We explore the history of gatherings and protests on the Mall, including how the space was re-designed at the turn 20th century expressly to accommodate large crowds.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
Washington has long captured the imagination of movie audiences. But as filmmakers based in the D.C. area know, Hollywood producers rarely shoot in the streets of the nation’s capital. The result is a dwindling local filmmaking scene and a series of movies that often portray the city inaccurately. We explore the reasons why Hollywood studios don’t seem to like filming in D.C., and what the city’s doing to change that dynamic.
- Lydia DePillis Staff writer, Washington City Paper
- Jonathan Zurer Producer, thinkfilm
- Crystal Palmer Director, D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, Hollywood has had a long love affair with Washington, D.C. "Mr. Smith" came here. Martin Sheen ran "The West Wing." Last summer, the evil Transformer Megatron terrorized the Lincoln Memorial. But for all the classic onscreen moments featuring the nation's capital, D.C. residents rarely see camera crews on the streets of the city.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd what Washington resident hasn't stared slack-jawed at a movie that was supposedly set in the District where the scenes looked suspiciously like the streets of, mm, Baltimore or Toronto? The truth is Hollywood doesn't like much to shoot in D.C. And the reasons are complex and confusing to local filmmakers, and even studio executives. For D.C.-based producers, lighting gaffers and cameramen, something as simple as a shot of the dome of the Capitol means a maze of red tape and security rules. So why is it so difficult to shoot in D.C.? And is it in the city's best interest to make things easier?
MR. MARC FISHERHere to talk about it are Lydia DePillis -- she writes the Housing Complex column for Washington City Paper -- and Jonathan Zurer. He's a D.C.-based film producer at Thinkfilm and a location manager who's worked on a number of the films that did manage to film here in the District. And, Jonathan, why don't we start with that. Is it possible to make a living just working on films being shot here or there just not enough of them?
MR. JONATHAN ZURERIt's possible, but it's challenging. And it's more challenging, and it's gotten more challenging over the years. There was a time in my experience in the '90s and early 2000s when there was a lot of Hollywood production coming to town. There's always been other production. There's been commercials, documentaries, things like that, but not the Hollywood stuff. And so, rather, the Hollywood stuff was hot. D.C. was hot. Hollywood stuff was coming here a lot. And then things slowed down.
MR. JONATHAN ZURERAnd, partially, it was the normal cycles of production, and, partially, it was the recession. And, partially, it is the ongoing challenges of how hard it is to shoot in D.C.
FISHERAnd we saw this enormous explosion of interest on the part of Hollywood, both television and movies in Washington and things Washington. It actually started a little before the Obama administration. But certainly with the election of Barack Obama, there was this explosion of interest and of shows that had some, at least, script connection to Washington. But, Lydia DePillis, as you wrote in a recent piece for Washington City Paper, just because a production has Washington as its subject matter doesn't mean it's going to be filmed here. And there are all kinds of obstacles to it being filmed here.
MS. LYDIA DEPILLISRight. The main things that filmmakers want in D.C. that are only in D.C. are monuments, capital buildings, and those things D.C. doesn't even own. And the federal government considers those the purview of the federal government and used for a lot of purposes other than film. So they don't feel for a particular need to make them available or make it convenient to access them. So it's possible, but there's a lot of hoops.
FISHERAnd is it -- is there a particular animus or lack of interest on the part of the federal government and the areas that they control about filmmaking? Do they -- because of message questions or the content of films, are they wary? Or is it just general kind of security -- hysteria may be too strong a term -- but...
DEPILLISI don't think it's strong.
FISHER...security -- it's not too strong? Go ahead.
DEPILLISYeah. I don't think there's any particular animus. I have heard that it's different to shoot commercials that have federal buildings in the background 'cause it could be construed as an endorsement. But, as far as filming, it's just that, you know, if the lawmakers are coming through, that really takes precedence or an international delegation, like, that's what D.C. is for. D.C. is not to serve as -- just a film set.
FISHEREven though we did allow a Transformer to come on to the National Mall. We'll talk about that in a moment. If you have thoughts about movies that you think have done a particularly good or poor job of depicting Washington, give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at kojo -- K-O-J-O -- @wamu.org. You can also get in touch with us by sending a tweet to @kojoshow. And there are lots of movies where you see the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.
FISHERIs more and more of that being done by artificial or technological means rather than actually having a film crew come here, Jonathan?
ZURERYes. Certainly, it's true. These digital capabilities of what we call making a plate -- shooting a plate shot and then using CGI, computer graphics, to superimpose your actors who you may have shot on a green screen or somewhere else and then you paint the background in is certainly becoming -- has continued to become more successful and inexpensive. So that's a real issue that would keep folks from coming here.
ZURERAnd the reality, I think, really, for the Hollywood folks is just the cost, is that it's expensive to send a crew and send their actors and send their producers, et cetera, out to Washington and put them up in hotels and all that. And even though they can hire local crew and hire people like myself to create a local production team for them, there's still a cost. Whereas, if they're in Hollywood or they're in L.A. -- wherever they might be -- or Toronto, they have a back lot, and they have a studio. And they have all their materials set up, and it's a cost -- purely a cost issue.
FISHERThere was a piece in The Washington Post not long ago in which a D.C.-based location manager said that this was the most difficult city to shoot in, in America. As a producer and a location manager, would you agree with that? What sets us apart from the rest of the country?
