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Is Seattle Asleep at the Reel?

Is Seattle Asleep at the Reel?

Articles - Directing

"I said I liked it, I didn’t say I wanted to
kiss it.”Gloria Grahame to Humphrey Bogart, In
a Lonely Place

Seattle is a hot place. Just look around: movies
( Sleepless in Seattle), television ( Frasier), music
(grunge), fashion (high-priced grunge); even phone company commercials
all want in on the city-of-the-month popularity of Seattle. In the
process, a lot of production companies make a lot of money exploiting
a city that the majority of them never set foot in.

Entertainment production is big business everywhere
you go, and the kind of dollars generated by film and television
production is unmatchable. No longer the exclusive domain of Hollywood
back lots, film and video production has taken its act on the road
to locations around the country and around the world. This clean,
environment-friendly business can, by industry figures, manufacture
three dollars of local economic activity for every one dollar spent
on location. Some industry insiders put the ratio even higher when
they take the multiplier effect to its furthest, and logical, conclusion.
Consider the support services, the crews, the talent, the permits,
the food service, the security, the hospitality, the physical production,
the developing, the editing, the distribution, the gift buying,
the theater operation, babysitters, the cost of a $7.50 tickets,
and many people feel the dollar ratio shoots up to 11 to 1.

"It’s a green industry, it’s clean, it’s got
a high multiplier effect on the economy, it attracts an intelligent,
capable, responsible group of people as a rule. It provides employment
in a burgeoning area-entertainment is continuing to grow-and finally
just look at the numbers," urges Seattle-based producer Rick
Stevenson (Some Girls, Crooked Hearts, Promised
Land
) when he talks about the value of this kind of economy.
But why then is Washington state , and Seattle in particular, missing
out on the big dollar rewards of film location production if this
city is such a big draw?

It’s easy to criticize: Leslie
Lytel of the Wsahington State Film and Video Office.

Consider: in 1993 the amount of direct spending of
major productions filmed in Washington state by out-of-state film
companies, ie . the dollars left in state, equaled $40,200,000.
By comparison, direct cash spent in the state of Illinois (long
recognized as one of the leading states for location filming) equaled
$115,556,011. And in the region Washington seems most in competition
with, British Columbia, $285,965,000 (Canadian dollars) total monies
were spent. These figures have no multiplier extensions attached
to them, and represent direct production dollars spent split between
feature films and television series, pilots, and movies. While different
states track their numbers differently and may or may not include
dollars from such things as commercials, music videos, industrials,
documentaries or independent production, one comparison does merit
scrutiny: in 1993, 26 features were shot in British Columbia; 19
in Illinois; four in Washington state ; three in Oregon. So why
does this highly profitable business go to British Columbia six
times more often than it goes to Washington state?

Suzy Kellett , director of the Illinois Film Office,
evaluates her experience of losing films to Toronto by saying "It’s
totally a money thing. It’s the exchange rate which is now at what,
25 or 30%? This happened five or six years ago and had a driving
impact, and now it’s back. There are producers who feel American
products should be made in the states, but there are many who, when
you can save 30% of your budget by walking across the border, that’s
where you’re going to go. I look at Seattle–Vancouver is the hot
spot and Washington takes the hit. I don’t know another city like
Seattle… except Vancouver, and then Seattle is doomed."

Is Washington populated by so many California-haters
that they cut off their nose to spite their face with this California-driven
commerce? Is Washington the environ-mentally-aware Greta Garbo of
location spots, insisting they "just want to be left alone?"
Why is this state missing the value of this booming industry?

Historically, state film offices or commissions have
been the vanguard to enticing out-of-state production companies
to consider location shooting in their individual states. Their
success is directly related to their reputation of delivering what
they promise; their ability to actively and aggressively pursue
the market; and the level of support they both give to and receive
from their local film community. "This is show business, it
ain’t show art," declares Mark DesRochers of the British Columbia
Film Commission. For these offices the glamour is off, this is a
very real business bringing hard dollars into economies. "While
there is this perception that we sit in hot tubs and do lunch, it
is a very real, very tough, very sophisticated fast moving business,"
cautions David Woolson , executive director of the Film and Video
Office in Oregon. "What we’ve tried to do is take the stars
out of people’s eyes, really look at it as a business, and deal
with it as such."

