THE SEDUCTION OF HOLLYWOOD : States Are Going All Out to Get Movie Makers to Run Away
“I’ve been walking since February,” Mike Meehan said, taking a giant step and grabbing a handrail to steady himself on the small boat as it rocked in the wake of a passing barge on the Allegheny River.
Meehan, a veteran Hollywood location manager, was on a tour of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny and Ohio rivers while scouting locations for “Gung Ho,” a new Ron Howard film starring Michael Keaton. The river tour, made earlier this summer, was just a small part of the most extensive location search Meehan has ever conducted.
Meehan logged more than 20,000 miles, crisscrossing the nation three times and traveling up and down the U.S. Heartland and the Eastern seaboard twice. By the time filming ends (scheduled for the end of this month), the movie will have been shot here, in two Ohio cities and in Japan and Argentina.
The Pittsburgh river tour--including the boat, complete with skipper and guide--was only one of myriad services provided free to Meehan by the Pennsylvania Film Commission.
This kind of service isn’t unusual. Consider: Nearly two-thirds of the 75 films slated for release from Labor Day to New Year’s Day were shot entirely outside of California, according to the California Film Office.
The more aggressive states--among them, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois--have been known to make some pretty seductive proposals to get into the pants pockets of the film biz. Commissions have stopped and started rivers flowing, arranged to grow crops on abandoned farms and handed the keys of real banks over to production managers.
They regularly offer governors’ planes for location scouting (and helicopters for closer looks) and provide posh hotel suites (with hot tubs large enough to hold Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice) to location scouts free of charge.
The nation’s right-to-work states--such as Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas--boast about the substantial labor savings that can be had by filming in states where union work rules and wage scales can be avoided. Like Georgia’s ad in the Hollywood trade papers says: “Shoot here for peanuts.”
The wooing of Hollywood by Pennsylvania illustrates the tough competitive pressures California is up against in its effort to reduce the growing number of “runaway productions.”
While most movies were made in California just a decade ago, now it’s about half. Film commissions have sprung up in 60 cities and more than 40 states to compete for the $2 billion spent annually on feature film production.
During 1984, of the 165 features films shot in the United States, 56 were filmed exclusively in California, 80 were filmed entirely outside the state and 29 were shot in California and elsewhere, according to the California Film Office.
Arkansas offers film makers a 5% rebate on any production-related costs for a film that spends at least $1 million on a project. Last year the state returned $51,000 in rebates.
Walt Disney Productions plans to build a $300-million film studio adjacent to Walt Disney World and Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. This is simply one more studio in a string of facilities in New York, Houston, Miami and Dallas that compete with Hollywood. North Carolina is at work on its fourth studio complex in its bid to become the most extensive film center outside Hollywood.
The Ontario Film Commission reported that the Canadian province, whose capital is Toronto, pulled in $72 million in film and television production in 1984, generating $200 million for the region’s economy.
“As far as we’re concerned, they’re run-to productions,” says R. C. Staab, director of the Pennsylvania Film Commission,
Staab has the dark, youthful good looks of a soap opera doctor, but as the director of the Keystone State’s film commission, he plays quite a different role--or roles.
When Meehan and production designer Jim Schoppe were scouting locations for “Gung Ho” in Pittsburgh, Staab was their driver, tour guide, adviser, general trouble shooter--he booked hotel reservations, made travel arrangements and acted as liaison between the film unit and Pittsburgh’s mayor and chief of police. Staab runs his small but effective operation from his office in Harrisburg, the state capital, with one assistant.
“Gung Ho,” a comedy about what happens when some jobless blue-collar auto workers recruit a Japanese management firm to get the assembly lines of their shut down auto plant rolling again, is set almost entirely in the fictional city of “Hadleyville,” represented by Pittsburgh’s working-class, blue-collar neighborhoods. The Steel City was picked for its “Eastern look,” Meehan said. Filming began here Aug. 14.
The location search took as long as it did because the film makers wanted to use an authentic auto assembly line rather than create one. However, they couldn’t find a plant with an operating assembly line in the United States that would cooperate, Meehan said. American plant management feared that filming would disrupt auto production, now in full throttle for the new 1986 models, he said.
