"Gooood morning, BAAAL-ti-more!" burbles Tracy Turnblad, the zaftig heroine of Hairspray, as she skips down a Highlandtown block in the opening song-and-dance number of the 2007 movie-musical. The scene onscreen looks authentic, right down to the marble stoops attached to the Formstone row houses, but anyone with access to imdb.com (The Internet Movie Database) knows the truth. The scene wasn't filmed in Highlandtown. In fact, it wasn't even filmed in Baltimore—or Maryland, for that matter. It was filmed on a Toronto soundstage, just another in a recent string of major Hollywood productions that have flirted with shooting in Baltimore only to be seduced by competing cities and states offering larger tax incentives to filmmakers.
How did this happen? How did Baltimore, once voted by Moviemaker Magazine as one of the "Top 10 U.S. Cities" for filmmakers, lose its preferred status? The answer is simple: money.
Once upon a time, in the boom years of the '90s and early '00s, Baltimore was buzzing with film crews thanks to an equally robust statewide industry fueled by state-funded tax breaks for productions spending more than $500,000 in the state. At the time, it seemed like every month brought a new Hollywood project to town: Sleepless in Seattle, Twelve Monkeys, Runaway Bride, Step Up, Ladder 49, Borat, The Wedding Crashers—not to mention the steady stream of television episodes shot for Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire. At its peak in 2006, Maryland workers, hotels, and businesses received $143.2 million worth of revenue from visiting film and TV productions.
Cut to 2010, and the story is very different. Maryland's incentives, which include exemption from state sales tax, plus a 25 percent refund (up to $1 million) on all production expenses spent in Maryland are paltry when compared to states like Michigan that offer a 40 percent rebate on filming expenses.
"You just feel like screaming," says Pat Moran, Emmy Award-winning casting director for productions like The Wire and Liberty Heights, from her Canton office. "What they've done is taken a viable industry and they have managed to make it go away. I cannot tell you how many people [employed by the film industry] have moved out of town or taken work somewhere else."
The targets of Moran's ire are the state legislature and Governor Martin O'Malley, who control the funding level for the incentive program. For the coming fiscal year, the total incentive budget will remain steady at $1 million. In comparison, nearby Philadelphia, a city with similar architecture and neighborhoods to Baltimore, provides $42 million in funds, soon to increase to $60 million.
"If we had the support of the Governor," Moran continues, "we'd have our incentive package. If I want to retire, it's up to me to retire and close my shop. It's not up to a government to run me out of business."
Shaun Adamec, the Governor's Press Secretary, calls the cuts "unfortunate" but "necessary."
"The fact is, we're working inside of a budget under the most challenging economic times since the Great Depression," Adamec says, noting that O'Malley originally wanted to keep the tax incentives program funded at $2 million for the current fiscal year, before the legislature halved it. "Obviously it's not as much as we'd want to put in that fund," says Adamec, "[but] we need to make the tough choices in order to balance the budget."
There are many in the film industry though, who see this philosophy as short-sighted, noting that the state is more than compensated for its initial investment.
"It's like, if I gave you one dollar and you gave me back 20 cents, you'd still have made 80 cents. But the state doesn't think of it as making 80 cents. They just think, 'Hey, we gave you 20 cents!'" director Barry Levinson told Baltimore this past November when he was in town for a Maryland Film Festival fundraiser at MICA. Indeed, an economic report filed by Sage Policy Group in January calculates that every million made available for film rebates pumps $5 million into the local economy.
But that's only if filmmakers shoot here in the first place. Lately, given how meager Maryland's incentives are compared to other states, they can't, no matter how much they want to. For instance, John Waters, a man whose entire career is based on mining Baltimore's peculiarities, may shoot his next film, Fruitcake—a children's movie about two runaways in Remington—in Michigan.
"The entire movie business has collapsed in Maryland," says Waters. "I'm not saying I am [going to film in Michigan]. I had to finally, about eight months ago, say to the producers I would, if I had to. The thought of shooting in Michigan or some state that can look like Maryland is insane to me, but I'm a realist."
If it's tough for established directors, it's even tougher for emerging voices like Matt Porterfield, whose second feature, Putty Hill, was recently described by The New Yorker critic Richard Brody, as "extraordinary," "wondrous," and "beautiful."
"I identify as a Baltimore filmmaker; it's where I want to tell stories," Porterfield says. But he also knows that may not be possible in the current financial climate. "If someone was like, 'Look, we can finance [your next feature] but you can't shoot in Baltimore,' I would take it," he admits.