ZURERRight. First of all, I'll say for my location manager compadres, I'm less of a location manager, more of a producer. But I do a lot of locations 'cause I'm a native Washingtonian. So I know a bit about the city, but I won't pretend to be a location manager. The -- I'm sorry. I lost my train of thought. The problems that people come across, and the reason it's considered to be such a challenging place to shoot -- which it is -- is multi-fold.
ZURERI mean, there is the issues that Lydia just talked about, the lack of jurisdictional control for the city, the federal control of the Park Service, the 17 police jurisdictions that somebody might have to deal with in order to shoot one shot in Washington, the fact that buildings are restricted. You cannot shoot on the grounds of the Capitol. The Architect of the Capitol, the Capitol Police do not allow that. You very, very, very -- you're very, very, very limited shooting around the White House. The Secret Service is not interested in that.
ZURERThe Park Service, which controls, as we choke -- anything green in the city is controlled by the Park Service, literally. Grass-covered parks are all National Park Service. The city has no control over that. So that's a complication. People know that from Hollywood. There are other issues. There's tax incentive issues, which is a whole other conversation, which, hopefully, we can get into. There are issues with the unions and the union contracts.
ZURERAnd I'm friends with the union, so I'm not trying to blast them for this, but their contracts do not enhance people's interest to coming to town. And just, again, the basic cost of flying people around. Now, you go to Baltimore. It's the same crew, the same production people that you're going to hire in your city, but it's less expensive. And Baltimore is easier to film in. They make -- the city makes it -- and the state makes it easier to film in Maryland.
FISHERAnd, Lydia, Jonathan mentioned the Capitol and the difficulty of filming there. You wrote about that little park near the Capitol building, Union Square, which caused a bit of controversy among local filmmakers last summer. What was the issue there?
DEPILLISWell, right. It was just around Christmas, actually. The budget passed, and it was a tiny provision that no one noticed in which the Architect of the Capitol took control of Union Square, which includes the Reflecting Pool and the Grant Memorial in front of the west steps of the Capitol, and that -- Jonathan actually emailed that to me and was like, oh, my God, this seems like a problem. And I said, I think it sounds like that's a problem because, as he mentioned, the park -- or the Capitol Police just don't issue permits for the architect of the Capitol's grounds, the Capitol complex.
DEPILLISSo -- and that was the one shot where you could get a good look at the Capitol, you know, for everywhere else around is sort of obstructed or far away. So I think the architect of the Capitol people didn't think about this at all. And there was this uproar from the film industry, from Eleanor Holmes Norton, the D.C. Film Office. They, I think, have managed to work it out, but it was just one of those examples of lack of consideration. They just didn't (unintelligible).
FISHERYou know, it's interesting. People who go down to the Mall see, especially in spring and summertime, one trade show after another, one political installation after another that seem to take over vast stretches of the National Mall for months on end, destroying the turf and all of that. And that's -- it's been a long-standing issue with the Park Service. They seem to allow anybody to do that, and yet have the exact opposite attitude when it comes to a film crew coming in for a much shorter period of time and a much less intrusive way. Why is there such a difference, Jonathan?
ZURERWe don't know. We'd like to know. I mean, I say that only semi-seriously. I mean, the Park Service has some very strict rules and specific rules about what they allow. And they consider filming to be what they call a special event, so in the same category as protests and as the other events that you just listed. That being said, we, as production people, often feel that they don't treat us equally, and that's one of the complaints that we've had. And I know how hard the folks in the Park Service permitting office work, so I'm not trying to, again, give them any extra grief.
ZURERBut the reality is an example that one of our other location folks told me about last year. She was going to -- wanted to film a commercial. And she needed a goat, and the goat was supposed to be on the Mall. And the Park Service rejected, as I understand it -- this is from what my friend told me. The Park Service rejected her request because the Mall is not a national park that allows grazing.
ZURERI took that to mean that, yes, you shouldn't have a herd of cows on the Mall. And I think we can all agree that you shouldn't have a herd of cows grazing on the Mall. However, we were talking about a scene with a -- for lack of a better word -- a stunt goat that was going to be brought in that was a trained animal, with a wrangler who would, you know, monitor it.
FISHERKnows not to graze in public.
ZURERIt may not. I don't know. But at least it was going to have access to the food it's supposed to eat, not to the grass of the Mall. And they said no. They said it's not -- you can't have that kind of animal on the Mall. And I get the bigger picture of why the Park Service wouldn't want that, but it seems like -- I wish...
FISHERSo a wolf would be OK 'cause (unintelligible).
ZURERRight, 'cause we're reintroducing those into certain places. No. And as I was thinking about this recently, I thought, you know, I've been to the Folklife Festival. I've got to think at some point I've seen a deer.
ZURERI mean, you know, when they did "Texas," there had to be a longhorn there. I'm sure it wasn't grazing...
FISHERThere's always a Texas exception.
ZURERThere's always Texans. God forbid. I'm sure it wasn't grazing, either, but it seems that, wow, there's lots of things that the Folklife Festival, which may deserve special dispensation 'cause of its cultural importance and all that, the Smithsonian, et cetera. But if you can allow a longhorn steer, let's say, why wouldn't you allow a goat for a day when the point is not to open the park -- the Mall to grazing? The point is to get a commercial. If there are other reasons they didn't like the commercial, I accept that completely, but that seemed like a particularly unfair interpretation of the rules.