Eventually, Paramount located an operating plant in Buenos Aires, where some of the factory scenes were shot in August and July. These scenes and others, shot in a fender stamping plant in Shadyside, Ohio, will be woven together to create the Hadleyville plant.
Staab and Meehan had worked together once before, on the Philadelphia police thriller “Witness,” directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford. In fact, it was Staab who arranged for Ford to go out on the callous-tough streets of the City of Brotherly Love with a top homicide detective so that the actor could get a feel for the rugged cop he was to portray.
It was also Staab who suggested changing the locale of a crucial scene. In the original script, an Amish widow played by Kelly McGillis and her young son were to travel from their Amish community in Lancaster to Philadelphia by bus. The boy witnesses the murder of an undercover cop in the bus station’s men’s room and thus becomes the target of a hunt by the killers. But in the movie, they go by rail and the killing takes place in the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, an idea proposed by Staab.
“The train station was used, it turned out, because it was so incredibly visually stunning,” Meehan said.
“R. C.'s a real hustler,” said Eve Lapolla, manager of the Ohio Film Bureau, a rival for some of the millions of dollars that filming “Gung Ho” would generate. “He’s aggressive, highly visible and personable.”
It takes qualities like these to land a film project. “Florida will make the sun stop in the sky and make the wind blow to get you down there,” jests Mack Harding, a unit production manager (not connected with the Howard film) with PSO Presentations.
“We represent a lot of money and can make an enormous financial impact on a community,” said Meehan, who bears a striking resemblance to John F. Kennedy. “We don’t pollute the rivers or fill the air with stuff. We come in, spend money and leave with a can of film.”
Feature film production totals about $2 billion a year, according to Lisa Rawlins, director of the California Film Office. A substantial portion of this amount is spent on location shooting.
Visiting production companies hire local people, use hotels, restaurants, caterers and other services. Cast and crew members spend money in the same way any group of well-heeled tourists do. In addition, the economic impact is much greater overall than the money spent.
Tennessee estimated that the filming of “The River” starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek, brought $7 into the state for every dollar spent by the production, Rawlins said. California uses a multiplier of 5.5 for each dollar spent, she said, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce uses 3.5.
The amount that a production spends will vary. The “Witness” project, for example, spent about $2 million in Philadelphia and Lancaster, according to Meehan. Paramount representatives wouldn’t disclose “Gung Ho’s” budget, but in a meeting with Pittsburgh police and city officials, Meehan estimated that the film company will spend locally at least as much as the “Witness” shoot did.
Last year, nine film productions spent $12 million (real dollars) in Pennsylvania. These include “Birdy,” “Mrs. Soffel” and “Day of the Dead.”
To stay on top of what’s happening, Staab regularly reads the industry trades, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Not long ago, after he read that the next Coen brothers film (they made “Blood Simple”) would be shot entirely in an office building, Staab thought of the recently sold Gulf Oil Building in downtown Pittsburgh.
“Here was a perfect Hollywood set,” Staab said with characteristic enthusiasm, “and almost nobody’s going to be in the building. It couldn’t be more ideal.” He immediately arranged to take still photographs of the building’s exterior and interior, from the mail room to the board room (Staab has about 1,000 Pennsylvania location photos on file, from alleys to zoos), and sent the material off to the Coens.
Although they passed, Staab wasn’t perturbed. “That’s the kind of thing you have to do. They’ll be impressed you contacted them. They’ll think of you later. What you want is to bring them into the city. Once they see it they remember it.”
After film makers arrive, Staab said, “one of the tricks to scouting, as you’re going from one place to another, is to take the long way. They may see something they like. And if you get lost,” he added with a playful smile, “never say so.”
Film commissions draw attention to their states in a number of ways: They publish slick, production manuals that are mailed to studios, producers and production managers; they place ads regularly in the trade newspapers, make trips to Los Angeles to meet with producers and studio executives and throw lavish dinners for them in trendy Los Angeles restaurants.