While the Washington State Film and Video Office has
similar philosophies, they appear to be constricted in their abilities
to perform their mandate by a number of factors-not the least of
which is their absurdly low budget. The Seattle-based office has
a staff of three and a biennial budget of $220,000, which is expected
to pay for all salaries, fifteen file cabinets worth of location
photos from around the state, all copies and reprints of files as
they are requested, as well as the associated costs of sending them
out, all scouting trips and trade shows, and all promotional material.
By way of comparison, the Illinois Film Office has a staff of eight
and a state-funded budget of $500,000 annually. Although there is
no advertising money (that is a separate line item on their budget
which hasn’t been funded in quite a while), they sell by their work
and reputation. And in fact, every dollar their office spends brings
back 250 dollars in production. In the northwest, the only office
that can come close to that sort of financial support is the Oregon
office. They have four staff people: two project managers and an
administrator in addition to the executive director. Their $800,000
biennial budget is lottery funded: all of Oregon’s economic development
monies went from general fund in tax dollars to lottery in the last
biennium, a move which gave the film office a $150,000 marketing
budget for the first time. This marketing tool has been very effective
in getting the word out that Oregon is a growing production center.
The remarkable lack of funding for Washington has to inhibit their
ability to actively and aggressively pursue the film production
market.

Seattle’s reputation for delivering top-quality film
production has not gone untarnished. The level of local support
service available has continually ebbed and flowed, as talented
below-the-line craftspeople have moved in and out of the area looking
for work. Rumors floated down to production companies in Hollywood
about the lack of cooperation from local unions, and the relatively
high cost of doing business with them. Obtaining permits and zoning
requirements was time-consuming, and local businesses had a tendency
to bad-mouth the California companies. Unit Publicist Rob Harris,
whose resume includes Singles, Black Widow, Shoot
To Kill
, The Babe, and the currently shooting Cobb with Tommy Lee Jones, defined the problems of shooting in Seattle
this way: "The criticisms were two fold, one of which I think
has been corrected. There was no one-stop shopping, no single process
for permits. You had to go to several different agencies in order
to get parking from one, zone variances from another. I think that’s
been, to a degree, corrected (by the establishment of the Seattle
Film and Video office). I think that if anything can be said critically
of the Washington State Film Commission, it is that they fail to
exploit, or to bring attention to, the talent pool that they have.

The Washington Film and Video office has been scrutinized
and criticized by both film industry people who admire the work
of the staff and those who feel the office is sorely lacking in
aggressive professionalism. Barry Stern (co-founder of the Pacific
Northwest Studio, a high-profile California-style studio which operated
out of Fremont in 1986-87) believes "they (the state) still
don’t know how to bring work into this area, and they are still
working with amateurs." His philosophy of courting Hollywood
business is contained in his only partially tongue-in-cheek quote-"You’ve
got to make producers think you’re willing to do unnatural acts
for them." Other sources, who have asked not to be identified
(ALL work in the film industry is based on personal reputation and
many people worry about being openly quoted) but who include below-the-line
management, disagree. "I think the two major departments a
film commission can benefit from making friends with are locations
and publicity," cites one such source. I think the mistake
that certain people in the Washington office make is that they suck
up to the producers and the directors who will basically make one
film there, but it makes the Film Office feel important to be able
to have lunch with these guys. There are things that don’t cost
much that could be done, but it depends on your orientation. If
your orientation is being buddies with producer in the hopes that
they will spread the word to another producer, there is a minimal
benefit derived. If your efforts are toward the below-the-line-people,
they have a surprisingly significant impact on where movies are
made. Locations, publicists, and UPM’s are more influential, in
determining where movies are made than producer or director.

Seattle producer Rick Stevenson: My first
allegiance is to the movie.

Still, many industry insider believe no one could
operate effectively with the conditions under which the Washington
office works. Suzy Kellett of the Illinois office, in talking about
what the Washington commission needs to survive says, "My feeling
now is hire the right people, and you have got to fund them. Then
give them what they need to compete. Otherwise, don’t get in this
game. It’s too competitive. It’s a crime; don’t set up an office
and then handicap them. Give them what they need." David Woolson
of the Oregon office is equally firm about the importance of the
industry. "It’s not just a fun little exercise with people
with cameras. In light of the northwest economy, as a whole, changing
from a natural resource economy, we need to look aggressively at
emerging opportunities and businesses, and I’m convinced film is
one."