FISHERWell, one thing I want to get into is the whole question of what impact this has to -- in the case of movies, to the viewer. I mean, do they really care if a movie about Washington is shot in Washington? You know, we in Washington may care about the economic impact, but, to the average viewer, maybe it's a different story. David in Chinatown sends an email. The subject line is "All Hail Keanu." "The best local Washington film ever made," he says, "was 'The Replacements,' the movie where Keanu Reeves played football for the so-called Washington Sentinels.
FISHER"But the entire thing was shot in Baltimore." And he noticed that the Ravens stadium was standing in for our RFK. "And you might have caught on to the fact that Keanu was living on a boat floating in the Inner Harbor because the Baltimore skyline was behind him. At least Keanu's football skills look legit," he says. But, Jonathan, do you think the average moviegoer notices when the city is just not the city they're talking about?
ZURERUnfortunately, probably not. As a native Washingtonian, this is -- it galls me to no end. But I think that the reality is, for the other 300 million Americans or billions of people who might watch a movie, they probably don't really know. And as long as you show the Capitol or the Washington Monument in a shot, you've established, for the film's purposes, hey, we're in Washington.
FISHERBut, you know, Washington is a town that draws millions of tourists. There are people who've been here who might see someone, you know, coming out of the Farragut North Metro station and immediately being in an alley in Georgetown and might say, hmm, that's not what it looked like when I was there. Do producers think about that sort of thing?
ZURERThey do to a point, but it is, unfortunately, I think, never the most important thing. And then we always, in the film business, will say that, you know, there -- we want to make it right. But sometimes you have to have some exceptions for content reasons or for script reasons or for budget reasons. And those are the kinds of things that those of us in the Washington industry will try to correct before it happens or try to point out. But, sometimes, we're not as successful as we might like.
FISHERJonathan Zurer is a D.C.-based film producer at Thinkfilm. Lydia DePillis writes the Housing Complex column for Washington City Paper. And when we come back after a short break, we'll be joined by Crystal Palmer, who is the director of the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, and she'll be able to tell us, I hope, why some of these restrictions exist and what's good about bringing filming to Washington. Then we'll continue our conversation after a short break.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi, and we are talking about filmmaking in Washington. You can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. And joining us by phone now -- in part, because she apparently had a car mishap, and we hope she's OK -- is Crystal Palmer, director of D.C.'s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. Thanks for being a good soldier and coming along. I hope you're feeling fine.
MS. CRYSTAL PALMERYes, I am. Thank you.
FISHEROK. So you're responsible for overseeing every film or TV show in the -- that's shot in the District. I have to ask: Does your workday consist of basically saying no to people?
PALMERNo. We very rarely say no.
PALMERNo, that's -- I mean, take for instance, filmmaking has taken place since "Mr. Smith." That was in Washington in 1936, and so despite the obstacles that one may encounter while filming here, filmmaking still continues to thrive.
FISHERWell, good. But we've heard that there are -- you know, because of the blizzard of police forces and federal versus District jurisdictional issues, it can be more complicated to film here. How do you overcome those obstacles and sell Washington as a location to producers?
PALMERWell, first of all, it's one of the most exciting capitals in the world. We have a lot of globally identifiable sights. And I would say filming in D.C. is probably more similar to Paris, London and New York, to a certain extent. I think the thing with D.C. is that there are a number of events that take place, and it's just a question of coordination. It's a town that does require a great deal of preparation. One reason why we are successful, we have all the ancillary services that one would need to do any type of production.
PALMERWhen we had the television series here, "The West Wing," they were so impressed with the quality of the production companies in D.C. that they hired the company that Jonathan Zurer works for, Thinkfilm. And they basically did all the filming as it pertained to "The West Wing" for the District. And so, I think, that was great because it also showed the talent of the local workforce, and it also showed the marketability of the city on a nationwide level.
FISHERAnd do you have a sense of how large the labor pool is, how many people in Washington actually work in the film industry?
PALMERI would say probably maybe 5 percent actually in D.C. proper.
FISHERFive percent of...
PALMERThat work on the motion picture, television part. Now, in the bulk of the business that this District contains is on information-oriented programming. In fact, the Hollywood Reporter calls us Docuwood, and the L.A. Time refers to us as D.C. Central. And that's because that's our base. Now, Mayor Gray is very interested in pursuing Hollywood because it is a very lucrative part of the business to pursue. And that's why he and I and Councilmember Orange went to Los Angeles to meet with studio executives, to find out exactly what their perspective was in terms of their experiences in D.C.
PALMERAnd it was very eye-opening. Mayor Gray is the first mayor to go to Los Angeles to pursue this. And he has been very committed throughout the whole period. We even went so far as to go to New York to go to Arts & Entertainment and HBO and all the other entities in New York that do business in D.C. because we know it's a challenge. But we're committed to making it workable, and we want to do whatever we can to bring your business to the nation's capital.
FISHERDo you agree that the federal government is perhaps not as friendly to moviemaking as you and your office are? And is there some way that you are able to put pressure on them? Or do they just kind of go their own way on these matters?
PALMERWell, you know, for example, the issue, as it pertained to Union Square, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton could not have been more of an advocate than what she was. And she basically met with all the entities in the capital structure to help us try and put together some type of deal to study the issue more. And Mayor Gray didn't want to stop there. He summoned Allen Lew, who's our city administrator, Victor Hoskins, who's the deputy mayor, my superior.