But above all, they have to come through. “The nature of this business is that things change rapidly,” Meehan said. “You have to be able to react quickly. Speed and efficiency in getting us what we want quickly can make a difference.”
Like the time Staab was looking for a bowling alley location with Meehan, Schoppe and a reporter: Meehan mentioned that they would be looking for office building locations that could be used for interior shots of the auto plant’s executive offices. . . . Well, remember the Coen brothers’ pitch? The next afternoon, Staab led Meehan and Schoppe into the elegant board room and swank executive offices of the Gulf Oil Building.
Dick Celeste was in the 20th Century Fox commissary, making his pitch to the Hollywood producers. . . . He smiled; he joked; he flattered. Celeste isn’t a film writer--he’s the governor of Ohio.
The pitch was for his state: “Our backyard is your back lot.” While listing Ohio’s virtues, Celeste added, “The food’s especially good if you stop by the governor’s residence.”
A few members of the “Teachers” film unit took the governor up on his offer of hospitality last year when they made the film starring Judd Hirsch and Nick Nolte in Columbus, the state capital. Part of the film commission’s location hunt involved locating producer Aaron Russo a five-bedroom, five-bath mansion (next door to the Governor’s mansion, incidentally) to rent during the three-month shoot.
Though Ohio got a relatively small piece of the action on “Gung Ho,” the production will nonetheless create scores of temporary jobs and certainly leave enough money in Shadyside to generate the tax revenue needed to cover the film commission’s substantial advertising budget.
Ads in papers such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter illustrate the aggressive marketing campaigns launched by some states.
A Tennessee ad shows a photo of director John Carpenter and quotes him in large, bold type: “Shooting in Tennessee gave ‘Starman’ the feeling of rural America I was looking for.” Below Carpenter’s comments: “More than $169 million in production in 1984.”
“Shoot Someone in Georgia,” proclaims another ad.
Florida declares: “Hollywood weather without Hollywood overhead.”
“Next time try the other LA--Louisiana.”
The Ohio Film Bureau’s Eve Lapolla said her agency spends $35,000 to $45,000 a year on advertising, mostly in the Hollywood trade papers. One of her commission’s most memorable ads shows a photo of the 150-year-old Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. Beneath, the ad declares, “Prison for rent,” and goes on to say the tenant would have access to all of its “quaint, on-premise amenities” including “a slightly used electric chair.”
Because stakes are high, lofty efforts are made to persuade film makers to come to Ohio. Lapolla remembers when the state was scouted for “Brubaker” (1980). The setting of the film, about a reform-minded prison warden played by Robert Redford, called for Arkansas, “but what they needed was a shut-down prison with a work farm,” she said.
Ohio had precisely such a prison in Junction City, southeast of Columbus, but the long-abandoned work farm was barren. No problem for the plucky Ohio Film Bureau. A staff member was put to work researching what kind of a crop could be grown both quickly and during winter and early spring months. Voila in the spring, and in time for shooting, the prison had a working work farm. “Turnips, I think,” Lapolla said with a grin.
Getting a film shoot is only a part of the commission’s job, said Lapolla in her two-office suite on the 25th floor of the capital’s State Office Tower. After shooting begins, film makers must be kept happy, she said. Typically, a bureau member is assigned to a shoot full time until it’s ended. “Word-of-mouth in the industry is the best advertising,” she said.
Cooperation is the key. When “Mischief” was filmed in the small city of Nelsonville last year, the town square was a setting for several key scenes, some of which were filmed at night. For this reason, the film unit needed to control all the lighting in the square after shops closed and everyone went home.
“I just went around and got the keys to four banks and the small businesses, so we could get into those buildings and replace a bulb if needed,” said Lapolla, who has the crisp look of a business executive, with her clear-frame eyeglasses, frosted hair and a conservative tan dress worn under a tan jacket. “ That is the kind of cooperation we get from people.”
In only a few months during 1984, the makers of “Teachers” and “Mischief” spent $5 million in two Ohio cities and provided more than 2,000 temporary jobs for residents, Lapolla said.
