Wash­ing­ton not film-friendly

No-fly zones and few tax in­cen­tives keep en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try from na­tion’s cap­i­tal

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

WASH­ING­TON — It’s a hobby among Dis­trict of Co­lum­bia lo­cals: Pick­ing apart glar­ing geo­graphic and ar­chi­tec­tural in­ac­cu­ra­cies in movies and tele­vi­sion shows set in Wash­ing­ton.

One of the most fa­mous is the 1987 film “No Way Out,” where Kevin Cost­ner es­capes pur­suers by tak­ing a sub­way from Ge­orge­town. No sub­way sta­tion has ever ex­isted in the tony neigh­bor­hood. The open­ing cred­its of the new Ama­zon show “Jack Ryan” show the ti­tle char­ac­ter bik­ing to work via a route that makes no geo­graphic sense.

The rea­son for this dis­con­nect is sim­ple: Few TV shows or movies ac­tu­ally film in Wash­ing­ton. That’s some­thing dis­trict of­fi­cials are try­ing to change. They scored one suc­cess last sum­mer with the film­ing of the Won­der Woman se­quel in the dis­trict. And they have a high-pro­file ally in au­thor Ge­orge Pele­canos, who has set all 20 of his crime nov­els in the Wash­ing­ton area and is on a per­sonal mis­sion to turn the na­tion’s cap­i­tal into a film hub.

But they have dif­fi­cul­ties over­come. Other cities of­fer more gen­er­ous tax in­cen­tives. Film­mak­ers say Wash­ing­ton can be a dif­fi­cult place for them — the en­tire dis­trict is a no-fly zone for he­li­copters and drones. Those seek­ing film per­mits must some­times con­tend with sev­eral over­lap­ping po­lice forces: the dis­trict’s Metropoli­tan Po­lice, Na­tional Park Ser­vice po­lice, the United States Capi­tol Po­lice and the Se­cret Ser­vice.

So Wash­ing­ton-cen­tric se­ries such as “House of Cards” or “Veep” typ­i­cally come to the Dis­trict just to shoot what lo­cals call the “post­card shots” of the mon­u­ments or the White House, then do their prin­ci­pal film­ing else­where. “The Amer­i­cans” was set in Wash­ing­ton, but filmed in Brook­lyn; “NCIS” has been set in Wash­ing­ton for 16 sea­sons, but fakes the dis­trict in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “The Post” was filmed in Brook­lyn, and “Lin­coln” was filmed in Rich­mond, Va. — the cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­acy.

But An­gela Gates, di­rec­tor of Wash­ing­ton’s Of­fice of Ca­ble Tele­vi­sion, Film, Mu­sic and En­ter­tain­ment, feels like the dis­trict is on a roll af­ter the “Won­der Woman” shoot­ing.

“That says a lot about how far we’ve come,” Gates said. “When you do a project well, word of mouth starts to get around.”

Gates said 2016 was a turn­ing point. That’s when Mayor Muriel Bowser re­in­sti­tuted Wash­ing­ton’s dor­mant tax re­bate pro­gram. A pro­duc­tion spend­ing more than $250,000 film­ing in the dis­trict can ap­ply for a re­bate of up to 35 per­cent of tax­able ex­pen­di­tures, with fur­ther in­cen­tives for hir­ing lo­cal res­i­dents. Her of­fice also helps se­cure per­mis­sions from law en­force­ment.

“We have a seat at the ta­ble now,” Gates said. “These are game-chang­ing times for us.”

Pele­canos’ sup­port has also helped. His pop­u­lar­ity is surg­ing due to his work as a writer on “The Wire.” Now he’s the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the HBO show “The Deuce.” He re­cently com­pleted an in­de­pen­dent film, “DC Noir,” based on his sto­ries, and made a point of film­ing in all eight of Wash­ing­ton’s wards.

“The city’s beau­ti­ful, and it hasn’t re­ally been ex­ploited yet,” said Pele­canos, who grew up just out­side the dis­trict in Sil­ver Spring, Md., but reg­u­larly came into Wash­ing­ton to work in his fa­ther’s diner.

Pele­canos re­calls many in­ac­cu­ra­cies in Wash­ing­ton-based movies and shows, but he has a par­tic­u­lar peeve about fire es­capes. It both­ers him when movies pur­port­edly set in the dis­trict show apart­ment build­ings with New York-style zigzag es­capes.

“Bal­ti­more or New York can look like D.C. to any­body but Wash­ing­to­ni­ans,” said Kyle David Crosby of Pic­tureshow Pro­duc­tions, who worked on “DC Noir.”

Still, com­pet­ing against film hotspots in­clud­ing Ge­or­gia, Louisiana and New Mex­ico is hard. Wash­ing­ton’s fund­ing pack­age is rel­a­tively mod­est — about $5 mil­lion per year.

Vans Steven­son, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for state gov­ern­ment af­fairs for the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica, said Wash­ing­ton’s re­bate fund­ing is dwarfed by most of its ri­vals.

“They’ve put some money in it, but it’s still not com­pet­i­tive,” he said.

Still Steven­son said Wash­ing­ton has “a won­der­ful track record” and en­joys “a good rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing able to ac­com­mo­date pro­duc­tions.”

Crosby said the dif­fi­cul­ties of film­ing in Wash­ing­ton are of­ten ex­ag­ger­ated. It can some­times take a lit­tle longer to se­cure per­mis­sion, but gen­er­ally the process works. How­ever, cer­tain sites in­clud­ing the Viet­nam Me­mo­rial are off-lim­its and, “You’re not putting a cam­era crew on the steps of the Capi­tol ever. You’re just not,” he said.

Crosby said lo­cal film­ing in­creased af­ter the tax re­bates were re­in­sti­tuted, with movies like “Jackie” and “Spi­der-Man: Home­com­ing” film­ing there. But he de­scribes a chicken-and-egg prob­lem: there’s a short­age of spe­cial­ized equip­ment be­cause there aren’t enough pro­duc­tions to jus­tify keep­ing them in Wash­ing­ton.

“For now if you’re go­ing to do a ma­jor project here, you’re bring­ing most of your trucks from out­side,” he said.

Pele­canos said pro­duc­tions like the “Won­der Woman” se­quel boost Wash­ing­ton’s rep­u­ta­tion, but what would re­ally help the city is tele­vi­sion.

“What you need is an on­go­ing se­ries that lasts for five or six years,” he said. “We need to get it to the point where peo­ple are work­ing all year long for many years.”

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