PALMERWe both went to meet with the Architect of the Capitol, and from that meeting, the Architect of the Capitol decided that they would at least use the previous -- the park service rules and regulations for filming for the next 90 days, or until they could resolve the issue satisfactorily. Now, my perception of that meeting was that the Architect of the Capitol understands films, appreciates film and sees the economic value. The challenge of that is that he is in the business of running the business of the Capitol. And there's also security concerns.
PALMERAnd so, I think, it's not so much that the federal government does not want to help. I think the federal government has somewhat of a different agenda, and I think security trumps everything when it relates to the federal government.
FISHERAnd, Lydia DePillis, is security -- are these legitimate security concerns? Or do you see people in the various agencies using security more of -- as an excuse just not to get involved in all the red tape of filmmaking?
DEPILLISNow, how could you even ask that, Marc? You're putting our lawmakers at risk. No. I mean, I think that, obviously, security is sort of a one-way ratchet. It keeps going up and up and up and never comes back down. Weirdly, one -- a union guy actually told me, though, that post-9/11, there was more -- because of the security concerns, more coordination between the various entities of, you know, this -- the monumental core of D.C. 'cause they all had to talk to each other anyway, which helped film producers.
DEPILLISBut, no, I mean, do the west steps to the capital be closed forever -- do they have to be? Probably not.
FISHERLet's go to your calls. Here is Lance in Arlington, Va. Lance, it's your turn.
LANCEYeah, thank you very much. Number one, is there a tax affixed to any stock footage or archival footage that Hollywood might use reflecting the District scenes? That's number one. And is there a central clearinghouse in the District that -- in which all of the jurisdictions can come together and resolve matters of security and site selection for producers in Hollywood?
FISHERCrystal, is there any kind of way that the District can control its image or what images Hollywood uses of the city?
PALMERWell, you know, the -- there are no -- there's no government entity that maintains stock footage. The tourism office does have stock footage, and that's as it relates for tourism. In terms of the coordination part, actually, I think we coordinate pretty well. You know, others may disagree on that, but I tend to think that, even when these entities like the Park Service or GSA, oftentimes when they tell a filmmaker no, in a lot of instances they do try and find that middle ground. It may not be the shot you want, but it is a shot that they're able to give you, given other competing issues at the time.
FISHERAnd, Jonathan, obviously, if someone -- a producer decides to use stock footage or go to another city, that's a loss for the District. So I would think that Washington would not really want be in the business of encouraging that sort of thing.
ZURERI would I have to agree. Yeah, definitely.
FISHERSo -- but -- I mean, Hollywood writers and directors have certain images in mind of Washington, and, obviously, they probably tend toward the stereotypical, the monuments, that sort of thing. Do the people who work in the industry here try to draw them to other images of Washington, to other neighborhoods, to other -- to the sense of, you know, there's more than just the marble federal city?
ZURERAbsolutely. And that's one thing -- to give credit to Crystal, she and her office do a good job of proposing that there are alternate places besides the monumental core for things to be filmed. But, unfortunately, most of the time, in terms of Hollywood production, they have their image of what they want. And they need a shot -- they've come to D.C. They need to put -- they need to justify the expense of bringing a crew to Washington. And the way they're going to do that on the screen is by showing an image that everyone's going to see and go, oh, of course, you're in Washington.
ZURERThat actor is actually in front of the Capitol. I get it. That's -- that adds production value. That adds value to the screen. So there have been shows that were set outside the monumental core, outside of Georgetown. There was one, a pilot, that was shot about eight or 10 years ago with -- that was set in Anacostia. In fact, we shot in old and historic Anacostia over in Southeast, on W and V Streets, I think.
FISHERWhat was the movie?
ZURERIt was a series pilot that didn't get picked up. I think it was called the -- I can't remember the title.
FISHERWell, it didn't get picked up. But here's one that did get made. Gil (sp?) in the District writes an email, saying, that one movie he knows was actually filmed in D.C., because some of the filming took place in his neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, was "State of Play" with Russell Crowe, among others. He writes, "I am -- hundreds of my neighbors came out on a cold winter evening to watch Russell Crowe cross the street near Heller's Bakery, what seemed like 50 times."
FISHER"Many other scenes were shot in the District as well and not just at the usual tourist spots. While, as a local, I enjoyed seeing a character walking in Adams Morgan and then magically appearing in the Rosslyn Metro Station, I'm not sure the movie received such acclaim. Oh, well," he says, "at least my neighborhood had its moment in the sun." Is there value beyond just having your neighborhood to have its moment in the sun, to having these shoots outside of the federal core? Lydia.
DEPILLISWell, I think, in general, there's a sense of civic pride. And I also think that it matches up with something that is on the city's agenda, which is encouraging the D.C. economy to be known as something other than a government town, right? And it -- you know, it's a really a symbolic residence, like you should know our neighborhoods and know other parts of it as unique and distinctive for reasons other than (word?).
FISHERAnd, Crystal, obviously, the mayor pays you and your staff because they see that there's not only that kind of image enhancement, but, also, they want some enhancement to the bottom line. Does the movie industry actually accrue to the bottom line of the District?
