The Big Picture

Lincoln is just the latest box office hit to be filmed in Virginia. A look at our flourishing film and television industry.

The modern Virginia film industry began with a little legislative smoke and mirrors. In 1980, when future governor Gerald L. Baliles was a 40-year-old General Assembly delegate, he says he was “struck by a story in the Hampton Roads newspapers that a locally produced film had left about 40 percent of its budget in the locality, and that seemed like a pretty good return on investment.” Baliles noticed that other states had film offices working to entice producers and directors, while Virginia did not. “I introduced legislation to produce such an office,” says Baliles. “And it was promptly killed.”

But, like the hero of any good movie, Baliles refused to accept defeat. Had he done so, it’s unlikely that cameras would have rolled in the Commonwealth for Dirty Dancing (1987) or the HBO miniseries John Adams (2008) or any of the other big budget productions that have filmed in Virginia. Certainly not for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which was shot in Richmond and Petersburg in late 2011. But Baliles had a trick up his sleeve: “I also served at that time on the house appropriations committee, that appropriates the money for government funding,” says Baliles, who went on to be governor from 1986 to 1990. “So serving on that committee I saw an opportunity to slip the same legislation into the back of a budget bill. The budget was approved, and within it was the creation of the Virginia Film Office.”

Twenty-three years later, the Virginia film and television industry is thriving. In November 2012, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced the industry’s total economic impact in Virginia in 2011 as $394.4 million, a 14.5 percent increase over 2010, with 3,817 jobs attributed to the industry. “It is particularly significant that the industry has added 1,166 jobs during the past year and contributed nearly $60 million in state and local tax revenue,” says McDonnell in his press release.

And much of that is down to the work of Baliles’ baby. Since the birth of the Virginia Film Office in 1980, the state agency, operating as part of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, has been on a mission to grow the film and television industry in Virginia. And the organization is succeeding in the face of fierce national and international competition. “The reason that people are so competitive for this type of industry,” says VFO Director Andy Edmunds, “is that when an outside producer comes in, they come and they spend a lot of money in all different parts of the economy. Everything from buying office supplies to renting helicopters, from hotel rooms to restaurants. I like to call them super tourists with a payroll.”

The VFO’s offices are a hub of activity, with a tightly-knit full-time staff of four working not just to bring productions to Virginia, but also to make sure everything goes smoothly once they are here. Need to find a location? Call the film office, and they’ll help you find it. Need a permit to film in that location? Call the film office, and they’ll help make it happen. The walls of the VFO’s 19th-floor office space are lined with framed posters of movies shot in Virginia, hung proudly like trophies—Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), Mission: Impossible III (2006) and many more.

Edmunds has been with the VFO for 16 years, mostly as locations manager before taking over as the organization’s director in 2012 when predecessor Rita McClenny moved on to become CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Usually dressed in button-down shirt, blazer and silk scarf, the 51-year-old Edmunds looks the picture of art meets business, making him perfectly suited to the both-sides-of-the-brain exercise that is the VFO. “You’re dealing with government and political realities, and the creative and artistic realities of the mindset of this television and film world, which is completely different. The film production world runs at 175 miles an hour while government decision-making process runs a little slower, let’s say. So to try to be the bridge between those two worlds is where you kind of live as a film commissioner or as a film office director.” It’s a role Edmunds seems to relish, with a glint in his eye and the “what’s next?” enthusiasm of a man who knows that every check mark on his to-do list is moving someone’s project forward.

In many ways, Virginia is an easy sell for the VFO. “We have amazing location diversity,” says independent producer Virginia Bertholet, formerly the VFO’s marketing manager. “Everything from beaches to mountains to modern cities to historical locations. And a production you’d shoot in LA, that exact same production costs 15 percent less in Virginia, because locations cost less and some crew costs are lower …. And it’s thriving because we have a good tax incentive program in place.”

Ah, the tax incentives. The business of wooing filmmakers changed in the 1990s when Canadian provinces started offering tax breaks to productions that filmed north of the border. Ever wonder why so many films set in major American cities—including the hit 2002 musical Chicago, and the 2004 Olsen twins vehicle New York Minute—are actually filmed in Toronto? Tax incentives is the answer. Essentially, Canadian provinces offered filmmakers a percentage refund on money spent in the province, and filmmakers said, “Yes, please!” States south of the border soon followed suit.

Virginia’s own incentive system, which took effect in 2011, has two elements: The Governor’s Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and the Virginia Motion Picture Tax Credit Fund. However, the combined cost of both incentives is currently capped at $5 million for every two-year period. In comparison, Edmunds says, Maryland has a $25 million per year limit (that’s 10 times higher than Virginia, annually) and Pennsylvania has a $75 million per year limit (30 times higher than Virginia). Louisiana’s expenditure is capped at $60 million, while Georgia and North Carolina’s incentive has no upper limit at all.

“If we had a program like North Carolina or Georgia, we would dominate.” says Edmunds. “We have better locations, we have an experienced customer service delivery operation, and we have great cooperation from all the government agencies. So we have all those other hard elements, but we’re a little handicapped by the amount of the incentive.”

So why doesn’t the General Assembly just pony up and offer some Georgia- and North Carolina-level cash? “There’s some controversy about it,” says Edmunds. “You know, is it a good investment? Some studies say you give them a dollar, and they return four into your economy. Some studies say you give them a dollar, and it returns 10 into your economy. But some studies you look at say it’s a bad deal; that for every dollar, it only returns 20 cents to your economy. It depends on who’s doing the study. But regardless of what study you believe in, it’s the competitive reality right now. If you wanna be in this business, you gotta have a tax credit program or a rebate program.”