Yet this a modest sum compared to what New York City, California’s biggest competitor, logged. Last year, film companies spent $406 million in New York to shoot 78 feature films, said Patricia Scott, director of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting. Seventy-two made-for-television movies, specials and series programs logged $327 million. These figures do not include post-production costs, Scott noted.
Not only is “cooperation"--be it in the form of making things easy or an absence of union entanglements--what impels many film companies to scout other states, but also it’s a lack of cooperation in California, where film makers face a series of bureaucratic hurdles--usually in the form of red tape, permit requirements and costly fees.
“It’s a mess,” Rawlins admits. “The problem in California is not the cost of a permit, but getting it. Southern California has 83 municipalities with different rules and regulations.” In contrast, Ohio and Pennsylvania have virtually no permit requirements for film making and no child-labor laws pertaining to filming (California’s are the most stringent, by the way).
“You don’t need to gear up for three days like you do in Los Angeles,” Meehan said. “There’s good reason for that, though, with maybe 20 or 30 film companies, mostly doing TV stuff, on the streets of Los Angeles that same day.
“In Los Angeles, if it rains one day, you can’t just say, well, let’s shoot this instead.” When film companies shoot outside California, he said, “there’s people who work with you so as things change, city officials and the community will be helping.
“My life is simpler,” Meehan added. “People are flattered when you choose their town. When someone is interested and enthused in what you’re doing . . . making you feel special, you respond to that. No matter how jaded you are, even if you’ve been in the business for 20 years, you begin to feel special.”
California has started to fight the flight of productions. The California Film Office was created this year by legislation specifically intended to reduce the growing number of runaway productions. The state, county and city film offices have all been relocated to one suite in a Hollywood office building to make permit applications easier.
Rawlins, the state film office’s first director, said that one of the most significant steps taken since the agency opened is the elimination of all fees for use of state property. Also, legislators voted last spring to expand the scope and budget of the California Motion Picture Council.
Still more can be done, Rawlins said. She faults both the city and county of Los Angeles for failing to promote film production. “They do nothing to encourage it, they just accommodate it when possible,” she said.
The reason for this is that the county and city do not have film commissions per se. The city’s office of Motion Picture Coordination and the County Film Permit Office are simply agencies that issue permits. This is in sharp contrast with New York City, Rawlins notes, whose film office does extensive promotion in addition to cutting red tape hassles.
“But for the volume of work they put out, they do a good job,” Rawlins said of the Los Angeles city and county permit offices, which issued about 8,800 permits last year.
One thing Rawlins said she would like to see the end of is the minimum eight-hour shifts required by cities for use of off-duty police and fire protection personnel. “If you have three different set-ups, possibly in three different cities, in one day, it becomes a real problem--the wages get out of line,” she contends.
The state’s interest is sincere: The salaries of the estimated 80,000 people who work in the film and TV industries, plus the ancillary expenses of movie making, generate about $100,000 million annually in tax revenues, Rawlins said. The state wants to keep that money in California.
“California hasn’t been as enthusiastic a supporter of the motion picture industry as the industry would like,” said Rawlins, in the California Film Office suite on Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from the Mann Chinese Theater.
Ed Morey, executive VP for production for Gladden Productions, recalls an instance when California’s Department of Parks and Recreation asked for $1,500 a day to shoot in a state park. “We finally got it down to $250 with the help of a lobbyist,” Morey said.
Parks and Recreation wasn’t the only agency that has failed to welcome film units with enthusiasm. “For years, Caltrans didn’t enjoy a marvelous image with the film industry,” Rawlins said. “The state never made an effort, and there wasn’t a great deal of cooperation offered.” But, she asserts, “In the last several months there’s been a 100% turnaround.”
Productions began fleeing California in large numbers about five years ago. In the same period, Rawlins notes, costs have risen dramatically, making filming in right-to-work states desirable.
In addition to non-union labor, lower costs generally make the South appealing, said Joe Glass, former director of the Arkansas Office of Motion Picture Development. “It’s not all a function of right-to-work, but much of it can be. You can pick up ‘gofers’ (go for this, go for that) for drivers and pay them five bucks an hour as opposed to Teamsters scale. . . . We’re fortunate that our unions and people in our unions are easy to get along with.”