PALMEROh, it sure does. I mean, in terms of the economic impact, in terms of temporary jobs and revenue. In fact, last year, in 2010, the Office of Motion Pictures did $12.5 million. And then when Mayor Gray came into office in 2011, we did well over $20 million. So we are starting to find our way back and get our footing, and, you know, the economy is improving. And there are a number of shows that are -- subject matter is politics and government. And so hopefully, you know, we look more. We are optimistic about what will be.
FISHERThat's Crystal Palmer. She is director of the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. Let's go to Paul in the District. Paul, you're on the air.
MR. PAUL MAZZUCAHi. Yeah, I'm Paul Mazzuca with Permanent Tourist in D.C. And I agree there's a lot of operations that have difficulty in filming or doing anything in the Mall. But I've seen plenty of things. I'm a licensed tour guide, licensed by the District of Columbia and member of the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C. And our Government Operations Committee is checking through this same question, the overlapping entities that's for police jurisdictions that let's you do anything.
MR. PAUL MAZZUCAAnd even pedicabs, there are no clear regulations that -- no clear ones anyway that tell us what we can do and what we can't do. And I've seen people shoot things like the -- oh, with "Transformers," the truck was on the entrance to the 12th Street tunnel. And I pointed out to my little nephews and other tourists -- young tourists that that was a Transformer station. They all go, oh, wee. And, basically, there are lot of filming that is going on.
MR. PAUL MAZZUCABut you're right. There are also a lot of regulations that we have to weed through just to do a thing like driving around the Mall to give people information about Washington.
FISHEROK. Well, there certainly is always a lot of red tape when it comes to Washington. Jonathan.
ZURERWell, I just wanted to follow up on something that we just said. There are -- Crystal is right, and this gentleman is right. There is filming that goes on in Washington at a constant basis. However, for example, there are -- and it is a -- it's big money. In the state of Maryland, there's a new program, a new -- the new Netflix. The first Netflix television series that's starting to film called "House of Cards," and their budget is about $100 million, which they're going to spend most of that in the state of Maryland. It is a political show.
ZURERIt's set in Washington. They're shooting it at a stage in, I think, Harford County, well north of Baltimore. "Veep," the HBO series, shot their first season last year in Baltimore. They're shooting their second series -- season, I believe, later this summer in Baltimore -- again, a show set in D.C. They came to Washington -- Crystal is absolutely right -- for a few days, but they shot for 10 episodes, which is potentially 10, 12 weeks at least in Baltimore, not in Maryland, not in D.C.
ZURER"Game Change," another HBO film about Sarah Palin, again, set in Washington, a great deal of it -- all of it -- virtually all of it shot in Baltimore. So there's a lot of money that's being accrued by our neighbors that is not being filmed -- not being spent in the District of Columbia.
FISHERWell, and, Crystal Palmer, you met with Netflix to try to entice that venture project to film in D.C. last year. You also met with HBO about filming "Veep," the Julia Louis-Dreyfus movie, in D.C. And -- but both of them ended up going to Baltimore to shoot. What happened in those meetings?
PALMERWell, I tell you, what happened in the meetings -- there was a time when scripts were based on location, location, location, you know? In those days D.C. trumped. But now, it's about money. It's a straight money game. And Mayor Gray and I met with HBO on this, and, also, we met with "House of Cards." We specifically went out to Los Angeles for "House of Cards" because that's very exciting. And they're getting into webisodes, so they are -- you know, that's their foray into it. And Jonathan is right.
PALMERIt certainly is millions and millions of dollars that should have come to the District, but didn't. But, at the end of the day, basically, what they wanted was money. The state of Maryland came up with $12.5 million, and they wanted the District to come up with $3.5 million. The mayor, you know, made us all look through every nook and cranny possible. He had Eric Goulet, who's a budget director, Allen Lew, city administrator. He had Victor Hoskins, the deputy mayor. It's just not there. It's unfortunate. It is heartbreaking. Trust me. We did not want to lose those two projects.
FISHERI'm sure that's true. And, Lydia, is your sense that there really is any realistic sense that this can grow in a big way, that -- I mean, is it -- are the bureaucratic obstacles simply so high that Washington will forever be a second- or third-tier city when it comes to locations?
DEPILLISYeah, I think that's really the key question. It's like whether or not you can actually develop an industry that's constant here, that thrives here like it's developed in other cities where you can draw in a pool of local towns that's around, not just, like, a few excellent production companies like Jonathan's. But, you know, at the point where we have this structural disadvantage of a large federal -- like, the federal control of the areas that studios most want, and the Park Service, as well, softening.
DEPILLISWe see that in -- like instances, like, allowing a new Tourmobile service and bike share. Until they're willing to, say, let's put together an office that's going to help make this easier for you, I'm not sure I want the District government spending a lot of money and time trying to attract something that's just not going to come. Like, we have a lot of filming, like documentaries, as Crystal mentioned and also, obviously, the media and their TV shows.
DEPILLISBut, you know, as far as Hollywood, like, I just think they're -- the obstacles are too great. And we can't play in that incentives arms race, and I don't think we should.
FISHERJonathan, you agree?
ZURERI am of two minds. On the one hand, I totally agree. As a D.C. taxpayer, I am concerned -- and I have expressed this to Crystal and to others -- that incentives is an arms race. Lydia got it exactly correct. It is an arms race, and it is a one-upsmanship. And it's a lot of money, you know, millions and millions and million of dollars every year that are being spent by various entities, states, counties, et cetera. That being said, as I said before, it's -- it galls me that all this stuff is getting filmed elsewhere when it should be filmed in Washington. Or they'll come to D.C. for a day.
