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Maryland's Film Industry Stages a Comeback

Crew professional Dawson Nolley. Photo � Arianne Teeple
Crew professional Dawson Nolley. Photo � Arianne Teeple

Baltimore resident Dawson Nolley has traveled to Detroit and Philadelphia in recent years to get work in the movie business.

Now, he may finally get to work in his hometown again.

Maryland set aside $7.5 million this year for filmmakers who shoot in the Free State, opening up opportunities for production assistants, costume designers and actors. Work had dried up as the state slashed its film incentive budget to just $1 million last year.

The effects are obvious to those who work in the industry and even some people who don’t. Greater Baltimore is abuzz with talk that HBO series Veep starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus is filming primarily in Maryland. The comedy is expected to generate $25 million for the local economy and provide jobs for more than 2,000 film crew, according to the state’s film office.

"We're anticipating more jobs in the spring, and over the next couple of years," says David O'Ferrall, business agent for Mid-Atlantic Studio Mechanics Local 487, which hires technical professionals to work on film and TV productions in Delaware, Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia.

Production companies that spend at least $500,000 in Maryland can receive a grant -- up to 25 percent of the total money they spend on a film, 27 percent for a TV series. Though the policy of giving money to movies during a dismal economy might be controversial for some, film advocates argue that they get the money back in spades.

Film crews generated $158 million in economic impact in Maryland in fiscal year 2006 when funding was most recently at its highest. Grocery stores, cleaners, wholesale florists and other businesses get a boost -- as do the state’s PR efforts. The fourth season of The Wire alone utilized 798 local vendors.

While pay for the scores of crew members it takes to put on a single film production varies—from "star" wages to acting "extras," who make about $65 a day—these opportunities can generate a hundred jobs for people who otherwise wouldn't have one, says Pat Moran, veteran local casting director for popular TV series Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, and others.
"It [incentive package] has had an absolutely tangible effect on my ability to work locally,” says Baltimore independent filmmaker Josh Slates. “A majority of my earnings for 2011 will come from working in-state."

After traveling to Pennsylvania and Ohio to work on movies, Slates will stay in Maryland for a while. He served as the assistant location manager on a HBO movie Game Change earlier this year and is currently scouting locations for Veep.

Industry professionals point to a lack of strong tax incentives as the single, overriding factor that took film jobs out of Maryland in recent years. The trend to introduce attractive tax incentives for film producers started in Canada, in 1998.  Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and Louisiana followed suit.

"Oftentimes they [a film producer] won't look at you unless you have a film incentive package in place,” Moran says.  “Look at New Orleans. There's practically a production on every corner.”

Between 2004 and 2007, films whose budgets equaled $508 million chose other states over Maryland as shooting locations, according to a report by the Sage Policy Group.  In 2008, Maryland offered $4 million in incentives for the film industry; in 2009, that amount was slashed to just $1 million.

In 2004, for the first time in his career, Nolley left his hometown for film work. He took a job in Philadelphia to work on Annapolis, a movie about the Naval Academy. "Baltimore lost it because of a lack of tax incentives," says Nolley, who has worked on The Wire and locally filmed Tuck Everlasting.

Continuing to chase work in the film industry became increasingly difficult. Nolley had just met his wife-to-be, and working in various states was a challenge to the emerging relationship. So in 2010, after a seven-month stint in Detroit on the set of Real Steel, the recently engaged Dawson got his real estate license in Baltimore and set aside his film career aspirations.

"The work started getting very thin and scarce [in Baltimore] around early 2009," Slates says.  "Eventually there wasn't enough steady and reliable production work in Baltimore to keep me going."

Local film industry professionals believe the incentive package is just what Maryland needed to help it regain its competitive edge as a choice for movie and TV production.

The day that the incentive program was announced, the state started receiving phone calls, says Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office.  “On July 1, 2011, the first day the state could accept applications, someone was waiting at our front door."

Maintaining the momentum jump-started by the incentive is key, since the incentive program sunsets in 2014.  Industry professionals say they want to get the legislature to keep money in the film business.

If that happens, it might bring back more film professionals to Maryland—both those who fled Maryland for better prospects, and others who got out of the business altogether.

That includes Nolley. Though he plans to continue selling houses, he hopes his resume will once again include movie making.

“Hopefully these incentives will make that possible.”

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, covering topics as diverse as parenting and public health. She writes for several local print and web outlets, universities, and medical centers. In her spare time, she chauffeurs her two children around town and tries to find time for trips to local parks. 
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