Some filmmakers have enjoyed their time shooting in
Seattle so much they make a concerted effort to return to film again.
Cameron Crowe shot both Say Anything and Singles in Seattle, and
while he realized a few minor problems with the city officials,
Crowe feels someone from his crew wisely kept those problems from
him so that his memory of the experience was, and continues to be,
a good one. "I will shoot in Seattle again," he said from
his office in Santa Monica. "It’s always difficult to film,
no matter who you are or where you are. I wouldn’t film in Vancouver
because it feels too clean, it’s too much like a movie set. It feels
like you’re on the Universal tour."

Producer Rick Stevenson would love to stay home and
make his films in Seattle. "My desire is that Seattle could
become more and more competitive. Seattle’s biggest problem is nothing
inherent in itself it’s Vancouver. It’s just cheaper and easier.
Specifically, on this film which I’m about to direct-a five million
dollar, independent, negative pick-up from, Columbia/Tri Star–we
were able to add another 15% on the budget by going through a Vancouver
company that’s tapping into all the government tax sources. Seattle
has nothing like that because Washington state has not recognized,
fully, the benefits of having film here. Despite some pretty incredible
efforts by Christine Lewis and Leslie Lytel , (of the Washington
Film and Video Office), both of whom I have a lot of respect for.
I think they do a lot with nothing."

"The main reason I went up there with Artic
Blue
(shot in Vancouver during the summer of 1993, starring
Rutger Hauer )," continues Stevenson, "is that Vancouver
provided 40 percent of the budget. Out of the government. The provincial
government. It’s something called the BC Trade Incentive Program.
Where BC Trade, which is their provincial export corporation, started
to look at the film industry as this pollution-free, high multiplier
effect investment. Where, and this is a great idea but they haven’t
really executed it right yet, this is their philosophy: if a film-maker
brings 60% of the budget from some source, and pledges to spend
90’/6 of the budget in British Columbia or wherever this may be,
what the trade corporation will do is guarantee up to 40’0 of the
budget against a bank loan and hold some rights against that. But
even if those rights don’t turn out in the end, the money that is
spent in the province and the multiplier effect that occur …say
your film is six million dollars and BC trade puts in two million. 
The multiplier effect says that’s worth twenty to thirty million
dollars of economic activity-all of which creates tax money, all
of which more than cover the two million if in the worn case scenario
they lose. Plus they get a fat fee-it’s expensive money.

Other production companies involved in shooting projects
which are set in Seattle but are being filmed elsewhere have not
been willing to talk about their location choices. Christine Lewis
of the Washington Film and Video Office mentions both Mystery
Dance
and Medicine Ball as films which, although originally
set in Seattle , have chosen to film in Portland. And Mark DesRochers
from the BC Film Commission, who assisted Rick Stevenson with the
unique financial incentives for Artic Blue, denies the existence
of that particular opportunity. He will say the trade board is revenue
generating, but insists "we’re not giving away $100 bills at
the border. There are no financial incentives. No freebies. No handouts."

Answers to the dilemma of wooing Hollywood abound.
Leslie Lytel of the Washington office has several comments for those
who would criticize the commission’s work. "I think it’s our
responsibility to be receptive and responsive to comments. On the
other hand, I think it’s really easy for people to go around complaining
about a state agency, whatever that state agency is. I think it’s
important that people at least be constructive in a way that can
improve our services. I don’t think we’re above criticism. But we
make ourselves available to people in whatever way we can. Anybody
who has questions or concerns can relate those concerns about what
we are doing. Last year we had a survey-we had received a lot of
criticism from people thinking we weren’t adequately doing our job,
so on our hotline we asked for anonymous comments. We got two. Our
mission is to bring business here. (Yet) we don’t really have a
budget to be too aggressive, to go out and solicit business.

Vancouver has financial incentives; crews six to eight
deep for film alone and 20 deep for film and television productions
combined; a council of unions to encourage cooperation and compromise;
studio facilities; numerous looks and beautiful surroundings; long
experience and a solid reputation. Seattle is one of the hottest
cities in the nation, but as a film center it has a frontier attitude
which makes it a less than comfortable place to work for most film
companies. Do producers, especially local ones, have a responsibility
to shoot here? "I’d love to be able to use Seattle and Vancouver
crews and talent and everything," says Rick Stevenson. "I
think that is the dream to pursue, far more then the fairly elusive
dream of going out and getting a lot of work for Seattle. You might
get it one year, but until Seattle effectively can be in a position
to compete, it’ll never become a film center. When it comes to putting
on my producer hat and deciding where I’m going to film, even though
I’m a Seattleite and a confirmed American, my first allegiance without
a doubt is to that movie. To make it the best possible, to get the
most dollars on screen, I’ll go anywhere to make that happen." MM

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