ZURERI worked on a program called "Homeland" on Showtime. They shot it in Charlotte, N.C. because of incentives. They came to Washington for one day. The producer keeps telling me he wants to come back, but he doesn't have the budget. I was scouting a couple of weeks ago for a new show on the -- I think it's going to be for the USA Network. They're shooting it in Philadelphia. It's set in Washington. We scouted Georgetown. You know, why is this -- this makes me crazy.
ZURERBut I think the reality is, unless we're willing to put up these big tax incentives -- and there are major, major concerns that I have as a taxpayer about how much the D.C. government should be putting out there for reasons that Crystal mentioned. I think she's probably right. Less than 5 percent of the crew, who work on these productions, live in the District, so there's not a tax base. 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.
ZURERNow, you could create a situation where someone could hire what's called either a past due or a loan out company -- could be a company like mine. It could be another company that's based in the District, that pays corporate taxes in the District, but the reality is if you want to recapture income tax, there's not a method, as we know, for D.C. to recapture income tax for employees who are not living in the District of Columbia. And if those tax incentives are based upon assuming we're going to get more taxes, based on what we give out, I'm not sure how the math works.
FISHERThat's Jonathan Zurer. He's a D.C.-based film producer at Thinkfilm. And we will hear from Crystal Palmer about whether the investment of tax dollars is paying off for the city after we come back. We'll also hear more of your calls at 1-800-433-8850 about the movies that you've seen Washington starring in and which ones -- or the places that stood in for Washington that galled you. That's at 1-800-433-8850. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation in a moment.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about moviemaking in Washington with Lydia DePillis of The Washington City Paper, Crystal Palmer, director of the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, and Jonathan Zurer, a D.C.-based film producer. We have an email from Jerry in Foggy Bottom, who says, "If it weren't for D.C. movies, my personal tour of D.C. would be pretty bad.
FISHER"I show all my friends the church from 'Wedding Crashers' on P Street. Vince Vaughn's house in that movie is further down the street on P in Georgetown. I show them the place where the bicyclist in 'Enemy of the State' was decked on Connecticut Avenue. And I show people, as everyone does, 'The Exorcist' steps." But that, I mean, just -- given how far back you have to reach for that one, we get to -- you know, his final plea is to make more films in Washington because his tour needs more material.
ZURERIf I can, his point about "Enemy of the State" is actually quite interesting because they did shoot in D.C. for quite a while, but they shot in Baltimore for a lot longer. And, in fact, there are scenes where they start out in D.C., and then they cut. And the next thing, they're in Baltimore as if it were D.C. So, yes, they shot the scene on Connecticut Avenue, Dupont Circle. Yes, they shot a bunch of other stuff. But the reality was they were in Baltimore.
ZURERThe square where the conversation-style scene happened, the whole, you know, harbor that he's taking the ferry from, it was all Baltimore. I mean, they shot far more in Baltimore. They shot in Washington for a show that was supposed to be set here. They came here for several days, or maybe even a week. Crystal may know exactly. But it's not the same.
FISHERAnd, Crystal, does Baltimore specifically market itself as the anti -- or as the other Washington or as the Washington substitute?
PALMEROh, not only Maryland, but the state of Virginia.
PALMERBut you know what? Here's a small consolation: The labor force, as it is, there are a number of Washington residents that go and work in Maryland and Virginia on these shows.
DEPILLISThat is a consolation. But to the emailer's point, I would say that while it's true that having scenes in movies puts them on the map -- and it's great to be able to show your relatives -- like, what economic impacts does that have? It's kind of like, you know, wanting to bring the Redskins back to Washington 'cause you feel like they should be here. I mean, I don't know that we want to spend money on that.
FISHERRight. Let's go to Kendra in Washington. You're on the air.
MS. KENDRA RUBINFELDHi, everyone. Thanks so much for taking my call. My name -- as Marc just mentioned, my name is Kendra Rubinfeld, and I'm the director and creator of the Our City Film Festival. We just completed our fifth annual event two weeks ago, and we screened films that are about or take place in D.C. in order to raise pride in Washington and showcase the stories in Washington beyond traffic and politics and monuments. Crystal Palmer knows about us.
RUBINFELDHer office funded our project back in 2008. I wanted to call in because I just actually served on a panel hosted by the Humanities Council, another grantor for a project, just about this discussion actually. And I wanted to raise two points that came up there if you don't mind. The first is that if D.C., as you all have been talking about -- if D.C. is in the movies, it is often depicted as a political hub. You know, as I mentioned, we started Our City Film Festival to showcase the stories that, you know, are beyond the politics.
RUBINFELDAnd we've screen many, many documentaries that show these stories but haven't had as many stories in the narrative form. You know, of course, we're talking mostly about independent films. But there are a few films that I can think of and TV shows that you all have mentioned that have highlighted D.C. outside of politics, you know, for example, the new Jonathan Safran Foer HBO show. "All Talk" I think it's called or even, you know, the successful webisode of "Anacostia," which is obviously on the Internet.
RUBINFELDBut why do you think there isn't as much -- you know, well, why is there not more because we know for sure there are many stories to be told as is evidenced by, you know, the nearly hundreds of documentaries that we've screened? And...
FISHERWell, let's give -- Jonathan, you want to take that question? Why aren't there more Washington stories that are not the classic political stories?