The good news is that while Virginia’s program isn’t as generous as Georgia’s or North Carolina’s, the incentives are still working. The Virginia film industry is growing, and it’s doing so without throwing piles of taxpayer money at filmmakers. It’s working because the VFO and others in the Virginia film industry are finding ways to make it work.

The VFO, for example, helped bring “Lincoln” to Virginia by building a long-term relationship with Spielberg and his production designer, Rick Carter, with location scouting for the movie beginning all the way back in 2003. Most importantly, the VFO was able to offer hassle-free access to important locations. “We have the State Capitol and we have the Governor’s Mansion and all these other locations that we could offer with no location fee,” says Edmunds. “So we figure out what the value is to all that. And by them being able to park their trucks around Capitol Square for 18 days of filming, they saved an enormous amount of time and money, and time is money for those guys.”

“Lincoln” may be the headliner, and certainly caused a lot of buzz throughout the state—we still have a collective case of Lincoln-fever—but the Virginia film industry is bigger than just one film and one director. It’s also about television shows—Edmunds tells me they are working on bringing Turn, an AMC show about George Washington, to the state—commercials, which Edmunds calls the industry’s “bread and butter,” and smaller, independent films too, made by talented young Virginia filmmakers, producers and casting directors.

I met such a group in Charlottesville at the 2012 Virginia Film Festival, where I sat down with writer/director Eric Hurt, producer Pat Cassidy and casting director/producer Erica Arvold. All three were at the festival for the world premiere of Hurt’s film House Hunting, a supernatural thriller about an open house that turns nasty, which they had all worked on. “I’m from here [Charlottesville], so it was written to be shot here,” says Hurt.

Hurt, 35 and clean-cut, and Cassidy, 27 and bearded, had both left Virginia to work in Austin, Texas, but returned to make Hurt’s film, while Arvold, a multitasking blur of blonde hair, with notebook and constantly ringing cellphone, relocated from Los Angeles back to Charlottesville in 2005. How easy is it to make a living in the film industry in Virginia? “Not easy,” says Cassidy. “Really easy!” says Arvold. They both laugh.

There is work, Cassidy explains, but it’s not as steady as elsewhere. “It’s great …. but it’s not New York, it’s not L.A., it’s not Louisiana. …. If you’re in Louisiana or Atlanta right now and you’re a good cameraman or a good AD [assistant director], you’ll find a ton of work. The work will find you.”

So the industry still has some growing to do. But it’s people like Hurt, Cassidy and Arvold who will help it along, even if they didn’t know that was the plan. “I had a heart attack leaving L.A., because I thought my career was over,” says Arvold. Instead, she found herself helping out with casting for commercials and theater productions and, through what she describes as an “organic progress,” Erica Arvold Casting is now the go-to agency, the company a film like “Lincoln” hires to cast “day-player” speaking roles in the film. “She’s the best casting director in the state,” says Cassidy. “Erica pretty much built her own business out here … really carved out a niche.”

That may be a good way of describing the Virginia film industry: It doesn’t have to be the biggest in the nation in order to be of value. It can provide jobs and attract major filmmakers without giving away the farm in tax incentives and can be at the forefront of enriching the cultural life of the Commonwealth. The Virginia Film Festival is a perfect example. Founded in 1988 and presented by the University of Virginia’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in November 2012, where Baliles was recognized as a co-founder and presented with one of the “Founders Awards” by Festival Director Jody Kielbasa.

During his acceptance speech, Baliles refers to Kielbasa as “the film festival equivalent of a five-hour energy drink,” and it’s hard to disagree. Over the four days of the festival Kielbasa, 54, seems to be everywhere at once; shaking hands, making things happen, ensuring everything goes smoothly. The result is four days of excitement on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, as festival-goers travel between venues on foot, stopping to discuss what they’ve seen and sample the offerings at coffee shops, bars and restaurants along the way. All told, attendance for the 2012 VFF was 27,299, a record high, for which Kielbasa deserves much of the credit; UVA recognized his achievement by appointing him vice-provost for the arts in January.

“What distinguishes this festival is the substantial discourse that happens around the films,” says Kielbasa, who has been festival director since 2009. “We are bringing in academics and experts in the field to have discussions about not just the film, but about the themes that the filmmakers touch upon, which is very different than a lot of other film festivals.” As a perfect example, Kielbasa points to the screening of All The President’s Men (1976) at the 2012 VFF, which was followed by a Q&A not with stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, but with the men they portray, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. “Not the Hollywood subjects of the film, THE subjects of the film,” Kielbasa emphasizes. “Woodward and Bernstein shaped this country’s history with what they did.”

Kielbasa is also keen that the VFF supports the Virginia film industry, and the 2012 festival featured a total of 15 films made either by Virginians or in Virginia, or both, like House Hunting. But Kielbasa is eager to make clear that they are “discriminating,” only screening films that audiences will want to see. Fortunately for Kielbasa, as the Virginia film industry continues to grow, he’ll have even more to choose from, and the Commonwealth will be richer for it, economically and culturally.

Baliles says it best when I ask him what he has seen change in the 23 years since he snuck that bit of legislation into the back of the budget. “The film industry’s presence, its visibility, has expanded in Virginia,” he says. “I think people are much more aware of the economic impact of the film industry and the reach that it has, but I also think that they’ve come to see it as a reflection of our society, the good and the bad. And I think that’s commendable. It’s a way of seeing life in many different slices.”

He pauses and looks around, where throngs of people are queuing for tickets at the festival: “I’m not sure I agree with Alfred Hitchcock’s observation, but he once said that cinema was not a slice of life, but a piece of cake. I see film as representing slices of life. But there are those moments when it’s also a delicious piece of cake.”,

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