Caught in the middle is Jack Gerbes. As director of the Maryland Film Office, a state agency whose goal, as stated on their website, "is to make the process of filming in Maryland as easy as possible," Gerbes and his staff are responsible not only for wooing filmmakers to Maryland but for doing everything in their power—short of outright financing a movie—to show how versatile and photogenic Maryland can be.
"Up until probably 2004," recalls Gerbes, "the first question [from directors interested in shooting in Maryland] would be 'Do you have this type of location?' And then 'How is your crew base?' Now the first question is 'How much can I get to shoot in Maryland?'"
The model for this new paradigm—offer big rebates and enjoy the local economic boost—is New Mexico, where Governor Bill Richardson has injected steroids into the film office, offering, among other incentives, the same 25 percent rebate—but with no limit on the amount of money paid back.
Other states, including Louisiana and Illinois, have followed suit with generous rebate plans, while Maryland has stagnated. Meanwhile, Maryland's losing out—first Hairspray, then Annapolis (a 2006 military drama starring James Franco that was filmed in Philadelphia, of all places), and finally The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's original short story about a man born old and aging to infancy is set in Baltimore, so for the 20-odd years the project shuffled around Hollywood, the Film Office kept at the ready. When director David Fincher came on board in 2005, the Film Office redoubled its efforts, wooing Fincher with locations in Bolton Hill, Chestertown, and Fells Point. "It was going to be, at the time, the biggest film that would ever be shot here," recalls Gerbes. But not only would this be a major production (Brad Pitt! Cate Blanchett! A $150 million budget!) bringing money and jobs into the state, it would be the anti-Wire, a chance to show off Baltimore at her Gilded Age loveliest and dispel the cultural myth of "Bodymore, Murderland" once and for all.
But it didn't happen. The digital special effects that would age Brad Pitt from eight to 80 would gobble up most of the budgetary pie, so co-financiers Warner Brothers and Paramount needed to spend as little as possible on location shooting. Maryland could offer $6 million to shoot where Fitzgerald intended Benjamin Button to be born. Louisiana raised the pot to $27 million. Next thing you know, they rewrote the story to work in New Orleans and global audiences never saw a gussied up Baltimore on the big screen.
The ironic thing is that while Hollywood is losing interest in Baltimore, the city is taking a bigger place on the international stage. Matt Porterfield just returned from screening Putty Hill at the Berlin Film Festival and found "the [Austrian and German] press very interested in this idea of American regional cinema and new approaches to realism. Everyone I talked to was really interested in Baltimore."
Porterfield may be getting the most international attention right now, but there's a whole generation of Maryland filmmakers—Kim Moir, the Robinson Brothers, Chris LaMartina, Jeanie Clark, Mark Redfield, and Nakia Warren, among others—scraping out their own vision of Maryland with tiny budgets and dedicated crews. New Mexico includes a stipend for emerging local filmmakers: Perhaps instead of using that $1 million to attract Hollywood, Maryland can do the same? "Eventually, in the future, when the economy turns around, perhaps there could be a two-tiered program," Gerbes concedes. "But state revenues have to be to the point where we could potentially do both."
Even if the Film Office can't fund local filmmakers, all is not lost for Maryland. There's a new networking initiative from the Film Office called DEEM (Digital Entertainment And Emerging Media), which is aimed at consolidating a motley crew of video game, digital video, and computer animation production companies working in Maryland into a cohesive industry. And movies are still shooting here: We lost Benjamin Button, but The Johns Hopkins University has a cameo in David Fincher's next project about the creation of Facebook. And Baltimore can still boast recent productions like My One And Only and He's Just Not That Into You.
Despite hardships, a conversation Gerbes had with a teamster six years ago on the set of xXx: State Of The Union has stayed with him. The teamster thanked him for the work the Film Office was bringing in and Gerbes replied that he was just doing his job.
"He said, 'No, you don't understand," Gerbes recalls. "'All the work that you guys bring in, some of our guys are able now to put their kids through better schools.'"
That's when Gerbes realized what is truly lost when film productions go elsewhere: dollars, cents, and bragging rights, yes, but also livelihoods and families.
"It really hit home," he continues. "To go on a set and see all the Marylanders working—it's humbling. And it certainly puts a lot of pressure on me personally, knowing that whether I spend that extra hour out scouting might make a difference for a film. So you keep on digging."