ZURERI wish I had a good answer for that. I mean, I appreciate where the caller is coming from, and I don't know that I can really say. We'll have -- in terms of the narrative and drama, we'll have to ask the writers in Hollywood, some of whom are from Washington, but I think, perhaps, it's part of that perspective that folks in L.A. have about D.C. as politics. And maybe they just aren't interested in the other stories.
ZURERI've seen some scripts for things that were not pure politics. But none of them have either been picked up, or they -- we shot that pilot of that show. It was actually called "Street Lawyer." It came to me. But it -- they were not what was interesting at the time, for whatever reason.
FISHERWell, it's the same phenomenon we see in politics where the politicians run against Washington and portray Washington as a purely government town, that that's its only function in American life. And so, I guess, the film industry kind of picks up that image and runs with it. Crystal, is that your impression as well?
PALMERYes. And, you know, one of the things that we talked to, when we went to Los Angeles, we -- in our we presentation, we had a whole discussion about D.C., beyond the monuments, inviting to discover Anacostia and Foggy Bottom and Shaw. And there is some level of interest, but, as Jonathan mentioned, there is this mindset in their mind that D.C. is politics, the, you know, political thrillers in government. And so we just need to do a better job, I think, of educating Hollywood, as well as the studios in New York, that there's more to the city than just the gubernatorial component.
FISHERRight. Kendra, thanks for the call. Let's go to Catherine in Bethesda. Catherine, you're on the air.
CATHERINEHi. Thanks for taking my call, love the conversation. One question I have, when you're talking about, you know, it's hard to get permitted to shoot on sought-after spots, federal government presents barriers. You know, federal government works with a lot of contractors who have top-secret clearances and all sorts of whatever the clearance is necessary to do work with the government.
CATHERINEDo you guys ever consider creating your own film crew that studios can hire when they come to town, who have the necessary clearances, that it would not be a security risk for the Park Service or the Capitol Police or whoever to work with?
FISHERIt's interesting an idea. They have a sort of a fast track -- like they do in Homeland Security Department now for transportation.
FISHERIs that the obstacle? Or that's not the point where the...
ZURERI don't -- I think it's an interesting idea. I don't think that's the exact security issues we have 'cause we're never looking to shoot or to film -- shouldn't you say shoot -- looking to film in sensitive areas. We're not looking to go into, you know, protected areas of the White House or the -- you know, in anyone's -- any place in the capital. We want to film hallways. We want to film offices. We want to film buildings from exteriors, but have our actors at the building as opposed to in the distance from the building.
ZURERSo it's an interesting idea, although I don't think that's the problem because let's -- for instance, the White House, film crews go and film inside the White House all the time when they're invited. You know, PBS is often filming promotional pieces, you know, Discovery Channel...
FISHEROr the performances, like we saw this week.
ZURER... performances, exactly. So getting a crew inside the gates is not actually the security problem. The problem is that they don't necessarily want you there unless they are sponsoring the event. And so I -- it's an interesting idea, but I don't know that it directly solves the problem.
FISHERThanks, Catherine. Let's go to Dan in Arlington. Dan, you're on the air.
DANHi. I have two quick points, and then I'll just hang up and listen. One is that -- don't know if it's been mentioned, but there was a big movie in about 1959 or '51, something like that, in Southern Washington called "The Day the Earth Stood Still" with Michael Rennie. And I think it was around 15th and Constitution that I remember 'cause I drive by there, and I think, that's got to be the place from the movie. So there's that.
DANAnd then, secondly, a question: Could you use Washington for a period movie? Would it fit in with the economics? And is there enough stuff in Washington that's historical for, like, a 19th century movie? So that's my question. Thank you.
FISHERInteresting. Crystal, do you get much demand for Washington as in period pieces?
PALMEROh, there are a couple of shows. I mean, when they shot "J. Edgar" here, that was a challenge because they had to recreate an era that is long gone. But the city has been able to duplicate on numerous occasions for a later period.
FISHERAnd, Jonathan, are there specific locations that you especially tout to producers that you've, you know, just fallen in love with or that you haven't seen anyone use yet that you think would be just fabulous?
ZURERYou have just crossed into a very dangerous area. When you're on a...
FISHER(unintelligible) secret information...
ZURERNo, no, no, far from it, the opposite. When you're on a location scout, you never want to tell the director that, oh, yeah, we just shot this for this other movie. I always want them to think that they have found the one angle...
FISHERI have something special for you.
ZURER...that no one has ever seen before. So you try to avoid saying, oh, yeah, we shot "State of Play" here, and we shot "West Wing" here. And we shot so and so here, and -- 'cause then they're like, oh, well, that was boring. Or they're always asking for something they've seen that doesn't exist anymore. Apparently there was a photo in Life magazine in the '70s, I think, that showed a tenement house, a really rundown tenement house, in -- maybe it was even earlier -- in, I guess, either Southwest or Southeast with the Capitol in the background.
ZURERAnd it was like, here's the Capitol, and here's the tenement house.
FISHERUh huh, perfect juxtaposition.
ZURERAnd everyone says, yeah, I want to see that juxtaposition.
ZURERWell, that tenement house is long gone.
DEPILLISThey knocked them all down.
