Columbusland: Industry Outlier

Ohio Film Group, on building Creative capital at home.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, the greatest challenge any city has breaking into the film business isn’t film anymore—it’s bandwidth.

Motion pictures, as they’re less commonly called these days, are no longer a succession of still images deceiving the eyes at 24 frames per second. They’re a stream of encrypted elections protected like state secrets. The online release of an early edit of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (minus most visual effects) not only hurt the theatrical release, but was a warning shot felt throughout the industry. Hugh Jackman’s cigar-chomping alter ego may be bulletproof, but his box office appeal remains very mortal in the age of file sharing. Television isn’t immune either. A couple of years earlier, one of the best pilots never to make it into production was Global Frequency. Based on the comic book series of the same name, Warner Brothers execs were so perturbed by its leak through then-new torrenting technology, they put a swift end to the show before it even started.

That’s why Ohio Film Group is very particular about their post-production. Their local studios offer unmatched speed and security through their own secret internet of sorts, easily integrating studio quality capabilities into productions often thousands of miles away—all in an instant.

“We’re a hub on Sohonet, which is a private internet media-based company that allows us to move dense, heavy data from our facility all over the world securely and quickly,” explained Leonard Hartman, president of Ohio Film Group. “We can move a feature length film—hundreds of terabytes—to New York, L.A., or Paris as fast as walking it across the hall.”

Ohio State football fans may recognize that name. The former offensive lineman turned educator and coach launched his second act in Los Angeles at the American Film Institute, eventually establishing himself as a screenwriter and producer. But after starting a family, the practical challenges of life in L.A. and frequent trips back to Ohio to visit extended family made moving back here and occasionally flying there a better option. It’s a long commute, but one that keeps getting shorter thanks to technology that helps him to be there, even when he’s not.

“It allows us to stay connected to a community of creatives in a way they trust. It’s best in class, and we’re part of the network,” Hartman explained. “It allows us to stay connected with decision-makers in New York and L.A. in a way we couldn’t even a few years ago. It makes us relevant.”

Ohio Film Group’s start was as cinematic as Field of Dreams. It may have seemed like a crazy idea to build a production facility in Ohio, especially to studio executives who probably presume Columbus isn’t far from that fabled cornfield. “Build it, and they will come” wasn’t their strategy, but that’s exactly what happened. Projects that easily, if not surely, would have gone elsewhere landed here—including Aftermath, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The speed and security of Ohio Film Group’s “big pipe” made a big difference in the decision to shoot here and stay here.

“We had 20 producers watching the dailies all over the world, watching what was happening here—giving notes, giving feedback—involved in the process from afar,” recalled Hartman. “They could watch the film being made and interact with the team on the ground. That’s just how it’s done now. If you can’t do that, you’re not part of the game.”

That’s not hype or hyperbole. Hollywood has quickly become a shell of its former self, much like the fake city streets and storefront facades that are all plywood and paint, but empty inside. Even those have become ghost towns as actual production has all but left California for tax credits elsewhere. It’s a gold rush in reverse.

“I was at Paramount not too long ago working on a film talking to one of the producers there who said they had a film shooting on the lot for the first time in five years,” noted Hartman. “They’d had a couple TV shows, but they hadn’t shot a movie on the backlot at Paramount for five years? That’s telling. Tax credits are entry-level. If you don’t have them, you’re not in the business. Canada started it years ago, and Georgia has figured it out for sure. Ohio has them, but the way they are structured could use some work.”

The trick with tax credits for film projects is that they are intended to create jobs, but often those jobs don’t last. They tend to be turn-and-burn positions instead of the ongoing ground-level gigs that are the foundation of a persistent film industry.

“If you’re looking at how you develop an entertainment community, it has to be more than productions that fly in for the tax credits, then fly back out. The real advantage is when those productions stay here, when people live here—buy houses, buy cars, buy groceries,” he explained. “Building facilities is how that happens. That’s a much better return on investment for Ohio taxpayers.”

That’s also why would-be film cities set their sights on television instead of just films. Having a TV series creates jobs that stick around long after the blockbusters close up shop. It may not seem as sexy, but it’s steady work.

“Hollywood isn’t just directors and actors. It’s the people who do all of the other stuff. It’s the grips and the carpenters, the set and costume designers—the worker bees. The only way you entice those people to uproot their families and move to Columbus is to have jobs that don’t go away in 30 days,” noted Hartman. “That’s what Atlanta has done; that’s what Vancouver has done—and there are people leaving L.A. everyday because there’s more work in cities that have that permanent creative class.”

Sadly, Columbus is sort of its own secret, and that’s still a challenge. Whether it’s our modest demeanor or Midwestern work ethic, we don’t brag about ourselves often enough. That’s the trouble with branding. You brand yourself, or someone else will.

“When I talk to people in the industry who have never been to Columbus, they don’t get it. They worry about whether they’ll be able to find anywhere to eat, or cows walking down the street. But if we can get them to come here, then they get it,” he explained. “When you show them the city, they’re surprised. They see the development in and around downtown, how we’re a vibrant city, a vital city. They start to see us like they used to see Portland or Austin just a few years ago. We’ve had clients in from Toronto who remark how much Columbus actually reminds them of Toronto.”

That’s why Ohio Film Group is recruiting technical talent from both coasts and abroad back to Columbus from heavy-hitters like Disney, Rhythm and Hues, and Industrial Light & Magic.

“One thing that makes Ohio more attractive is our cost of living is at least 30 percent less than New York, L.A., or even Atlanta. Every day I get a call from someone in one of those markets who says they’d love to come back to Columbus because of the quality of life and the bang they get for their dollar is so much better,” he revealed. “If we’re serious about the creative class and supporting a local film industry, it’s going to take creative thinking. You can buy all of this—the equipment, the fiber runs, all of it—but it still comes down to people. We’re always looking for the right projects, but we’re also looking for the right people.”

For more about the OFG’s team and their projects, visit ofgpost.com.

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