(This story originally appeared in The Washington Times.)
The film industry spent $62 million in the District in 2007. That’s a big economic boost to the city, with money spent in all kinds of places — restaurants, hotels, dry cleaners, security, film production.
That number might have been a lot bigger, though, had the nation’s capital not had the reputation of being America’s most difficult city in which to film.
“State of Play,” which opened last Friday, is notable as a Washington-set film that actually showcases Washington. Most films set here get a few establishing shots — an image of the Capitol, say — then head elsewhere to make the movie. “State” shot here for five weeks. You see not just Union Station, but also Mount Pleasant and the Maine Avenue Fish Market.
“State” director Kevin Macdonald thinks he knows why filmmakers don’t spend much time in the District.
“They don’t because, although the film commission are incredibly helpful in D.C. and try very hard, the federal authorities in particular are not particularly helpful,” the director told The Washington Times in an interview. “We tried forever to film inside the Cannon Building. We went through months of negotiations, and they turned us down at the last minute. You can’t film at the Capitol. Most film companies think it’s not worth the trouble.”
Mr. Macdonald remembers the U.S. Capitol Police threatening to take his film. Jonathan Reich, the film’s District-based location manager, was sitting next to the director at the time.
“We were on a process trail, where you put an actor in a car and film him driving. You put it on the back of a low-slung trailer so he doesn’t have to drive in the streets and worry about getting into an accident,” Mr. Reich explains. “The Capitol Police said, ‘Yes, you can, but don’t look at the Capitol.’ We were looking primarily at the Russell Building.”
Mr. Reich notes it was hard to do the shot without catching a tiny view of the Capitol, and after two takes, police stopped the shoot and demanded to see what the crew had filmed. They didn’t like what they saw. “They took my ID and Kevin’s ID, and we left,” Mr. Reich reports.
“What are we shooting that’s going to cause them trouble or security concerns?” he wonders. “We feel there should be a way to work with them to get what we need without infringing on their security stuff. They really don’t play with us very well. We largely avoid them.”
That wasn’t the only time Mr. Reich’s clients had trouble shooting in the area. He also worked on “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.”
“We did a scene outside of the Library of Congress where a lot of police cars pull in and look for Nicolas Cage. We pulled it off, but it was supposed to be much bigger,” he recalls. “We could not go off the property of the Library of Congress. So we shot a lot smaller, a lot blander.” He notes that the scene was shot at midnight, when there was next to no traffic around the library.
“Capitol Hill is the biggest conundrum for us. They don’t really allow any commercial filming,” Mr. Reich reports. Yet it’s one of the areas filmmakers would most like to capture on celluloid.
Capitol Police have jurisdiction over a 47-square-block radius around the Capitol. Spokeswoman Sgt. Kim Schneider says filmmakers can work there.
“Have you taken a look at the Web site? This doesn’t have anything to do with feelings,” she says. “People have the ability to fill out the proper application for a permit. If it’s an authorised event, something they’re looking to film and have the appropriate permit, that’s the end of the story.”
The guidelines are contained in just one paragraph in the same application used for permits for demonstrations and musical events.
Michael Fountain is a local film producer who worked on “The West Wing” — partly filmed in the District over seven seasons — and thinks the city is a “great” one in which to film.
“We had great, great relations with the Secret Service — because they liked the show and they want to help out the city,” he says. He admits the series was able to film in a number of places other shows and films have not — but he won’t reveal those locations.
The show did a lot of fake motorcades in which Martin Sheen’s president was ferried through the city. Mr. Fountain says the Capitol Police were “great” but admits that of all the federal authorities — the National Park Service has jurisdiction over the Mall and monuments — “the Capitol Police are the toughest.”
Anthony Gittens, director of Filmfest DC, notes that the city reaps indirect benefits from location shooting that extend far beyond the immediate economic stimulus of cast and crew members spending money in town. When the city is shown on-screen, he says, “that tends to heighten the image of the District. More people see the picture and see a place they want to visit.”
Jon Gann, a filmmaker and organiser of the DC Shorts Film Festival, estimates the District is the third-largest film economy in the country but could do more to help the industry. He started the DC Film Alliance to aid local filmmakers, including help in obtaining permits.
“There are corners in the city where you need four permits,” Mr. Gann says. “There’s no central bureaucracy to make that happen. Everyone has their little fiefdom and takes control of it. There’s one person at the park service. He gets to it when he gets to it.”
He contrasts the federal red tape encountered here with the accessibility of New York. “In New York, you can shoot anything, including the Empire State Building. Getting a permit in New York is really easy,” he says.
In the District, “there’s a weird sense of what needs to be secured,” he says. “For some reason, shooting someone walking into the FBI building is a risk. Does anyone not know where the FBI building is?”
The D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development has jurisdiction over city streets, with those federal exceptions. “We do hear from filmmakers all the time,” acknowledges Josh Friedman, the director of communications. “I think the response you got from the director of ‘State of Play’ is very typical.”
For the federal authorities, “there are varying levels of concern having to do with security and the historical value of the property,” Mr. Friedman says. His office helps producers get around that.
“We’ll identify locations that can double for those locations difficult to gain access to,” he says. “Certain streets or sidewalks or parks that are city property still have a great view of those monuments or properties in the background. You can do it in D.C. public space without having to deal with those agencies.”
The city is reviewing its tax incentives to make the District a more attractive place to film. The only other major films on the horizon shot here are “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Neither spent much time in the city.
“The Capitol Police, the Secret Service, they’re not economically based to generate income for the city,” Mr. Fountain points out. “They’re there to protect some important people.”
It might take more than tax incentives to persuade filmmakers to spend more time here. “D.C. is known as the hardest city in the country to film in,” Mr. Reich says, adding with a laugh, “The best part about it is it keeps people like me in business.”
The location manager has been surprised by how helpful some authorities have been, such as the National Park Service and the FBI. “A lot of those restrictions are in place for good reason,” he says. “If ‘Planet of the Apes’ wants to film on the Lincoln Memorial steps and say not a single person not dressed up as a monkey can be there … People come from all over the world to be here, and you have to respect that.”
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