ZURERLet me tell you, the freeway knocked that down a long time ago. So we can't -- we're not going to get that 'cause it doesn't -- that shot, that angle of, you know, doesn't exist. We once did a thing for "The West Wing" before the city updated the South Capitol Street Bridge. At P Street, there was a ramp, and underneath was a pretty gritty area where there were some homeless guys hanging out. And we did a scene for "West Wing" where they go find a homeless guy who's living under there.
ZURERAnd they loved it 'cause you tilt up on the crane from this -- you know, fire's burning and trying to keep their hands warm, and then there is the Capitol in the distance. Well, now, we've -- now, the city has done a great job of updating South Capitol Street. The ballpark is there. That shot's gone. There's no way you can get that juxtaposition anymore, so...
FISHERAnd, Crystal, do you have a favorite -- particular personal favorite locations that you're egging producers to use that you haven't seen used yet?
PALMERWell, you know, of course, I want them to venture beyond the monuments. I mean, I certainly do want them to realize that there are some very interesting sites, so much so that we have started the One City Location of the Month that you can find on our website. And ever since Mayor Gray's got into his office, we have highlighted a unique location that we invite you to discover that you may not have thought of. So I invite those interested to constantly watch our website to see what our new location of the month actually is.
FISHERWhat's this month's?
PALMERThis month? Let me see. That's a good question. I should know the answer.
FISHEROr last month.
FISHERLydia, do you have a favorite location that you'd like to see moviemakers use?
DEPILLISYeah. Well, it's -- actually another location manager told me. He's like, don't tell anyone else, but I've been having some great shots at Yards Park, which is my new favorite park.
DEPILLISAnd I think you could just do some amazing romances, whatever.
FISHERThat's the park right across from Met Stadium.
DEPILLISRight. I think that -- all of that Anacostia waterfront is just so picturesque.
FISHERHuh. And there's a question for Jonathan from Jennifer in Arlington. "Has Jonathan ever worked for the TV show 'Bones'? Do they actually ever shoot any of their D.C. stuff here? It's the best bad show on TV, and by bad I mean beyond terrible, but I'm watching," she says.
ZURERI will not have any opinion about quality of the show. I actually did work on "Bones" a while ago. I mean, I'm going to say when it first started, and they very quickly stopped coming out to shoot stuff with their actors in Washington. And I'm -- I think that they, in the last -- sometime in the last eight years, I think it's been, they've definitely sent out small crews just to shoot b-roll shots, just to -- establishing shots of the monuments and stuff. But they haven't sent a full crew or done any scenes with actors here, in my knowledge, since I did it about seven or eight years ago.
FISHERUh huh. And the location of the month is, this month, Gallaudet University, which, actually, if you're looking a 19th century...
FISHER...Washington scene would very much fit in there. Also, Michael Martinez, our producer, notes that a remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" was made a few years ago with Keanu Reeves, so we've come full circle on that.
ZURERAnd they -- oh, no, I'm sorry. It was a different one that filmed on Massachusetts Avenue where there's now all those very nice new apartment buildings. And it was actually -- it was a different movie, but same time period where they had -- they used that as a post-apocalyptic attack. And those buildings were all knocked --you know, all looked terrible 'cause they were all beat up and decayed. And now, of course, it's all high-end housing, so the city just keeps changing. What can you do? You lose those kinds of locations.
FISHERAnd in the few seconds we have left, are there particular movie depictions of Washington that have taken place in other cities that you found most offensive or annoying? I think of Spielberg using the capital in Richmond as the White House just somehow seems wrong. But any ones that particularly bother you, Jonathan?
ZURERThe classic is "No Way Out," where Kevin Costner jumps off the Whitehurst Freeway to the Georgetown Metro stop, which was filmed in Baltimore. You know, that's sort of the classic. They all drive me crazy.
FISHERLydia, do you have one?
DEPILLISOh, I never watch movies.
FISHERAnd, Crystal, is there one that particularly bothers you?
PALMERAll of them.
FISHEROK. Jonathan Zurer is a D.C.-based film producer at Thinkfilm and a location manager here in the District. Any films you're working on right now that we can know about, or...
ZURERIronically, I'm actually working on a movie in Baltimore.
ZURERIt's not set in D.C., but it is filming in Baltimore.
FISHEROh, it (unintelligible).
ZURERBut it is taking advantage of the tax incentives that Maryland is providing, and that's one of the reasons they're filming in Maryland.
FISHEROK. Can you say anything about it? No?
ZURERAt this point, I can't, I'm afraid.
FISHERAll right. No problem. And what was the last one you worked on in Washington?
ZURERLet's see. The last film -- the last thing I did, actually, was a television show. I worked on -- a couple days of work on "NCIS," although they ended up only filming at Arlington Cemetery. They didn't actually film in the District.
FISHERCrystal Palmer is director of the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. Is there one particular project now going on that you're excited about?
PALMERYeah, I am very much excited about -- I'm working with a location, actually, producer who has done numerous films in the District, Carol Flaisher. She is doing a Tyler Perry film.
PALMERAnd so we're helping here on that. And one other point before I...
FISHERNo, we got to run. Sorry, we'll get next time. Lydia DePillis writes the Housing Complex column for Washington City Paper. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
After a hard-won fight to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, environmental groups worry the new EPA chief could dismantle progress. Kojo explores what's at stake.
With the inauguration a few days away, some restauranteurs are using their eateries to double down on their politics. Others are avoiding it all together.
In the Maryland county that encourages its residents to "choose civility," the relationship between the school superintendent and the board of education seems broken.