rare mix of quintessential and gritty interiors and exteriors, and accidental advantages of geography, should make our city ripe for the red carpet. Creating a permanent production presence in the heart of Ohio is fundamental to attracting the caliber of projects and professionals necessary to escape the cycle of movies that blow through town, but are out in 30 days or less—spending welcome dollars for sure, but not exactly adding to our capacity or credibility as a “film city.”
Atlanta has recently reinvented itself as a production powerhouse, rivaling Los Angeles and New York last year for films and television series both within its municipal borders and throughout Georgia. It was an investment years in the making that required a fair amount of faith and financing from the public and private sector to achieve. Just like the latest breakout stars on the big screen, overnight success is hardly ever so. Perseverance, pluck, and a lot of luck play into landing that one big role that suddenly changes everything.
Maybe our time as well has finally come.
“It’s surprising how many people there are from Ohio, and even from Columbus, who are in the industry and want to bring projects back here,” explained John Daugherty, executive director of the Columbus Film Commission. Facilitating production is the primary charge of any film commission, but Columbus is committed to tapping into the collaborative spirit and creative connectivity that distinguish the capital city even from nearby rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati.
“That’s what makes us unique—we bring people together. When someone calls me with an issue in the middle of production, I can usually get on the phone and have a solution in ten minutes because everyone in the industry here wants to help us succeed.”
Columbus also has the benefit of being a burgeoning locale for filmmaking, not one that has been exhaustively overshot for decades. What we may lack in iconic landmarks or familiar facades we more than make up for in backdrops that have yet to be discovered. We may not have the Statue of Liberty or the Bradbury Building, but we also don’t have the baggage that comes with them.
“There’s a lot of newness and freshness, vibrancy to the city. When we talk to producers about shooting here, there is some initial vetting to determine what they want and need,” Daugherty explained. “Then they come in and we show them the locations we have to offer. Once I get them here, it’s a pretty easy sell.”
Often described as a city of neighborhoods, the distinctive style from one to the next allows us to easily pose for another time or place. Period pieces and contemporary stories share the need for immediately transporting an audience. Communities of craftsman homes, quaint 60s suburbs, and more modern urban row houses are all within minutes of each other. From stately Victorian homes on both sides of downtown to picturesque country manors an easy drive away, there probably isn’t another city in the country with a better or broader range of residential architecture. German Village’s narrow brick homes and cobblestone streets could easily pass for Germany itself.
As evidenced by I Am Wrath, even our old barbershops look badass with the right lighting—decidedly, and ironically, unfamiliar. Though impressive locations are only part of the package.
“Because Cleveland, Cincinnati, even Pittsburgh are just a couple of hours away, we can pull crew and gear to Columbus when we need it,” he said, noting that our proximity creates the potential to tap into more robust film resources in surrounding cities, but also to lend our talent and tools as an interim step toward building our own sustainable industry. “If you’re shooting in Cleveland and have to drive to Cincinnati for a piece of equipment, that’s an all-day trip. We use our central location to market Columbus over both as a built-in benefit.”
Though there is certainly rivalry among the big three cities competing for productions, there is also common cause when it comes to tax credits. A staple for states like California, New York, and Georgia (and all of Canada), legislators hoping to create work in motion pictures and television offer various incentives for projects tied to the jobs they generate.
“I keep mentioning Cleveland and Cincinnati because they have their own film commissions that have been around longer than ours, and we all compete for the same pot of money,” Daugherty admitted. “But that’s also one of the areas where we’ve been working together, to raise that tax credit. We’ve increased it from $20 million to $40 million. However, because of the way the tax credit is structured, one production can come in a wipe that all out.”
Daugherty is advocating a restructuring of the program to ensure that doesn’t happen. He’d like to see something more in-line with what other states have done to protect their incentives and prevent huge projects from tapping the entire fund, thus cutting out smaller productions that really rely on it. Capping the maximum amount of credit per project, creating an earmark for Ohio-based productions, or pinning payouts to the number of permanent jobs created are all means used elsewhere to achieve the intended effect.
“Attracting film productions is fine, but that’s not all the tax credit was for. I think most legislators would agree it’s for cultivating and building businesses and production companies that live and breathe in the state,” he explained. “But that’s a process that takes time.”
Sometimes it’s the little things that impress. One concept created to help make Columbus more inviting for filmmakers is a simple card good for discounts on dining and transportation for visiting productions. Daugherty credits the “crew card” for recently drawing at least one producer’s attention away from Cleveland toward Columbus. Hospitality matters.
Investments aren’t always economic. Maintaining relationships with those working in the film industry with Columbus ties is also a long-term proposition, but one that Daugherty hopes can create a recurring series of projects.
“Growing relationships takes longer than landing one film. I’d like to see producers return with future films as well,” he said. “We’re also considering options for an expat incentive to lure filmmakers with local ties to return to Columbus—moving expenses perhaps, enough to give someone that last push they may need to move back.”
Closing the crew gap is a key concern for the Columbus Film Commission. It’s difficult to attract and retain talent without enough work, and challenging to attract enough work unless we already have the local talent required.
“We can still supply smaller productions in Columbus, and larger ones by borrowing crew and equipment from surrounding cities,” he noted. “But a lot of our crew are also working in the commercial industry, which sometimes limits their availability for visiting film projects.”
Much like photographers who shoot weddings on the side so they can afford to follow their passion projects with less pressure to pay the bills, commercial filmmaking is the proving ground and steady paycheck for a lot of local filmmakers.
“That’s how we increase our pool of technical talent. I’d like to see more commercial work staying in Columbus instead of leaving,” Daugherty suggested. “Can you imagine the impact on the local film industry if Nationwide, Wendy’s, and Huntington all agreed to keep just one percent of their commercial business here in Central Ohio—the number of jobs that would create and freelancers that could support?”
Columbus is increasingly ready to jump from supporting character to starring role when the right opportunity comes along. Measures of success in film and television aren’t easy to pin down, but Daugherty has distilled all of these individual efforts down to a simple strategy.
“My goal is to get four films a year and a series of some sort. Between that and more commercial projects, we could keep 300 to 400 people working year round,” he said. “After that, there’s enough experience, equipment, and momentum to bring in bigger projects. That’s how you become a film city.”