Rawlins adds that film makers will shoot in other states because union rules typically are not as strictly enforced as in Los Angeles.
“If you’re a driver in L.A., your technical responsibility is to drive to and from a location,” she said. “That’s it--even if it means you just sit there. If you’re a grip, you can’t drive a car. Other jurisdictions are a lot more flexible. If something has be done in a hurry, and you have to move equipment quickly, it’s helpful for everyone to pitch in.”
And there are union wages to consider: Whereas union extras cost $91 a day in Hollywood--plus overtime, “We can drum up gobs of people for $3.35 an hour,” enthuses Jane Penwell, supervisor of the film unit of Ohio’s Bureau of Employment Services. “They would work for nothing. They’re beyond excited--it’s more like ecstatic .”
“If you’ve got big crowds, you get the hell out of Los Angeles,” Gladden’s Morey said. “A large crowd can cost half a million dollars, if you’re in there for days.”
Not all films require armies of extras, however. Rawlins argues there’s no reason why a film like Lawrence Kasden’s “Big Chill” had to be filmed in South Carolina. “That’s exactly the kind of movie that can be shot anywhere, so why not here? This is the logical place.”
Her gung-ho California attitude isn’t unreasonable. Meehan points out, after all, that “Explorers,” which he worked on last year, was filmed entirely in California. “There’s only so much you can do (in California), but you can do a lot,” he said. “There’re mountains, snow, prairies, deserts, endless vistas. ‘Explorers’ takes place in Anywhere, U.S.A., and it was shot entirely in Petaluma and Southern California. . . . And there’s not one palm tree in it.
“Oak trees,” he said, his eyes wide in mock incredulity. “It looks like (it was shot) in Indiana .”
A state slogan is stamped on Pennsylvania auto license plates: “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.”
R. C. Staab is behind the wheel of his car, driving through the long Liberty Tunnels in Pittsburgh. Staab is taking Meehan and Schoppe to see yet another backyard in yet another of Pittsburgh’s working-class neighborhoods. In three days, they hadn’t found one with the “right look.”
Meehan is saying that although a film commission can make a big difference in the selection of a location, there’s much more to it. “You can sing and dance, you can wine and dine, you can give fantastic photos, but if I don’t like it. That’s it. I’m not going to be wooed.”
“It’s strictly what they can provide for me visually,” said Schoppe, who was nominated for an Oscar as art director on “Return of the Jedi.” “It’s great if they have a nice personality, but in dealing with me, all they have to do is show me the right location.”
Turning to Meehan, who is sitting in the rear passenger seat with a reporter, Staab interjects: “You know, this tunnel would be perfect for a chase scene. I really think it works. Don’t you? . . . Yeah, I can see it all now. . . .”
THE RUNAWAYS Below are some of the productions of 1985 that were filmed entirely or principally outside of California.
“Cocoon” Florida “Goonies” Oregon “Pale Rider” Idaho “Silverado” New Mexico “Year of the Dragon” N.Y., N. Carolina, Thailand “St. Elmo’s Fire” Washington, D.C. “Breakfast Club” Illinois “Weird Science” Illinois “Witness” Pennsylvania “Brewster’s Millions” N.Y. “Key Exchange” N.Y. “D.A.R.Y.L.” Florida, N. Carolina, England “Compromising Positions” New York “Agnes of God” Canada
WHERE THE MONEY WENT A rundown on spending for feature films and TV movies in the top states last year. Because states have different tracking systems, comparisons are difficult. Figures are estimates based on reports by the state film commissions.
New York City $450 million Texas $40 million Florida $91.2 million Louisiana $20 million Georgia $31 million North Carolina $38.3 million Nevada $16.6 million Arizona $16.2 million New York State $16 million Illinois $15.8 million Pennsylvania $12 million Massachusetts $10 million Colorado $6 million South Carolina $8 million Washington $7 million Maryland $6 million Ohio $5 million Alabama $4.8 million Utah $4.6 million Kentucky $4 million Michigan $3 million Montana $2.7 million