office director Crystal Palmer. Much of the conversation centered on one central question: Why are all those movies "set in D.C." actually filmed somewhere else?

We've already been over one big reason: The sites studios most want to access are all owned by the feds, who don't particularly care about the economic benefits of having film crews do their thing in the District. The other big reason is the millions of dollars that other states are shelling out to lure movies their way.

Palmer 's views seem to be evolving on the second point. After meeting with studio executives last year, she told WAMU: "Incentives was not the number one issue. The issue was more access to federal enclaves, to the monument, to the Capitol. And that was somewhat surprising, because you would think the incentive would be financial, but I don't think that's necessarily true in our case." Last month, she told the Post: "The film business used to be location, location. Now it’s money, money, money.”

It's conceivable that the District could use some fancy debt financing tool to fund the kind of incentives that production companies have come to expect, counting on manifold returns. But would that do any good?

Towards the end of the segment, Zurer dropped some brutal honesty: Only about five percent of the people who work on the few big Hollywood productions that come to town actually live in the District. "If you hire these people and you give tax incentives to the production companies, you're not going to get it back 'cause they're not paying income taxes in the District," he said.

What this all comes down to is whether D.C. can establish a base of employment in the film industry that would be sustained both through local, independent production and the big flicks that come through town—as the Examiner's dearly departed Freeman Klopott pointed out last year, stable film crews would attract producers who knew they could hire folks here instead of putting up their own staff in hotels.

It makes sense for the District to foster industries that have a natural advantage here, like tech, media, non-profits, even insurance and banking. While we might as well make it as easy as possible to make movies here, with all the structural disadvantages to high-budget film production, I'm not sure it's a sector that deserves much of D.C.'s attention and resources.

Speaking of economic sectors: The Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development said at his oversight hearing yesterday that his staff is working on a comprehensive economic development plan, and expects to deliver it by late fall. So we'll see if he agrees.

  • Skipper

    Crystal Palmer! Ha! And Loraine Green's kid! Double ha!

  • BurnIn

    Crystal Palmer is the most galling reason film production is so lame in the District. She did NOTHING in the 20 years she had the job before Gray (obviously at the behest of his whip mistress Loraine Green) gave her the job back. While other jurisdictions were developing highly sophisticated programs to support production Palmer was collecting swag bags and doing lunch.

    This "federal enclave" thing is just the latest in a long line of lame excuses Palmer has leaned on (when not preening and throwing attitude)to cover the fact that she was never up to the job and still isn't. Anyone with a a degree of pride would resign but she is of the school wherein the DC government is a jobs program for "bougie" poseurs. At the end of the they would just be pathetic if they weren't so damaging.

  • DC Guy

    There is a wealth of film and production talent in the District. This is a waste of an office and money.

  • RT

    We should be heavily subsidizing the following industries/sectors, while weening ourselves off of fed gov (whose employees mostly live in the exurbs and help cause the congestion problems):

    - Banking & Insurance. These are high-paying jobs that have huge multiplier effects for the taxes that both employees and businesses generate. Also, their employees *generally* tend to live in the city or near their base of employment (often, like lawyers, because they can afford to). Create a "financial district" in one of the newer office submarkets like Capitol Riverfront.

    - IT and Internet Companies. Obviously, because it's the future of the economy.

    - Get large international corporations to open regional HQs here. Go over to China and beg, or entice. Abroad, capital cities like DC have clout.

    - Subsidize the hell out of light manufacturing but ensure that they only hire DC residents as employees. There is actually plenty of space left for light manufacturing in Ward 5 and EOTR. The money spent will take people off the TANF or welfare rolls.

    - Media, Production, Journalism, and Creative sector. While hard to define, we've been losing ground in these jobs, save perhaps the last one.

  • Oscar Voter

    Ms. DePillis, you are sadly limited in depth and vision, and you should really err on the side of caution when making editorial observations. to wit:

    "It makes sense for the District to foster industries that have a natural advantage here,...", " I'm not sure its a sector that deserves much of D.C.'s attention and resources."

    DC has more theater seats then any city in the world other then New York and on many nights you can not buy a seat. The DC theaters support a thriving support network and provide an environment for the development of crafts related there to and for new works. The Studio Theater Acting Conservatory is but one element were talent is nurtured and craft perfected.

    DC is also home to the Hartke Theater and the Catholic University theater departments long considered to be among the preeminent academic theater arts programs in the country. Leading forward from Helen Hayes herself, "the first lady of the American Theater", to the present the list of CU alumni who have enjoyed careers is stellar. Combined with the Oscar, Tony and Emmy winners also coming out of the University of Maryland (Larry David, Howard Ashman, Corey Blechman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus to name a few) we form a veritable Washington colony in Hollywood. We can even make a case to lay claim to half of Brangelina. Yet, we make nothing of home team advantage.

    There are lighting designers, costume designers, directors, experienced stage management talent, etc., etc., etc.

    DC is also home to the political media which provides a deep bench of technological know how related to the filmed arts.

    The fact that you question whether this is a sector with a natural advantaged here worthy of support is preposterous. What part of "tech" and "media" would not derive and benefit from support of this sector? Pray tell too, how and why would one foster more non-profits?

    BurhIn is correct in that this "federal enclave" kerfuffle is yet just another of Palmer's long list of excuses. Icontend and have contended for many years now that it would take someone with Ms. Palmer's singular lack of commitment, vision, work ethic, and ability to have managed to have done so little with so much for so long. For me too the fact that Vince Gray would have reappointed someone with such a stunningly poor record and regard is evidence enough that he dances to a tune played by the sounds of the lash of Loraine Green's pu**ywhip.

    As for you Ms. DePillis I would suggest that the next time you are in the company of Crystal Palmer you pass on quaffing the Kool-Ade!

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  • Bob

    I question whether on-location film shoots in places like Washington really create much economic activity or tax revenue, especially after one factors in government incentives, cost of police and EMS overtime, etc. It's really more about civic (and politicos') ego, which doesn't really justify the use of city resources.

    In a city with a permanent film industry like LA or NY, the economics may be different. But in a major city with no such establishment, not so much.

  • H Street Landlord

    Great post RT.

  • Mike

    The film industry is like most industries in the District, in that the majority of employees live in Maryland or Virginia. The argument that we shouldn't try and build industry in DC because most people we employ would pay income taxes outside of DC, is really an argument for a commuter tax of some kind.

    In other words, the problems with DC film are the same problems DC faces in general. We don't control a large percentage of our land. We don't have a direct way to tax the incomes of people who are enriched by the jobs we provide. This doesn't mean we give up. If anything, it means we try harder to work around these strong, structural problems associated with the District.

    Film production has been part of DC for more than a generation. In the last ten years, movies like National Treasures 1 and 2, Night at the Museum: Battles of the Smithsonian have provided untold millions in free advertising for DC tourist industry. To not court films that depict DC in a positive light would be stupid. Other industries aren't bolstering the reputation of Washington, DC on an international level. That's why DC film is special.

    Bob FYI, film productions actually pay the salaries of cops that work to support film productions. They aren't their on the city's dime.